Project Alfa Romeo Spider: Bringing Our № 4 Alfa to № 3 Condition

Photos by Tim and Tom Suddard


We know. We rolled the dice when we bought a nearly 50-year-old Alfa Romeo Spider through an online auction. We didn’t arrange a pre-purchase inspection. We didn’t even set eyes on the car until we flew 2500 miles to fetch it from California. Once we finally saw the Alfa in person, well, let’s just say we felt a little disappointed. We were promised a good car. The one we drove back to Florida was in fair shape at best.

We licked our wounds on the road trip home, consoling ourselves with the knowledge that we happened to pay what the car was actually worth-less than that, actually, if we ignored the cost of retrieving it (which we did, to avoid further depressing ourselves).

Then an idea struck: What if we tried to pull up our Alfa’s condition grade-and hopefully its worth at the same time? If we made the right improvements, we’d wind up with a No. 3 car-one presentable enough to win a local concours–without spending No. 3 money.

In the first installment of this project, we inspected our car and detailed its flaws. Now it was time to start the work.



Obviously one man’s “good” can be another man’s “fair,” so it’s important for car buyers and sellers to agree on an objective grading system. Many people in the hobby, including most experts, follow Hagerty’s lead here. The insurance provider lays out clear definitions for four distinct conditions.


No. 1 cars are the best of the best. Though fully operational, they’re more museum showpiece than mode of transportation. Pebble Beach judges can scour these cars and find only the most trivial of flaws.


No. 2 cars fall just short of immaculate and can win all but the toughest national concours. Think of them as No. 1 cars that have aged or actually touched pavement-not counting the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance.


No. 3 cars are great drivers with few low-profile cosmetic issues or incorrect parts. They aren’t daily drivers, but you can take them anywhere. They may even win a local show.


No. 4 cars have both mechanical and cosmetic issues, like incorrect wheels, ripped seats and paint blemishes. These are cars you might use for bombing around town, but they probably won’t win a show or withstand a long road trip.



Could we improve our Alfa Romeo Spider’s condition grade without investing more than the car’s worth? To lay out our budget we referred to Hagerty’s free online price guide. It lists values for just about every car out there in a range of conditions.





We were determined to turn this lemon into lemonade, and that meant improving our Alfa for less money than it was worth. These strategies would help us get there.

Shop Used

To make this project feasible, we used many pre-owned parts that we purchased for a bargain from an Alfa Bulletin Board member. Patience and persistence can yield similarly great deals online or at swap meets. A package deal most always behooves the buyer, as it eliminates all of those individual shipping charges.

Customer Loyalty

We needed some new parts, too, and ours primarily came from Centerline International. This supplier had everything in stock at reasonable prices. While we could have cross-shopped all of the different vendors to get the best deal on each item, we prefer to stick to one supplier. It’s another way to save on shipping costs while also building a relationship with a business that might make a great lifeline throughout a project.

No Shortcuts

We did every job correctly to ensure our Alfa’s value would rise as we invested in its condition. We wanted to wind up with a keeper-a vehicle good enough for rallies, tours and experiences to come.




Our Alfa’s restoration began even before we’d finished driving it home from California, as we stopped to pick up some parts we’d purchased from a fellow member of the Alfa Bulletin Board. Among the host of items were some good taillights, a pristine dash pad and perfect door panels.



Everyone of our projects starts with a thorough cleaning from our Kärcher heated pressure washer. This tool does an amazing job of removing dirt, grease and grime.



We still had some detailing to do here, but our Alfa’s engine compartment looked much better after a thorough cleaning. While we were under the hood, we also changed the oil and replaced the worn ignition components, including the spark plug wires.



Detailing the underhood paid dividends. We figured that we made it nice enough for a driver. If we were heading to a concours, we’d replace the modern battery with something more appropriate.



We replaced this early `70s aftermarket ignition with a modern recurved distributor fitted with a Pertronix Ignitor sourced from RML Automotive. Not surprisingly, the car started more easily and ran much better once the job was done.



The car came with a rubbish exhaust. We tossed it in favor of a new, correct system that fit perfectly and sounded great.



Our Alfa had newer KYB shock absorbers up front, but the rear units were blown-out and leaking. We replaced all four with Koni shocks, a product we’ve trusted for years thanks to their great performance, long life and very fair price.



