Classic Roadster Showdown: Alfa Romeo Spider vs. the Triumph TR6

Photography by Chris Tropea

The dream remains a common one: wind in the hair, throaty exhaust, a pinch of chrome. European machines have defined the roadster genre for decades, cementing motoring memories for enthusiasts young and old. They’re the cars good enough for hometown heroes and Hollywood heartthrobs alike.

Many of our most beloved roadsters are products of the ’60s and ’70s, with most hailing from two countries: England and Italy. Envision a classic, small-bore, reasonably priced roadster, and the badge on its nose will likely say MG or Triumph, Alfa Romeo or Fiat. 

So, England or Italy? Similar driving experiences or totally different? To get answers, we grabbed a longtime favorite (and slightly upmarket option) from each camp: the Triumph TR6 and the Alfa Romeo Spider. Time for a head-to-head comparison.

 

Triumph TR6: A Brief History

The TR6 might have made its debut for the 1969 model year, but really it was an update of some old favorites: the TR4 and the interim TR250. 

When Giovanni Michelotti, Triumph’s go-to outside designer, was too busy, Karmann of Germany was put in charge of freshening the dated TR4 and TR250 into the TR6. The design parameters stated leaving the wheelbase, doors, windshield and all internals intact while still creating a modern car for a new decade. 

The outcome is arguably one the car world’s best low-buck redesigns. Customers flocked to the TR6, and nearly 100,000 were sold during the model run, which lasted from late 1968 until 1976.

The TR6 had a ladder-type frame dating back to the early ’50s and the TR2. Its front disc brakes came in 1957 on the TR3; rack-and-pinion steering was adapted to the chassis in 1962 when the TR4 was introduced. A few years later, a rather crude independent suspension was adopted on the TR4A. 

A four-cylinder engine–one that had been used in various forms since the ’40s–powered the TR2, TR3 and TR4. The TR250, along with the similar home-market TR5, received an inline-six. That six-cylinder engine, now fed by a pair of Stromberg carbs, powered the TR6. While only rated a bit north of 100 horsepower in U.S. trim, it delivered plenty of torque and has been a fan favorite since its debut. 

Meet Our 1969 Triumph TR6

This TR6 is a very early car, built in November 1968, and we’ve owned it for a couple of decades now. It has seen us through the Mountain Mille rally as well as several of our own Orange Blossom Tours. One of our most memorable journeys was a 1700-mile road trip vacation that took us all over the Southeast.

It wears its original Laurel Green color, but the black vinyl interior has been upgraded with a tan leather kit from Moss Motors. A cloth top also came from the Moss catalog. 

The heart of the TR6 is that smooth inline-six, with ours trading its original Stromberg carburetors for a pair of SUs. A five-speed Toyota transmission rounds out the driveline–an upgrade we strongly recommend. Wire wheels aren’t today’s fastest option, but they look right–and in this case, it’s all about the visceral experience.  

The engine was rebuilt with some mild upgrades and features a little extra compression, careful head work, a Good Parts mild cam and twin SU carbs. This subtle build nets about 120 horsepower at the wheels and, combined with the non-original Toyota Supra five-speed transmission, makes this TR6 a delightful cruiser.

Suspension tweaks include a Good Parts front anti-roll bar kit, slightly uprated coil springs front and rear, new wire wheels and Vredestein tires.

The Triumph TR6, especially when decked out in classic green paint, is a quintessential English roadster. Sure, there might be a creak here and there, but compare it to the day’s soundtrack: How boring would The Who be without any feedback? The narrow cockpit isn’t for everyone, though.

Alfa Romeo Spider: A Brief History

Like the TR6, the Alfa Spider represents a progression that started in the ’50s–in this case, the model traces its roots back to the 101-series Giulietta and then to the ’60s as the 105-series Giulia. For 1966, the model received a virtually all-new body style, commonly known as the Duetto.

The Spider was eventually defined by four series, with the big updates involving displacement and some styling revisions: Alfa exchanged the rounded-off boat tail for the chopped-off Kamm tail in 1970, then moved to smooth, body-colored bumpers for 1991.

Alfa Romeo delivered nearly 125,000 copies of the Spider to the world’s sports car fans before ending production in 1994, nearly a decade and a half after the traditional Little British Sports Car had left the building. 

The Alfa Romeo Spider, like most of its contemporaries, featured independent front suspension along with a live rear axle. All of the moving bits were attached to a unibody, though. 

