Development and History
Introduction and Initial Development
With a pedigree that goes back to before the designers of the Corvette or Mustang were even born, and a reputation for design innovation and sophistication, Alfa Romeo Spiders should be seen less as expensive Miatas and more as cheap Ferraris (the relationship is more than skin deep... Ferrari got his start at Alfa).
To avoid confusion I am going to make some very blunt and unsubtle generalizations of the various types of 105/115 Spiders. These are roughly based on what can be found in the British book "Alfa Romeo Spider", by David Sparrow (Osprey books).
NOTE: Throughout this document I will be referring to these cars as, variously, 105, 105/115, and 115 Spiders. This is the model numbering system Alfa Romeo used on their cars, and assists people telling the various Spiders apart (Alfa has produced a number of different Spiders, with model numbers like 750 and 101 as well as 105 and 115). This number can be found under the hood of the car, on a plate riveted to the top center of the firewall.
Also, you may wonder what "Alfisti" means. An "Alfisti" is a person who is thoroughly smitten with Alfa Romeo automobiles, who dedicates a large amount of their spare time and a good percentage of their income to maintaining, acquiring, and driving Alfa Romeos of all sorts. Alfisti are to Alfa Romeo what Trekkers are to Star Trek (we even dress funny and have conventions, but hardly any of us wear pointy ears).
Unless noted in the text, I will separate the models by their body style, and body style only (this I believe is valid, since the bodies were what changed the most through the years). Each car will be given a "Series number". They are as follows:
1966-1969: Duettos and other "roundtails" - Series 1
1970-1974: The first Kamm tails, "Coda Tronca" - Series 2
1975-1981: US Market Kamm tails - Series 2a
1982-1991: "Aero" bodies, "Aerodynamica"... the "Duck Tail" years - Series 3
1991-1994: "smooth" bodies - Series 4
For any non-American readers, I must apologize for the "US-centric-ness" of this document. US cars are the cars that I am most familiar with, and so will write the most about. I will try to make an effort to note where the European models differ from the US models. However, since a number of US Spiders are being "exported" by private individuals to Europe and other parts of the world, the entire document will probably be of some interest to you.
Time has caught up with the Spiders design (this seems to be a common occurrence with Alfas of all sorts), since I have never heard anyone say anything bad about the looks of the cars today. Quite the contrary, their styling bears much more resemblance to modern cars than anyone could have predicted when it was introduced.
At least some of the design features of the body styling date back to the Superflow 1 and 2 show cars introduced in the mid 1950s. The final shape of the 105 Spider was heavily based on "aerodynamica" show cars that premiered in the early 1960s. It was probably the final design that Pinin Farina, the head of a famous Italian automotive designing firm, himself had a hand in. Pinin Farina, in case you arent familiar with the name, is the man, and the design firm, directly responsible for a great deal of the designs Ferrari produced in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as many other famous Italian cars. Indeed, a Pinin Farina-designed car (a 1951 Cisitalia 202 Gran Sport) is to this day on permanent exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art as one of the ten best automotive designs of all time.
When the Spider premiered it sported a "boat tail"... the rear sloped to a point just like the front. Alfa originally tried to name the car "Duetto", a name picked from a contest held after the car's introduction. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), the name was reserved by, depending on who you believe, either Volvo or an Italian pastry company, and the Duetto name was never officially adopted. The Italians called these Series 1 cars "osso di sepia", or cuttlefish bone, a comparison that will be obvious to parakeet owners all over the world. Americans tend to call them "round tails" or "boat tails".
These cars were equipped with a 1570cc (1.6 liter... about 96 cubic inches) dual-overhead cam all-aluminum engine, a design Alfa is justly famous for, four-wheel disk brakes, a five speed transmission, and dual Weber carburetors. It included such (at the time quite uncommon) comforts as roll-up glass windows, a simple one-pull-two-clips-its-up top which actually sealed well against the weather, a real heater, and comfortable (if narrow) seating for two.
