My New Curbside Classic: 1997 Alfa Romeo Spider 2.0 T.Spark 16v Lusso – Fulfilling A Dream, Starting An Adventure

There comes a time when a gentleman has to move on to an Alfa Romeo Spider. That moment comes to many of us, and whilst not everyone may be able to close the loop, I have been fortunate enough to do so. So, welcome to my new Curbside Classic, a 1997 Alfa Romeo Spider Twin Spark 16V Lusso. In case you missed it, it’s in Rosso Alfa. Other colours are available, apparently.

If you’re a regular CC follower, you may have spotted my Aflaholic tendencies. There is just something about the history, the associated glamour, the sporting achievements, the consistent style, the more recent left field choices in several cars (such as the Alfetta family and Alfasud) and, perhaps, even the underdog air compared with the premium German brands. They’re not everyone’s taste and I don’t suggest they should be, but they’re certainly tasteful.

This is not a daily driver – I’ve still got the 2017 Alfa Romeo Giulietta for that – but nor will it be a pampered concours garage queen. I expect to be doing many miles each year, as the MX-5 did for nine years.

Ah, the MX-5. My first classic, non-daily driver, weekend only car, and the host of a lot of enjoyable days out and driving experiences, and a car I’d recommend for such purposes (or indeed as a daily driver in the right environment). I did something over 20,000 in those nine years, and suspect I enjoyed every one of them. Almost got a speeding ticket but didn’t, went over much of England from the Lake District to the Isle of Wight, and many car shows and driving days.

Mechanically, it was as sound as you could reasonably expect for a thirty year old car, but, whilst still safe and legal, and covered by a UK MoT for 11 months, corrosion was beginning to spread around the notoriously vulnerable rear sills and wings. It was time to change, and to move on to another experience.

The hunting for a Spider began. I’ve wanted an Alfa Spider since I was about 14, so the choice didn’t take long to confirm.

I checked the usual sources, and set a budget. One car in particular looked promising, but the owner didn’t seem to believe I was willing to drive 90 miles to view it and turned into a timewaster himself. Another, closer, car came on the radar and two appointments to view were postponed at short notice. I even contemplated a black one. And then I checked one more website.

You may have seen shots on CC of the workshop where I get my Giulietta serviced, and also detour to on flimsy excuses for some forecourt Alfa drooling.

This is a nationally recognised independent Alfa Romeo specialist, who has seen over half of the Alfa Romeo 4Cs registered in the UK. And was once asked for, and supplied from stock, a door handle for an Alfa Romeo 33, but not the 33 on the left, the one on the right.

The garage’s website also hosts some private traders advertising their Alfas, and I checked in at just the right time.

There was one 916 Spider, one more than I had been expecting to be honest. 1997, red, leather, many miles but with a great history, almost all of it with one owner. It turned out that the car was owned by one of the team at the garage, and had been used as a daily driver for a few months. The previous owners had had the car, as part of life long affection for the brand, for something over 20 years before selling it in January.  So, the long term owner had sold the car to the guy who had maintained it for around 15 years or more, who then used it as a daily car. That gives you confidence in the car’s basic solidity and temperament, even if the mileage is relatively high. But all the scheduled maintenance is up to date, including cam belt changes. There is honest patina in areas as well as the air of a cared for car.  It was, as we say on CC,  calling me.

A drive in the rain convinced me, a weekend sleeping on it convinced me even more and a deal was done. The MX-5 went on the familiar website and was sold within five days ( as a 21st birthday present for a very happy young lady), and the Alfa collected two days later.

A quick wash and off to our local classic car gathering on a village green. Even the rain stopped. And a Graduate appeared on cue.

So what have I got? The Spider, known as Tipo 916 in Alfa code, is the successor the Tipo 105 “Graduate” Spider; the related GTV coupe nominally succeeded the already discontinued Alfetta GTV. Production ran from 1995 to 2005 for the GTV and 2006 for the Spider. 80,000 were built in total, almost evenly split between Spider and GTV, at Alfa’s historic home at Arese until 2000 and then by Pininfarina. The Tipo 916 was in fact the last Alfa built at Arese.

