Picking the Best Version of the Alfa Romeo Spider

Static Photography by Tim Suddard, Action Photography by John DeWaele

Are you sitting down? The Alfa Romeo Spider, one of the most loved classic sports cars ever produced, was initially panned by the day’s automotive press.

We found almost no disagreement among members of our staff about the appearance of the new model–no one liked it as well as the Giulietta or Giulia,” wrote Road & Track. “One condemned it as a contrived design with meaningless styling gimmicks.”

At least they liked the drivetrain, a twin-cam, inline-four topped with one of the prettiest valve covers ever produced. A five-speed transmission delivered relaxed highway cruising, while four-wheel discs offered class-leading brakes. The chassis was not that exotic, but it worked well, with a well-supported live axle at the rear and independent suspension up front. Compared to the rest of the pack, the Spider was plenty advanced. 

A year after its release, the car received perhaps its biggest boost: Dustin Hoffman, at the time an unknown stage actor, co-starred with a red Spider in “The Graduate,” one of the biggest motion pictures of the year. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Alfa Romeo would keep the much-loved Spider in production through 1993, with updates dividing the model run into four distinct generations. 

Which one is most deserving of a space in your garage? To find out, we sampled one from each generation of these wonderful roadsters at historic Thompson Speedway. While we didn’t run hot laps, this fun, 1.7-mile track offers tight turns that play perfectly to the Spider’s strengths.

Series 1: 1966-'69

A rounded tail easily identifies the Series 1 cars, while the nose features minimal bumpers flanking that unmistakable Alfa Romeo grille. This is the one that started the legend. 

Despite a relatively short model run, the changes came quickly. The original 1570cc engine grew to 1779cc for the 1968 model year; Alfa responded with a name change, replacing Spider 1600 with 1750 Spider Veloce. (The famed “Duetto” name, chosen by a contest run by Alfa Romeo, could not be used officially due to trademark issues.)

Alfa wasn’t able to meet American emissions laws for 1968, forcing the manufacturer to sit out that year. When they returned for 1969, the American-market Spiders saw the original twin side-draft carburetors replaced with SPICA mechanical fuel injection.

1969 Spider Veloce 1750
Steve Thomas, Gilford, New Hampshire

Steve Thomas bought his Spider nearly 20 years ago. He wanted a toy to play with and, having lived in Italy when he was younger, gravitated to the Alfa Romeo. He restored the car largely himself and first got it back on the road in 2001. Then he joined the Alfa Romeo Owners Club and started participating in their events.

Modifications: The car features 14-inch BWA alloy wheels, Koni shocks, a bit of head work and mild cams.
Owner Praise: Steve says his favorite thing about the car is the engine’s willingness to rev. A light, nimble body makes it a favorite companion for a summer’s drive, he reports. 
Owner Concerns: What he likes least about his car is the lack of torsional rigidity. He says there is some scuttle shake on rough roads.

Behind the Wheel
Once behind the wheel, you immediately admire the twin gauges stashed inside the compact binnacle. The painted metal dash and its three auxiliary gauges recall a simpler time when sports cars were pure.

You sit on–not in, but on–the nicely upholstered bucket seats. Steve says that the seat foam kit came from a reputable supplier. The seating position is typically Italian, with arms stretched out and the shifter high and away in the center console.

The mechanically injected 1779cc engine starts easily, and while pulling away from the paddock we fell instantly in love: great revs plus a light steering feel.

The gearing is spaced well and the transmission shifts easily. The clutch and gearshift are light to the touch. It is said that Mazda engineers drove Alfa Romeos in order to understand what a sports car should shift like. 

There is some body roll, but it is not excessive. The car is easy to drive at the limit with a bit of progressively worsening understeer. This could be dialed out with suspension changes, but is the right answer for novice drivers.

If you shift suddenly in mid corner, or try to upset the balance of the car, snap oversteer can be easily induced. That said, it is easily controllable, and bringing the car back under command is not a chore at all.

This early Spider is not fast by any means, but it is certainly quick enough to be fun to drive. Zero-to-60 times are in the high-nine-second range. The four-wheel-disc brakes, a rarity among the rest of the field in 1969, easily slow the car, even during enthusiastic maneuvers.