For comparison, most English sports cars of the time came with engines derived from sedans (at best) or tractors (at worst), four speed transmissions, drum brakes, and single, or even worse, multiple SU carburetors. They had "side curtain" windows (i.e. visqueen... plastic sheeting), erector set tops, and heaters that might keep your right foot warm on a 50 degree day. Some English designs neglected such "niceties" as exterior door handles and trunk (boot) lids
Indeed, the performance and sophistication of the Alfa Spider pretty much put it out of the leagues of the "classic" English sports car makes. It also was about 25% more expensive when new. Neither Germany nor France were producing open sports cars at the time, so the only real competition the Alfa Spider would have for a long time would come from the original Lotus Elan, a small, innovative automobile from the famous English engineer Colin Chapman. Although the Elan design was four years old at the Spiders introduction, it was still the only car in the Alfas class. This would become a deeply ironic twist to the Alfa Spiders history in the distant future (FIAT also produced a Spider, but this was designed, and priced, more along the lines of the lower-cost English makes).
A Duetto was prominently featured in the movie "The Graduate", starring Dustin Hoffman. Indeed, the movie popularized the Spider so much that in later years Alfa created a "Graduate" trim level in their US cars.
Because of this, and because the body style was only produced for about three years, Duettos (and their round-tailed 1750 descendants) are the most valuable of all 105/115 Alfa Spiders. They are incredibly fun, extremely distinctive cars even among Alfa circles. One note: in 1968, Alfa did not import cars in the US because of tightening emissions standards. This would occur again in 1970, probably because of problems with the SPICA injection system (more on this later).
However, the interiors are quite primitive by todays standards, with metal dashes, rubber mats, and no center console. Wind noise is a problem with all Spiders at speed, especially so with the uncarpeted models. And they were originally not equipped with rear anti-sway bars, making them understeer very badly.
The interior ergonomics of the Alfa Spider would always receive a great deal of criticism from the American automotive press, especially the "arms-out" driving position. By US standards, the steering wheel is too close to the pedals, forcing the driver to "reach out" for it. It has been reported elsewhere that this position was actually the result of research that revealed that an "extended elbow" driving position was actually less fatiguing over a long trip duration. This may or may not be true. It is my experience that, while the position does take a bit of getting used to, it certainly isnt any less comfortable than other makes or models with more conventional layouts, and may in fact be more comfortable over long trips.
The Junior was created mainly as a response to Europes very different tax structure on automobiles. Vehicles there, especially in Italy, are taxed on a steep sliding scale usually based on engine displacement. Although it is unclear to this author exactly where the cutoffs lie, it would seem that there is (or at least, was) a major one at 1300 ccs, and another at 2000 ccs. These taxes meant that while a certain class of people could probably afford to buy an Alfa, they couldnt afford to keep it very long. Introducing a 1300 cc variant of Alfas 105 line allowed Alfa to fill this niche and broaden its market.
As with the later Series 2a in America, Juniors are noticeably less powerful than their bigger-engined brethren, but still recognizably Alfa and still quite a lot of fun to own and drive.
Because of the different tax structure in the US, the lower cost of fuel, and the typically longer distances Americans drive their cars, Juniors were never officially imported to this country. Some made it over anyway, but because of their smaller engines and lower performance are usually worth substantially less than big-engined cars of the same model year.
In the front, the Series 2 cars center grille was made smaller, and the number of "crossbars" decreased from eight to five. In Series 1 cars the bumpers were so small and lightly built they led to speculation that "bumper" must have translated into "expensive, extremely fragile decoration" in Italian. The Series 2 bumpers were made at least somewhat more functional, and integration was very, very good. The exterior door handles were switched from an "external handle-and-button" to an innovative semi-recessed design. Windshield wipers were changed from a then-unusual interlocking style (the blades pointed inward at each other and swung to the outside) to a more conventional side-by-side arrangement. The windshield rake was also increased somewhat, improving the cars looks, and probably its aerodynamics as well.
In 1969 the engine displacement was increased to 1779 cc's, allowing Alfa to call the Spider a "1750 Spider", evoking a famous pre-war Alfa type. The engine produced more power, but retained the "zippy" feel and throaty exhaust that the 1600cc motors had. Alfa added a rear sway bar sometime around 1971, substantially improving the handling of the cars by greatly reducing the understeer exhibited by the Duettos.
In 1969 for the US market Alfa introduced the SPICA fuel-injection system for the first time. Created primarily for the famous Type 33 race car series, it was based on a diesel injection pump. This all-mechanical system provided precise fuel metering, allowing Alfa to squeak under the emissions laws of the US for several years without sacrificing power, driveability, or adding a catalyst. With the possible exception of Porsche, Alfa Romeo was the best adapted and most driveable car make available in the US at that time.
