By Ian Kilburn
In 1965, Alfa Romeo was faced with replacing the 10-year-old Giulietta models. The iconic 1954 Sprint coupe and 1955 Spider were modern, yet timeless, so there was much at stake. Pininfarina foreshadowed the Duetto with a bubble top concept at the 1961 Turin show, but the spider didn’t appear until Geneva in 1966.
At first, nobody thought the original design would endure, and by 1970 Alfa Romeo was trying update it. The result was the coda tronca (literally truncated tail, or Kamm-tail) of 1971, which disastrously compromised the concept, as today’s values confirm.
As the best 1966-69 boat-tail cars climb past R700000-00 their square-tailed successors are lagging behind in the early R300000-00 range for good examples. The advent of U.S. “rubber impact bumpers” and increased ride height in 1974 sealed the deal. The signature Alfa grille was overshadowed, and the “cross and snake” badge stuck on the rubber bumper.
Early carburetted cars were robust and quite durable, but the twin-cam engine was bumped from 1600-cc to 1779-cc in 1969, then to two-litres in 1972. Struggling to meet U.S. emissions, Alfa Romeo adopted the complex Spica mechanical fuel injection, designed for a diesel engine. Deeply divisive among Alfisti, if properly adjusted, Spica injection can be trouble-free but does not suffer fools gladly.
The Spider’s virtues do much to balance out its frustrations. Relatively soft coil springs and anti-roll bars produce neutral handling; worm-and-sector steering is precise, and power-assisted disc brakes are surprisingly good. The best element is the cockpit. Two Veglia instruments face the driver and secondary gauges are set in a central console. The wood steering wheel is stunning, but the gear lever disconcerting, as it projects almost horizontally.
Pre-1975 Kamm-back cars look better with small chrome bumpers, and European headlight cowls create an exotic appearance. The well-fitting top can be raised from inside the car. But sit in a spider before you buy one. The driving position in left hand examples is far more comfortable than the right hand versions.
Rust is all Spiders’ weak point. If the floors rust out, jacking points are compromised (or missing), while fenders rust at the bottom and the spare-tire well seldom collects water for long.
Engaging first gear can be tricky, and second gear synchromesh can be short-lived in the hands of clumsy drivers. Differential noise is common, but less noticeable with the top down. Cromodoro mags are a popular upgrade over original steel wheels in early ‘70s cars, but make sure the lug nuts are long enough for safety.
The Alfa Romeo Spider compares well against British Leyland’s failing efforts in the 1970s.Thanks partly to its five-speed gearbox, it’s much faster than the MGBs, with rubber bumpers has more structural integrity than the Triumph Spitfire, and more room than the appropriately named MG Midget.Finally, the Alfa’s exhaust note is unmatchable.
It soldiered on through the ‘80s, and the S3 got a new interior in 1986. Many Spiders were bought as weekend toys, and good examples can be found garaged.
Pininfarina undertook a major facelift with the long-tail S4 of 1989-93, replacing the black rubber bumpers and spoilers and restoring much of the original Duetto’s elegance. If you want an Alfa spider, the S2 is a sleeper – but probably not for long.