Closing Thoughts
If you wonder what the perfect definition of sports car driving would be, look no further than an early Alfa Spider. There you will find sports car driving nirvana.

Series 2: 1970-'81

The Alfa Romeo Spider sat out the American market for the 1970 year, but when it returned something looked different: The car’s iconic boat tail, like a lot of other things, didn’t make it out of the 1960s. The chopped-off Kamm tail that replaced it easily differentiates the Series 2 Spider Veloce from the originals. The new rear end transformed the Spider’s look–some say for better, others insist for worse–while lopping off 6.2 inches from its overall length. 

More differences accompanied the new tail, including slightly beefier bumpers featuring a bit more rubber than before. Inside the car, the driver was greeted by pedals that were hung from above, instead of hinged at the floor. Behind the driver, Alfa reshaped the package shelf to give the impression that this was now a four-seater–although reality said otherwise. 

As with the prior generation, more changes came with time. A 1962cc engine arrived for the 1972 model year, necessitating another name change: 2000 Spider Veloce. Updated crash requirements brought full rubber bumpers starting with the 1975 model year and, as before, changing American emissions requirements kept the Spider in a state of flux throughout the ’70s.

1974 Spider Veloce
John DeWaele, Scituate, Rhode Island

John DeWaele bought his Alfa back in 1977 when it was nearly new and had only 9000 miles showing. Since then he has performed a total restoration while adding a few personal touches. 

Modifications: John admits that he listened to the wrong people and shelved the original SPICA injection in favor of Weber carburetors. He also bumped up the engine’s compression a bit and installed Koni shocks. The rest of the car was left stock except for the addition of the period-correct Cromodora alloy wheels. He says the Alfa Bulletin Board (alfabb.com) gave him the confidence to work on the car himself, and finds the camaraderie of the AROC to be one of the highlights of ownership.
Owner Praise: He also loves the way the gearbox shifts as well as the healthy parts availability. 
Owner Concerns: The roof leaks, he says, as the new top was not installed correctly.

Behind the Wheel
The 2.0-liter car is surprisingly different from its predecessor. First off, you sit down in the seats better than you do in the earlier car. The dash is also totally different, since Alfa installed two funky pods above the main gauges.

The extra grunt of the 2.0-liter engine is instantly noticeable. While this is still not a fast car–whether your yardstick is a Sunbeam Tiger or a Triumph TR6–the upsized engine is very entertaining. And unlike the aforementioned Triumph, the Alfa’s twin-cam engine sounds and feels more like a modern Honda or BMW than the Triumph unit could ever dream of being.

On track the steering that seemed too heavy in the paddock lightens up to precise perfection. The extra torque is noticeable, too: The hairpin that required second gear in the earlier car is easily handled by third in the later one. 

While the body roll is a bit more excessive, this later car seems to turn in better. This could be due to improvements that Alfa constantly made, or it might just be a factor of the owner’s alignments settings.

Closing Thoughts
While the classic boat tail is gone, the upgraded engine quickly makes you forget the loss.

Series 3: 1982-'90

The Spider, originally a product of the ’60s, was refreshed for another decade in 1982. The Series3 Spider faced a different reality, too: By 1982 Triumph and MG had left the American market, the Porsche 914 had come and gone, and Fiat had handed its Spider sales to  Pininfarina.

Updated rubber bumpers could be found at either end of this Spider, while the trunk lid was capped by a black rubber lip spoiler. Alfa Romeo retained the 2.0-liter engine, but Bosch’s L-Jetronic fuel injection replaced the mechanical setup that had been used for more than a decade. After 1985, drivers also faced a new gauge cluster and center console. The model name was simplified, too: Spider Veloce.

In a nod to the movie that made the car a star, from 1985 through 1990 American shoppers could opt for a lower-priced variant called the Graduate: steel wheels, manual windows and vinyl seats.

1986 Spider Graduate
Jay Woodruff, Wayland, Massachusetts

Jay Woodruff, a technical manual author, tells us he was in the market for a Miata but just couldn’t pull the trigger. He wanted something different and decided he just had to have an Alfa Spider.

He bought his Graduate, the stripped-down version of the Spider, via eBay in 2012. (The car was previously owned by Tom Letourneau, a longtime contributor to our “Ran When Parked” section.)