A five-speed transmission, four-wheel-disc brakes and a twin-cam engine distanced the Alfa from the British alternatives. The four-cylinder engine, by the way, saw displacement grow from 1570cc up to a full 2.0 liters during the model’s evolution.

The Alfa Spider featured twin side-draft carburetors through 1967. The model couldn’t meet U.S. emission laws for 1968, but when it returned for 1969, SPICA fuel injection was standard. 

Meet Our 1971 Alfa Romeo Spider

Before the small-bumper Spiders from the early ’70s escaped our budget, we decided to jump on one. After a Bring a Trailer deal went bad with another buyer, we as the second-highest bidders were offered this No. 4+ car for $8200. We flew out to San Diego and drove it back home to Florida, a trip we detailed in the July 2017 issue of Classic Motorsports.

The Alfa now wears Michelin tires, Koni dampers, a Centerline International exhaust and a complete Shankle street suspension system. The original bushings have been replaced with urethane units from Powerflex. 

The Alfa offers less displacement than the Triumph–three-quarters of a liter less–as it trades torque for revs. Once on the cam, though, the Alfa pulls nicely. You just can’t be bashful about asking the engine room for some steam. Cromodora alloys grabbed from a later car have been an Alfa Romeo staple since back in the day.  

The car needed a bit of cosmetic work, so we detailed it from end to end while preserving the paint. 

The engine still needs a rebuild, and we plan to retain the original SPICA injection. This one, like the Triumph, is a keeper. 

The Alfa Romeo Spider endured from the ’60s all the way through 1994. Our 1971 model sports the later cars’ chopped-off tail, but still has the smaller bumpers. The styling, at least in our minds, is among the prettiest of the era. The Alfa offers a bit more interior space than the Triumph.  

Picking a Winner

Road & Track’s 1971 test of the Alfa Romeo Spider left little doubt about the staff’s fondness: “We bring you this test, then partially because we like Alfas, but mostly because the Spider is one of the best in a certain class of sports cars and thus deserves to be celebrated every year or so, lest we forget.”

Road & Track found the Triumph to be a bit conflicting. “As it stands,” the review concluded, “the TR6 does offer a distinctive combination of qualities at a reasonable price: a traditional British sports car package, with ride and handling far from outstanding and a somewhat cramped cockpit but, offsetting these an excellent 6-cylinder engine, luxurious finish and trimmings and a roadster top that’s easy to put up and down.”

All these years later, our staff came to very similar conclusions. “While both are about the same money and both have similar club and parts support,” David noted, “the Alfa interior is more comfortable. That’s where you spend your time.”

Then there are the details. “That look over the hood is just fantastic,” he continued. “It reminds me of my Porsche 911. Little things like the door handles are so perfect. I like the fact that you have to wind it out to get its best.

“While I thought I was a Triumph guy, the Alfa feels better engineered and more Miata-like, which for me is a good thing. I would take the Alfa home.”

“The Triumph has very touring-car manners,” J.G. noted. “It’s happiest well below the limit. Don’t go too hard on it and it’s very rewarding to drive.”

But if he had to live with one, J.G. also gave the nod to the Alfa. Why? A more usable cockpit and a better chassis. 

“With the Alfa, there’s very little downside, and there’s no excuses not to drive it,” J.G. added. “The TR6’s tight interior or best-below-the-limit chassis can lead you to talk yourself out of taking it for a spin. With the Alfa, though, from the time you lay eyes on its iconic, sporty lines to the time you hear the raspy, high-winding engine coming on the cam to the time you put it back in the garage, there’s just a fun and engaging driving experience.” 

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Larry Larson
Larry Larson New Reader
12/3/20 1:54 p.m.

Had a TR-3A, TR-6, 1500 Spitfire, Alfa 1600 Duetto, and Alfa 1750 Spider. None of them could hold a candle to my 1979 TR-8 (especially with the Holley 390 added).

Biff
Biff New Reader
12/9/20 9:28 a.m.

In reply to Larry Larson :  my list of British cars is long too:  Mini, TR4s, MGB Roadster and GT, Midget, TR6.  I have long eyeballed the TR8 but never driven one.  Also the Stag remains interesting to me.  But the comments here about the Alfa are intriguing.  I will have to revisit that car.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
12/10/20 12:14 p.m.

I have driven the TR8s in both versions (I prefer the injected cars) and they aren't the pocket Cobras that some people think they should be when they hear those magic words "V8". With only 133 bhp (carb) and 148 bhp (late injected) they were slower than the MGB GT V8 which only had the 133 bhp version of the engine.  They did feel pretty tight and comfortable, which the early TR7s certainly did not.

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