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Tech QuestionsMay 2003 Tech Q & A

Answers by Technical Editor Rex Chalmers

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May Topics:

High Compression Pistons | Steering Box Adjustment | Milano Ansa Tailpipe
Oil Filters | Dubai Spider | Transmission Flush | Master Link not at TDC

Starter Bolt Removal | Funky Distributor | Valve Job | Shifter Rattles

HIgh Compression Pistons : question by Bob Boelensa | 1974 Spider

I am in the process of freshening the engine in my '74 Spider. It is my desire to install the 10.4 to 1 pistons for increased performance. Upon disassembly I can see that the engine has been apart before (what 26 year old Alfa has not?). The existing pistons and liners are in excellent condition and appear to be the 10.4 to 1 units. How can I tell for sure which pistons these are?
Answer : The 10.4 CR pistons have a VERY pronounced dome. The stock 9.1 CR pistons have about .25” of dome. The 10.0 CR (Motronic) pistons have very wide valve pockets and a VERY flat top on the dome.

My personal preference, (yes, I know you didn't ask, but I need to fill a bit more cyberspace), is for the 10:1 pistons. Why?, you ask? First of all the flat top on the dome makes for better combustion, hence, more HP. That's been my experience, there are some folks who will beg to differ (the same folks who still use straight weight, non-synthetic oils ).

In the real world, most 26 year old cylinder heads have been cut at least .020”, some much more. This .020” is roughly the equivalent of a half point of compression ratio which, when used in combination with 10.4 pistons, brings the CR perilously close to 11:1 and almost will certain cause pre-ignition followed closely by detonation when using 93 octane. Whichever way you go, I recommend adding an electronic ignition system to your budget, it will help with the detonation problem and allow you to dial in more advance than you could with a standard point and condenser system.

Steering Box Adjustment : question by Joe Valle | 1974 Spider

The steering on my car has excessive play. Is there a way to adjust out the play at the steering box? I don't see any way to do it on the box. I replaced the upper A-arms one year ago but it didn't help. How do I check to see which parts are worn and can I do this work myself?
Answer : 1974 Alfas came with Burman steering boxes, and assuming that no one has changed yours to a ZF type from a later Spider, there is a way to adjust it. Before we begin adjusting the box, we should look at several other items that could be causing your “play”. To diagnose where the play is coming from, raise the front end of the car and support it securely on jack stands.

Now have your assistant move the steering wheel several inches in each direction from center as you lay on your back staring up at the nut that holds the steering arm on to the steering box. If you can see the shaft and nut moving before the arm moves, you have found the source of one of the most common causes of steering play for Burman equipped Alfas, the loose nut/wearing spline syndrome. To correct this condition, remove the cotter pin and check the torque on the nut. Even if there is no visible play, a loose nut may still be the cause of the play as there is no load on the steering mechanism with the front wheel off of the ground. This nut can usually be tightened at least one slot on the nut. This is a fairly common problem and is easily overlooked.

Next, have your assistant move the wheel several inches in each direction again and focus on each of the six tie rod ends, one by one. Often the play in tie rod ends is so excessive that it is easily visible. Some times it will be necessary to block the wheels and repeat the procedure. The added load will make any wear in the tie rods more obvious. It is also helpful to check each tie rod end by squeezing them with a pair of channel lock pliers. Any obvious play and the tie rod should be replaced if you are testing an OE tie rod end. There are some cheap aftermarket tie rod ends out there that have play built in from new, I would avoid using these units if at all possible. Worn tie rod ends are a very common cause of steering play, poor handling and also uneven tyre wear.

There are several other less common causes of steering play. Check the idler arm for play. If the bushings in the idler arm box are worn the idler arm will have visible play if you grab it and move it up and down. This next cause is extremely rare, but I have seen it more than once. Move the wheel side to side one more time and look at the arms on the spindles, if there is any movement of the arm, tighten the nuts that attach the arms to the spindles. To tighten these nuts properly, it is necessary to remove the brake caliper and disc to get a wrench or socket on the bolt heads to keep them from spinning.