Modifications: The suspension is not quite stock on this car, as Tom had substituted stiffer springs and an adjustable anti-roll bar at the rear. This Alfa has the Koni shocks that all of these owners seem to prefer. It also sports aftermarket Panasport wheels.
Owner Praise: Jay’s favorite thing about this car? The extraordinary looks. He also finds ownership easy, since the car is quite reliable; when something does go wrong, he adds, repairs are easy. Back road summer drives are incomparable.
Owner Concerns: That modified suspension delivers a rather rough ride on his New England roads. 

Behind the Wheel
The 1986 Spider is a different car from its predecessors. While the steering is still unassisted and heavy in the paddock, the seats are the best of the bunch. The interior has lost much of that classic Alfa charm, however, and looks like almost any car from the ’80s.

The Bosch electronic injection makes this one feel more modern than the earlier Spiders, too, and once on track the modified suspension on this car really shines. Jay’s Alfa has virtually no body roll and is nearly neutral, as opposed to the first two cars that started to understeer when pushed.

Here is a car that feels totally at home on a race track and begs to be driven harder than our lack of helmets and racing safety gear would allow.

Closing Thoughts
The Series 3’s slight loss of charm is negated by a more thrilling driving experience. Don’t rule out a mid-’80s example in your quest for the perfect Spider. 

Series 4: 1991-'94

Much like those geniuses in Stuttgart, Alfa Romeo’s engineers went ahead and just updated their proven design for a fourth decade. The Series 4 got smooth, body-colored bumpers that gave that born-in-1966 body a thoroughly modern look, while the lopped-off Kamm tail gave way to one that sloped outward towards the bumper; gone was the rubber rear spoiler. That new rear held tail lights that nearly mimicked those found on Alfa’s 164 sedan. 

The trusty 2.0-liter engine saw another induction change, this time to Bosch’s then-current Motronic injection. American-market Series 4 cars didn’t show up until the 1991 model year, when they arrived complete with an airbag in the steering wheel. American shoppers again had a choice, too: the standard Spider or the upmarket Veloce. 

Alfa Romeo ended Spider production in 1993, and soon announced that they’d be leaving the American market. As a final gesture, 190 copies of the Spider Commemorative Edition came stateside for the 1994 model year (though they were produced in 1993). These CE cars sported burl wood interior details, gold wheel center caps and unique badging.

A legend had left the building.

1993 Spider Veloce
Rob Favoli, Burlington, Vermont

Rob Favoli bought his Spider on a whim in 1999. While vacationing on Long Island, he spotted the car–it was incorrectly identified as an SUV in the local paper’s classified section. He and his wife took a look, fell in love, and bought the Alfa right on the spot. Rob drives the car about 2500 miles per year, and while he has few gripes, he is thinking about selling it as part of a downsizing lifestyle change.

Modifications: Aside from Koni shock absorbers and 16-inch Serpent AutoSport wheels, the car is stock. 
Owner praise: Rob reports that the car is quite comfortable, even for highway cruising and longer trips.
Owner concerns: Cowl shake on bad roads tops his worries.

Behind the Wheel
The 1993 Spider feels like the 1986 model, but even more modern. This car drives more like a late-model Honda or Toyota than the earlier Spiders. 

Our car owner agrees: Other than the 1986 Spider’s lack of power steering, the two cars deliver nearly identical driving experiences–which means the good ergonomics plus power steering, power windows and air conditioning. While the later car delivers a bit more body roll, it’s so easy to drive: Point it where you want to go, and eventually you’ll get there. 

Closing Thoughts
While the Alfa heritage can still be felt, a lot of the spirit and, admittedly, some of the weird quirks, are masked in this Spider.

Time to Pick a Winner

Picking a favorite is tough, because there is not a bad car in this lineup. What the newer Spiders lack in classic sports car styling they make up with a modern driving experience, which includes more precise handling, smoother running and increased driving comfort.

Going into this story, we had been warned that the 1750 Spider was the one to have, as its high-revving engine was said to offset the later cars’ torque. We did not find this to be the case, as all three of the 2.0-liter cars were delights to drive.

Another big surprise: The end-of-the-line cars are just as fabulous. The Series 4 Spider was not the leftover stepchild we expected, but instead was perhaps the true pinnacle of this series. Air conditioning, power steering, power windows and power locks create a car that you could drive every day.

