'I drive with a grin on my face'

Despite their niggles, Italian cars are more rewarding for this Dubai-based architect.

If the Marmite marketing principle that you either love it or hate it could be applied to two car marques then it is surely the often misunderstood Italian duo of Alfa Romeo and Lancia. While the two are not as glamorous as the bigger badges to come from that country, one Dubai-based architect sits firmly in the love group for both. As a proud owner of a 1995 Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione II, a Giallo Ginestra limited edition, and a rare 1991 Alfa Romeo Sprint Zagato, Onno Le Roy has almost restored them back to full glory since arriving to the UAE from New Zealand three-and-a-half years ago.

Whether it is the innovative yet troublesome Lancia or the subjectively good-looking Alfa, Le Roy sees the beauty and brilliance in both his cars, but he also understands why they are not everybody's cup of tea. "With Italian cars, I have found them more interesting than German cars," Le Roy says. "When I first arrived here I bought myself a [Porsche] Boxster S. It had no soul and it was almost boring to drive it.

"With my Italian cars, I drive with a grin on my face. There's something special about them. Yes, they need a lot more maintenance than most cars and sometimes they play up but they are a lot more rewarding to drive." Take his Alfa Romeo Sprint Zagato, for example. Only 1,036 were ever built and it was the last Alfa to be commercially designed by the Zagato design company in Milan. Hand-built, the SZ's looks divide opinion.

"Some people find it outrageously ugly but to some, they find it quite pretty," Le Roy says. "I think you have to be near it for some time. Then it grows on you. Personally, I am really stoked with it." Le Roy came about owning the SZ after some detective work. Interested by the car's history and design, the idea of owning one came 18 months ago in Dubai when discussing its merits with a friend. "We got in touch with the Alfa dealership in the UAE to see if there were any in the region and if any were for sale. There was one in Umm Ramool belonging to an Emirati," Le Roy recalls. "It was completely run-down and scratched but in reasonable working condition. After six weeks we stepped it up and made an offer."

Le Roy has been busily bringing the SZ back into mint condition for the past seven months, but admits there is still work to be done. However, Le Roy's real passion is for Lancia and he still runs the Lancia register back home in New Zealand. When he first arrived here, he was worried that the Delta would not withstand the climate. However, after bumping into a fellow Lancia driver in the UAE, he was assured they can take the heat.

"I had a 1991 Delta in New Zealand and I missed it. I was nervous that the Delta would overheat in the climate," he says. "After hearing that it was fine out here, I got on to the internet and found one from Japan. Le Roy would have considered importing the one in New Zealand; however it was converted to a right-hand drive that cannot be registed in the UAE. Le Roy also says that he finds that Lancias from Japan are in better condition and cheaper than from their native Europe.

While importing and registering a car into the UAE may appear a daunting process - especially with Lancia's reputation of "borrowing" different car parts in production - Le Roy found that it was not an arduous task. "I had an agent at the port so it was pretty straightforward. Registering it was easy and I was soon driving it," he says. "To put it this way; the whole process was easier than I expected."

Since restoring it at around Dh100,000, Le Roy has given the Delta, which has racing ingrained in its DNA, a new lease of life around the Dubai Autodrome. And it is not too shabby against its contemporary rivals. "Lancia were always 10 years ahead of the competition technically," Le Roy says. "Just look at how unbeatable they were in the WRC [World Rally Championship]. Even today, you would have to come with a very good modern car if you want to beat it.

"My friend also drives a Delta and he goes more often on the track. He says that in an hour and half of racing, only a Ferrari F430 passed him. He managed to keep a whole host of Bentleys, Aston Martins and Porsches behind. "It just shows how good Lancia is even today. Even with 20-year-old technology it is still strong and still keeps up with modern cars." snelmes@thenational.ae

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