Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider

A true sports car of impeccable manners and considerable performance

It could be said that Germany makes a range of very sound, well-finished cars, France builds practical automobiles, Britain mainly dull ones, with exceptions, but that most Italian cars are fun to drive and full of life. Of these, Alfa Romeo has long been a highly respected name, in America as well as in Europe. The present range of cars from the Milan factory is rather complex. With the two that came to me for road-test last year I had unfortunate experiences. It was as much to appease me as to obtain free publicity that I was offered another Alfa Romeo to try, at the time of the London Motor Show. The weeks slipped by and I heard nothing more, until, just before Christmas, I was told that a 1600 Spider would be delivered to the office, if I was prepared to test a left-hand-drive version. It turned out to be blood-red and on Italian number plates.

The Spider is a true sports car, with a soft top, or hood, that can be folded away into the space behind the two seats, so that accommodation is limited to driver and passenger, although the long shallow boot takes a decent amount of luggage, and wind-up glass windows in the doors make the car snug when closed, at the expense of poor three-quarter rearwards vision. The first impression is of a well-finished and appointed car, although not everyone liked its painted facia. Instrumentation and controls are comprehensive without being complicated and the latter, in fact, are very conveniently located. Hooded before the driver are the matching speedometer and tachometer, of modest dial diameter, the former reading to an impressive 220 k.p.h., the latter having the red warning band from 6,300 to 8,000 r.p.m. The zero figuring starts on the right of the dial faces but the needles sweep clockwise. Three small dials, neatly angled towards the driver, occupy the centre of the facia panel and concern themselves with fuel contents, oil pressure and water temperature. All these instruments are of Italian Jaeger make and the speedometer and tachometer needles are prevented by pins from recording lower than 20 k.p.h. and 500 r.p.m, respectively. Don’t say individuality of detail is dying out! Naturally, Italian lettering is used, like “Dinamo ” and “Riscald ” on the warning lights, etc.

Gear lever and hand brake are both central, the latter somewhat high-set. The gear lever is rigid and substantially knobbed, moving with precision to control an effective but heavy gear change, strong spring loading of the lever to the centre of the gate for third and fourth speeds making cog-swapping tiring, although this five-speed box is at its best on the I.h.d. cars. Fifth speed is forward right, with reverse opposite it; this highest ratio is by no manner of means an overdrive, for even on the 125 b.h.p. Spider it can be used from about 2,000 r.p.m. onwards without protest.

The pedals are properly lined up for heel-and-toe gear changing. There are rather ineffective fresh-air vents at the extremities of the facia, air-flow being controlled by under-facia levers, although I could get little except off and full draught. This fresh-air business is supplemented by a real stove of a heater, controlled by a couple of horizontal levers, a warning light telling you if the fan has been switched on, to avoid the occupants being done to a turn, like joints of meat. Flick switches look after the minor services, and additional items include the choke and hand-throttle levers, beneath the facia on the left. There is the usual steering-column lock, operated by the ignition key, which gives you ” Garage,” ” Marcia,” ” Avviam ” and ” Blocco ” and a foot-controlled screen-wiper-cum-washers button that was annoying because it would squirt without completing the wiping, so that the facia wipers switch usually had to be switched on as well.

The lever under the facia that released the forward-hinged bonnet functioned particularly well and, raised, the bonnet revealed the typical twin-cam Alfa Romeo engine with its four separate exhaust outlets merging into two exhaust pipes and twin Weber 40DC0E27 carburetters, The camshafts are driven by chain from the front of the engine and the cams bear directly on the pistons surrounding the valve springs. The tappets have to be set when the engine is cold, to 0.0187-0.0197 in., inlet, 0.0206-0.0216 in., exhaust, and to adjust these clearances it is necessary to remove the camshafts in order to insert a series of pads of varying thickness beneath the valve cups.

The valve timing of the five-bearing 78 x 82 mm. (1,570 c.c.) Spider engine gives an inlet overlap of 30 deg. 10 min. and an exhaust overlap of 36 deg. 50 min, and it develops 109 b.h.p. (DIN) or 125 b.h.p. (S.A.E.) at 6,000 r.p.m.

Having had my enthusiasm aroused by the sight of this neat, nicely finished twin-overhead-camshaft power unit I got into the driving seat and found a driving position that could hardly have been bettered had I been a six-foot Italian. As it was, not being quite that tall, and the clutch having a fairly lengthy travel, I had to compromise and adjust the seat closer to the steering wheel than I liked. The wheel is typical, too. It has three metal spokes, with horn-pushes mounted on each, and a thin rim. Under it, two I.h. stalk levers look after turn-indicators and headlamps dipping and flashing. The hub carries that famous badge, which must surely be engraved on many male hearts, Peter Hull’s amongst them. There is padding along the facia rails, and a useful cubby hole, its lid painted like the facia. As this car comes from a light-fingered land this cubby lid can be locked, and the bootlid has a lever release not only hidden on the n/s door pillar but lockable as well. There is under-bonnet illumination.

Complementary to the excellent driving position are the seats. They are superbly comfortable, with squabs that can be adjusted to a very fine degree by turning knobs that come easily to hand. A little experimentation enables full support to be obtained, even in the small of the back, while the seats are also well shaped for full lateral support. The lady passenger commented enthusiastically not only on the high comfort factor of the seats but on the smooth acceleration of the Alfa Romeo consequent on there being a gear ratio in the five speed gearbox for every occasion. The interior of the doors is very neatly upholstered to match the black p.v.c.upholstered seats and to supplement the wind-up windows there are quarter-lights with thief-proof catches, conventional internal door handles, and grab-handles on doors and facia.