We asked our owners if they’d trade their car for any other, and the answers they gave were very revealing. Most of them hinted that the 1974 was the best of the bunch, and Jay Woodruff offered to trade his 1986 Spider for one in a heartbeat. 

That said, the owners reported that they found the cars to be more similar than different. Rob Favoli perhaps said it best: That 1960s DNA obviously made it all the way to 1993.

Which one would we choose above all the others? Like our owners, we’d have to pick the 1974 Spider. This one combines classic Alfa styling with lithe handling, chrome bumpers, lighter curb weight and a torquier 2.0-liter engine. 

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Comments
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Jordan Rimpela (FS)
Jordan Rimpela (FS) Dork
8/25/20 9:49 a.m.

I can't put my finger quite on why, but I love the looks of the Series 4 the most. Of course I'd happily own any generation.

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
8/25/20 10:11 a.m.

I've owned a number of these, and my impressions line up with yours.  Of those, the '74 would be my choice, mainly on looks and ease of modification.  They can be made to perform much better than stock. 

Having said that, the favorites that I owned were the series 3 cars, two '83's and an '84.  Of course this was back in the '80's so they were almost new.  The injection made them a delight for a daily driver.  Plus I autocrossed one for several years and you could pitch the backend at will and it was always an easy catch.  We also had a local guy with a much modified '72 I think.  He also ran it in an IT class in road racing.  It was a beautiful car and an absolute rocket.  

They are certainly not the fastest car, especially by today's standards, but Alfas have a way of getting to you.

Edit, it looks fantastic in green!

klharper
klharper New Reader
8/25/20 8:10 p.m.

Pretty good article.

I usually split series 2 into two sub groups 70-74 and 75 to 81. The silly buggy bumpers makes the car drive different on the later series. Replacing these with chrome or even lightweight fiberglass changes the driving dynamics.

One of the reason's that the series 3 handles better is that Alfa stiffened up the chassis. It is not perfect but better than the series 1 and 2, and gives a better base to build a car. 

The series 4 looks great, but I hate the way they drive. They gained weight and the weight added to the chassis twist. Also the interiors look great but did not wear well, and the safety items ate up interior space.

I currently own 8 spiders from a 750 Giulietta and 101 Giulia to several series 3 spiders. I'm torn on my favorite, and not taking into account the early 750/101 cars, it is a tough choice.

I like the looks of my duetto, it has a lot of delicate features that were lost on later cars. It also has standing pedals and I just prefer the brakes of the later cars. I do like the early 70's spider, and today I drove a 72 that started as a euro Junior and has some detail differences like different headlight trim rings and a Duetto/round tail dash, but it had a 1750 instead of the orginal 1300 and it was charming to drive, the 1750 zinged and it put a smile on my face. But I also drove my 90 which has the one year only motronic in a series 3 and for whatever reason is just right. Good thing these cars are not like girlfirends, you can have more than one.

Larry Larson
Larry Larson New Reader
8/26/20 8:04 a.m.

Alfa didn't quite sit out the 1970 year in the US. I returned from Vietnam in March 1970, and immediately ordered a new 1750 to replace my 1967 Duetto. My dealer in central NJ routinely imported 1970 squaretails and sold them as 1969 vehicles. They told me this was being done all over the country. My 1970/1969 1750 was the first metallic silver car I ever saw on NJ roads. It made a nice pair with my wife's wine red Berlina TI!

MotorwerksMarketing
MotorwerksMarketing
8/26/20 10:08 p.m.

As I've always said (and I'll continue to say), despite the fact they are all great cars, the earlier Series II examples are the best of the bunch on nearly every level. Nice to see somebody else also confirm that

DartHollywood
DartHollywood New Reader
8/27/20 10:16 a.m.

What mad timing!! I bought 2 days ago a lovely 1979 Series 2 Spider. Always had my eye on the early A-R Spiders and while looking for a completely different classic, this appeared in a local CL.

So of course it being an Alfa, it's at the shop having an alignment & suspension check this morning.  Just a thing I like to do with new 'old' cars I get. Thus when I pick it up, I'm sure I'll hear the mechanic chuckle, "Don't be a stranger now."