Unfortunately the new SPICA system was kept a tight secret at Alfa (perhaps, because of the SPICA systems relationship with Alfas racing division, this was not entirely as inexplicable as would at first appear), and enthusiasts in the US greeted it for the most part with great suspicion. In actuality, the system provides better fuel control than the dual-Weber setup, without sacrificing any power or driveability. It is very straightforward, if somewhat unique, and once the proper manuals and (relatively) inexpensive equipment are acquired, very simple to set up and maintain. In delivery, it is quite similar to the "tuned port" injection systems introduced in American cars in the mid 80s, but is not anywhere near as picky about fuel quality.
None of this was clear to owners of Spiders in those days, so a sizable percentage were converted to Weber carburetors. Because today's emissions inspection requirements are becoming more exacting, and workings of the of the SPICA pump are becoming far better understood, an appreciable number of these Weber cars are being re-converted back to the SPICA setup. In Europe, where Spiders were nowhere near as popular and hence less common, people are actually beginning to import the cars back from the US, so they are now experiencing (some would say being afflicted by) the same troubles and joys of the SPICA system. A SPICA equipped car will probably have the only working example of a mechanical computer that you will ever see (except for maybe a slide rule). Once you understand the system, its really cool.
For a more complete set of recommendations about what to look for and what to avoid when buying a SPICA equipped Alfa, I refer the reader to Pat Braden's Alfa Romeo Owner's Bible (available from Robert Bently publishers), at this writing obtainable at most major book stores.
In addition to the drivetrain changes, Alfa began a slow process of improving the quality of the interior. It was during the early Series 2 cars (probably 1970, but I'm not sure) that the well-known (and sometimes oft-cursed in the automotive press) "dual pod" padded dash was introduced. At the time it was merely the most radical expression of a twin-pod theme carried throughout the 105 series. This was considered a pretty bizarre setup as late as 1985 (the last year it was produced), but it seems to have aged very well... it certainly doesn't look "antique", as the metal-dashed Duettos do, and seems more aesthetically pleasing than the similar executions of this theme in the coupe and the berlina.
A completely integrated center console, holding the ventilation, wiper, dash lighting controls, and some indicator lights, was introduced as well. However, for most of the Series 2 (and 2a) run, the interior retained rubber mats and vinyl seat covers, and only came in black.
In 1971 Alfa introduced yet another enlargement of the twincam engine, the (now ubiquitous) 2 liter. Despite this fact, very, very few 2 liter Spiders seem to have been produced in 1971. In one book only 2 are listed as having been imported into the US. It wasnt until 1972 that the 2 liter motor was produced in large numbers.
While this motor, in its pre-emissions form, produced (depending on who you believe) 129 to 135 hp (one source claims 155 hp for the European version), it has always had problems with the head gasket. Unlike other motors from other manufacturers, failing Alfa 2 liter head gaskets don't leak coolant into the cylinders, but rather first leak oil into the coolant, and then coolant into the oil (with potential major damage to the engine). This problem has never been completely solved, although advances in gasket design and the introduction of roller-pin-and-square-cut-o-ring kits have helped a great deal. The model designation of the cars changed around this time as well, becoming "115.XX" Spiders (the XX being replaced by various numbers, depending on the trim level of the cars and their relationship to the rest of the Alfa Romeo line). They will be referred to as such through the rest of this document.
In my own opinion, the Spiders overall combination of performance, refinement, and desirability peaked during the 1970-1974 years (in the US, at any rate). Which year is mostly a matter of taste. The 1750 engines, while less powerful in raw numbers, are a bit "zippier" and smoother than their 2.0L counterparts. They also do not have the head gasket problems of the larger motors.
However, 130ish horsepower out of a 117 cubic inch engine (the 2 liter) is quite impressive to your typical speed-shop crowd, and, again in my own experience, there are very, very few modern non-turbo cars with fewer than 8 cylinders that can keep up with a well-tuned 74 Spider. Unlike later years, these cars came hot from the factory.
The owners of Series 2 cars are also in a happy middle ground right now. The cars are clean, high-performance machines that will probably appreciate noticeably when the next "used classic" car boom comes along in about 5 years. Because the series was produced in Europe for another 7 years, most exterior trim is readily available (albeit for a price, in some cases). With the exception of the dash and center console, the interior trim is a complete match for the Duetto, whose boost in value has spawned a cottage industry reproducing like-new original interior fittings. The dash, the instruments, many body panels (including the all-important floorpans... see below), and nearly all the mechanicals are shared with cars produced as few as five years ago. With the right set of parts suppliers, junk yards, and mechanical acumen, the Series 2 cars are probably the best candidates for "project" status for a do-it-yourselfer.