The rear of the Alfa sat too low—a common problem with these cars. We installed a new set of sport springs that we bought from a friend, pairing them with Centerline International spacers. Then the rear end sat a bit too high, so we had to trim the spacers a bit.



We concentrated on minor touch-ups, too. Before pairing a used steering wheel rim with the rest of the assembly, we cleaned the spokes with some ultra-fine steel wool. The result? A steering wheel that looks mint. Next, we focused on an even smaller detail: touching up the screws securing our sun visors with a little black paint. On any car rated better than No. 4, each fastener should look new.



Some jobs were more involved. For example, replacing the cracked dash pad required some major disassembly. While we had the dash apart, we fixed the blocked heater valve located inside it. We also finished off our cleaned and repainted gauge pod with some shiny used bezels.



Here’s a quick way to make your classic sports car drive like it’s 100,000 miles younger: Replace the worn-out gas pedal (the left one) with a new one.



We finished off the cabin with some color-coordinated Coco Mats. Our work managed to bring our Alfa’s interior to nearly No. 2 condition.



The exterior still needed some love. Our headlight rims were pitted and actually broken at the mounting point, yet another sign of a No. 4 car. Centerline International had new ones in stock for less than $100.



With new headlight rims, freshly buffed paint and rebuilt bumpers, our Alfa looked more like a No. 2 car from the front.



We carefully cleaned our wiper arms with ultra-fine steel wool. In fact, we used that same pad on all of the car’s exterior chrome. Upgrading a car is often just a matter of time and muscle.



Those wiper arms had lost their caps. Centerline had replacements in stock for just a few bucks, and installation took less than a minute.



Sure, maybe that ugly aftermarket molding fended off a parking lot ding or two in its time, but it’s considered a big no-no for a reason: It ruined our car’s lines. We happily peeled it off.



Our window vent seals were cracked and dry-rotted. New ones from Centerline International were just a few clicks away and didn’t cost much.



The Alfa was missing a passenger-side mirror, so we installed a correct replacement. Our rebuilt vent windows looked great, and our sun visors just needed to be smoothed with a heat gun.



We’ve discovered that Plexus plastic polish can work wonders on plastic windows. A fog was lifted from ours after just one application.



Our original taillights were in rough shape. The chrome surrounds were cracked and separated, the lenses needed polishing, and the gaskets were dried up. We swapped out that mess for some nice used taillights and new gaskets. We also checked the electrical connections before cleaning up everything and polishing the replacement lenses.



Much better. With just a few hundred dollars and a couple hours’ worth of elbow grease, we brought our No.4 taillights closer to No. 2.



We didn’t forget the boot. Our original trunk mat was ripped and secured with screws—not quite how the factory did it. We replaced this eyesore with a new, factory-style trunk mat held down with the correct clips.



Finally, our Alfa looks ready for any rally or tour. We’re going to call it a No.3 car at this point. We think that with a bit more paintwork and chassis detailing, it could reach No. 2 condition.


Master Detailer Tim McNair of Grand Prix Concours Preparation works his magic on our Alfa



Our Alfa Romeo’s bright-red paint was photogenic but a mess in person, holding back the condition grade for the whole car. Though the paint was applied relatively well, it bore the hallmarks of bad preparation: wavy sheet metal, scratches from poor sandpaper selection, and painted trim obviously left in place during the respray.

Repainting the car would help, but we couldn’t justify the five-figure expense–this was a driver, after all, not a concours winner. After our repairs, maybe we could call its condition No. 3-, meaning not quite No. 3 but significantly better than our No. 4 starting point.

So we invited–okay, begged–Tim McNair, perennial Pebble Beach and Amelia Island Concours winner, to take a look at our car. Could he make it look good from, say, 5 feet away? And what if he detailed the engine and undercarriage? Could he make our Alfa a solid No. 3 car? He could. Here’s how he did it.



Wipe down the entire car using some quick detailer. This gets your eyes on every panel, Tim explains, as you remove the worst dust and road grime.

Tim’s Pick:
Griot’s Garage Speed Shine


Clay the entire car to remove more tenacious contaminants, like tree sap and metal filings. Tim is a big fan of using Griot’s detailer with their new synthetic clay bar.