The car was launched in 1995, with a choice of 1.8 and 2.0 four cylinder engines (the former in Italy only) or the wonderful Busso V6 in 2.0 litre (again Italy only) and 3.0 litre forms, and later the 3.2 V6, all transversely mounted and driving the front wheels . Despite the attraction of the V6, many prefer the lighter, better balanced four cylinder cars.

Essentially, the drive train and front suspension came from the 155 saloon. The rear suspension was unique to the Spider and GTV, not sharing anything with the 155 or the related Fiat and Lancia uses, and according to the brochure it has something called “false steering”. The forums suggest it is a doubtful translation and might be better expressed as passive steering. Still, a definite Alfa trait you won’t find on a BMW.

And the styling? Ah, the styling….by Pininfarina of course, and credited to Enrico Fumia. Fumia was also the artist behind the Alfa Romeo 164, and elements of that car can be seen in the 916. I’d suggest two other influences though.

First, the Alfa Romeo SZ coupe and RZ roadster, a cut down version the 75 saloon styled by Robert Opron and fitted with Busso V6 for a high power, high octane, high performance experience. these dated from 1989 and 1992 and were built in limited numbers until 1994.

The other is a car from Fumia’s own back catalogue – the 1981 Audi Quartz created as a one off by Pininfarina. Add the wedge profile and Alfa shield, and you’re pretty close, I suggest.

All in, distinctive, striking, attention catching, elegant and more complex as you look at it more. Is it sharp and edgy, or is it softer and rounded? Both, depending on the angle, the light, the time you use to take it in and, maybe, the mood you’re in. But not, it seems from experience, polarising. I like it, and seemingly so do others.

The engine itself is more complex than you think. It may have its roots in a humble Fiat unit, but Alfa has added the twin spark, head 16 valve twin cam head with variable inlet valve timing and twin balance shafts. Quite a specification I suggest, and the result is perhaps the smoothest four cylinder engine I have driven. And the exhaust note has been done by Alfa as well…..Power is 150bhp, 0-60 at 8.4 seconds and 130 mph are claimed. Fuel economy seems acceptable, and comparable with the MX-5 so far.

The hood folds under a rigid tonneau cover, and is lined with a velvet type material for warmth and sound. As much as anything else in the cabin, this moves the car upmarket from the MX-5, although the additional space contributes to that as well. This car is in Lusso trim, which adds the alloy wheels, leather seats and air conditioning to the standard generous specification.

Driving has been impressive. The ride is much better than I’d expected, and softer than the MX-5, and whilst it’s not as compactly chuckable as the Mazda, turn in and grip are very strong, as is traction and engine performance. The steering is typical Alfa quick, with just two turn lock to lock, partly achieved by a shockingly large turning circle.  Pedal layout is typical Alfa, with the face of the accelerator pedal level with the brake, and most of the long arm, short leg position can be trimmed out with the seat and column adjustment.

The other ergonomics are not that bad – the minor switches are all visible from the driving seat if not very reachable round the wheel, the electric window switches are ideally located vertically on the face of the door handle below the mirror housing (surely the best place for them?) and the instruments clear if not large. You can’t see anything of the rear deck from the driver’s seat, so reversing is still a learning experience. Perhaps that’s why the electric aerial is on the rear quarter?

The boot is short but deep, with a spare wheel standing up against the bulkhead. The rear lights are all in one full width cluster, and there’s a useful shelf and lockable storage behind the seats, housing the battery and the CD autochanger. The tonneau and hood itself are released by electrical catches controlled from behind the driver’s seat. You need to get out to the hood up or down, but that’s no real hardship.

At the age and mileage, there are a couple of issues, the most pressing being a need for some new front tyres quite soon and some upholstery work on the driver’s seat. Some paint restorer might be handy too.

So, an adventure awaits, and I’m looking forward to it.