The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, with its shamrock-emblazoned engine, may be the luckiest motor ever invented, writes Adam Hay-Nicholls
The valet at the Four Seasons in Boston has a question: What is the significance of the cloverleaf on the side of my Alfa Romeo. Is it an ode to the Old Country, Ireland, he asks hopefully. Not precisely, though it has everything to do with luck.
The Irish shamrocks which adorn every bar in this town have three leaves, whereas this Alfa’s sporty insignia is the ‘quadrifoglio’ – the four-leaf clover; rarer than its trefoil cousin by 5000/1 and, legend has it, even more fortuitous. The story behind this curious emblem is rooted in the dangerous annals of motor racing and the superstitions of its appassionata.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is a tribute to courage, speed and, specifically, a gentleman named Ugo Sivocci. He was an Alfa Corse works driver alongside Antonio Ascari and his best friend, Enzo Ferrari in the 1920s. By finishing perennially second, though, Sivocci was convinced the gods were against him. The quadrifoglio, with its long-considered luck-giving properties, seemed to supply the extra fortune Sivocci craved.
The world’s toughest and most important race was the Targa Florio, run through the arduous mountains, rustic villages and spectacular coastal roads of Sicily. As one of the home teams, Alfa was determined to take the spoils. They’d been competing in the Targa Florio since 1911 but, despite their technical supremacy, had never won. That was about to change with Signor Sivocci. Thus far, the top step of the podium had eluded him. He finished ninth in the 1922 Targa Florio, and so when he returned to Palermo in 1923 he was hardly considered the favourite to win, despite the pace of his Alfa Romeo RL. Believing he was every bit as good as Giulio Masetti and Ascari, the missing element had to be luck. So, with his superstitions bubbling to the surface, he whipped out a pot of white paint and a pot of green and slapped two quadrifogios on the RL’s red nose.
Sivocci won the Targa Florio that day. His skill had never been in doubt, and no longer was his fortune in question as long as he continued to paint the quadrifoglio on this car. However, five months later when competing at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, time got the better of him and he failed to administer his talisman before heading out to practice. No doubt, he’d have done so before the race but that was too late. His Alfa P1 flew off the track and the 38-year-old from Salerno was killed. A hero was lost, but tragedy served to crystalize the significance of the quadrifoglio. Since 8 September 1923, the date of his death, all racing and red-hot Alfas have worn the clover, but in a white triangle. The missing corner is a tribute to the loss of Sivocci.
That is probably a much longer explanation than my Irish-American parking attendant was expecting but, if you ask a car journalist a question about his wheels, be prepared to take the day off.
My journey started in Little Italy, New York City, in a transatlantic nod to the Alfa’s lineage, from where I plot a 400-mile course north east through Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts to Cape Cod, Boston, and Cape Ann. As well as experiencing coastal roads that would give a flavour of a New England Targa Florio, I would seek out characterful hotels, hearty chowder, Italian and Irish culture, and stories of luck, both good and bad.
Fortune favours the well-connected concierge. My Manhattan base is the Chatwal Hotel on 44th and Broadway; a landmark Art Deco masterpiece, and suitably Gatsbyesque ahead of my drive along the Long Island Sound, which was bought and relaunched in 2010 by trustafarian playboy and part-time actor Vikram Chatwal. Keen to toast my East Coast take on the Targa Florio at NYC’s most exclusive red sauce restaurant, the Chatwal’s concierge does the impossible and secures a table at Rao’s. For 122 years, this Italian-American staple has been serving meatballs to the Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese crime families as well as more legit celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio, Denzel Washington, Keith Richards, Martin Scorsese and the Clintons. The waistcoat-wearing barman goes by the name Nicky the Vest. The owner is called Frankie No, because that’s the answer most people get when they try to make a reservation.
Well-nourished, the Quadrifoglio and I take the FDR along the East River and up through The Bronx, skirting the Long Island Sound past New Haven, and drive deep into The Pilgrim State. This four-door super-saloon follows a long tradition of Alfas trying to outrun the M and AMG-plated competition from Germany. On paper, the Italians look like they may have succeeded: 503bhp is squeezed out of a Ferrari-bolted 2.9 twin-turbo V6. Top speed is 191mph and 0-62 arrives in a ballistic 3.9 seconds.
Road signs point to towns named after places where those who arrived on the Mayflower hailed from. At Cape Cod, I follow signs towards Falmouth before settling in Hyannis Port in search of Camelot. The white clapboard Kennedy family compound sits on six well-tended acres along the Nantucket Sound. Security in red SUVs patrol the lanes leading down to it, but if you walk along the sandy beach below you can get a good view of the main house’s top two storeys through the reeds.
John F. Kennedy and his brothers loved to sail off this coast and, at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston they keep his favourite boat, the 24-metre Victura. It was a 15th birthday gift from his parents, and he taught Jackie to sail on it. During the tensest moments of his presidency, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK would sketch this little boat on his classified briefing documents to instil calm. Another prized memento at the library is the coconut shell upon which Kennedy scrawled his location after he was shipwrecked aboard patrol torpedo boat PT-109 off the Solomon Islands during the Second World War. Armed with the coconut, two islanders managed to get the message to the US Navy and Kennedy and his men were saved from the encroaching Japanese. He later fashioned the shell into a paperweight and it sat poignantly on the Resolute Desk in his Oval Office.
