Launched in 1966, Alfa’s Giulia Spider is a peerless classic, whose delicately penned lines were not widely appreciated at first. Unofficially dubbed the Duetto after a competition in which one of these cars was a prize, the Pininfarina barchetta body was ‘rubbished’ by purists on the grounds that the front end was almost indistinguishable from the rear, and that an expert was required to tell which way it was going — an exaggeration, perhaps, but one which was to have repercussions.
Under this controversial skin, however, was the familiar all-alloy twin-cam twin-carb 1,570cc jewel developing a maximum of 109bhp at 6000rpm, all-round disc brakes, without servo assistance, and a five-speed gearbox. The conventional suspension system comprised double wishbones and an anti-roll bar at the front, and a coil-sprung live axle at the rear, located by an A-bar.
With a top speed in the region of 110mph, and 60mph arriving from rest in 11sec, what customers got for their £1,895 was a pukka Italian thoroughbred which could outperform all of its rivals, with the possible exception of Colin Chapman’s fibreglass bodied Lotus Elan. Contemporary road tests praised the car for its willing performance, excellent roadholding and handling, precise steering, slick gear change and powerful brakes, criticism generally being confined to wind noise, draughty hood and austere interior.
Immortalised by the film The Graduate, which did nothing to harm sales particularly in North America, this is the car in which Dustin Hoffman frightened the living daylights out of co-star Katherine Ross en route to a restaurant: remember wincing when he drove flat-out over that high kerb?
After the production of just 6,325 units, the Duetto was replaced in 1967 by the Spider Veloce, which was similar, except that there was a larger engine — increased to 1,779cc and 118bhp. Comparatively rare in Britain, 8,722 examples of this model were built all told — the vast majority again finding customers in North America — before being superseded by the 132bhp 2-litre (1962cc) ‘Kamm-tail’ version in 1970. A 1.3-litre Spider was also launched in 1968 and although not officially listed in Britain, right-hand-drive cars – possibly from South Africa or converted in private hands — are known to exist here.
Although by the early 1970s the Spider had put on a little weight, as all cars are apt to do as they are developed, it remained a charming, even beguiling mid-range drivers car that could be chucked hard at a bend with almost complete abandon, booted hard up to a maximum speed in the region of 120mph and appealed to a multitude of addicts who understood the Alfa way of life. And whereas the world’s supercar manufacturers struggled to ride the economic horrors of the oil crisis of 1973, sales of the Spider continued at almost unabated pace.
By the mid-1970s though, things started to change when a number of factors conspired against sporting two-seaters. Ever desperate for a Beetle replacement, Volkswagen launched the Golf, which was soon to be followed by the GTi, a model which heralded a new era of ‘hot hatchbacks’. It was a huge success which not even Volkswagen had forseen. Then Lancia’s Beta saloon model began to acquire a reputation for rusting, a reputation that rubbed off on other Italian cars.
Alfa pulled the plug on right-hand-drive Spiders In 1977: the British market was no longer financially viable for the Milanese concern, and enthusiasts had either to content themselves with left-hookers supplied by main dealers, Bell & Colvill, or have their cars converted to right-hand drive, a service which Bell & Colvill also offered.
When tough emissions and safety legislation was passed in North America, Alfa Romeo (like Porsche with their evergreen 911) modified their existing cars to suit rather than starting afresh. Ungainly impact-absorbing bumpers, a rubber bootspoiler and a catalytic converter were fitted to the Spider, and when in 1982 fuel-injection replaced carburettors, power output dived to 115bhp.
Make no mistake the Spider was still a fine car — great to hurl through bends — and there was adequate performance from the ‘twink’, considering increasingly chaotic traffic conditions, but Alfa purists naturally compared the latest offering with the earlier gems and became increasingly disenchanted.
An attempt to breathe new life into the car came in 1990 when the Pininfarina body received a major facelift. There were larger front and rear bumpers, the radiator grille was restyled, plastic covers were fitted across the sills and the tail was reshaped to become more angular. The interior was modernised with a restyled facia and more comfortable seats, and engine was treated to electronic fuel-injection.