But what a beauty, even with the goofy 'save us from ourselves' black bumpers. Tomato sauce red with beige door panels and black seats, it's such a looker. The repaint of unknown era is good & masks the downlow rust bubbles of the rear wheel panels, but hey, that's a correction I can do after things turn cold here in VA. Love the Italian 2nd gear synchro crunch if shift too fast, and the "I stoppa you sooner or later" brakes, which will all be improved as I throw a few more lires at it. (I know it's euros, so no comments).

Tan top replaced not so long ago by the previous owner(s), so as wx-proof as an sunny-clime Alfa worker can design it, gauges still remarkably  working, and the SPICA injection/airpump unit has the 2 liter engine spitting & back belching ignited raw gas on deceleration - as pretty a sound out of Nixon's 70s you ever heard. I could say, What a gas! But that will be addressed also.

But you know, fellow travelers, in the current time of this stubborn pandemic, a 1979 Alfa Romero Spider Veloce designed by the masters of Italian cars, and built at factories where they always produce Monday and Friday cars, lovingly maintained by the original owner, and then can-kicked down the road to the next owners, has now found a casa and Amante della auto who appreciates the slow amore of this exotic bella raggazza.

A great article, Tom.

Stay safe & have a joy-filled life!

Dart

TML
TML
8/30/20 7:54 p.m.

Proper research by the author would have found that the actual Series 1 Alfa Spiders ran from 1955-1965, with the 750/101 series cars. This was even referenced in the second paragraph quote in the article above, from Road & Track, but not follow through in the article writing.

We found almost no disagreement among members of our staff about the appearance of the new model–no one liked it as well as the Giulietta or Giulia,” wrote Road & Track. “One condemned it as a contrived design with meaningless styling gimmicks.”

The 105 Series 2 cars started in 1966.

Tom Lesko

President, Alfa Romeo Owners of New England

Nader
Nader New Reader
9/3/20 5:47 p.m.

Great topic!

As a kid riding in the back seat of my Dad's '72 Dodge Dart Swinger, I had a hard time differentiating the similarly sloped nose and big round headlights of Alfa Spiders from Porsche 911s in oncoming traffic.  They both grabbed my attention instantly; even my 7 year old brain knew these cars were special.  That was my first exposure to Alfa Spiders, and Porsches, for that matter. 

Then, in 1990,  back when I was proudly driving a 1980 Triumph Spitfire, I sat in an S4 Spider at the 1990 Chicago Auto Show.  It felt great, an order of magnitude better than my Spitfire, and decided then that I'd someday own one.  In 2000, I was lucky to get an air cooled Porsche 911 while they were still affordable, but I still had an Alfa itch to scratch.  So in 2002,  I made an impulse purchase on eBay for a '69 Alfa Spider that was restored and upgraded (hot 2L engine, suspension upgrades).  Took a chance buying a car sight unseen, but it turned out to be a great car that I still have.  Bulletproof, in fact, aside from very slowly progressing rust bubbles in the rockers.  It's been my daily driver in the few acceptable roadster driving months of the Pacific Northwest where I live.  For almost twenty years now.  Dang.

Flashing back to 2003, I had just started racing Spec Miata as a way to keep from further thrashing my Porsche at PCA track days.  Within a couple years, I was losing interest in it as I couldn't ever get past mid-pack, never had a passion for the car, and eventually learned that you couldn't be competitive unless you were creative with the rules interpretation.  Granted, I was running a junkyard engine, and was loathe to tinker on and "develop" the car beyond the spirit of the rules.  When I sold it in '06, I planned on racing vintage in a car I actually loved.  Old Porsches were (and still are, more so) prohibitively expensive, so I looked for an Alfa to race.  I stumbled into a trashed, rusty roller of a '69 Spider with a seized engine for about $2500, and many thousands of dollars later, built it into a race car.  Completed around 2010, and has a long thread of its build on AlfaBB.  Been racing it with a passion missing from the former Miata, and have enjoyed reasonable success including multiple podiums.  

So my pick of best Alfa Spider is the '66-'69 roundtail, "Duetto."  I feel like the roundtail Spiders (boattail is really only accurate for old Auburns and Rivieras) are the cheapest exotics you can own; like 3/4 scale Ferraris, and they really look out of this world, especially when parked amongst modern cars.  Here's a pic of my two Spiders, street and race:

 

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