Now, regarding your original question, you remember - can the steering box on your Spider be adjusted? Absolutely. There is an oval shaped plate, held on by two 8mm bolts, on the top of your steering box. To take play out of the box, take off the plate and remove one of the shims under the plate. Now check to see if play has been eliminated or lessened. If it has been eliminated, your work is done. If it has not, remove another shim and re-check. After you have made the final adjustment, be sure to turn the steering wheel lock to lock while it is still in the air to see if there is any binding or significant change of the torque needed to move the wheel. If there is, you should put back the shims and start looking for a replacement box. If you get to the point where there are no shims left under the plate, and you still have play in the box, chances are that the steering mechanism is worn past spec. and will need to be replaced. Unfortunately, the only available new replacement that I am aware of is the ZF box that is OE on later Spiders. I am not a big fan of this box, as it does not give the precise feel of the Burman box.

Milano Ansa Tailpipe Fitment : question by Derek | 1988 Milano

I installed a new Ansa muffler in my car today. The pipe rubs against the halfshaft bolts. I've tried everything I could think of to move it away from the tranny, towards the right side of the car, but to no avail. I even tried trimming the vertical rubber hanger that the pipe bolts to.

My original muffler was always very close, and would also rub sometimes if not mounted properly.

Any suggestions?

Answer : Yes, I have a suggestion. I suggest that we ask Ansa why they can’t seem to make Milano rear mufflers that fit properly. This is a very common problem with Ansa systems. The only remedy is to either extend the pipe outlet on the center muffler or extend the inlet pipe of the rear muffler. I like extending the inlet of the Ansa unit. I would go to your local auto parts store or muffler shop and get an adapter that will extend the pipe around 1-2 inches once installed. You can just use muffler clamps to attach the adapter, but I would recommend having it welded one once you get the muffler aligned correctly. Good luck, you have to wonder how a Company that has been around as long as Ansa has could still be having problems replicating OE exhaust system dimensions.

Oil Filter Recommnedation? : question by James | 1995 164LS

What is the best oil filter for this car. I run 15-50 Mobil One oil. I was told Mann and Mahel make filters for it. Are these what you would recommend? How do they compare to the stock oil filter? Oil Pressure? Filtering quality?
Answer : Mann and Mahle are both good, high quality oil filters, as is the OE Alfa Romeo filter. I also have found that Purolator, Hastings, Baldwin, Mobil One, and Motorcraft make High quality filters that fit Alfa engines.

The only major name brand filter that I would stay away from is Fram. I have cut them apart and am not impressed with the quality of the materials used for filtering, sealing, and valving.

If money is a concern, I don’t think you can beat the Motorcraft 400S. They cost under $3.00 at Wal Mart and are of very good quality construction, use a good amount of filtering material, and use a Silicone by-pass valve. It also fits any four or six cylinder Alfa that has been imported by Alfa for the US market. The only downside that I am aware of is that the gauge of the steel used for the case is of a thinner gauge than what is used by most of the European manufacturers.

Dubai Spider Problems? : question by Tom O'Gorman | 1986 Spider

Hi I am Living in Dubai and I recently bought a 1986 spider.

I have two worries:

1. The temp gage is always at 120 with the red light coming on. I have checked the water and its fine, the oil is fine too. I never hear a fan come on. Could it be a thermostat, broken fan or is it normal that Alfas run hot.

2. I get a bad grind every time I change gear, Not just in the infamous second but in all gears except 5th. Even reverse sounds like an old land rover. Is there a danger I am going to do some serious Clutch damage? What do you suggest?

Answer : Wow, Dubai, how are all you Alfisiti in Dubai?

No, Tom, 120 deg. C is not normal. As a matter of fact, you can melt down you engine and do irreparable damage to the engine if it is run for very long at that temperature. If you haven’t heard the engine fan run, this is most likely due to the fact that 86 Spiders don’t have an electric cooling fan, except for the auxillary fan that is designed to function only when the A/C is engaged. The first Alfa Spiders that I am aware of that had an electric cooling fan were the late versions of the 89 Spider, which were equipped with Bosch Motronic Injection. They were equipped with the same fan that was standard on 90 and later Spiders. I don’t believe the factory was putting electric cooling fans on Euro Spiders of that period. There is always the possibility that a previous owner installed an aftermarket electric cooling fan. If that is the case and it is never running, I would take the Spider to an automotive electrical specialist and have the cause of the malfunction diagnosed and repaired.

