Road Test and Owner's Impressions

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The Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider Veloce

A classic sports car of the past, available in the present.

Those who prefer the claustrophobic glasshouses of saloon cars will possibly dismiss my love for open-air motoring as masochistic eccentricity. Yet last year’s long, hot summer probably encouraged many other converts to the cooling, invigorating benefits of wind-in-the-hair fresh air, a sensation which the current generation of targa-topped sports cars does not provide entirely adequately. Unfortunately the wind of legislative change and the shift towards mid-engine sports cars has meant that aspiring “soft-toppers” are left with little choice of fully-open two-seaters, apart from the contemporarily pedestrian, long-in-the-tooth MG-B, Midget and Spitfire, or the traditional pancreas-shaking, two-year delivery Morgans, the £14,000 Panther J72 or the elbows-out, Panther Lima or Caterham (Lotus) Seven fun machines. Gone are the TR6, the E-type, the Elan and the Big Healey, even the young Jensen-Healey, the last of the mass-produced, reasonably civilised traditional sports cars with real performance . . . or were they? In fact one mass-produced throwback to the traditional, high-performance sports car theme remains, the Alfa Romeo 2000 Spider Veloce. Delicate in its curvaceous, Pininfarina looks, lacking the masculinity of line encapsulated in the E-type and Big Healey, this little Alfa, which boasts the only genuinely convertible hood remaining on the UK two-seater sports car market, nevertheless packs a vigorous punch behind handling which is truly vivacious. It is the last of the traditional, conventional Alfa line, and all the more enjoyable for it, a classical design in an age of increasing conformity.

Peculiarly, the Spider is almost a forgotten sports car. Alfa Romeo don’t publicise it much and import only 400 per annum. I hardly gave the model a second thought when trying to choose an open replacement for my TR6 last year and had practically resigned myself to the tin roof of a BMW 320i. Ironically, another motoring journalist’s road test changed my mind: Autocar forgot to mention the Spider in a sports car review early last year; to make amends they subsequently road-tested Alfa GB’s sales demonstration car. Mike Scarlett (now with the Daily Telegraph Magazine) was so eulogistic that I arranged to borrow the same car from Alfa Romeo for a personal appraisal. The result was an order for Pininfarina red PLL 771R, of which I took delivery last August. “Puller” as my wife nicknamed it in succession to the TR6 “Pig in ‘ell” (PGN 769L), while discouraging me from proving the name’s accuracy, has since covered a modest 6,000 miles, thanks to my frequent road-test cars and excessive amounts of time spent having warranty work carried out at Alfa GB, of which more later. While so few miles are barely adequate to justify a full owner’s appraisal, as I did with the troublesome TR6 at 10,000 and 21,000 miles, they provide more experience than normal for a road-lest report. An opportunity too good to be missed, since Motor Sport has been remiss in failing to road-test the model earlier and Alfa no longer have a Spider on their Press fleet.

The current Spider Veloce’s antecedents lie in the long-tailed Duetto model which appeared in the mid ’60s. In 1970 its tail was chopped short and the car refined a little more and in 1971 the 2-litre engine replaced the 1750 in the top of the range model. Only the 2000 Spider Veloce is available in Britain, although Alfa produce Spider Junior 1300s and 1600s in the same shell. Production of the bodywork is the responsibility of the Pininfarina factory at Turin, from where the trimmed shells are shipped to the Alfa-Nord factory at Milan for assembly.

Much of the mechanical details will be familiar to those who know the thoroughbred Alfa lineage. At the heart is the gutsy, slightly long-stroke, in-line four-cylinder engine of 84 mm. x 88.5 mm. and 1,962 c.c., with aluminium block and cylinder head. There are twin, chain-driven overhead camshafts, of course, operating inclined, sodium-cooled valves in hemispherical combustion chambers via thimble tappets. The fully-balanced crankshaft runs in five bearings. Carburetters are two, twin-choke horizontal Dell’Orto DHLA 40s on my car, though similar Solex carburetters are a production alternative. A four-branch, cast iron exhaust manifold feeds into a large bore single pipe system, at the end of which is an infuriating down-curved chrome tail pipe with the nasty habits of blowing dust all over the newly polished paintwork in loose-surfaced car parks and scraping its bottom over modest humps, particularly vulnerable when reversing. This splendid-looking unit, reminiscent in appearance to racing engines of the ’50s and ’60s, carries Bosch electrics and runs happily on four-star fuel, its compression ratio being 9: 1. Its 11.9 pints of 10W/50 oil are contained in a broad, finned, alloy sump, the only concession to oil cooling. Alfa insist on quoting SAE power output figures, which are 150 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. and 153 lb. ft. at 3,500 r.p.m., equating to DIN figures of 133 b.h.p. and 132 lb. ft., a little more than the similar installation in the GTV 2000, presumably because of exhaust differences. The output is offset against a kerb weight, with full 11.2-gall, fuel tank, of 20.45 cwt., a reasonable ratio.

