In the Great Book of Long-Lived Cars that I wrote in my head, there is a relatively small chapter dedicated to sports cars and convertibles. Just between the MG B and the Mercedes R107, we find the mighty Alfa Romeo Spider, made from 1966 to 1993. I’ve written up a ’66 Spider a while back, so it’s only fair that we look at the end of the line too.
Cars with very long production runs inevitably end up with a good number of esthetic and mechanical modifications along the way. The general rule is that they get better with age under the skin, but uglier as time goes by and their makers desperately try to rejuvenate their appearance several times over. There are countless examples – the beautiful split window VW Type 1 with its anemic engine, mechanical brakes and dodgy handling versus the far more dynamic and competent (but defaced) Super Beetle, for instance.
The bones that the Spider is based upon were the Giulia saloon – which made complete sense in 1966, of course. And the original Spider’s DOHC 1.6 litre engine, 5-speed manual, all-round disc brakes were ahead of the game in the ‘60s, to be fair. The live rear axle was less so, but that was not too much of an issue in the ‘60s, when IRS had not yet become widespread in European RWD cars yet.
Fast forward about 25 years to 1990, the dawn of the 4th series Spider we are looking at, and precious little has changed in terms of suspension, transmission or brakes. The 1.6 was still there (though mostly for domestic consumption), but most series 4 Spiders got the 2-litre version that was premiered on the series 2 in the early ‘70s. US and Japanese market cars would have gotten the 124hp fuel-injected version back then, while Euro models still had the 130hp dual-carbureted one, but by 1990, even old Europe had transitioned to unleaded fuel and catalytic converters.
Which leaves us with the esthetics – and that’s where the Spider really evolved a lot. Take the interior, for starters. All that black plastic on the dash screams of the ‘90s. The only real throwback is the placement of the gear lever, though even that was starting to move up into the dash in some cars (mostly MPVs, though, not sexy sporty drop-tops).
Alfa and Pininfarina really made the biggest changes externally, especially in that tail. Alfa Spiders are chiefly categorized by their rear ends, with series 1 (1966-70, top left) being the Osso di sepia (cuttlefish bone), series 2 (1970-82, top right) the Coda tronca (truncated tail) and series 3 (1982-90, bottom right) the Aerodynamica because of the many rubber spoilers they stuck on the poor thing. So for the final series, nicknamed Bella or Ultima (1990-93, bottom left), they decided to really smooth out the Spider’s butt, bringing it almost back to the Osso di sepia, at least in spirit.
The rear light cluster was repositioned higher and given a bit more personality and family resemblance with contemporary Alfas, especially the 75 and the 164. Can’t say this gels very well with the front end, but at least it’s clean. The third brake light, which was already tacked on to the late model US-market Aerodynamica, was better integrated in the whole design and the classic “Alfa Romeo” script made a welcome return.
The bumpers also received a thorough revision, becoming body-coloured in the process and really helping with the tail’s more rounded appearance. It was a complete 180 from the preceding two series – a call back to the car’s ‘50s origins.
Yes, those were ‘50s origins, for although it came out in 1966, the Alfa Spider was the product of a long line of Pininfarina specials on Alfa chassis, starting with the 6C 3000 CM Super Flow back in 1956. The car’s front end, with those classic round headlamps, was no longer exactly cutting edge by the mid-‘60s, but it had become ingrained in Pininfarina’s proposals for a solid decade, so it stayed. And stayed, and stayed some more. In fact, that’s the main design element that remained almost completely untouched on the Spider right to the very end, along with the scalloped sides and the windscreen / quarterlights area.
The one bit of the dreaded Aerodynamica that was carried over was the hardtop – arguably the least objectionable piece of bodywork (if you can call it that) introduced on the series 3. I’m sure everyone has their favourite version of the Spider. For me, the original one will always be the most beautiful, followed by the early / pre-5mph bumper series 2. But this final version, though far from ideal in some respects (the interior especially), is definitely better sorted visually than the ‘80s Spiders. Maybe they should have done a fifth series with a touch more chrome, as the retro craze was just starting to go mainstream when Alfa finally stopped production.
COAL: 1990 Alfa Romeo Spider (S4) – Ch-ch-changes, by Fred G. Eger
COAL: 1985 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce – Ciao, Baby!, by Jim Klein
In-Motion Classic: 1986 Alfa Romeo Spider Quadrifoglio Verde – Alfa-Bits, by Joseph Dennis
Curbside Classic: 1987 & 1988 Alfa Romeo Spiders – A Cluster Of Spiders, by Joseph Dennis