By on June 13, 2008

alfagraduate-3.jpgBefore 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-interior.jpgAlfa 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.

alfa-2.jpgUnlike 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.

graduate-1.jpgChe 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.

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52 Comments on “1986 Alfa Romeo Spider Graduate Review...”


  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    It funny to think of the type of cars we used to put up with in the mid 1980s before those dudes from Japan decided to change the game. In 1986 if someone was crazy enough they could still purchase a new Alfa Spyder, Fiat Spyder, Bertone X1/9 in the USA!

    One drive in any one of these babies will easily convince you of just how wonderful a Miata is!

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Does it come with a Dustin hoffman cardboad cutout to position in the driver’s seat when down for repairs?

  • avatar
    Kman

    From that era, the Fiat Spider 2000 was always the more interesting, more driveable, more fun and (IMO) better looking car.

    Even back in the day, I never saw the point of the Alfa Spider, and still don’t…. guess that’s what happens if one is not head-over-heels for its looks.

    That being said, on a recent trip to Europe, I *was* enamored with the gorgeous Alfas driving about. Hope their return to N.A. is accompanied by good build quality.

  • avatar
    storminvormin

    I heard that you have to constantly cane them in order to not foul up the plugs. Built for Italian drivers?

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    Twenty years on (and another twenty years later), the deceptively-simple and perfectly curvaceous sheetmetal still looks weak-in-the-knees gorgeous.

    Hate to quibble with ya here, but the Spider’s looks changed considerably between 66 and 86, and not for the better. To be fair, safety bumpers and the like didn’t help any of the classic 60s roadsters transition to the 70s and 80s. Still, compared to the lithesome original, the later Spiders just seem like fussy, bloated versions of their former selves.

    Like Liz Taylor.

  • avatar
    racebeer

    Italian and build quality were polar opposites in the 70′s and 80′s. I had both a X1/9 and a Sprint Veloce in the mid to late 70′s, and they were a maintenance headache. BUT ….. when working they were quite entertaining for the time. Definitely a long arm / short leg affair with both, but each had their charms. The X1/9 handled like a go-kart, and the Sprint Veloce was a very comfortable cruiser on mountain roads. And yes, you had to continuously perform that “Italian Tune-Up” at least once a trip to keep things motivated. Probably the most fun I had was with the X1/9 on slalom courses — when entering the snake section, all you had to do to set your course was quickly steer in then drop the throttle, wait for the instant oversteer, pick the throttle back up, and repeat. Not much steering required so long as you don’t let that inertia spin you out!!!

  • avatar
    virages

    That car certainly has a place in my heart. My dad had a ’69 model with the rounded back. That was certainly much prettier than the squared off 80s look.

    Everytime I see or hear one, I get flash backs to when we were kids. The sound of the engine to me meant: “Dad’s home! It’s dinner time!” We could hear the thing rumbling, with a raspy exhaust note that no one else had in the neighborhood.

    This Alfa was much better than the MGs or other convertibles in the day. It wasn’t so fast, but to us more fun than a muscle car. We kept the thing till the mid eighties until it just rusted out and the top was no longer. Just before I got my licence!…Drat.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    What FIAT will need to do, if they’re serious about bringing these things back, is have a decent support network. In their first attempt, Fiat, Renault, Citroen and such essentially dumped their cars here with little or no infrastructure to support them; a move that would have been troublesome for Toyota, but was lethal for a European manufacturer in the 1980s.

    Imagine this: your 1980s vintage Chevy breaks down often, but at least there’s four dealerships in your town, and each is well stocked with parts and technicians who know how to work with them. GM isn’t great with warranty repair, but at least you stand a chance.

    Now, imagine you have an Alfa: they’re not a lot less reliable than a Chevrolet of the same period, but there’s one dealer in a 200km radius, with two guys in the service bay who have no idea how to service these cars and/or charge brutal rates when they do.

    Then there’s an eight-week wait for parts to arrive by sea-freight. If you’re lucky.

    Oh, did I mention that FIAT regularly gives it’s North American operations the finger when it comes to honouring warranty work? There’s some incentive to get the work done.