Tim’s Pick:
Griot’s Garage Brilliant Finish Synthetic Clay


Wet-sand at least the top surfaces of the car to remove orange peel, light scratches and other imperfections. Tim uses 2000-grit paper, a soft sanding block, and a bucket of water. When sanding, he says, you’re looking to apply uniform pressure and coverage; be very gentle, especially around the car’s edges, to avoid going through the paint. At the end of this stage, you should end up with a uniformly flat and chalky finish.

Side tip: The sanding dust should tell you more about your car’s paint. If it’s the same color as the body, then you’re dealing with single-stage paint; if the dust is clear, then your car has a clear coat.


Buff the paint. Tim used a rotary buffer along with Griot’s Complete Compound. Buffer speed was 650-800 rpm, and Tim described his technique as “low and slow.”

Note that he didn’t use an orbital buffer, the tool used to gently polish paintwork. The rotary buffer used here is a very strong machine that will quickly burn through paint if not properly used.

Tim’s Pick:
Griot’s Garage Complete Compound


Polish to a shine. At this point, the paint was starting to look surprisingly fantastic. From a few feet away, only a few swirl marks remained visible. Tim set his Griot’s Garage random orbital buffer to setting No. 3 and polished the entire car with Griot’s Complete Polish.

Tim’s Pick:
Griot’s Garage Complete Polish


Protect with wax. Once all of the polish was wiped off, Tim could give the car a good coat of wax. Contrary to popular belief, the polishing steps are what bring out the shine; a good Carnauba wax is what protects it. Swissvax has long supported our scene while making some fine products, so that’s what we used to finish off our Alfa’s rejuvenation.

Tim’s Pick:
Swissvax Concours Carnauba Wax






We raised our Alfa Romeo Spider’s condition from No.4 to No. 3, all without getting upside down in the project. The difference is apparent not just in how it looks, but in how it drives, too.

This rolling restoration took some two months of nights and weekends. We figure that competent home restorers, with the right tools, could accomplish what we did in about 100 to 120 hours.

Farming out the work would have taken some money, of course: Figure 100 hours at $75 per hour equals a $7500 investment. We’re not counting that value because we enjoy this stuff (and because this kind of bookkeeping helps keep us sane).




Alfa Romeo Bulletin Board & Forums
Used parts

Bring a Trailer
Online car auction

Centerline International
(888) 750-ALFA
Parts, service, advice

Coco Mats
(800) 461-3533
Floor mats

Grand Prix Concours Preparation
(215) 990-8161
Detailing help, advice

Griot’s Garage
(800) 345-5789
Detailing products

(877) 922-9701
Valuation tool

(859) 586-4100

(866) 866-6605

(800) 405-6495
Plastic cleaner

RML Automotive
(469) 671-0730
Pertonox ignitor, service, advice

(305) 800-2277



Join Free Join our community to easily find more project updates.
alfabeach New Reader
4/23/19 2:39 p.m.

If you need any more practice, I can be there in a hour.

vwcorvette SuperDork
4/23/19 9:41 p.m.

Man, you guys are making me miss my 88 spider veloce.

GLK New Reader
4/24/19 11:03 a.m.

What is it about Alfa Romeos that makes buyers throw caution to the wind? A few years ago I bought a sight unseen GTV6 off the Internet for top money. It was as-described in the sense that it is original, low miles, and unbelievably rust-free. That I appreciated. The mechanicals? Let’s just say all the usual gremlins were there to the tune of about $8K so far, as I’ve stopped counting to avoid the further expense of divorce and/or psychiatric care. It is a car that I can take pride in now though. :)

wrenchklutz New Reader
4/25/19 10:29 a.m.

I just bought an 87 Spider on eBay.  It's all your fault: if you hadn't been running these articles, I wouldn't have been looking.

Robbie UltimaDork
4/25/19 9:00 p.m.
wrenchklutz said:

I just bought an 87 Spider on eBay.  It's all your fault: if you hadn't been running these articles, I wouldn't have been looking.

Ha! I just bought a 1987 jag xj6 that I hope to follow in these footsteps to bring from #4 to #3.

cdowd Dork
4/28/19 7:11 p.m.

When can I bring mine over.  I really need to focus on doing the same thing.  A couple of days can make a huge difference.  Your car looks great.

cdowd Dork
4/28/19 7:12 p.m.

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