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Modifying your Alfa Spider

I think one of the biggest misconceptions purchasers of Alfa Spiders have (American ones, at least) is in thinking that the Spider is like an American high performance car. For those of you who live elsewhere, I will explain:

Americans tend to be very strange about high performance automobiles (we don’t seem strange to us, but that’s because we live here.) We have the largest network of "autobahn-style" roadways in the world, and yet until very recently had one of the lowest highway speed limits around. In general, Americans have traditionally tended to like cars fast, heavy, large, and plush.

We also have a very strong "hot rod" tradition dating back to the 1940s. Most American manufacturers from the end of WWII until well into the 1980s didn’t really produce what Europeans would consider "performance cars" in any large numbers. Also, again until recently, American manufacturers produced very basic cars that were available with, by European standards, a fantastic number of options. It was not uncommon to have well over four dozen different options for any given model of car, from trim to engine to body appearance (this is not to imply that Europeans, or any other national group in the world, do not have hot rod traditions of their own. It just seems that Americans were first, and as a result have the most deeply ingrained habits).

What this resulted in was a very large number of cars that had the potential to become very high performers, if the owner knew the right people, had the right skills, and possessed the right parts catalogues. It was not uncommon at all for an owner to buy, say, a Chevy Nova (a basic passenger sedan of the early 1970s), take it home and replace the exhaust system, the induction system, the shifter, the rear end, the springs, the shocks, the tires, and the wheels and end up with a car that performed a lot better than when the owner brought it home.

The reader should note that all of these "enhancements" are basically bolt-on… you really don’t have to remove much or take anything apart to do the stuff listed. Finally, to this day most American performance cars are basically hopped up family sedans, with all the handicaps to performance that a family sedan has designed into it.

This hot-rod tradition is so strong that even today, when American manufacturers are doing most of the "bolt on" stuff in the factory, and the cars are so computerized that any user modifications are difficult, we try to hop the cars up with computer chips, massive tires and wheels, and anything else we can get our hands on.

It is from this tradition (some would say handicap) that many first-time Alfa Spider buyers come from in America. It explains a lot of why many of us end up trying to do to things to these cars.

Alfa Spiders (and just about any performance European car) simply aren’t built this way. These cars were created from the outset to be high performance machines. Because of this, they are much more "of a piece" than anything Americans came up with for decades. For the most part, this is a Good Thing.

Since the cars had high performance "designed in", as it were, they incorporate features that an average owner would never be able to add on at a later date. One only has to look at the rear drivetrain of any Alfa Spider to see this "take-no-prisoners" approach. There’s a multi-piece driveshaft, integral "traction bars", weird looking cloth travel limit straps wrapped around the axle, a strange "T" device bolted to the top of the axle, and a robust axle assembly with a center cast from aluminum and disk brakes on the ends. This is totally alien to your typical American speed shop crowd used to working on Ford Mustangs and Chevy pickup trucks.

Americans are also used to American car makers and their very conservative suspension choices and setups. Compared to what most European and Asian countries put their drivers through to get a license, average American drivers are a so under-educated they are actively dangerous when on the road. American car manufacturers have historically compensated for this by making their cars forgiving to the point of total unresponsiveness.

It should be noted that this has changed profoundly for the better in the past two decades. Mostly because of competition from both Europe and Japan, modern American cars have come light years along in responsiveness, performance, and handling.

Again, Alfa Spiders aren’t like this at all. Like most European car makers, Alfa is made by and for Europeans first. Unlike the Japanese (who adapt totally to whatever market they try to enter), Europeans have historically brought their cars over to the US with the minimum required changes to meet regulatory demands (more on this later).

Because of this, spring rates, shock rates, tire sizes, and suspension geometry have all been optimized by Alfa before your Spider ever left the factory.

The engine as well sounds, in description, like something someone put together in a speed shop. The next time a tobacco-spitting good ol’ boy (that’s what we call them here… in England I believe they are called "gits", and I’m sure the Australians in the audience will suggest even more colorful names for them) starts having a good laugh at your "lil’ eye-talian engine", note these facts:

That "little" engine, in pre-‘75 trim at least, gets quite a bit more than 1 hp per cubic inch (a nirvana-like goal of gearheads everywhere), is all-aluminum, has a forged steel crank, alloy pistons, forged rods, five main bearings, dual-overhead camshafts, a hemi head, and holds 7 quarts of oil (one more quart than your typical American 8 cylinder engine). Of course, you have to pay over $100 for a water pump that will only cost him $20, but you’re not going to tell him that.

Please don’t get me wrong. It most definitely is possible for an owner to modify an Alfa to perform better. Some people find the suspension is too soft, or the engine could be made to put out just a few more horses. It is really very subjective. But "bolt-on" modifications along the lines of what an American is used to simply don’t exist (with one big exception, see below). In other words, the easy stuff has already been done before the car left the factory. Don’t buy an Alfa Spider with the expectation that you will take it home and, with a few quick calls to your speed shop of choice, have half a dozen pieces you can bolt on to the car and double its performance. You are much, much more likely to be very unsatisfied with your results, or end up with a car suitable only for the racetrack.

