Road test - Alfa Romeo Spider 2.0

There are some cars which just will not lie down. Just as Porsche has had to bow to the 911's will to live, so Alfa Romeo finds Itself with a steady demand for a car now 20-years-old. When stricter Type Approval regulations deprived British enthusiasts of a right-handdrive version of the Spider in 1978, no steps were taken to make the necessary alterations for the UK market. After 12 years, the much-loved two-seater seemed to be entering that period of senescence which may or may not be the prelude to a new life as a "classic". Happily, the demand was there, particularly in America, to see the car through the phase of just being "out of date" and out the other side into the forgiving warmth of nostalgia.

Since that date the Spider (now only available in 2-litre form) has not been officially listed by British dealers, so in the early Eighties, when there were very few convertible cars of any sort available, the Surrey firm of Bell & Colvill Ltd started to import Spiders from Belgium and Holland and have them converted to RHD over here. It has proved a popular idea, and while the quantities involved are small, the business has been steady.

The name of Bell & Colvin is one which Motor Sport readers will probably be familiar with, Bobby Bell's Maserati 250F and Martin Colvill's AC Cobra 427 appear frequently in VSCC and HSCC races, and in the past the company has been more than just a dealer in the Alfa network, producing a number of tuned and turbocharged Alfas of its own. Although the Alfa period is now past, this experience has helped in the current conversion, which uses only factory components in the right-hooker switch. The end result, including some neat retrimming of the fascia. looks absolutely right both under the bonnet and in the cockpit. Only the driver will notice that the speedometer reads up to 180 mph the result of recalibrating the kph unit.

Most fans loudly bemoan the new spoilers and bumpers which have been fitted to the rather simple Pininfarina design, but I actually feel that Alfa have treated the heavier bumpers about as sympathetically as one could hope, my reservation concerns the buck-tooth front spoiler which reminds me irresistably of a cartoon character called Plug in the Beano...

These modifications do not even pretend to cover up the period features of the Spider the recessed headlamps, scalloped flanks, and chromed quarterlights which lend it its pleasant flavour of nostalgia, which extends to the running-gear too. Once unconventional in its sophistication, the specification has now become unusual through being out of fashion in sportcars: rear wheel drive using a live axle located by twin trailing links and an A-bar, recirculating ball steering, and that venerable over-square 1962cc engine which still breathes through two twin Dellortos. The four disc brakes feel strong and responsive, not always, the case even on factory RHD swaps, and the ratios in the five-speed 'box are as well chosen as always from this stable, but the overall feel really is that of a decade or more ago.

Inside, one or two '80s touches such as the digital clock and row of rectangular warning lights on the centre console clash with the simple round instruments, which tend lobe obscured somewhat by the driver's hands on the large and slippery wood-rimmed wheel. This is adjustable for height, but as always it is difficult to arrange all one's limbs in the right relationship to the controls. In this case, there is not enough rearward seat movement, so that one's knees are splayed round the wheel: on the other hand, the pedals are ideally laid out and the gear lever is perfectly placed. With its vertical gate it is almost as easy to operate as the three column stalks for indicators, lights, and wipers.

For some reason this example of the revered twin-cam did not make all those wonderful snorting and snuffling noises I remember from my GT Junior, though a nice exhaust rasp floats into the cockpit. So does a strong gale at speed, due to the steep screen and short side-windows, and on a long run from Herefordshire to a Jaguar DC meeting at Silverstone on a chilly spring day, my companion elected to wear the canvas flying-helmet he more usually sports at the wheel of one of his XKs. More startling is the amount of scuttle-shake even at moderate speeds, although the thing does calm down when the hood is snapped into place. After 20 years, the mechanism of that hood is probably unsurpassed of ease of use flick the two catches on the front edge and it disappears in one movement, neatly folding itself behind the seats with no need for poppers or clips. Erecting it is almost as simple, though it took one or two attempts to get the knack of engaging the screen-rail catches because of the tension in the structure which is of course why it feels so solid, and it proved to be absolutely watertight in a real downpour. A two-speed fan provides good demisting, and there are eyeball vents to allow fresh air while the lid is on Behind the seats there is room for all the everyday detritus of cameras, coats, and briefcases, and the boot itself is generous, if on the shallow side, it is released by an internal pull. Leather upholstery is standard, and the seats proved comfortable, with more support than their traditional shape might suggest.

