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Classic cars: Alfa Romeo concept came to life at Expo 67

1972 Alfa Romeo Montreal owned by Phil Duffy.

Phil Duffy

On Expo 67's opening day, the eyes and imaginations of many male visitors were reportedly drawn to the British pavilion's leggy hostesses wearing red-white-and-blue miniskirts – but the Italians had brought along something sexy, too, a pair of concept versions of a GT car that would become known as "the Montreal."

When organizers of the world's fair, staged in Montreal as part of Canada's confederation celebrations, had gone looking for futuristic techy stuff for the theme pavilion Man the Producer, they'd chosen Alfa Romeo to produce a concept car representing the aspirations of man the motorist.

What the legendary car maker delivered, with help from design house Carrozzeria Bertone, was a dramatic, sophisticated and more than a little bit "out-there" two-seat, front-engined, rear-drive GT coupe. It had headlamps concealed behind slatted grillwork, a fastback roofline defined by curvaceous, six-louvred B-pillars and a curtailed Kamm-style back end.

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Initially nameless, and meant to be a showpiece rather than a serious go-piece, its bodywork was draped over underpinnings from Alfa's pretty little Giulia Sprint GT, and powered by a TI 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine.

But the pair looked so good, painted in pearl white and presented in a mirrored display – and drew such positive response from the 50 million people who turned up at Expo 67 that Alfa, which was already thinking the design could serve as a Giulia replacement, decided to turn it into something more exotic instead.

And a few years later, it honoured the Canadian-connection genesis of what was already being referred to as "the Montreal" by giving its new GT that name when it appeared as a 1971 model.

One of the Expo cars was used as a mule to develop the production Montreal's bodywork, interior and mechanicals, including the V-8 it was felt would be needed to warrant what Alfa planned to charge for it. The other was kept pristine and is stashed away in Alfa's Arese museum.

Alfa already had a suitable V-8 waiting in the wings, recently designed to power its new 2.0-litre, Tipo 33 sports racer. Modified for street use, and with a bump in displacement to 2.6 litres, this four-cam, 90-degree, alloy-block, dry-sump, Spica mechanical fuel-injected engine produced 200 hp and 173 lb-ft of torque, and came with a five-speed gearbox. The rest of the mechanical package wasn't as technically intoxicating – basically a Giulia suspension, comprising independent front and live-axle rear suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes.

The Montreal emerged as a 2+2 GT, looking much like the concepts, apart from acquiring movable, slotted eyebrows that semi-concealed the headlamps, and a fake NACA duct on the hood, to clear the engine. It was considered to be a little "grosso" at 1,312 kilograms, but could sprint to 100 km/h in less than eight seconds, and reach 225 km/h, figures more impressive then than today.

Another high number associated with it was its price tag, which topped that of Jag's E-Type and Porsche's 911. And which was likely responsible for just shy of 4,000 being produced before its run ended in 1977. This car was never sold in North America.

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The 1972 Montreal pictured was delivered to its original owner in Sicily.

The car's current owner, Phil Duffy, who lives in the Montreal suburb of Brossard and practises commercial law, says he was once content amusing himself on weekends piloting various types of aircraft, but confesses to a long-unfulfilled weakness for "molto sensuale" Italian cars, in particular Alfas.

"I've always thought of Alfa Romeo as a sort of a junior exotic, that occupies a special place in the [Italian] pantheon. And Alfa people are wonderful, with them it's all about the cars. It's all about the driving. There's not a lot of snob appeal with Alfas."

He says the Montreal always generates a positive vibe, even though most who stop to look don't recognize it. Looking for an identifying badge doesn't help, as the only place the Montreal name appears is on the ashtray cover. His is one of only two known to reside in the province.

Duffy began imbibing in Alfas about six years ago, starting innocently enough with the 1989 Spyder that's now his fair-weather daily driver, then adding a 1972 GTV, which serves as an occasional weekend autocrosser. The Montreal represented a step up to the hard stuff, for this now self-confessed "Alfaholic."

His 1972 Montreal began its North American life in Washington, driven by an Italian embassy employee, and then began a peripatetic journey around the United States before ending up in Massachusetts, where he bought it in 2011, becoming its seventh owner.

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It was in "excellent" condition, requiring only an exhaust system, a ball joint and a tuneup, before he drove it 1,600 kilometres to an Alfa concours in Kentucky, where it scored 93 points. Despite the model's reputation for being temperamental he hasn't experienced any problems with it since.

"They do need to be driven a little particularly; it's not a modern car. And the 12 litres of oil in the dry sump takes forever to warm up," he says. "But once it does, there's no need to baby it. I try to shift it above 6,000 rpm every time I drive it – at least once. It just sounds so great. It burbles at idle, not unlike a small-block American V-8, but once it gets above 4,000 rpm it's a marvelous symphony all the way up to the almost 7,000-rpm redline."

Despite the Montreal's rarity, they aren't yet commanding silly prices, although they are on the rise, with some reaching the $100,000 mark.

"Sometime they are going to go, but in the meantime they're supercars for the rest of us," says Duffy. "What I spent was comparable to what we paid for our new minivan."

Back in 1972

Paul Henderson scores the series-winning goal as Canada narrowly defeats the Soviet Union to win the ’72 Summit Series. But Canada doesn’t send a team to the Sapporo Winter games in protest of communist countries’ use of professionals, as it isn’t allowed to suit up NHL players.

Comedian George Carlin is busted in Milwaukee for publicly saying The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.

Creedence Clearwater Revival and Martha and the Vandellas break up, and the Rolling Stones begin a North American tour in Vancouver. The Academy Award-winning movie The Godfather is released.

The Volkswagen Beetle surpasses production of Ford’s Model T when the 15,007,034th model rolls off the assembly line.

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