However, there were some detail changes in the appearance of the Series 2 cars. In 1970 (Europe) and 1971 (everywhere) there was a distinctive "pinch" on the tip of the Spiders nose, just above the shield-like grille, carried over from Series 1. This apparently was deleted some time around 1972 or 1973, making the nose of the Spider very smooth. Probably in 1973 an elegant wooden steering wheel replaced the thin, black plastic wheel found in the 1750 Spiders, and "turbina" style alloy wheels replaced the stamped steel items that previously equipped all earlier Spiders. The license plate lights were moved from the surface of the rear bumper to the rear valance panel after 1972. Finally, in the 1973 and 1974 model years, increasing bumper requirements forced a small but significant change in the front and rear bumpers of US cars. Because of this, the bumpers of a 1973-1974 Spider are probably some of the hardest to find (and hence most valuable) parts of any Spider in any year.
After 1974 the US government really let the hammer down on the car industry in general. Safety requirements were "improved" by the addition of a 5-mph bumper requirement, and emissions tightened to the point that even Alfa had to add a catalyst and learn to live with low-octane gasoline.
The Series 2a cars are distinguished externally by the large, prominent black rubber (baby buggy) bumpers. It would seem that Alfa, like just about every other European manufacturer except for Porsche, had had it with Congress, who created all these noisome regulations, and NHTSA, the US regulating body responsible for enforcing them. The 5-mph bumpers seem to have almost universally (and probably rightly) been seen in Europe as a sop to the powerful US insurance lobby. While the integration of these new "safety" laws by Alfa was better than, say, MG, it still was nothing like the effort that Porsche went through with the 911 in 1975. In what would become a depressingly common event in the US Alfisti's life, the Germans beat Alfa to the punch. The increased safety requirements would eventually add over 300 lbs to the car.
Because California emissions required a catalyst earlier than the rest of the country, in 1975 and 1976 Alfa Romeo imported only "49 state" automobiles i.e. for sale everywhere except in California. Because California continues to have the most restrictive emissions inspections in the entire country (by a long shot), its doubtful if even today owners can bring cars from these two years into that state and get them licensed without substantial fees being imposed. If you live in California and are considering this, please be sure to check with your local motor vehicle department before you purchase the car.
Carpeting became standard equipment for the first time in 1978, and a plethora of interior colors were introduced (tan, blue, and gray being the most notable, although black was still quite common).
The cars lost an unknown but noticeable amount of horsepower as well, and as time went on became less and less driveable until the introduction of the Series 3 cars. Because of this, Series 2a cars, at least in their stock form, are probably the least desirable of all the Alfa Spiders produced.
In defense of the plucky Series 2a owner (or future owner), the cars are still recognizably Alfa in both appearance and character. Because they are (somewhat) newer than the Series 2 cars, they are (again, somewhat) less likely to have serious mechanical, rust, or collision problems. Those massive, ugly bumpers also mean that a Series 2a owner can laugh off impacts that would seriously damage a Series 2, and probably ruin a Series 1 ("ITS A SPORTS CAR! NO! ITS A BATTERING RAM!!").
I believe that there are very few 2a's out there that havent been modified in some way (and indeed, there are some very sneaky ways to modify them that will increase performance but fool Mr. G-man and his computerized minions), so the performance of a 2a you buy today will almost certainly be better than when they first appeared.
However, you can't really change how much the cars weigh, and so the performance of a 2a will probably never match the performance of a 2 with identical modifications.
While modifying a Series 2a to make it look like a Series 2 seems to be a good idea, according to owners who have tried the conversion there are actually a lot of changes in the structure of the 2a's that make it more complicated than it seems.
According to what I consider a reliable source, the cars themselves took a dive in driveability from 75-77, came up from 78-80, and then dove strongly again in 81 with the introduction of a single-throttle SPICA system. 1981 was the last year of the Series 2a cars (well, sort of), as well as the final year of the SPICA system.
Because tightening emissions standards finally strangled even the SPICA system, in 1982 Alfa converted the Spider to Bosch electronic fuel injection. I believe a few years before that they had converted to electronic ignition as well, making the two most fiddly parts of the car comparatively maintenance free.