In 2-litre form the engine is not as free-revving as smaller versions: certainly it seerned to prefer middle gears and middle revs for overtaking sprints; in fact it did not feel as fast as I expected, and only just made 10.0 secs on the 0-60 mph blast, more than a second outside the listed figure, though it did turn in healthy intermediate times. More disappointing, though, was the chassis' behaviour: It just was not the sweet-handling device that I had fondly imagined. It felt unsure where it was going next, not helped by the low-geared and vague steering which in a series of rapid bends seerned constantly to be one step behind what the back end was up to. Nor did it like bumps: the ride is placid on smooth surfaces but reacts sharply to holes and crests, changing the attitude of the car relative to the intended line. 

Turn-in response is laggardly, and the balance changes rapidly to oversteer, which might be fun if it were not for the slow steering It ought to be said that these criticisms apply while making the most of empty roads, and that in the dry the Spider will cope with most things if left to its own devices, botany rain brings the limits of its adhesion alarmingly close.

It can be a lot of fun - find a smooth S-bend with a clear view, select third with the briefest of double-declutching, give it an armful of lock and almost immediately start to wind it off again, and it all comes together: the snarl of exhaust, the chirruping of tyres. blue sky above the windscreen as you slot into fourth... Great stuff as long as you do not want to change direction too quickly.

Another myth to be dispelled was the quality of the gearchange. It may well have been wonderful in days gone by, now it is adequate in most shifts, and plain slow into second like all rear-wheel-drive Alfas. On the other hand, the gear knob falls to hand ideally; it feels so natural to slide the long lever up and down instead of back and forwards that it suddenly seems a pity that most cars now have a vertical remote shift. Both wheel and gear-knob are of varnished wood which I found too slippery to be happy with; changing the wheel for a smaller leather one would improve driver comfort, position, and steering response.

Tall drivers will find an unswept corner of the screen when the rain comes on, but at night the lighting is very good indeed, with none of the diffraction visible with the perspex headlamp cowlings which are de rigeur on chrome-bumpered models. Convertible owners will know of the pleasure of a fast journey at night with the top down, and for all its ageing features, the Spider is one of the few traditional sports cars (and I shall not define the term except to say that this undoubtedly is one) combining rear-wheel-drive with two fresh-air seats.

Frequent comments of "Do you mean they still make those?" show that the car is not forgotten, and, particularly with the optional metallic paint and five-spoke Campagnolo wheels, it collects admirers as soon as it stops. There is no doubt that its handsome lines and triangular "grille" carrying the Alfa Romeo badge convey just the same dash and style as ever, and. apart from the scuttle shake, the car feels well put together. With steel wheels the cost is £11.995, alloys add £400, and the metallic paint £250, which puts it in the same area as the Morgan and the Panther Kallista, neither of which really compares in practicality. Assuming that the potential Spider buyer will not be tempted by four-seat rag-tops such as Escort and Golf, there is precious little in this category to compete with it Reliant's SS1 (£8,000) has better road manners, but less perforrnance and cachet, while an extra £2.000 would need to be found for a TVR 280i. However, another version of the Spider, first shown at the Geneva show, will shortly be available: this has extra GRP spoilers and sills in an effort to update the looks and is likely to cost around £14,000. At that price I would sooner have the TVR, even with the agricultural Ford V6 in it.

It may seem hard to judge so long-lasting a car as this by modern standards, but it is inevitable. With its basically competent suspension layout, it must be possible to narrow down the source of its uneasy squirming sensation under cornering: it may simply be the combination of tall tyres, chassis flex, and anti-roll bar rates, as the transition to oversteer appears to happen when the roll angle reaches a maximum. But these reservations apart, the Spider 2.0 is going to provide a great deal of pleasure for the driver who values a convertible. - G.C.