The Perennially Seductive Alfa Romeo Spider
The Spider has perhaps been the Brand's finest ambassador in the world's markets, thanks to its various appearances in cinema and television and its unrivaled panache. But if you've ever wondered about their story, you're definitely in the right place.
Cars don't get more Italian than a classic Alfa Romeo Spider.
Produced between 1966 and 1993, the Spider had the longest lifespan of any Alfa Romeo model, yet, with just over 120.000 units sold, it very likely didn't do much for the Company's bottom line.
Nevertheless, the Spider has perhaps been the Brand's finest ambassador in the world's markets, thanks to its various appearances in cinema and television and its unrivaled panache.
I've driven a few of these perennially seductive machines in my time, and I bet many of you too. But if you've ever wondered about their story, you're definitely in the right place.
A Decade in the making
Although the beloved Spider was launched at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, the story behind its beautiful lenticular shape began an entire decade earlier, with a prototype from Pininfarina based on a 3000 CM race car chassis: the "SuperFlow" from 1956.
Styled by the great Aldo Brovarone, it clearly followed the period's fascination with jet aircraft and rockets: so much so that it wouldn't have looked out of place in one of General Motors' famous Motorama shows.
Pininfarina would keep refining the lenticular design theme through several more prototypes over the following years, until the gorgeous Giulietta SS Spider was presented in 1961.
This one-off show prototype already hinted at a possible replacement for the Giulietta Spider it was based on. However, Alfa Romeo was in no hurry to replace the model just yet, as sales were still strong enough.
The newest Alfa Romeo sports car, based on the existing Giulia GT's platform and running gear but with a shorter wheelbase, was presented at the Swiss show simply as the "Spider 1600".
As nobody at Alfa Romeo had yet decided upon a name for it, the Milanese Company came up with a clever publicity stunt: Over a two-month period, anyone could send a letter to Alfa Romeo proposing a possible name, with the possibility of winning a brand new Spider.
The initiative was successful beyond Alfa's wildest expectations, as around 140.000 letters suggesting more than 8000 different names were received. Choosing one word among thousands fell to a small panel of judges presided by the poet Leonardo Sinisgalli, who ultimately chose "Duetto."
The winner turned out to be a gentleman from Brescia named Guidobaldo Trionfi, and the Spider he received remained his pride and joy for many years. Unfortunately, though, an Italian snack company had already registered the name "Duetto," so Alfa ultimately never used it.
The original 1600cc Spider was quickly superseded by a 1.8 liters version, while a 1.3 liters "Junior" version was introduced as an entry-level model. I had the chance to drive the latter when I was younger, and the smaller twin-cam engine proved more than powerful enough for a good time!
Sharpen things up
In late 1969, at the Turin Motor Show, Alfa Romeo presented an updated Spider for the Seventies: the long, round tail of yore was raised and abruptly cut off, shaving 130mm from the car's length. The aesthetic balance was restored thanks to a new, more steeply raked windscreen which, in turn, called for a reprofiled canvas roof and side windows.
Whether you like the end result or not, I believe this sharper look was the right way to go at the time, as it gave the Spider more of an edge, in line with Seventies' tastes. The interior was tastefully redesigned as well, although the so-called "Junior" models produced until 1977 kept the original 1960s dashboard design.
The 1.8 liters twin-cam engine was superseded by the larger 2 liters from 1971, fed by two sidedraft carburetors in Europe but equipped with SPICA mechanical fuel injection for the USA, where Alfa Romeo sold around 60% of the Spiders it made. From the 1974 model year, the look of US-bound Spiders would, like pretty much every other European export, be ruined by the enormous bumpers required by Federal regulations.
To say that the 1970s were rough for Alfa Romeo would be an understatement, which is why the Spider ended up staying in production for so long. The Company's management had much bigger problems to worry about and, by 1980, replacing the outdated Spider had become a luxury Alfa Romeo simply couldn't afford.
All that Alfa could do to keep the American enthusiasts interested was yet another restyling, which was unveiled in the Spring of 1983. This series of the Spider is the one everyone loves to hate, mainly because of its thick plastic rear spoiler. Yet I believe the worst damage was done in 1986 when the Quadrifoglio Verde model introduced a redesigned interior.
By this time, only the entry-level 1.6 liters model sold in Europe kept its two sidedraft carburetors, which had since been replaced by the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system on the larger two liters models.
The Last Hurrah
Fiat's takeover of ailing Alfa Romeo gave the Milanese engineers the means to develop a replacement for the Spider, which had become kind of an anachronism in the late 1980s automobile market. However, that new model wouldn't be ready for a while, meaning the old Spider had to be restyled one final time.
Pininfarina, this time, pulled off a minor miracle: the 1990-93 Spider was a glorious return to form, and good examples keep commanding significantly higher prices than 1980s models on the classic car market.
Under the skin, little actually changed: the fuel-injected 2 liters was upgraded to a Bosch Motronic engine management system and equipped with power steering. As the United States still were the Spider's primary market, a ZF three-speed automatic transmission option was made available alongside the standard 5-speed manual. On the other hand, Italian buyers could still buy an entry-level carbureted 1.6 liters model until 1992, but very few did, making these last 1.6 Spiders quite rare.
Although the last Spiders were sold in the USA as 1994 models, the production of this classic Alfa Romeo actually ended in 1993. Almost 75% of the cars produced that year went Stateside.
Unfortunately, Alfa's all-new Spider presented in 1994 would never make it across the Atlantic, as the Fiat Group pulled the Brand out of the USA shortly after...