The Bosch systems (first the L-jetronic injection system, and then in 1990 the Motronic engine management system) substantially improved the driveability and reliability of the cars. However, according to at least one reliable source, they also lost a certain amount of character (the exact conversation was, "yeah, they went electronic, but now they drive like Toyotas", to which I replied, "yeah, but they also start like Toyotas"). While performance didn't increase noticeably at first, it did at least stabilize and, with the improved driveability of the Bosch systems, made the cars more fun than their immediate predecessors. Reliability also increased substantially. Indeed, it often seems that 90% of the problems experienced by Series 3 and 4 owners result mainly from poor electrical grounds.
In 1981 Alfa also switched the gearing of the rear axle from 4.5 to 4.1. This resulted in an approximate 400 rpm drop in engine speed at cruise, with the resulting improvement in fuel economy. However, it also reduced the cars absolute quickness noticeably. Depending on whom you believe, a limited slip differential probably became standard at this time as well.
In 1983 Alfa introduced the Series 3 car body, the first major revision of the Spider in the US for eight years, and in Europe the first in twelve.
Because the lion's shares of Spiders have always been sold in the US, and also because Alfa's financial troubles were beginning to get serious, the company decided to standardize on this body style. From this point on, European and US Spiders differed very little (although to what extent I am not certain).
Bumper integration was substantially improved from Series 2a, although still nothing like the elegance of the early cars, going from the ugly rubber bumpers to somewhat more stylish black plastic and metal. A prominent lower spoiler was added to the nose, giving it a distinctive "chin" (and something ELSE to bash on speed bumps and parking stops). Rear bumper integration was especially good, although a controversial "duck-tail" spoiler marred this integration somewhat. This item was a soft foam-rubber piece until 1986, when it was redesigned somewhat to accommodate a third, centrally placed brake light. The material was changed to a hard black plastic at this time. (special thanks to Stefan Stuerwald for advice on the spoiler)
Due to criticism from the automotive press, and a desire to begin fitting wider tires to the car, Alfa substantially stiffened the frame of the Spider at this time. However, the cars continued to be known, and criticized, for their "flexible flier" chassis. The increased weight also caused performance to continue to decline.
The interiors were substantially redesigned for the first time since 1971. Although the same dual-pod dash was retained, the center console underwent several detail revisions, and the rear portion of the passenger compartment, which before was a basic (if roomy) "well", was flattened, squared, and made smaller (mainly to accommodate electronics and the new shoulder seatbelt system).
What was once a very basic, straightforward car was beginning to get quite plush and complicated. Air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, and leather upholstery began to become commonplace.
In the US, at least, the Series 3 cars were also separated into different trim levels at different times in the run:
In 1982, you had the Spider 2000 and the Spider Veloce (pronounced vel-OH-chay). The 2000 had steel wheels, vinyl seats and a vinyl top, while the Veloce got alloy wheels, leather seats and a cloth top.
In 1983 and 1984, there was just the Spider Veloce.
In 1985 the line was split into three models, the Graduate, Veloce, and Quadrifoglio (pronounced "kwah-drih-FOH-lee-oh"). The Graduate was the "introductory" level of trim, with vinyl seats, vinyl top, and steel wheels. The Veloce came with leather seats, a cloth top, power windows and power external rear view mirrors, and very attractive "star" alloy wheels. The Quadrifoglio came with specially designed leather seats, canvas top, "phone dial" alloy wheels, a/c standard, special carpeting, a redesigned front spoiler and tacked-on "side skirts", and a detachable hard top.
It should be noted that the cars differed only in trim, not in anything important like engine output or handling goodies. The Graduate was advertised as an "Enthusiast's Car"... i.e. its got all the important stuff, but not the gadgets or the plush things. (special thanks to Joel Hailey of International Auto Parts, John Burrows and Tess McMillan for the advice on trim levels)
Which reminds me... nearly all Alfa Spiders, going back to before the 105/115 Spiders, had hard tops available. I believe that the hard tops are interchangeable from 72-83, with a redesign in 84, which are then interchangeable from 84-94. I have been advised that, while the hard tops are nice, they are also a pain, especially if you live in the warmer climates. It takes two people to remove one, they are large and difficult to store, and make impulsive decisions to lower the top impossible (unless you want to leave it on the side of the road). I have been told that it doesnt seal much better than the folding top, and isnt much quieter. However, it is supposed to make the car noticeably warmer, and the rear quarter windows of the later configuration substantially reduce blind spots in these areas.