The single plate diaphragm clutch is hydraulically operated and transmits drive to a five-speed all-synchromesh gearbox with ratios of : 1st, 3.30 to 1; 2nd, 1.99 to 1; 3rd, 1.35 to 1; 4th, 1.0 to 1; 5th, 0.79 to 1; reverse 3.0 to 1. A 4.1-to-1 final drive ratio is used in conjunction with 14-in. wheels.

In view of a return in some quarters to live rear axles, it would be unfair to dismiss this Alfa’s rear axle unit as old fashioned. In fact it is a particularly sophisticated layout, quite impressive when viewed from beneath, with a finned, aluminium differential housing and very reassuring location via twin trailing arms and transversely by an unusual T-arm above the axle, the arms forming the top of the T pivoting in bushes attached to the body and the tail pivoting on the differential housing. Additional control comes from an anti-roll bar. The combined coil spring/damper units are placed vertically and as far outboard as possible, attached to the trailing arms, for maximum efficiency. Long rubber rebound straps suggest the only hint of crudity. The axle carries outboard 10.5 in. diameter disc brakes; the handbrake operates on drums within the disc assemblies and is very efficient on my car. An additional note of sophistication comes from the standard fitment of a limited slip differential of rather more efficiency than most of the few such devices fitted to production cars.

The front suspension components look surprisingly substantial for a car of such delicate appearance. It is effectively a double wishbone system with an anti-roll bar and separate coil springs and dampers. The steering is via cam and peg or recirculating ball: I have no idea which my car has. Front discs are of 10.7 in. diameter.

There is considerable variation between the braking systems of left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive Spiders. While the l.h.d. car carries a single servo operated directly by a pendant pedal, the r.h.d. car has a separate servo for front and rear systems, operated remotely from a vulnerable master cylinder beneath the driver’s floor, operated by a floor-pivoted pedal matched, of course, by a similar clutch pedal. The pedal pads are angled backwards and take some getting used to.

This Alfa’s distinctive shape, a throwback to the famous Disco Volante, presumably, has a less glamorous interior, a betrayal of its age and to me a bit of a let down after the more luxurious woodwork and carpeting of the TR6. It is practical however. The floor has mere rubber mats, which is fortunate in view of the automatic washing devices built into the bodywork (I will elucidate below) and a facia of fairly nasty plastic, emphasised by the warping of the lockable glove-kicker lid, which has afflicted every Spider I have seen. The glove-locker does at least have an automatic courtesy light, which operates with or without the sidelights, unlike those of the boot and engine compartment. Simplicity and clarity denote the instrumentation. Vast Jaeger tachometer and speedometer in great decapitated-egg-like nacelles confront the driver, their markings to 140 m.p.h. and 8,000 r.p.m. unmistakable, though the 5,700 r.p.m. red line is vague in the extreme. Water temperature, fuel and oil pressure gauges in bright chrome bezels are angled sensibly towards the driver from their nicht at the top of the central console. Beneath them is the radio aperture, which I have filled with an excellent Motorola stereo radio/ cassette player.

Passengers sometimes ask how I tolerate the seats, which are soft and a little shapeless, though they do have built-int adjustable headrests and knurled knob rake adjustment. I suppose I have grown to them; certainly they are more comfortable at the end of a long journey than those of the TR6, though they are lacking in support in extremes of cornering. The bland black plastic upholstery could do with some means of breathing.

Some sources claim the Spider to be a 2+2, by virtue of it having a padded shelf in the rear; I would make no such claim, though it is possible to cram a couple of children in there or one adult sitting sideways. No, it would be more accurate to describe it as a 2 + large dog, a description I don’t make flippantly, for there are lots of potential sports car customers wanting such a facility, which they won’t get in a TR7, Monte-Carlo or X1/9.