In action this Alfa Romeo Spider impresses as much by its excellent road manners as by its very considerable performance. It corners and rides splendidly, with quick, accurate and notably light steering, geared 3-1/2 turns, lock-to-lock with but a modicum of free play.

These qualities combine to make this Alfa Romeo a very quick car from point to point, even in this wet land where you mustn’t exceed 70 m.p.h., a pace, incidentally, which you can all but make the 1600 Spider attain in third gear. It is also a superbly safe car, with a happy exhaust burble that imparts a sense of life and excitement to the driver, which is matched by the acceleration available.

In fact, with the 9:41 final drive, the makers recommend keeping the maximum in what would be top gear on ordinary cars to 91 m.p.h., a change into fifth apparently taking the Alfa Romeo up to 115 m.p.h., although with no Brooklands, access to M.I.R.A. barred, and Barbara Castle, I could not confirm or deny this claim in the course of restricted testing in Britain.

What I can confirm is the pleasure of driving the 1600 Spider, perforrnance apart, and its so comfortable ride. This I must qualify by remarking on how tiring the continual gear changing can become on a long journey, the clutch also being heavy, and on the lack of grip for accelerating away from rest on slippery roads, in spite of the wheels being shod with Pirelli Cinturato S tyres.

Overall, however, the Alfa Romeo Spider should be a very satisfying possession, even though on close inspection there was bad rusting, for instance, of the hinges of the boot-lid, on an example which had apparently not run 6,000 miles, and a disappointing ” tinniness ” about some of the lesser fittings, such as the spare-wheel retaining nut and similar items. During the time I had the car nothing gave any trouble, however. The 4.95 quarts of engine oil maintained a normal pressure of 4 kg/sq. cm. and the cooling system, which holds 1.65 gallons, a temperature of 80 deg. C. aided by a belt-driven pump and six-bladed fan. In a distance of 670 miles no measurable quantity of oil had been consumed.

The petrol gauge is accurate when the car is stationary (the needle floats when on the move) and this high-performance 1.6-litre sports car averaged 25.3 m.p.g. of premium fuel. The faired-over Carello headlamps give a very reasonable driving light but are lethal on dip—just the job for getting oneself plastered all over a badly-lit parked commercial vehicle on a black night! There is some wind roar about the hood as speed approaches the Castle summit, but the hood does not flap. The boot-lid is very light and the spare wheel is kept under the floor in its own well. The jack is clipped to the forward wall of the boot; when the o/s rear tyre picked up a screw I had to use it and found tyre changing easy once it was realised that the nuts turn different ways for tightening up, according to which side of the car a wheel is being fitted.

The suspension, which provides such an admirable compromise between roll-free fast cornering and the comfort of a smooth excellently damped ride, is by coil springs and wishbones at the front. At the back the light, well-located Alfa Romeo hypoid axle is also suspended on coil springs.

There are Dunlop disc brakes on all four wheels, which provide good retardation once the rather sudden action is counteracted by slight backing off. Equipment includes soft vizors with vanity mirror, a lamp in the mirror with courtesy action, a fuel low-level warning light and tonneau cover, there are Bosch electrics, and the fuel tank holds fractionally over ten gallons, the gearbox 3.2 pints of oil, the differential 2-1/2 pints and the steering box 1/2 a pint. Alfa Romeo do not seem to be able to decide which is better, a worm and roller or recirculating ball steering gear.

In this country the Alfa Romeo Spider costs £1,895 and it is, I suppose, a toss-up whether the customers are going to prefer its finesse, smaller dimensions and slightly better petrol economy to the greater top-end urge and lesser demands on the driver of the Jaguar E-type. This Alfa Romeo 1600 Spider can be called functional but its Pininfarina body is scarcely pretty. If the British concessionaires’ reputation for poor service can be lived down this and the other Alfa Romeo models should be in appreciable demand.—W.B.


Engine : Four cylinders, 78 x 82 mm. (1,570 c.c.). Overhead valves operated by twin overhead camshafts, c.r. 9:1, 125 (S.A.E.) b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m.

Gear ratios : First, 15.06 to 1; second, 9.05 to I; third, 6.17 to 1; fourth, 4.55 to 1; top, 3.60 to 1.

Tyres: 155×15 Pirelli Cinturato S 367, on bolt-on steel disc wheels.

Weight : 18 cwt. 2 qr. (dry weight).

Steering ratio: 3-1/2 -turns, lock-to-lock.

Fuel capacity : 10.1 gallons. (Range approx. 255 miles). Wheelbase : 7 ft. 4-1/4 in.

Track : Front, 4 ft. 3-1/2 in.; rear, 4 ft. 2 in.

Dimensions: 13 ft. 11 in. x 5 ft. 4 in. x 4 ft. 3 in. (hood up).

Price : £1,540 (£1,894 125. 9d. inclusive of Import Duty and Purchase Tax).

Makers : Alfa Romeo, Via Gattamelata, 45, Milano, Italy. Concessionaires : Alfa Romeo (Great Britain) Ltd., 164 Sloane Street, London, SW1.

Maximum speed (maker’s figures):

First gear … … 27 m.p.h.

Second gear .. 46 m.p.h.

Third gear … …67 m.p.h.

Fourth gear … .91 m.p.h.

Top gear ……..115 m.p.h.