    The awful part about European cars–especially VW, MB and BMW–is that attitude of treating North American customers and dealers like proverbial lepers persists to this day. It would be problematic for Honda or Toyota to do it (they don’t–the Asians are very good about warranty work); yet VW and MB do it regularly and I’ll wager there’s executives who can’t understand why their collective reputations are in the tank.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    “…a stock Mazda Miata makes more sense on every level save the sensual and nostalgic.”

    But aren’t those the only two levels that matter with a car like this?

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Does it come with a Dustin hoffman cardboad cutout to position in the driver’s seat when down for repairs?

    Forget Dustin Hoffman. I want mine with a Katharine Ross cutout.

  • avatar
    TwoTwenty

    my parents almost bought one of these back in 1989, but could not get over the position of the shifter. they ended up with a miata, which is still in the family after 19 years…

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    an old italian joke, worn out by ’86.

    a much better Alfa was the GTAm 240hp from a 2 litre four in 1970 was quite an achivement.

  • avatar
    mrdweeb

    Owned two of these–a ’70s model–silver, with mechanical fuel injection and an ’80s model–tan, with electronic FI. The mechanical FI was a source of wonderment, much like a Linotype machine in an old print shop. An inertia-activated fuel cutoff switch resided under the wipers in the engine compartment, designed to save you from becoming a crispy critter in a major crash. Both cars were solid, reliable, and easily serviced, and rust isn’t a problem here in Colorado. As mentioned, the solid, silky five speed is the best ever.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    Looks Like A Datsun Fairlady model.
    Remember the Z models made by Nissan?
    they look like this car.

    We think that 0-60 in 9 secs is not slow.
    I scratched my head do we really need to go 0 to 60 in lesser seconds to reach the next traffic light.

    If It’s 0 to 60 in a minute, Now we call that slow.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    If you’re my age, an early Miata IS nostalgic! For sensuality though I prefer the 2nd generation (which I ended up with).

    My next car with either be a rotary or an Alfa Romeo. I’d be giving up quite a bit from an enthusiast standpoint if I went with an Alfa, but they’re just so cool! I love their hatches.

  • avatar
    bjcpdx

    They’re both beautiful, but I have trouble reconciling the round-tailed Alfa in “The Graduate” with the chopped-tail Alfa called the “Graduate”.

    Also, for those that prefer their women three-dimensional, may I suggest the Katharine Ross blow-up doll rather that the cut-out?

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    This car is the embodiment of what I think an Alfa should be, impractical in every way but with lines, sounds, and character that make it irresistable to those who get it. Obviously not the best business plan, unfortunately.

  • avatar
    Mullholland

    Yea, you’d have plenty of time to get all nostalgic about it as it sat motionless in the drive way. As far as this particular version being sensual, just make sure you don’t get a good look at the back end of the thing. A more truthful representation of this vehicle would have included a photo of its fugly backside. From personal experience, I second all of the points made about the Miata alternative. I also liked the Fiat 124. But for the most fun in the driving-a-slow-car-fast category, circa 1973, I thoroughly enjoyed my Fiat 128 SL.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    I’ve owned 124′s, Alfas, and a Miata. Frankly, I viewed the Miata as the world’s best 124, heck, they even drive quite similarly. All are NOT made for large people. I still get misty over my ’74 GTV, absolutely gorgeous, fast enough, and a joy through the twisties. Part of the problem with people remembering FIATs and Alfas is that the ’70s was a period of absolutely horrible cars, and guess when FIAT and Alfa sold most of their cars here in America? Yep. The new Alfas are uniformly beautiful, and I hope they bring bunches of them over here simply for the variety. It was bemusing to see at the World Superbikes race in Utah a bunch of 159s circling the track as the official support car for the series, even though you can’t buy one here. At least it didn’t look like the usual Camaccordetc.

  • avatar

    A dream to look at; nightmare to own.