The ease and simplicity of hood operation is one of the great virtues of this Spider, extending the car’s practical use as an open car considerably. All that is required is to release two up-and-over catches on the screen rail and throw the hood back, when it folds itself into place, a couple of seconds’ job for one hand, possible even on the move in slow traffic, at 10 or 15 m.p.h. Re-erection is equally easy, save that the side windows must be lowered an inch or so to avoid trapping the hood’s anti-draught flaps. A plastic hood cover is provided to neaten the look of the furled hood, though the only time I have bothered to use it was for the accompanying photographs. Such ease of hood operation makes a tonneau unnecessary. The hood canvas is kept taut by clever adjustable wire tensioners round each window aperture. In such a short life the black hood has already begun to grey with age and shows salt water marks on its interior, most unsatisfactory. The plastic rear window becomes almost opaque with a reaction to temperature change in frosty weather and has acquired an almost full width scratch and a cigarette burn on its visits to Alfa Romeo GB. Road junctions need to be approached as though one was driving a commercial vehicle to reduce the bad blind spots caused by the hood’s windowless rear quarter panels.

A surprisingly large boot of 12.2 cu. ft. makes the Spider a Grand little Tourer; it will take a couple of reasonably sized suitcases and lots of oddments besides. The rear shelf offers further luggage space. The spare wheel lies flat beneath the floor carpet and an efficient jack and adequate tool kit are secured out of the way in the nearside corner. The boot is opened by a lockable lever in the inner panel alongside the passenger seat, a real annoyance to the driver of the r.h.d. model. When shutting the boot lid it is essential to press it firmly along the rear lip only, for a shove in the middle of the panel would undoubtedly dent the flimsy bodywork. The lid is self-supporting by a spring arrangement, but the bonnet, hinged at the front and released from beneath the passenger-side facia, has to be propped open. Underbonnet accessibility is not of the best order, the dipstick being particularly obscure.

Cold starting, with the right technique, is a reliable affair: in cold weather, three or four prods on the throttle and use of the manual choke ensures that the engine fires instantly and stays running. In summer the choke can be dispensed with except on colder mornings. Invariably I follow Alfa’s advice to me to warm the engine before setting off, by using the separate hand throttle to let it turn over at 1,000 to 1,500 r.p.m. until the needle rises on to the water temperature gauge. This helps to warm the gearbox too, very necessary, for second gear particularly is a pig to engage when cold. When possible I make the first change direct from first to third to avoid wear on the stiff second gear synchromesh. Hot starting too is reliable if the throttle is cracked open part way.

Performance is gradually increasing as the engine loosens up and this car is already fractionally quicker than Alfa’s demo car, with a 0-60 m.p.h. time of 9.5 sec. (9.8 sec., Autocar figure) and a genuine 120 m.p.h. top speed. However, the engine is less smooth than the demonstration car at the top end towards its 5,700-r.p.m. limit and projects considerable noise from the rear main bearing area when hot, which Alfa tell me is normal, but this I find hard to believe. But the general engine characteristics are superb and it is this willing little heart which accounts so much for the Spider’s charm, a little unrefined perhaps in noise level and smoothness but so perfectly in character with a sports car. It has wonderful throttle response and a very wide spread of torque which produces excellent pick-up throughout the range in all five gears. To use the superb gearbox to its full produces even more delights from the engine. In fact the gearing is on the low side: 1st, 30 m.p.h.; 2nd, 50 m.p.h.; 3rd, 74 m.p.h.; 4th, 100 m.p.h. Yet those “short” lower gears are no hardship for the ratio combination makes their use a positive pleasure. Even when warm second gear is sometimes a little stiff on my car though I expect it to ease off to the standard of the demonstration car; otherwise the use of the strangely angled gear-lever (adjustable for reach on a pinch bolt) is a delight. It feels a shade low-geared too for motorway work, but this is no hardship and helps with excellent top gear acceleration from 70 m.p.h. and above. One-hundred m.p.h. is equivalent to 4,700 r.p.m., when the engine begins to sound happily on song. If the engine noise does dominate at all times, it is not a noise I can complain of, for I find great satisfaction in the enthusiastic rasp and crackle from the exhaust and the four inlet chokes. The engine is perfectly flexible in traffic and has shown no sign of sooting its Golden Lodge plugs. Fuel consumption averages 22-25 m.p.g. during commuting or hard driving, and oil consumption is nil.

