COAL: 1990 Alfa Romeo Spider (S4) – Ch-ch-changes

To begin with, something about myself:
After I passed my driving test at 18, I got my first real car some time later: a VW Beetle. The car was about 12 years old. Definitely not free of rust and the engine had a measly 34 hp. At least it was the right colour: light blue.
First, the (chrome) bumpers and the chrome caps of the front turn signals were removed. Then the orange paintwork of the famous No. 20 was applied, with the corresponding start number on a white field. The hubcaps disappeared and the rims were painted black. My VW Beetle 917 K was finished. The car still only had 34 hp, but I felt that the Beetle was at least 2 km/h faster when stationary.

Over the years, other rust-infested vehicles of various origins and makes followed – all with a shelf life closer to a mayfly than a long-term car.


In 1986 I bought my first brand new vehicle a French blue 2CV; some changes were made. A year later came a brand new Fiat Panda Mk2 in red. More changes were made. In 1989 I bought my last new vehicle, a Uno turbo which was sold again after a year, because in the meantime – after some detours and turning into various dead ends – I had found my professional home and ended up at an advertising film production company in Munich where I met my future wife. She had a deal with our boss that she could spend a certain amount per month on her own needs and that the company would take over these expenses. This arrangement largely took care of furnishing our flat and filling the cupboards acquired with this financing model. But at some point, every flat is furnished, every wardrobe filled. So we came up with the idea of using part of their budget to buy their own car.
A completely absurd idea. We didn’t need a car.
We had company cars and since most of the productions took place abroad anyway, the appropriate vehicles were waiting for us when we arrived at the airport.

So the car we didn’t need could be a completely impractical car with no other function than just be something special and “beautiful”.

In the late 80s / early 90s, the choice of impractical but beautiful cars was quite limited.
At least for a car budget below jet-set.
According to our specifications, there was really only the MX-5 (Miata) that had just appeared on the market and the Alfa Romeo Spider – just renovated in its fourth incarnation.

After a test drive with the Mazda, we decided on the Alfa Romeo Spider.
Not that the Miata was bad(er). No, not that. It was a quite excellent car.
But we thought if it was going to be pointless and useless, it might as well be a mint vintage car from the 60s in its new clothes. So in January 1990, we ordered a brand-new Alfa Romeo Spider from a local dealer.

The order itself was a very simple thing. The Spider was only available in one version. No options list. Only a checkbox for the exterior colour.
There wasn’t much choice of colour there either in the early days of the 4 Series. As far as I remember three colours in non-metallic: black, white and a red (which in my opinion was too light to be a Rosso Alfa). Plus two metallic colours: silver and burgundy.

We went for black (and the only one interior colour in the early 90s: sand).

The first rides with me at the wheel showed that I had completely unsuitable footwear for the car. The pedals were perfect for my wife’s shoe size, but they were never made for size 45 Brogue shoes. So I got the first sneakers of my life. To match the car, of course: black racing shoes by Sabelt. (Over the years, all my shoes then adapted to the Spider.)

After the first service, the original steering wheel was replaced by an Abarth steering wheel with a smaller diameter. The original steering wheel was already a bit big – it rubbed against my thigh – although the series 4 was built with power steering for the first time and a big steering wheel was no longer necessary because of the steering forces.

In order to be prepared against rust (surveys, mainly among drivers of non-Italian vehicles, had shown that only Italian products are affected by the brown plague), we had an extensive cavity sealing done.

Over the next few years, we took small trips to the Munich area at the weekends. The only major trip with the car was to Cannes for the annual (advertising) film festival.

In the first winter months we had to realise that any form of cold and the Spider would never be friends.
Without a doubt, there was of course something installed in the vehicle that was called a heater at Alfa Romeo or at Pininfarina. However, this technical device only brought something like warmth above 10°C. Below this temperature, this device was only rudimentarily able to keep the windscreen free of misting, let alone snow and ice. Winter driving was therefore only possible with open windows and appropriate arctic clothing. So rather not.
This little Italian was only to be used in fine weather.

When the leasing contract expired after three years, we took the vehicle into our private possession – the little one had become part of our living community in the meantime.

To give the car a more classic look on the outside, the standard huge exterior mirrors had to make way for the chrome ones of series 1 and 2. The plastic covers of series 1 were fitted over the headlights. The somewhat unadorned air intake was given a silver mesh grille.