Considering the legislative demands with which Pininfarina were expected to cope, they made a fine job of the revamp, even if to some the overall aesthetic effect resembled yet another pretender fitted with a HaIford’s bolt-on body kit. Right-hand-drive conversions became available from Alfa Romeo GB but at an asking price of nearly £19000 there were few takers here.
Production finally ended in 1993 after some 82,000 Spiders had found largely satisfied customers, by which time Alfa Romeo was already planning for the launch of a replacement — as it turns out, a weird looking stunner that is already being hailed as another great classic Alfa.
Developed over a quarter of a century, the Giulia Spiders were, despite suffering from the vagaries of middle age spread, never anything less than superb sporting automobiles with all the ingredients of an Italian thoroughbred. Owning a Spider is rewarding for two Principal reasons; first there is the company’s illustrious sporting history, which can always be felt from behind the wheel — above 3,000rpm you can pretend to be Nuvolari without even trying — and second, is really is driving pleasure in its purest form.
With the benefit of hindsight the early cars are, on aesthetic grounds alone, the Pick of the bunch, but there is no doubting the superior performance of the later Veloces, while the very last incarnation offers superior levels of comfort and 120mph Performance. There are many cars which are faster, more comfortable, cheaper, offer better roadholding and are infinitley more durable but there is nothing — including Ferraris — with the charisma that is represented by the evocative serpent and red cross motif.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR:
Rust is the Spider’s principal enemy — pay particular attention to the wheel arches, headlamp pads, scuttle in front of windscreen, inner wings, sills, base of ‘A’ and ‘B’ pillars, boot floor, footwells, trailing edge of boot lid, door bottoms, underside of floorpan including inboard of jacking points and rear suspension mounts. Water drains from the hood exit through the sill area where mud accumulates blocking the drain holes and causing rust.
A blown head gasket is the most common problem with Alfa twin-cams: check dipstick and underside of radiator cap for brown emulsion, and check for oil leaks below the exhaust manifold flanges. Oil leaks from engine are normal but be suspicious of excessive mess. Well maintained ‘twinks’ will reach high mileages — 150,000 is quite normal — but blue exhaust smoke on deceleration means inlet valve guides are worn: blue smoke under hard acceleration means piston rings need replacing. Oil-burners are those which use wore than two pints per 500 miles — run your finger around the inside of the tail pipe to test for residue,
Oil pressure should be around 55psi or above and the water temperature needle should settle in the middle of the gauge. Listen carefully for grumbles or banging sounds from bearings — engine rebuilds can be costly.
One problem particular to Spiders fitted with SPICA fuel-injection is stalling when the ambient temperature reaches 90 degrees. The fuel may boil when it is compressed by the pump, which leads to an over-lean mixture. Alfa recommends a submersible fuel pump placed inside the tank that feeds the main pump at 3psi, but it’s just as easy to paint the bottom of the tank with aluminium paint to reflect heat from the road surface. Finally, beware of vendors who enjoy Sunday earning tinkering with carburettors.
Electrics: Legendary electrical problems can often be traced to a faulty battery and/or corroded fuses. Readings on oil pressure and water temperature gauges are often wildly wrong.
Hood: Vulnerable to damage from vandals — replacements can be expensive.
Bodywork: Poor shut-lines or panel fit are likely to indicate sub-standard welding and restoration work. Check for water ingress from the boot seal. Some items of original trim are expensive and difficult to obtain.
Tyres: Check carefully for abnormal wear.
Shock absorbers: Check for leaks.
Ball joints: Easy to replace but wear with age
Bushes: Check lower controls arm bushing for corrosion
Steering: Should always feel precise and responsive; more than 1in of play indicates excessive wear in tie-rods
Discs front and rear: Check for deep pitting and scoring, excessive corrosion in calipers and uneven pressure or vibration through brake pedal
Manual 5-speed: Gearboxes generally unburstable but characteristically weak synchromesh on second gear leading to baulking before transmission oil has warmed up. Reverse gear also vulnerable to abuse. All 2-litre cars fitted with limited-slip differential — listen for whining and other horrible noises, particularly on high-mileage examples.