(First posted 12/1/2013) Clarkson once remarked: “You can’t be a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo”, a sentiment with which I would agree. Obviously this is easier in places where Alfas are still available new (Update: Yay, that now includes us!), but the pleasures and heartbreaks can still be experienced on the used market over here…
Alfa Romeo Spider. One of the cars which I wanted the most when I was a freshly licensed teenager in he mid-80’s. I just loved the looks of the thing. I had seen “The Graduate”, which probably did more for Alfa in the U.S. than anything else, but I was just as (if not more) influenced by the scene in “Fletch” when Chevy Chase takes the stolen ivory Spider on a romp across Southern California’s freeways and streets.
The Miata had been sort of the test case as to whether I liked the actual concept of owning a small convertible, I had always pined for the Alfa though. One day I saw an ad for a reasonably priced one locally and decided to take a look. It was silver with a burgundy interior, a combination I had not seen before.
I love a red interior and this did not disappoint in that regard. With about 130,000 miles and a price tag of $3000, I could not turn it down and went to the bank to get a not so fat stack of bills to trade with.
While many like/prefer the original “boat-tail” Spiders, I prefer the lines of the mid-80’s version. Having started my driving career in the 80’s, this is the era of cars I identify with most. I love that large soft rubber spoiler on the trunk, and the big bumpers don’t bother me in the slightest. The car was originally styled by Pininfarina and was on the market from 1966 to 1994.
Inside, the mid-80’s Alfa continued with basically the same interior it had since the beginning, the large wood steering wheel is fantastic to sit behind and use, the gearshift seems to come straight out of the dash and the controls, knobs, and buttons are scattered haphazardly across the console with obviously no regard for ergonomics. Later in the 80’s the interior would be significantly revised but would lose a lot of character in the process.
Compared to the Miata, well, I won’t kid anyone, the Miata is a better “car” than the Alfa, no doubt about that. It’s also significantly newer of course. The Alfa is roomier in the cabin though and has a more “raw” feel to it. Driving along some curving lanes is a delight in both cars, but the Alfa sounds better at full song.
Yes, the Spider is basically an old car that was kept in production for many years with updates over the years. Alfa though was always very innovative in their engineering. For example, most people believe Honda had the first production automobile with Variable Valve Timing. Not so.
Nissan actually had it before Honda but Alfa Romeo had debuted it in the Spider in 1980, way ahead of the Japanese. Fuel Injection was a feature of the U.S. market Spider since 1969. Disk brakes were fitted from launch, etc.
The engine was a 2liter 4-cylinder generating 115hp and 117lb-ft of torque. It is happiest in the upper part of the rev range and while not the quietest engine, has a noise that sounds great. A 5-speed manual was standard, although the last models produced in the 90’s could be had with an automatic, but really, what’s the point of that?
By the mid-80’s, the Alfa had gained Bosch electronic fuel injection to replace the SPICA mechanical version. Many people know someone who had a cousin and her aunt had an Alfa and it was generally considered a piece of junk. I believe that since the Alfa was not particularly expensive to buy and tended to depreciate rapidly that many were serviced by people not familiar with them.
Messing with unfamiliar mechanicals without knowing what you’re doing certainly can aggravate whatever condition may already exist. The Fiat convertible (completely unrelated) suffers from the same issue. Many say that driving them regularly in a spirited fashion seems to keep them running fairly well. The “Italian tune-up” theory at work!
Mine was the Spider Veloce version as opposed to the Graduate version. The Graduate was indeed a nod to the movie and was a decontented version of the Veloce. The Veloce had the beautiful 5-spoke Campagnolo Daytona alloys (magnesium, only weighed 12 pounds each), power windows, leather seats vs. vinyl, canvas top vs. vinyl as well as some other goodies.
When I got mine, it had several small cosmetic issues. The power antenna was missing; a quick search on ebay found a replacement, installation was easy through the trunk. Also somehow one of the headlight trim rings had gone astray, another easy fix.
Mechanically mine was fine. The only problem it did have was an issue with the vacuum sensor. One day I started to notice a loud whistling noise coming from under the rear parcel shelf. Five minutes with a Philips and I was under there and another five minutes on Google revealed that the problem was a silver device that apparently no longer held vacuum and would disable the VVT.
It was easy to order a replacement and install it, solving the issue. Again this is one of those cars that the internet has made much easier to keep healthy at a reasonable cost!
For me, a big part of the appeal was just looking at it. Somehow I never get tired of this design. The way the headlights look upright and alert, the small dainty hood that is hinged at the front and the huge flat trunk lid that I believe is actually larger than the hood all just look right. For me it was very much a fair-weather car, I would drive it down the hill to work and back on nice summer days and pick up my daughter from school in it.
Around the time our second child was born I decided it was time to move on. I advertised it on Craigslist and the man who bought it was much like me, he’d always liked them and it was very much an impulse buy to satisfy an itch he’d had for a long time.
Alfas are great cars, very interesting but very misunderstood, especially in the U.S. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with them that makes them bad cars, (to the contrary) it is more a problem with the typical owner.