The library sits on the waterfront beside the University of Massachusetts as a tribute to the 35th president’s love of the sea. The light-filled building’s architect was I.M. Pei, who was personally chosen by Jackie Kennedy, despite being relatively unknown at the time. He went on to design the pyramid at the Louvre and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong.
The Giulia is a more conventional-looking piece of design, but the Quadrifoglio treatment makes it an exciting car to behold. It sits low, with subtly muscular arches and sills and eye-catching carbon-fibre accents. The heart-shaped grille looks designed to swallow road kill whole. Its signature horseshoe rims are beefy yet stealthy. The rear is particularly steroid-injected with quad exhausts and a pronounced diffuser that sucks its P Zero Corsas to the tarmac.
I take a suite at the Four Seasons overlooking Boston Common and go in search of the city’s best cocktail bar, fittingly located near the State Capitol building. The space occupied by Yvonne’s used to host JFK and his senate buddies for three-Martini lunches. Its recent refurb is on-point with original architectural flourishes plus impressive oil portraits of Bill Murray, Clint Eastwood and Christopher Walken posing as Revolutionary generals.
The following day, after walking around the picturesque Beacon Hill and Harvard, I set the sat-nav for Cape Ann, a less manicured alternative to Cape Cod with fewer tourists located 40 miles north of Boston. The Alfa’s navigation and infotainment is a bit of a let-down, very dated compared with its rivals, and the stereo sounds tinny. The interior looks fine if a bit brash, with lots of polished carbon and natty red stitching, and I like the supportive Alcantara seats, but the quality of plastics is poor and one of the seat-control buttons snapped off in my hand. You’d be a bit miffed about that in a £20k hatch, and this is a £61,595 flagship.
I stop by Salem to see where 19 very unlucky people were accused of being witches, tried and hung by the superstitious town folk. As I arrive at the 17th century churchyard where they’re buried the sky turns coal-black and the rain hammers down. Tungsten clouds part and pale blue skies return as I pass through Manchester-by-the-Sea and approach Cape Ann along the Yankee Division Highway.
I’m overnighting in the fishing port of Gloucester at the waterside Beauport Hotel, quintessentially New England in style, and so named after the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, in 1605, named Gloucester ‘the good harbour’ because of its sheltered coves and thick shellfish beds.
Gloucester came to Hollywood prominence when George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg arrived to make a movie about a 1991 sword-fishing expedition from this harbour to the Grand Banks – a true story – which coincided with the storm of the century, boasting waves over 100ft high – a tempest created by so rare a combination of factors that meteorologists deemed it ‘the perfect storm’. Fisherman in these parts live hard and they die hard. These past 400 years, an estimated 10,000 fisherman have been lost from Gloucester alone. Many carry shamrocks in the hope that luck will be on their side. The waves in the Grand Banks and Georges Bank can flip a large fishing boat end-over-end or pile-drive it down to the ocean floor. The twin bell towers of Our Lady of the Good Voyage church are the highest point in Gloucester and can be seen for miles by incoming ships. Between the towers is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who gazes down with concern at a bundle in her arms. The bundle is not the infant Jesus; it’s a Gloucester Schooner.
Down in the harbour, boats rock and creak against their ropes and seagulls argue overhead. The 65ft schooner Thomas E. Lannon hosts me for a two-hour sail around the bay on a light southwesterly breeze. It’s a loving recreation built in 1997 by its captain, Tom Ellis, in honour of his maternal grandfather who spent a lifetime fishing these waters a century ago.
Gloucester is the entryway to the Cape Ann peninsula, which is lined with large waspy mansions and boasts sweeping beaches and coastal roads that reward an enthusiastic driver like the Targa Florio. I thunder along the southeast harbour and up to the town of Rockport, skirting the Atlantic. There are four settings on the Quadrifoglio – Normal, Advanced Efficiency, Dynamic and Race. I find there is too much traction control even in Dynamic, so I switch to Race which finally brings those 500 horses to life. With the electronic driver assistance off the car feels much more responsive and its engine note guttural. I like the fast and precise steering, I dislike the suspension which crashes on every bump. The BMW M3 and Mercedes C63 both feel quicker than the Quadrifoglio, even though they’re not, and while neither of those rivals are perfect in the ride stakes they are both built to a far higher standard.
The question everyone will ask if you buy an Alfa is ‘how often does it grind to a halt?’ I was rather fortunate to escape this curse – just. Having made my way back down south I was only 12 miles from New York’s JFK airport when two messages flashed on the dash: ‘Service Engine’ and ‘Service Electronic Throttle’. Then the car slowed to 26mph – limp mode – and wouldn’t go any faster. I was faced with a choice: Pull over, restart the car and hope it re-boots, or crawl to the airport and make my flight to London by the skin of my teeth. I went with the latter option, which was a bit hairy as trucks flew past me on the Interstate, but better that than get stranded under a Queens flyover at midnight.
Luck really does play a part with the Quadrifoglio. Sometimes it’ll be a most rewarding and thrilling drive, on others it’ll instil frustration and even fear. Just like the New England fisherman, clasping their shamrocks, and the legendary Italian racer who painted four-leaf clovers on the nose of his car, you’ll constantly be hoping that luck is on your side.