In 1965, Alfa Romeo was faced with replacing the 10-year-old Giulietta models. The iconic 1954 Sprint coupe and 1955 Spider were modern, yet timeless, so there was much at stake. Pininfarina foreshadowed the Duetto with a bubble top concept at the 1961 Turin show, but the spider didn’t appear until Geneva in 1966.
Road & Track scorned the scalloped sides and boat-tail of the new model, but The Graduate movie (1967) eventually endeared it to the public. At first, nobody thought the original design would endure, and by 1970 Alfa Romeo was trying update it. The result was the coda tronca (literally truncated tail, or Kamm-tail) of 1971, which disastrously compromised the concept, as today’s values confirm.
As the best 1966-69 boat-tail cars climb past $50,000, their square-tailed successors struggle to $15,000. The advent of U.S. “push bumpers” and increased ride height in 1974 sealed the deal. The signature Alfa grille was buried, and the “cross and snake” badge stuck on the rubber bumper.
Early carbureted cars were robust and quite durable, but the twin-cam engine was bumped from 1600-cc to 1779-cc in 1969, then to two-liters in 1972. Struggling to meet U.S. emissions, Alfa Romeo adopted the complex Spica mechanical fuel injection, designed for a diesel engine. Deeply divisive among Alfisti, if properly adjusted, Spica injection can be trouble-free but does not suffer fools gladly.
The Spica fuel injection requires a sure hand to tune and failure is usually sudden and drastic, needing expert assistance. Such help has been progressively harder to find and is now correspondingly expensive. It’s difficult for enthusiasts to embrace a $2,000 bill willingly on a car that’s worth around $10,000.
The Spider’s virtues do much to balance out its frustrations. Relatively soft coil springs and anti-roll bars produce neutral handling; worm-and-sector steering is precise, and power-assisted disc brakes are surprisingly good. The best element is the cockpit. Two Veglia instruments face the driver and secondary gauges are set in a central console. The wood steering wheel is handsome, but the gearshift disconcerting, as it projects almost horizontally.
Pre-1975 Kamm-back cars look better with small chrome bumpers, and European headlight cowls create an exotic appearance. The well-fitting top can be raised from inside the car. But sit in a spider before you buy one. The driving position can be challenging for tall drivers. It requires long arms and short legs, and an extended-arm, splayed-knee position can lead you to a chiropractor.
Rust is all Spiders’ weak point. If the floors rust out, jacking points are compromised (or missing). Rocker panels are structural, so beware bondo botches, while fenders rust at the bottom and the spare-tire well seldom collects water for long.
Engaging first gear can be tricky, and second gear synchromesh can be short-lived in the hands of clumsy drivers. Differential noise is common, but less noticeable with the top down. Cromodoro mags are a popular upgrade over original steel wheels in early ‘70s cars, but make sure the lug nuts are long enough for safety.
The Alfa Romeo Spider compares well against British Leyland’s failing efforts in the 1970s and outlasted all of BL’s offerings, which were extinct by 1981. Thanks partly to its five-speed gearbox, it’s much faster than wheezy MGBs, with rubber bumpers has more structural integrity than the Triumph Spitfire, and more room than the appropriately named MG Midget. The TR6 is elegant, but seriously flawed in the suspension department, no faster than a good Spider, and comparatively overpriced. Finally, the Alfa’s exhaust note is unmatchable.
It soldiered on through the ‘80s, and the S3 got a new interior in 1986. Many Spiders were bought as weekend toys, and good examples can be found garaged in retirement communities, especially in the desert Southwest and California.
But beware: The relative sophistication of the 1971-93 Spider and lack of a meaningful dealer network means that many examples suffered from deferred maintenance, or are garage queens which haven’t been driven – and may not last long when they are.
Pininfarina undertook a major facelift with the long-tail S4 of 1989-93, replacing the black rubber bumpers and spoilers and restoring much of the original Duetto’s elegance. At the same time Alfa Romeo replaced the clunky Milano with the upmarket 164 sedan, and the marque’s image was burnished. Quality control got a shot in the arm, and prices on the later cars are showing signs of climbing past the $20,000 mark. If you want an Alfa spider, the S4 is a sleeper – but probably not for long.