The chassis behaviour complements the characterful engine perfectly; it is old fashioned in its choppy, though well-damped and not uncomfortable ride and its road-holding limits on its narrow 165 x 14 Goodyear Grand Prix tyres on 5 1/2J rims are below those of modern mid-engine cars or come to that, the GTV 2000. Yet it is so responsive, so forgiving, affording sheer driving pleasure. There is a fair amount of initial understeer, but ultimately it will oversteer, all so controllable using power to take advantage of the limited slip differential. Bumpy corners throw it around a little. The short wheel-base (88.58 in., 4 in. shorter than the old 2000 GTV on similar running gear) contributes to making the Spider very tail-happy in the wet, when it needs treating carefully. Wheelspin is easily provoked, but short-lived and not embarrassing thanks to the LSD. Straight-line stability is first-class. In typical Alfa fashion the steering is creamily smooth and full of feel. It is heavy for parking, but ideal on the move and offers an appalling steering lock, one of the car’s worst faults. I find the steering to low-geared—a wheel smaller than the 15 in., attractive and comfortable, polished, wood-rimmed wheel might help.

The brakes on the original demonstration car were first class, light in feel, progressive and very effective. Mine were too until Alfa replaced leaking pipes on the fluid reservoir—now they frequently need a second pump to bring the pedal up hard and don’t have so much feel, a classic case of a need for bleeding, which Alfa GB denied when complained, dismissing it as a characteristic.

Heating is by means of a simple water valve heater, which I find adequately effective and uncomplicated. There are large fresh air vents at each end of the facia and opening quarter-lights, so the cockpit does not become stuffy with the hood up, though I do miss the TR6’s zip-out rear window. The 2-speed fan, which infuriatingly works without the ignition, to possible battery detriment, has an unbearable rattle on fast speed, unsuccessfully cured (if attempted) during warranty. The interior mirror, which vibrates too much, contains a neat interior light, the courtesy operation of which is unreliable, and is supplemented by a door mirror. Screenwashers are operated by a foot pump instead of electricity and operate the effective wipers simultaneously. There is a fuse box under the facia and a cigarette lighter which won’t accept small cigars. Powerful Carello headlights are spoilt by scatter from the Perspex cowls and the panel lights do not have rheostat control.

My car had a very chequered early career. In the first 3,000 miles it spent 10 weeks at Alfa Romeo’s Edgware Road headquarters, largely thanks to Pininfarina’s shoddy workmanship. The biggest disaster came when it was just two days old: the battery, helped by the fan, spread its acid all over the engine compartment, corroding paintwork, alloy, servoes, everything. The engine had to be removed to allow final rectification. Most of the other problems related to ill-fitting doors and water leaks around them and along the hood rail, a long saga of unsuccessful attempts to cure. The leaks are much reduced, but the under-mat felt has to be dried out regularly. The Alfa grille and door handles corroded at the first touch of winter salt and were replaced under guarantee. Fortunately the rubber-protected bumpers are stainless steel. The bodywork feels frighteningly thin, matched by the paintwork, the bonnet flaps at speed and the scalloped sides are vulnerable to other cars’ doors. Overall, I am very disenchanted with the standard of finish. It contrasts poorly with the first-class mechanical engineering.

Despite the gripes about poor, or ageing, detail design and disappointing finish, I adore this characterful sports car more and more as the mileage increases. Before summer came and the car began to loosen up I began to wish I had bought a GTV 2000 instead of this junior exotic. Now I would find it very hard to part with or know what I would exchange it for, for cars like the Beta Monte Carlo do not have the same character, are not so much fun and are less practical. Nothing will ever replace the pleasures of a traditional open sports car and to me this Spider is one of the best. But its days are numbered and though manufacture will continue in Italy for some time it will not he available in Britain after the end of the year. Its current price of £5,020 (an £1,100 rise in one year) is perhaps not reflected in its bodywork quality, but worth it for its style and the sheer enjoyment it adds to everyday motoring. It is a collector’s piece still available new off the shelf.—C.R.

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