Aside from making certain that your cooling system is topped off,you should verify that the thermostat is opening at the specified temperature, around 195-200 deg. F. You can verify this by removing the thermostat and immersing it in a pan of water at about 200 deg. F. I would also take the radiator to a good radiator shop and have it leak checked and flow tested. Inspect all of your cooling system hoses and make sure that they are not collapsing or are swollen.Take a look at coolant. It should be green, if it is brown or has obvious signs of oil contamination, you probably need a new head gasket installed and the cooling system flushed. With the temperatures that you are running, there is a good possibility that you have warped the cylinder head and it will probably need re-surfacing at the least. Take a look at the water pump and verify that it is not leaking or has excessive play in the impeller. Check the fan belt for proper tension.

As far as your transmission is concerned, you haven’t provided quite enough information to discern whether you have a clutch concern, hydraulic problem, trans problem, or a combination of all three.

The first thing I would do is check the fluid levels of the transmission and the clutch hydraulics. If the clutch is actuating right off of the floor, with little or no play at the bottom, you have either worn clutch hydraulics or a clutch pedal pivot lever that is failing. A worn clutch will not cause a transmission to grind unless the disc is coming apart or the springs in the cover have failed and you are not getting complete disengagement. If the clutch and it’s related actuation systems check out ok, you probably have a mechanical problem in the transmission. It is, however, odd that all gears save 5th are grinding. I would suggest that you drain the transmission, check out the magnetic drain plug and strain the gear oil to see what kinds of debris might be floating around in the fluid.

Transmission Fluid Flush : question by Mario | 1991 164

I checked the transmission fluid and it is overfull and smells funny, but not burnt, I guess like varnish. The car has 80,000 miles, should I change the fluid, or is something wrong ? I was told by a mechanic that if the fluid smells funny not to touch it, changing the fluid could cause damage. Is this true ?

Answer : Mario, you don’t state if this is an automatic or stick shift. If it is a stick shift, absolutely change the fluid. If it is an automatic, I would change the fluid and the filter as well. If the fluid is particularly nasty, I would change it and change it again in 500 miles to flush the trans out. Many shops have automatic trans flush machines that totally replace all the fluid in the trans and converter; this would be the best way to clean out your Auto trans.

I have never understood why some technicians are reticent to change automatic trans fluid if it is dark or smelly. It goes against reason to leave that fluid in the trans. If it is dark and smelly it has particulate and other types of contamination in the fluid. Auto transmission fluid is very highly detergent for a reason; your auto trans doesn’t like dirt at all. All any dirty fluid left in your trans will do is contribute to shortening the life of your transmission. Your Alfa thrives on fresh fluids; whether it is oil, coolant, brake fluid, gear oil or ATF.

Master Link Not at TDC : question by Zalma Chitty | 1974 GTV

I have to change the head gasket on the 2L GTV. The problem is with the timing chain. The master link is not at TDC more like 80 deg past. Since I have to disconnect the chain while the motor is not at TDC, when re-installing the head how can I get the crank back to TDC without the liners moving.
Answer : If the master link isn’t accessible at TDC, it must have been installed that way, very odd... It means that the head wasn’t installed with the engine at TDC, I say again, odd. In any case, installing the head correctly at TDC is a fairly simple procedure. After you have the cylinder head off, install a set of liner hold down tools, which are short lengths of tubing which fit over the head studs and keep the liners from moving. These are available from most Alfa aftermarket sources. Now, rotate the engine until cylinder #1 is at TDC. To check to see if you have #1 or #4 at TDC, note which cylinder terminal the ignition rotor is pointing at, if it is pointing at #4, you need to rotate the engine another 360 deg. To get cyl. #1 to TDC. Verify that you have #1 cylinder at TDC by verifying that the ignition rotor is now pointing at cylinder #1 terminal.

Starter Bolt Removal : question by Karl Chapman | 1987 Spider

I need to replace my clutch. My shop manual states: to remove the bolts holding the bell housing to the engine, not forgetting the 3 bolts holding the starter. This seems like an impossible task, since there is only room for leprechaun hands! Is there a specially modified 13mm wrench or something that will make this task easier? Apart from those bolts, it's ready to come out!
Answer : Yes these are tough bolts and nuts to reach. You will need to purchase a 3/8” drive 13mm universal socket and about a three foot 3/8” extension. Depending on the condition of the nuts and bolt threads, you may need to bend a 13mm wrench to hold the bolt head/nut on the top starter bolt as it is tough to get even the shortest of wrenches on the top bolt/nut.

