Before Black Tuesday, the autoblogosphere was abuzz with news of Fiat's return to the U.S. market. Details have been sparse and shifty, but the message is clear: American Alfisti will finally get their hands on the automotive brand renowned for Italian passion and style. Maybe. Eventually. Of course, when Alfa retreated from the eastern seaboard to the Amalfi Coast some 14 years ago, their cars were also known for Communist Bloc reliability. Assuming Alfa's got that sorted (deep breath), I've tracked down an Alfa Romeo Spider Graduate to see what the fuss was– and perhaps will be– all about.
Clearly, aesthetics were not Alfa's main problem. Penned by the original Battista "Pinin" Farina in 1966, the Spider's basic shape is a hallmark of automotive design. Twenty years on (and another twenty years later), the deceptively simple and perfectly curvaceous sheetmetal still looks weak-in-the-knees gorgeous.
The only exterior indications that you're looking at an entry-level version of the car: the "Graduate" badge on the tail and steel wheels that fill the Spider's wheel arches to perfection. They may be the "cheap" wheels, but the honest steelies with the graceful chrome ring and polished steel hubcaps nicked from the family silver could not fit more ideally with the car's mid-Sixties lines.
Alfa marketed the Graduate for the (true) enthusiast. In other words, they stripped the Spider's interior like it had set off the airport security metal detectors. Gone were the power windows, leather seat upholstery, air conditioning, radio and cloth top. In their place: hand cranks, delete plates, and more vinyl than your average half hour on the SciFi Channel. In fact, apart from the decidedly-non-standard Alpine radio unit, the Spider's interior had four buttons: a hazard light switch, a fan switch for the heater, a rear window defroster switch (that served no identifiable purpose) and a horn.
Slip inside the Spider, and marvel at God's Own Seats. The chair offer easy ingress and exit. They're also supremely comfortable yet surprisingly supportive through the bends. Gingerly run your fingers over the Spider's lacquered wood steering wheel rim and shift knob, and look at your reflection in the chrome metal of the steering wheel.
Making love to the machine may distract you from a console that pinches your right leg against the steering wheel. And the fact that the helm's mounted at a strange angle and sits just that little bit too far away for our particular branch of the simian species. (Lest we forget, Dustin Hoffman was 5'5" when he chased after Mrs. Robinson's daughter.) The quality of the Spider's plastics lie somewhere between your neighbor's old Suburban and a gas station sandwich's plastic container.
Forget the ergonomic woes (as you must). Let's see how she drives.
Twisting the key (carefully) brings the Spider's all-aluminium twin-cam two-litre highly-hyphenated inline four to life. (Temple of VTEC worshippers may not wish to note that the Alfa Romeo Spider was the first production car to use variable valve timing back in 1980, beating Honda's V-Tec system by almost ten years.) The Alfa's Twin-Cam engine, as experienced, in theory, best case scenario, produces 115 horsepower a bit past 5,000 rpm, and 120 lbs. ft. of torque just before 3,000 rpm.
Unlike the Gregorian crescendo of most modern engines, the Alfa's four roars like a wounded beast, with just enough thrash to let you know its mechanical heart is beating with the explosive deaths of millions of hydrocarbons.
Let me be blunt: the Spider isn't a sports car. The so-called sprint from zero to sixty will take you nine and a half seconds. And if "slow" and "sports" are a problem, you're not going to happy that the Spider's chassis is the world's least rigid monocoque; the scuttle-shake over bumps is… awesome. And understeer cuts in far too soon for my liking– as in any time you push it through a corner.
The Alfa is at its best cruising spiritedly down a moderately serpentine road. The wonderful five-speed manual and admirable below-the-limit grip let you enjoy the occasion of driving an Italian roadster at speeds that won't threaten your license. Enthusiasts can exploit a healthy performance aftermarket, but a stock Mazda Miata makes more sense on every level save the sensual and nostalgic.
Simply put, the Spider is a Riviera roadster. The Alfa's main mission: driving along a waterfront on a bright summer day with the top down and a beautiful woman sitting in the passenger seat, trailing a mile-long scarf. Anything else? Rain? Cold? Snow? High-speed runs? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Che te lo dico a fare? Everyone knows the Alfa Spider was a toy that broke even (especially?) if you never drove it. In these days of J.D. Power outages, if and when the Alfa brand returns, style will not be enough. Must. Do. Better. Let's hope the Alfa's body is strong and the spirit is even more willing.