 

The biggest exception to this, again pretty much in America only, are the emissions and safety controls in the Series 2 and 2a cars. While the Series 3 and 4 cars also come equipped with emissions devices, they are much more integrated with the car. Also, the Series 3 and 4 cars are more computerized, so some modifications may have unpredictable or negligible effects.

Because Europeans had gotten deeply into the habit of the "just enough" philosophy when importing their cars into America, most didn’t realize until too late that the profound changes to the American car market in the 1970s caused the "minimum" approach to make their cars undriveable, and that these regulations weren’t ever going to go away.

While Alfa started out taking the regulations very seriously (the SPICA system was a high-performance induction system adapted to cope with the American emissions regulations), they, like just about every European manufacturer except the Germans (who are culturally inclined to take everything seriously), seemed to have grown impatient and frustrated with the US government as time went on. Series 2 2.0L cars were equipped with "smog" camshafts, and Series 2a cars, with their ugly, poorly integrated bumpers, and their progressively strangled engines, seem to be the result of Alfa running out of time, patience, and money with the US market.

Because of this, the owner of a stock Series 2 or 2a can in fact noticeably (and, in the case of 2a owners, substantially) improve the performance of their cars through the "bolt-on" approach. Actually, you get it as much from what you "bolt-off"… the air pump, catalytic converter, and exhaust manifold can all be removed, resulting in substantial performance gains (well, you will have to replace the exhaust manifold with an earlier style system). Series 2 2.0L Spiders can be fitted with European-spec camshafts from either 2.0L or 1750 engines. Cars still equipped with SPICA systems can be converted to Webers or, even better, retrofitted with a high-output pump from 1974 (this keeps the car legal on equipment inspections). Many of these modifications will, of course, make your car illegal in states that perform emissions inspections (however, many states do not inspect cars over 20 years old… check your local laws).

But even a Series 2a owners should look to what the factory did as a guide to what they should do. Exhaust manifolds, camshafts, induction systems, exhaust systems, etc. should all be modified backward toward a Series 2 car (1973-1974).

Even though it is apparently very difficult to modify the 2a’s appearance to make it resemble a 2, I often wonder if there wouldn’t be a market for fiberglass "bumper replicas" that were designed to be fitted to the 2a’s mounting hardware. This would result in a large savings in weight. To my knowledge no such devices exist.

Tires and wheels are also another well-known area of improvement. Common knowledge in America, to quote a different car maker’s advertising, is "wider is better". To some extent, this is true with Alfa Spiders as well. Indeed, contemporary reviews of Series 1 and 2 cars, especially the 1750 and Series 2 2000, often noted that performance was noticeably hampered by the cars’ smallish tires. So, it would actually seem that wider is better.

However, the car’s "flexible flyer" chassis, especially before the frame-stiffened Series 3 premiered in 1983, works against getting good performance from too big of a tire. I have personally caused bodywork damage to my Series 2 Spider by fitting too-large tires (the rockers tend to tear apart at the front corner of the door, causing rust to fester).

So, which size is right for you? It depends a great deal on which model year you own, and what you do with the car. The most commonly fit size seems to be 175 or 185/70-14s. However, it is my experience that a Series 2 2000 is simply too powerful for such a narrow tire, making them very prone to wheelspin, especially in the rain. 205/60-14 seems to be the biggest size you can physically put underneath the car without clearance problems, but, aside from the body damage problem listed above, this size tends to have an unacceptable amount of sidewall flex when fitted to stock wheels. There is also the factor of speedometer error when fitting non-stock tire sizes. (However, Alfa’s gauges are so well known for error one hardly expects any of them to be all that accurate in the first place.)

Any recommendation of this sort should always be taken with a grain of salt. That said, in my opinion, if you are using your car as a tourer and don’t do a lot of high performance driving, 185/70-14s should do you just fine. However, if you like to "toss it about" a bit, or own one of the higher powered models, an upgrade to 195/70-14 is probably in order. For the people who want to really get the most from their chassis, it would probably be a good idea to perform a "plus-1" upgrade and go to 195/60-15s. This is probably the biggest wheel/tire combination you can fit to the car, and there will almost certainly be compromises in low-speed steering effort and ride comfort you may not be happy with. Tires of this size probably should not be fit at all to the earlier cars without some form of frame stiffening.

However, tire sizes seem to be a lot like spark plug choices… as much a matter of taste and opinion as anything else. Think about what you do with the car, what you want to do with the car, and always remember that it is a design more than 30 years old, and may not respond as much or as well to really gonzo tire choices.

Otherwise, owners of Series 1, 2, 3, and 4 cars should realize that, as the saying goes, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Modifying your Spider to go faster or turn better will usually result in adverse effects to driveability, ride comfort, and durability (not necessarily all at the same time though). If you feel the compromise is worth it, go right ahead! Spiders have always been three clicks shy of race cars anyway, so turn the wick up and have a blast. But be aware that the most effective modifications are not easily made, and can cost quite a lot of money.

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By Scott Johnson - Copyright 1996 - Third Edition, Released August 2001 - All Rights Reserved.