Veteran to classic: Alfa Romeo 2600 spyder

Luxury cruiser

It always happens the same way. The sudden lurch of anxiety as you realise that something is wrong, tense moments while a suitable stopping place is sought, the frustrating sight of an engine displaying no obvious repairable disorder. Will I miss my next appointment? How will I get the car home? Will this be expensive? But it is worse when the car is a Touring-bodied Alfa Romeo 2600 spyder built in 1963 which belongs to someone else.

Tim Stewart was confident enough on the phone about his car. “Dynamo light on? Water temperature rising? Fan belt intact? It had a new belt recently — probably started to slip. There’s an Alfa dealer near where you are — take it in there.” It seemed appropriate; I have made unscheduled visits to Alfa Romeo agents in the south of England and the north of Scotland; in the Pyrenees, Provence and Savoie. Why not Amersham?

We pottered from the market place of the old Buckinghamshire town up the hill to Amersham Motors, where in a few moments Tim’s diagnosis was proved correct. A quick readjustment of belt tension and the gauges and warnings returned to normal, allowing us to resume our plans for some spirited open-air motoring. I was glad, not because I actually thought anything drastic had happened to a car which I had been loaned, but because it meant that I could look forward to my first proper taste of the forgotten Alfa Romeo engine— the all-alloy twin-cam six of 1962.

After more than 30 years, Alfa’s famous four, in whatever variation, is still regarded as the classic twin-cam engine; it competes on the track as a Formula Three power-unit, and is starting a fresh chapter as the TwinSpark. Yet there was a time in the early Sixties when it was meant to be the younger brother, powering the mass-production vehicles while the prestige fell to a 2.6-litre straight-six in hand-built luxury bodies. It did not turn out that way; the cheap and rapid Giuliettas grew in stature while the expensive sixes faded away in sales and in significance.

The four-cylinder 1900 model, which in many different guises had supported the company through its recovery from the war and into volume production, had become overshadowed through the Fifties by the enormous success of the Giulietta. Alfa wanted to retain a bigger, powerful car in its range alongside the small and efficient Giulietta, and had experimented with a 3-litre six-cylinder version of the 1900 engine, but the production idea was shelved and its only fruit was a handful of six-cylinder competition sportscars. These achieved a single outright victory in the 1954 Supercortemaggiore Grand Prix at Merano, though the most impressive result was Fangio’s second place in the 1953 Mille Miglia with only one of the front wheels actually steering.

After this, however, the company’s competition hopes rested on tuned versions of the 1900, and indeed its achievements were many. The 1900 blossomed finally in 1958 into the 2000 series, which in fact used an unchanged 1975cc version of the iron-block twin-cam engine but in a choice of modern saloon, coupe or spyder bodies. This was the range which, after some further minor styling updating, was to become the 2600.

Suspension of the 2600 was identical to that of the 2000, and traced its layout back to the 1900: at the front were paired wishbones, while the solid rear axle was held by lower trailing arms and a triangle centred on the top of the differential.

The six-cylinder engine, released in 1962, took its layout from the long-running 1900, but added the fruits of Giulietta research including an alloy block; bore and stroke were reduced for higher engine speeds, and combustion chamber and valve sizes also went down to improve volumetric efficiency. Thus the new motor was not merely two extra pots added to the now-classic twin-cam, but an amalgam of two streams of development.

Looking now under the front-hinged bonnet, the gleaming alloy lump seems enormous, on the same scale as an XK Jaguar or six-cylinder Aston Martin power-unit, and it sits well forward in the chassis. The three twin side-draught carbs are fed via trunking from a large dustbin-shaped air-cleaner/silencer (seeing it recalled the day a friend wrongly connected the plug leads on my 1300GT Junior Alfa, causing it to back-fire and set fire to its similar unit . . .).

In its last 2000 form the four-cylinder engine was giving some 115 bhp— not a great deal more than a tuned Giulietta. Now the same big saloon body concealed 130 bhp, while the Spyder and the Sprint coupe had leaped up to 145 horsepower thanks to a higher compression ratio (9:1) and three twin-choke carburetters. But although this put Alfa Romeo back into the fast luxury class which had been such an important part of its history, these expensive cars were something of a luxury to Alfa itself, selling only in small numbers. This was the last six-cylinder Alfa Romeo engine until 1980, when the current V6 appeared in the staid Alfa 6 saloon.

There is something of the lines of the Giulietta spyder in the 2600, although the former was created by Pininfarina and the latter by Touring. Perhaps it is more obvious in the soft lines around the triangular Alfa grille than in the four projecting headlamps, which look more aggressive and less traditional, but the long rear wing-line and little kick-up just behind the door also help to visually tie the compact four-cylinder and extravagant six-cylinder convertibles together.

Ostensibly a 2+2, the 2600 has a comfortable-looking rear seat which proves to be clever window-dressing. Front seat occupants of any ordinary height will leave very little leg-room for the unfortunates behind, and the seat cushion is very thin. Moreover, the seat back is actually a soft padded cover for the hood — clever packaging, but hardly supportive.

And the hood! We took the car out on an unpredictable day which mixed sunshine with storms and got caught. Light rain I can ignore in an open car, but when it starts to trickle down the nape of the neck it is time to cover up. Blithely imagining that this one would be as easy to erect as the Pininfarina hood, we unpopped the fasteners and tried to pull the thing out.