While the Series 3 cars have often been criticized for their gimmicky looks, it should be noted that Alfa was just following the trends. You only have to look at the Mustangs, 280 (and 300) ZXs, and Honda CRXs of the period to see that Alfa wasn't alone in these styling cues. And, as before, the Series 3 cars were still very recognizably Alfa.
In my own opinion, the production of the 115 Alfa Spider almost certainly should have stopped before the introduction of the Series 3 car. Alfa already had a very sophisticated chassis with the 116 Series, and a new V-6 engine in the works, neither of which could be easily adapted to the 115 body. Convertibles were coming back into vogue for the first time in over a decade, and the time was ripe for something spectacular from the Pininfarina design house. However, for whatever reason, this transition never occurred.
One likely explanation is the circumstances of the automobile market in the early 1970s, especially that of the US. The automotive marketplace of the US was completely different than it is today. Oil crises, an increased awareness of safety, a growing environmentalist movement, and an activist mood in the government and the general populace of the US combined in such a way that many people saw cars as little more than toxin-spewing deathtraps built to create profits used solely to line the pockets of automotive executives.
There seemed at that time a very real possibility that the US government would ban convertibles altogether (indeed, this was a contributing factor to the US auto makers decision to voluntarily cease producing convertibles at that time). It is possible that Alfa decided in 1975 (when the Alfetta coupe, the first of the 116-based cars was introduced) that, since the lions share of Spiders was going to the US, it would be much more risky financially to create an entirely new automobile, since their main market might be completely shut down at any time, and instead chose to go with a proven design. By the time convertibles began to come back in the early 80s, financial constraints at the company prevented a new car from being developed. Besides, since the 115 Spider lacked any real competition in its marketing niche (the Elan went out of production in 1973), it sold quite well anyway.
An alternative hypothesis is that the Spider just wasnt all that important to Alfa. When one looks at the raw production numbers of any model year, spider sales were dwarfed by sedan sales, and the coupes outsold them by orders of magnitude as well. The line of thinking could have been, "the Spider keeps people coming to the showrooms, so why not just leave it alone?" Of course, such a hypothesis does not explain why Alfa went to such considerable trouble to keep the Spider legal in the US, and update its styling periodically with changes that required substantial retooling. These were not cheap modifications.
At any rate, the Spider stayed. Because convertibles were coming back into style, there are actually quite a few comparative road tests in the literature using the Series 3 cars. They were always praised for their road handling, styling, and (at the dawn of the dreaded cable linkage) silky smooth shifters, but were always criticized for the flex of the chassis (a trait which all Alfa Spiders share to one degree or another), the lack of power, and somewhat bizarre interior layout. However, it is apparent that the character of the cars always shined through, because when the votes were tallied the Spiders always came in the top 3rd, if hardly ever #1 (indeed, as I recall, the automotive journalists of the time, in their infinite humility, always seemed quite surprised that they liked the cars so very much, seeing as how "primitive" they were).
In 1986 the dual-pod dash was retired in favor of a large "monopod" or "single pod" dash that not only incorporated the tach and speedometer, but also oil pressure, temperature, and fuel gauges. The holes above the center console where these gauges once resided were not deleted but instead became air conditioning ducts. Indeed, the dash itself never changed after 1970, and, aside from color, is interchangeable with any model year, after 1970, with very few modifications.
Performance gradually increased from its all-time low of 1981. Alfa kept refining and tuning the engine as much as possible to get power, economy, and emissions control. To this end, in 1980 Alfa incorporated variable valve timing (or VVT). The system is essentially an electromechanical piston on the intake camshaft. Developed in the 1970s by Ing Giampaolo Garcea for Alfa, it was termed "variatore de fase" by the Italian engineers. This was promptly renamed "the phaser" by the Americans involved with the team, and the name stuck.
At first only used as an emissions control device, later versions allowed improved cam timing, giving better performance at high RPM but allowing controlled emissions at idle. I believe it was the only production car available in the US (perhaps anywhere) with such an advanced system until well into the 90s. FIAT has rediscovered this device and now fits it to several of its own engine designs. (special thanks to Don Black for information on the VVT system)
One gets the impression at this time of a company quite concerned with its convertible sports car, but seemingly unwilling or (more likely) unable to create a new car that would have incorporated the radically changed requirements of an automobile in the "emissions controlled" era from the outset. However, if you wanted a quick, small, two seat convertible sports car, Alfa was pretty much the only game in town. The Series 3 cars sold quite well, and are probably the most common Spider on the road today.