In the interior, aluminium applications were added to the dashboard and centre console, the gear knob and the handbrake handle were replaced by aluminium parts, the instrument panel was painted silver.

With this hermaphroditic appearance, the Spider made several trips with us over the next few years in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, several journeys through its home country from Veneto to Umbria – as well as the annual trip to the advertising film festival in Cannes.

On trips to the warmer regions of Europe, we discovered that the Spider didn’t like heat either, so we installed air vents in the bonnet for the thermal well-being of our Italian diva.

In the meantime, my wife had moved to another film production company and her new boss ordered her a company car: an Alfa Romeo Spider (916).
Now we had two two-seater fun cars.
Since the newer one had something like a working heater, this was our car of choice in the colder seasons and the Spider S4 spent this time lonely in its garage – the price for its glamorous life in summer on the Cote Azure.

From 1997 onwards, it was possible in Germany to register a vehicle with a so-called seasonal number plate.
(In the years before, in order to use a vehicle only in summer or winter, and to save the costs -insurance, tax- for the unused time, the vehicle had to be deregistered and re-registered. Don’t ask. Germany: masters in “why simple when it can be complicated”.)

So at the start of the 1997 season we got a seasonal license plate for the Spider for the period from April to October.

At the end of that year, we got winter storage for the Spider, as we only had one garage in close proximity to our flat and could therefore use it for the 916, which had previously been parked on the street.
It was a large, warm barn in the outback of Munich where other vehicles were parked.
For whatever reason, the owner was handling some parts and damaged the rear window of our Spider. His insurance covered the damage and a new sand-coloured top was ordered, as this matched the interior better.

Over the course of time, the little Italian received the technical attention that such a vehicle needs. In addition to the annual maintenance – oil change, new spark plugs, and whatever else an engine like this requires – the shock absorbers were replaced, the cardan shaft and its bearings were renewed. Some of the bearings on the front axle were also replaced. After all, we had already clocked up over 110,000 kilometres after more than ten years.

A problem that arose right at the beginning and could not be solved until the end was that the starter refused to work at high temperatures (summer, stop and go). The Spider didn’t like cold and didn’t like heat. Even installing a new starter did not change the problem. The solution was to take an espresso break and wait for it to cool down.
And even when the starter was ready to do its intended job, there were starting difficulties when the engine was warm because one of the fuel pumps refused to work. Several times one of the two fuel pumps was replaced to get the problem under control. Eventually we got one that was not broken by default.

Since we often went on weekend trips through the Alps to Italy, we treated the brake system to an upgrade. The mechanic we trusted replaced the front brakes with the TVR brake system (four-piston caliper and ventilated discs) identical in construction to that of the Lancia Integrale. The reason was, to put it in simple terms, “If we don’t have airbags, we should at least be able to stop in time”. The brakes on the rear axle were also removed, disassembled and overhauled.

After almost 15 years and 125,000 kilometres, the gearbox started to show signs of wear. It was difficult to change gears. Especially when shifting down into low gears, it sometimes scratched terribly. Unpleasant vibrations were also noticeable, which suggested that the bearings of the cardan shaft were defective (again).
Therefore, in the summer season of 2004, the gearbox was removed and subjected to an overhaul, during which the cardan shaft and the corresponding bearings were replaced.

In the years 2007 to 2009 we sunk more money into the car.
The engine mounts were renewed and all, really ALL, bushings of the chassis were replaced by new parts. The ignition system also got several new parts.
Since some consumer was draining the battery, a battery master switch was installed.

Following the motto “There’s always something”, at some point the exhaust system came forward with rust damage. When we replaced it, we decided to replace the standard Euro1 catalytic converter (ok but not great) with a Euro2 metal catalytic converter (a bit better, but not enough to save the world.)

The biggest problem came in 2010: engine failure.
After a spring check in our workshop, I set off to visit an ELMS race in Le Castellet. It was not to be.
I only got a short distance beyond the city limits of Munich. After a few kilometres on the motorway at moderate revs and crusing speed of just over 100 km/h, there was a loud bang. I immediately steered onto the hard shoulder, braked to a stop, got out, opened the bonnet and saw the (oily) disaster: one of the four connecting rods had decided to leave its usual path.
A tow truck brought the Spider (and me) back to the workshop.