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    0 to 60 in 9.5 seconds is really not slow even now, but in the 80′s and before, it was considered pretty quick.
    More to the point, though, why does this stat have ANYTHING to do with this being a sports car?! Sports cars are not about speed so much as handling, perhaps, or just plain impractical motoring for the fun of it.
    MG’s and Triumphs of the ’50′s and ’60′s were a hoot even though a VW beetle could outrun them. Were they not sports cars?

  • avatar
    garthdbrown

    MY wife drives a red one just like in the pictures and it is a GREAT car. Tonnes of fun to drive and you will get a lot more looks than driving a Miata.

    You will never get her to part with it.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    Miata and Alfa Romeo are two different cars.

    Miata is a very small car compared to this car. Of course smaller cars drive different from mid size cars or the Alpha.

    I don’t see any comparison on the Miata with a Alfa Romeo. Nissan Fairlady Z models is more likely a contender for this car.

  • avatar

    baabthesaab is right. Sports Car ! = “Fast”.

    GT cars should be fast and handle well.
    Muscle cars are fast but handle like pigs.
    Sports cars handle like a dream but are not really all that fast.

    If Alfa comes back to the USA, with a Spider equipped with the JTDM engine, I’ll be the first guy to buy one. I’ll likely regret it, but that won’t stop me from writing the check!

    –chuck
    http://chuck.goolsbee.org

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    Maybe I just got lucky or it was because it was the last generation Alfa Spider Veloce a 1991, but mine was pretty reliable. Way more dependable than my current Cadillac and the Honda Prelude lemon I had as my first car. My biggest complaint was the the 2 mufflers in series only lasted 40,000 miles like clockwork, and they were f*cken expensive. 185,000 glorious miles until my throwout bearing went and I parked it. It even went 50,000 miles without an oil change, not advisable but it still ran like a champ, and the car just loved to be driven hard. I thought the performance was awesome too, I had no problem keeping up with my bosses ’94 911 racing back to Tybee at over 110 mph.

    It did have quirky ergonomics but I grew to love them, especially that shifter attached right to the tranny with no linkage. I drove a Miata and absulutely hated it, very sterile, and the suspension beat me up good.

    I can’t wait until Alfa finally comes back, I have been waiting 19 years, and if I can afford it I will be first in line for one of their RWD offerings with 4 doors this time since I need to cram the family in it. I am still considering replacing the Cadillac with an old Milano or GTV6, might as well have fun working on the car instead of cursing at it constantly. BTW the cars are surprisingly easy to work on if you get a detailed service book, you will really start to understand and admire the engineering.

    Also to note the Spider ran on a 25 year old platform, it changed very little from the original Duetto, body panel changes and a little more rigidity. I would consider that pretty impresive when comparing it to other cars offered in the 80′s. The engine was also very advanced for its day, why else would Nissan basically steal the design for their SR20DE, look familair.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    I remember navigating in a friend’s A-R Giulia Spyder for some amateur rallies back in the late 60′s. Surprisingly comfortable is my recollection. Shame I never see them anymore.

  • avatar
    N85523

    Good work on the entertaining review. Once again, props to TTAC for the reviews of non-new cars. They are fun to read and provide some good history lessons, something that many automakers could use these days.

  • avatar
    Acd

    Every now and then I find myself wanting another Alfa Spider but then I remember what happended the first time I had one. I bought a pristine 1987 Alfa Graduate with 30,000 miles, black with tan interior, in 1992. It wasn’t that fast, couldn’t go around corners nearly as quickly as a base CRX, and had as much cowl shake as my old Fiat Spider but it looked great and I loved driving it with the top down on a nice sunny day. Later that year I went to work at a Mazda dealership and got the chance to drive a few Miata’s back from the auction. They were fast, handled like they were on rails and didn’t have any of the horrible cowl shake the my beloved Alfa had on rough pavement. Eventually I found myself taking a Miata home on weekends and on my days off while the poor Alfa just sat in the garage. Eventually I realized that it didn’t make sense for me to keep paying for a car that I didn’t really like driving any more. I kept it for a little over a year and put less than 800 miles on it before selling it.

    I’m planning on buying an Alfa when they come back to the U.S. as long as they drive more like my old GTV-6 than my Spider.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    Love the old car review. Though it may not be fast I still would thoroughly enjoy driving one. Even just to complain about how slow it is.