Perhaps because of the influx of FIAT's cash, the Series 4 cars represent the most significant body redesign since the Kamm-tail premiered in the Series 2 cars. Pininfarina, the design firm that created the original Duetto some 25 years earlier, really went all out to make this revision work.
Bumper integration (always a sore spot with the cars going back, in the US, more than twenty years) was nothing short of wonderful. In front the inverted triangle grille that is an Alfa styling trademark reappeared, again for the first time since the Series 2 cars. The front "chin" spoiler was also redesigned, making it better integrated and more subdued than in previous cars. The "side skirts" were integrated and made part of the sheet metal rather than being "tacked on" as in the Series 3 Quadrifoglio cars. In the rear, the oft-cursed "duck tail" was eliminated completely, replaced by a subtle re-curving of the entire rear body shell, which now formed the rear spoiler. As with the Series 3 cars, rear bumper integration was especially good, and all bumpers were now body-colored, rather than black-and-silver plastic as in Series 3.
Performance continued to be enhanced, and I believe in 1992 the rated output of the 2.0L engine finally matched its 1973-1974 peak of 129 hp. Unfortunately, all the neat body integration came at the cost of added weight, and, coupled with new US safety laws, this caused the car to reach its all time weight level, coming in at slightly over 2500 lbs.
The ultimate result was a car whose performance was pretty much staying steady with the mid-80s Series 3 cars (i.e. fun but nothing a Ford Probe or Honda CRX Si couldn't handle). The suspensions of the cars never changed much through the entire run, and handling was improved mostly through increased tire performance. Power steering was introduced in 1991. An automatic transmission was added as an option for the very first time in 1992. This undoubtedly decreased performance even more, but to what extent I have not been advised. The interiors reached their highest level of luxury, especially in the Quadrifoglio, which did just about everything except brush your teeth. The seats were redesigned again, but there were no other major revisions to the layout of interior.
Because of these revisions, the Series 4 cars are, in the opinion of the author, the prettiest cars since the end of Series 2. Production continued until the middle of 1993 (although, because of slow sales, there may in fact be "1994" Alfa Spiders out there somewhere), when FIAT shut the entire line down and began tooling up for a totally new Alfa Romeo Spider.
However, these developments were not happening in a vacuum. In 1990 Mazda unveiled the Miata, a brilliantly designed sports car that evoked memories of all the brisk, fun-to-drive sports cars of the mid 60s. In fact, it is said that the team that designed the Miata (which ironically included a former Alfa Romeo service rep) did extensive research with the 101 and 105 Spiders, mainly, it seems, to get that exhaust note down.
But the Miata did without the (sometimes perceived, sometimes very real) quality and reliability problems of those earlier, "classic" sports cars. While its performance was nothing to write home about, it positively oozed charm and was zippy enough to at least feel fast. And, most importantly, it was relatively cheap, with an introductory sticker of, I believe, $13,800 US in 1990. (special thanks to Don Black for advice on the relationship of the Spider and the Miata)
Perhaps the deepest irony of all, though, was that the Miata very closely resembled (in exterior appearance) the Spiders first primary competitor the Lotus Elan!
The Miata immediately created a sensation and sold by the thousands. To this day I don't think anyone pays sticker for the things, with premium dealer mark-ups of over 20% being quite common at the marque's introduction. The introduction of the Miata spelled the virtual end of sales for the 115 Spider. Because of this, and the inability of the Alfa 164 to compete in the crowded mid-$30,000 sports sedan market, FIAT made the surprising move of totally pulling Alfa out of the US market at the end of 1994.
The Alfa Spider and FIATs Takeover
Most of these developments seem to have been chronicled by, and, at least in the English-speaking world, seen through the eyes of American writers (this author included). Therefore most of what has been written about the latest chapter in the history of Alfa Romeo is viewed through a very special set of colored glasses.
The US market was never as important to Alfa as the ones in Europe. While it was regularly outselling Porsche in Germany, Alfa was almost willfully ignoring both marketing and dealer quality in the United States. Indeed, it can be argued that the only real reason Alfa stayed in the United States so long was to give its executives an excuse to visit the country using government funds. The Italian government is rumored to have subsidized Alfas presence in this country to the tune of $1000 per car sold right up to the last vehicle made by Alfa as a government owned institution. When, in the early to mid 1980s, Alfa became desperate for new markets and expanded sales, its neglected US dealership network became an albatross around the companys neck (because of our penchant for lawsuits, it is nearly impossible for car companies of any country to rid themselves of incompetent dealers in the United States). Excellent, high-quality sedans redesigned extensively for the US market (the Milano and 164) were sabotaged by incompetent and indifferent dealers.
