When in Rome......The Alfa Spider experience
Traveling abroad seems like a distant memory to many at the moment but at least when the airspace does flood itself with planes, petrol heads can look forward to driving on location. I had travelled to Italy for a wedding and would be mooching around the Amalfi coast for a few days. On this occasion I wasn’t going to leave it to chance and gave rent-a-car roulette a miss. On the sun kissed costal roads I didn’t fancy the “or equivalent” rental being a distressed Volvo estate. I delved into the forays of the web and found a classic car company for something a bit more fitting.
Enter the Alfa Romeo Spider. My chance to see what helped Dustin Hoffman rocket to stardom in The Graduate. I was on a budget so it wasn’t the same 1960s pristine Spider but being a 1981 model it was close enough. When I picked it up the small boy inside me glazed over the (ahem) patina of the bodywork, loose panels and worn interior. The rear has somewhat sagged over the years thanks to the rear suspension and the interior was an 80s display of plastic as it had lost some of the Pininfarina style of the Mk1. Let’s just say the condition was good from a “social distance.”
After completing the paper work which was mostly in Italian and written in Crayon, I then asked about insurance. The customer services representative nodded furiously, “Yes yes yes of course” which was also his response to all my other questions. I took that as verbal agreement of comprehensive cover and set off.
A few issues were instantly apparent;
- The air con didn’t work nor did the interior fan, not so handy when it’s 400 degrees outside
- The radio was physically present but on sabbatical, and when I tried to jiggle it about the unit ejected itself onto my lap
- The dials worked but going uphill made the needles stick on the plastic cluster. This gave you a snapshot of the car’s vitals, until the road levelled out again so you weren’t distracted by the temperature gauge shooting up.
- The entire Centre console was held together by air and made a beeline for the sky over ever pothole or speed bump.
Did I care? Not one bit, I was in an Alfa Spider with the roof firmly down.
The 1.6l twin cam Alfa engine was a peach and still had that raspy throaty exhaust note under load past 3,500 rpm. It would occasionally de-activate a cylinder whenever it wanted to but when it worked all was well in the world. They were ahead of their time!
The pedals were well weighted and linear in feel and the gearbox sprouting from the dashboard looked odd but well strangely well placed. I can imagine that when this was designed Alfa made sure that people in their best evening wear wouldn’t want to stretch too much for a gear change - that would only cause creases.
The roads around the Amalfi coast are treacherous. There are lines painted for two way carriage even though the tarmac is only wide enough for two bicycles and coaches attack corners imagining they are FIat 500s. Depending on which side you’re on it’s ether leave an imprint on the cliff face or take a dive to ocean below. At that height you’d have time to call the insurance before hitting the ground - I’m sure my sales rep would’ve still said, “Yes yes of course you are covered”.
Underneath the years of chequered service history and hamfisted tourists the Alfa’s chassis still felt predictable and assertive on the twisty mountain roads. At the helm of the aftermarket wooden steering wheel it was refreshing not to have power steering and feel the fibre of the tarmac below. I won’t lie and say that it was perfect, there was some play in the steering. You could comfortable drop something in the footwell, pick it up flailing at the wheel and the Spider would remain straight and true.
Only an Alfa could get away with these minor faults as it was pure joy going through the gears, accelerating to the red line and feeling engaged through the (relative) communicative pedals and steering. To get the most out of it you had to concentrate on driving it.
To others with me on the trip it was a wedding destination but to me, it was my own slice of Italian motoring. If only I could’ve had Matt Monro on the stereo but that would mean the stereo needed to work, which would’ve meant it wasn’t a classic Alfa.