All three fasteners can be accessed from the underside of the vehicle. The bottom and center can be reached with a 1-foot extension and the 13mm. Universal socket. The top fastener requires the use of the three-foot extension. Step back and feed the socket and extension over the starter housing on the transmission and onto the top fastener. The trick is the angle that the long extension allows. It takes a bit of practice, but on a good day you should be able to get all three starter bolts off in under ten or fifteen minutes. It will take a bit longer if you are lying on your back and using jack stands. Still, with a little practice, patience, and the right tools, you can get the job done in a reasonable amount of time.

Funky Distributor Modifications : question by Dominic Chiarelli | 1967 Giulia Super

I recently bought my super from a guy who liked to tamper with wreckless abandon. The one change I don't get is I can't buy a rotor that fits (after matching the distributor serial number).

My concern comes from a funny loading of carbon on the 2nd and 4th cylinders. It looks as if he shaved the bottom of the original rotor so that the set screw will line up. I wonder if the overall height of the rotor is now different and resulting in a weak spark. I have also noticed funny corrosion on the distributor cap corresponding to only these two cylinders.
Answer : Interesting problem, Dominic. If the overall height of the rotor were too low and affecting the voltage level, it would affect all cylinders equally, not just 2 and 4. If there were a problem with either the points, condenser, or coil, they also would affect all cylinders equally. About the only way cylinders 2 & 4 could be singled out by the distributor would be if the distributor shaft were bent or the rotor were not centered on the shaft. If the bushings were out of the distributor it would be a much more random problem with arching.

Uneven arching is generally caused by high resistance somewhere between the distributor contacts and the end of the spark plug, or a problem with combustion efficiency in one or more of the cylinders. I would check the gap between the rotor and each distributor terminal. I would imagine that this task could be accomplished by applying modeling clay to each terminal and then turning the distributor by hand and measuring the depth of the modeling clay.

Next, check the resistance of each cap terminal from the inside out, and the plug wire and spark plug resistance. Then perform leak down and compression tests on each cylinder. You probably should check valve clearances as well. If all this diagnosis fails to point in any particular direction, I would get out the diagnosis dartboard and purchase a pointless electronic distributor (such as
Centerline's ID405/ID455 sytems or the RML or Crane systems sold by International Auto Parts) new plug wires, and plugs. Good luck.

Spider Valve Job : question by Kip | 1974 Spider

I just purchased a 74 spider that had been setting for four years. It was parked as it did not pass smog with high hydracarbons (gross poluter). I feel that a valve job is in order. I know of one person who said he used stainless valves and chevy valve seals. Am I going down the right path? I Am also new to Alfas and my not know if I am getting the big BS job.
Answer : It is possible that your engine may need a valve job. A simple compression test will answer that question. If your Spider is equipped with Spica Fuel Injection, chances are that either the pump is faulty, not timed correctly or the system is not tuned properly. There are many other reasons for high HC including, but not limited to, out of specification fuel pressure, worn spark plugs, faulty ignition wires, or a bad coil. The OE valves are of very good quality as are the OE stem seals. Unless you are going to bigger valves, there is no compelling reason that I am aware of to go with any valve other than the OE valves.

Shifter Rattles : question by Paul | 1973 Spider

I have a vibration/rattle somewhere in the shift mechanism that comes and goes as if a loose part were moving into and out of a loose position as the result of engine vibration. The linkage works fine and I can stop the noise by putting my hand on the shift lever. I've removed the knob w/o any effect and I don't see what it might be in the schematic for the linkage. It's been there since I bought the car several years ago. Any ideas?
Answer : The noise you are hearing, in all probability, is that there are one or, possibly, two missing components under the gearshift lever. Directly under the shift lever, where the 7mm bolt goes through the attachment point, there are several sliding plates, a rubber seal and a captive plate on top of the seal. This rattle is generally caused by a loose shift lever, a missing or hardened rubber seal, or a missing captive plate.

164 Timing : question by Daryl Holland | 1991 164

Where are the timeing marks on this car, and how do i set the timing?
Answer : You don’t need to know where the timing marks are because you can’t adjust the timing of a 164 without modifying the chip in the Motronic processor.

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