Alfa Romeo Spider. Like the Ford Mustang or the Aston Martin DB5 it is a name that stands for more than just a car. The Spider is as finely woven into ‘Brand Italy’ as Michelangelo or mascarpone, and a powerful cultural statement. But it's the car we’re interested in here, and thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. A hugely popular sports car for more than twenty years, the Spider is the definitive Alfa Romeo.
The Spider was launched in 1966 as the Duetto. It was named by a competition winner and translates as ‘boat tail’. It was powered by a 1570cc twin-cam engine and remains the pick of the bunch thanks to its curvaceous styling and appearance in Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate. A more powerful 1750 Veloce model came along eighteen months later. Curiously, the Duetto design only remained in production for three years - replaced by the 2000 Spider in 1969. Alfa chopped off the rear end for this model and the styling never quite replicated the Duetto’s simple elegance. Things remained largely the same (minor styling tweaks and fuel injection aside) until 1990 when Alfa offered heavily revised bodywork and luxuries like power steering and an auto option.
Rust is so synonymous with the Spider that Alfa Romeo should have put it on the spec list. The earlier Duetto’s suffered particularly badly because the body was put together before the primer was applied. If a spot of mud gets into a difficult to clean crevice then rust can quickly take hold. Naturally you’ll want to check pretty much every inch of the car, but there are specific areas that need your attention the most. The most obvious area to inspect is the bottom six inches of the car because this is where mud and salt is most likely to linger. The cabin and boot floors need a close inspection, so lift the carpets and have a look underneath. The sills must be checked thoroughly as any issue here compromises the car’s structure. You can often tell if the car has this issue if the panel gaps are inconsistent and the doors don’t line up properly (although bear in mind panel gaps were never an Alfa speciality). Inspect the condition of the front cross-member, as well as the front and rear valances, bonnet and boot edges, door bottoms, wheel arches, the windscreen surround and the A-posts. If the car is covered in fresh underseal this could point towards a deeper problem. Lastly, have a look at the condition of the chrome exterior trim. Replacing these strips can be expensive.
The range of engines Alfa fitted to the Spider are tuneful, high revving units, but need care and attention if they’re not to leave you stranded at the side of the road when you least expect it. The Spider has a propensity for oil leaks. Check the oil pressure and look for evidence of a leak around the cam cover and spark plugs. Have a look at the side of the engine block. If there are three lines of oil running down then the o-rings below the camshaft have perished. Rebuilds are expensive so walk away if the engine looks neglected. Also check for evidence of overheating. If the cooling system is neglected it can cause silting in the radiator and engine block, which often leads to a head gasket failure.
Ensure the gearbox isn’t overly noisy and the change action is smooth. A worn transmission will often betray itself by jumping out of gear and crunching between changes points towards a tired synchromesh.
The Spider should feel pliant and controlled, so if the car rolls around in the corners it probably means the suspension bushes have perished (the front wishbone bushes are particularly susceptible to wear). It’s a basic thing but make sure the ride height is normal and inspect the spring pans for signs of rot.
While old Alfa Romeo’s have as bad a reputation for faulty electrics as they do for rust, the Spider doesn’t suffer too poorly. Nevertheless, check all the basics are working (lights, indicators, starter motor).
The most crucial thing to find out is if the carpets are soggy. If they are it points towards rust underneath and a torn or poorly aligned roof. The same goes for flakes of rust found underneath the carpet mats. On both occasions walk away. Check for any ripped or badly worn upholstery and missing trim. It can be expensive to find original parts and to re-trim a Spider, so be prepared to live with any issues you find. It will also negatively affect the resale value.
The Spider drives exactly how it looks. Beautifully. While it was never the fastest or the best handling small sports car (it wouldn’t see which way an Elan went), the little Alfa is all about the quality of the experience. The engine note is sweet, the suspension should be compliant over bumps and compressions and the chassis nicely balanced. If the suspension crashes or wallows, or the gearbox is crunchy then you could have issues on your hands, because the driving experience should be nothing but a joy.
The price wildly fluctuates depending on which Spider specification you’re after. The most desirable model is the Duetto, with prices hovering in the mid-twenties for a good example and up to £50,000 for a pristine show car. There are precious few of them around and their values are only going skyward. However the later models are far more attainable. You can pick up a Series 2 project car for around £5,000, £10,000 for a working example and £15,000-20,000 for a showroom car. Later S3 and S4 projects can be had for as little as £2,000, with £5,000-£8,000 getting you something decent and £12,000 to £15,000 buying you something special.
Engine rebuilds can be very expensive, and original spare parts and trim aren’t cheap. While buying a rough S3 or S4 as a project car makes sense due to the low asking price, Duetto restorations are a costlier proposition.
The Alfa Spider comes with a book’s work of cliches but it lives up to the hype - and thanks to the range of values from Duetto to S4, there’s a Spider for every budget. If you’re looking for the quintessential Italian driving experience and the four-wheeled definition of La Dolce Vita then the Alfa Romeo Spider is an intoxicating temptation.
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