The final takeover by FIAT has been seen as nothing short of apocalyptic by Alfisti in many parts of the world. Cast as the archetypal villain in a David versus Goliath confrontation, many Alfisti now mention the name FIAT in the same way that Americans tend to say the name "Saddam Hussein". Rubbish. There is no guarantee that Ford (the primary competitor for FIAT in the final buyout) would have been any kinder to Alfas employees, nor might they have kept the companys product line any more distinctive (would Alfisti have really wanted to see a Mazda-engined, Ford Capri-based spider successor?). Ferrari may be what the average American thinks of when someone says "classic Italian car", but to many Italians it was, is, and always will be Alfa Romeo. During the buyout FIAT had to reassure the Italian people publicly many times that they would keep the marque alive, and not merely add another badge to its vault (American journalists gave the distinct impression at least some Italians, and not just the ones that worked at Alfa, would have rioted otherwise).
Today Alfas product line is revitalized. Newer, better cars are coming out with reassuring regularity, consistently rated in the European automotive press as distinctly better automobiles than similar offerings from their parent company, indeed often rated best in their class over all competitors.
It is quite striking how the British automotive press, to pick a European example, treat FIATs takeover with a complete lack of drama. Their impressions seem to indicate that Alfa is doing just fine thank you. This optimism was once shared by US Alfisti just after the takeover, and one wonders how much of the criticism is due primarily to sour grapes over the pullout rather than to any fault in the new product line.
Has the company lost some identity since the takeover? Of course it has. But this is just a reflection of the realities of automotive manufacturing in this era of electronics, emissions, and economy. It can be said quite confidently that there are no truly independent automobile manufacturers today. It is a shame that we in America must view the new Spider from the proverbial sidelines, but this is changing.
In 2000 General Motors purchased a minority share in the FIAT auto group, and it was publicly announced that Alfa would in fact be returning to the US. As of this writing, they are scheduled to return in 2005, first with a new Spider, and then perhaps with other sedan and coupe models. Predictably, spy photos of the new car reveal what to current eyes could only be called "avant garde", but only time will tell what we actually get, and how it will be perceived through the years.
While the GM acquisition has garnered the predictable lines of Alfisti tearing their shirts and weeping about how the cars will become even less distinctive, all indications are that Alfa will still be firmly in control of the design of things that really matter suspension, brakes, and engine. It seems from this angle that, as much as any car marque can remain independent and distinctive, Alfa will remain unmistakably itself.
One only has to look at what happened to the Spiders original competitors to appreciate the accomplishments of Alfas engineers. Austin Healey disappeared as an automotive manufacturer even before the 1970s. MG went to the absolute minimum with its MGB to accommodate the American market, eventually becoming a sad, unrecognizable, and anemic shadow of its former pre-70s self. Triumph lurched from one ridiculous failure to another before, like MG and Austin Healey, it too succumbed and ceased to exist entirely (these three events are tightly interrelated with the decisions of the parent British Leyland group, and if the reader is interested they are encouraged to research these three grand marques and their sad demise). Lotus moved so far up scale that today its cars compete more with Porsche and Jaguar than with anything else. FIAT kept plugging along with its Spider, and perhaps was the most successful at keeping their product alive. Yet FIAT itself pulled out of the US nearly a decade before it pulled Alfa, and very few people would claim that the FIAT Spider was ever a better car than the Alfa.
The Alfa Romeo 105/115 Spider has a history almost as impressive as its pedigree. What started out as an unpopular, somewhat underpowered roadster first turned into what amounted to a high-performance open race car, and then later into a high-class open touring car. Yet, despite all the changes, you can still see the Duetto deep inside even a Series 4. Hiding under all that distinguished sheet metal, luxurious interior detailing, and electronic wizardry is the same zippy little car that captured hearts nearly thirty years before.
"Cmon," it whispers quietly, "quit reading the damned computer lets DRIVE!"
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By Scott Johnson - Copyright © 1996 - Third Edition, Released August 2001 - All Rights Reserved.