The engine block is the most expensive part of the Series 4. The S4 is completely different from the Series 1-3, and the ones used in the Giulia/Bertone/Berlina. The difference is the connections for the power steering pump. While an engine block for a normal 2-litre Nord engine could be bought on any corner for an apple and an egg, a Series 4 engine block was already a rare commodity at that time and was traded at a high price.
The good news was that our workshop still had a brand new S4 engine block on the shelf. The bad news was: it will be expensive.

While the chief mechanic was removing the defective engine, the owner of the workshop called me and said he had a reworked but unused cylinder head for a never-realised racing car based on a Bertone in his inventory. Money is just printed paper, so we put something on top and got an engine with something special on top.

Before installing the new engine, the clutch was also replaced, the standard flywheel was replaced by a lighter one from racing and the engine management system was adapted/reprogrammed to the new conditions.


“10 Grand? Seriously? It looks the same to me as before.”

After that, the Spider was unrecognisable.
Before, it was a comfortable cruiser – evil tongues claim that hardly any S4 ever had the 120 horses under the bonnet that were claimed in the brochure – but after that it was a poisonous cornering machine.
Equipped with a sports cylinder head, lighter flywheel, metal catalytic converter and the engine management system adapted to it, all the existing horses in the stable had obviously been woken up – and it was almost as if one or the other horse in the stable had also had offspring.

In 2011 we decided to buy our own flat and we started looking for something suitable for our budget. Since my wife had her own company in the meantime and could operate from anywhere, we extended our search to the whole of Germany and finally found a property to suit our budget and style in the north of Germany.
We took the opportunity that the Spider had to be off the road in the autumn due to the seasonal number plate to give it a comprehensive rust treatment over the winter (and our moving season).
So we gave the Spider into the care of our workshop in October with the order to eliminate all rust, they don’t have to hurry and have until the end of March.

Even though the Spider was equipped with extensive rust protection at the beginning of its life, after 21 years, finding rust spots was a fairly simple task. And it became clear pretty quickly that the renewal would ultimately entail a complete paint job.

We decided to repaint the car in RAL 7015 (Slate grey, non-metallic) – a colour that became fashionable for other brands in the following years.
It became an elaborate metamorphosis, not just a simple painting of the visible parts. It was also painted what was not visible, the underbody, the complete boot, the inside of the boot lid, the doors inside, the whole door entrance including the (disassembled) hinges and the inside of the bonnet.
Only the engine compartment remained in its original black – an (inexpensive) reminiscence of earlier racing cars, where the engine compartment was also usually painted black.
By chance  I came across the website of Alfaholics, and we chose alloy wheels in the historic GTA look in their shoe shop.

Our garage did a great job and in time for the 1st of April, the day the Spider was allowed back on the road, we could pick up the car to drive it to our new home in Lüneburg.

Over the next few years, we made smaller trips to explore the area around our new home.

After more than 200,000 kilometres, mostly open, the seats of our Spider had suffered accordingly. By a lucky coincidence, I learned of a newly restored vehicle that had been totalled in an accident. I acquired the seats, which were in better than new condition, and installed them in our Spider.

In addition to the usual spring maintenance (oil change and other fluid replacement), there was a new radiator, the water pump was renewed and some parts of the chassis were once again replaced with new parts.

With 220,000 fun-filled kilometres on the clock, the Spider was slowly approaching the age of 30 and with it the privilege of getting a registration plate for historic vehicles.
In the spring of 2020, an appraisal for the classic car license plate was successfully carried out and we looked forward to the coming visits of classic car meetings.

Then came the pandemic.

All events for classic cars were cancelled for the unforeseeable future. Former excursion destinations were closed. There was no longer any reason for weekend trips.
The driving stuff became the standing stuff.

In the meantime, we had acquired two more vehicles – an Alfasud Sprint from 1978 and a Lancia Y from 2000 as a daily driver.

So in the course of the years 20/21 the decision matured in us to part with at least one of the two old cars.
In June 2021, with a heavy heart and some suppressed tears, we sold the Spider to its new owners.
Since then, the Diva has been spending its time in the curvy Rhineland near Düsseldorf.

…and yes, you can make a small fortune with old cars. If you start with a big fortune.
But every penny is worth it.