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    What is up with the 2 stars, are we comparing the car to what is out today or what was available back in 1986? The performance wasn’t bad for the emission choked cars from the 80′s. And you wrote the car can’t be a good daily driver, it was my daily driver for almost 10 years. I remember every speeding ticket I ever got in that car, and there were quite a few.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:LegendZCAR.jpg

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    Odd as it may be, even to myself! I have driven a number of alfas in my life: two Spyders, a GTV-6, two Milanos, a 2.5 and 3.0 and a 164.

    The best I can say about Alfa of the late 1980s to early 1990s is that thet are intersting and very quirky. They had very bad ergonomics, the seating postions sucked, the petals were badly offset, the foot wells were too small. Brand new from the dealer and they still looked of questionable quality.
    These were cars the people purchased for the sake of being different and always ended up hating themselves for it.
    The spyders were all dog slow, even for a tiny little roadster and by the mid 1980s the than new MR2 showed us just how old fashion and obsolete the Spyder was by than. BUT, and I MEAN BUT you felt like a HERO driving that thing. We were young back than and “grown” mature women used to love that car and whoever was driving it! One of the spyders was a silver 1987 Quadafiglio with the grey leather with red stitching, nice but the car was ruined by an ugly body kit. I could never get used to the location of the gearshift coming out of the dash!
    The GTV-6 was a true poor-mans exotic back then. Ah the joy of RWD motoring, 150hp never felt so good. But in the end the GTV was a heartbreaker for my brother. Fix one thing, think the car is now right and than bang something else is broken. The GTV was that beautiful chick you dated and loved but in the end never really made you satisfied.
    Now that Milano, it was different with that strange kink in the back that made it look like it had been rear-ended. What a narrow car on inside, it felt like Afla took a GTV and simply added two doors and was not very comfortable in the front or back seats. The 2.5 engine was ok but the 3.0 in the quadofiglio (spelling?) was a blast.
    The 164, what can I say? WhoTF wanted to deal with Alfa quirks in a FWD car! By 1990 with the SAAB 9000 pushing out 200 turboed HP the 164 made zero sense. Once again, it was a nice looking car inside and out.

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    great review, great car.

    you left out rust as a defect. I remember brand new ones coming in for stereo upgrade, pull up carpet, look at cracks in paint on floor with rust bleeding out, shake head and move on.

    Very pretty motor.

    0-60, who cares. Go buy a vette if you don’t get it. or a 15 year old GSXR.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Love these old reviews. A high school acquaintance had the house with the “cool cars”. An Alfa was one of these, amongst the various Porsches, Jaguars, and once even a Delorean. No, his choices would never have made a Consumer Reports Best Buy, but how awesome these cars were. No doubt better in the mind that on the road, but compared to today’s overweight cars, wow. Thanks for the time trip. A emotional car like this is like choosing a Harley. Viewed on paper, you would have to ask why? But if that is the question you are asking, you just don’t get it. Keep these interesting old car reviews coming…

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Never drove an Alfa. Always loved the looks of the Spider, but mine would have to come with Japanese reliability. Which brings us to what is truely exciting about Alfa coming back to the US – will they do it right this time? Are the current products reliable? What is their brand image? Why would I buy a four door sedan from a sports car maker? Will they be strictly bi-costal in terms of availability and support?

    I love the possibility of a company coming here and making the D3 look like they’ve got their act together.

  • avatar
    JJ

    From living in Europe, I know the reliability issues that are attributed to Alfa in the US are not representative anymore of the reality.

    With the 156 (1998) they made a first big step forwards in terms of reliability and it seems the new generation (159, 149) will be better still. The 156/147 were about on par with much of the German competition (VW/Opel), which obviously is worse than the Japanese but quite acceptable to me. In Europe the reliabilty of the Japanese is largely offset by the much higher service costs. New FIATs also do quite well in reliability tests nowadays, so it’s looking good.

    The awful part about European cars–especially VW, MB and BMW–is that attitude of treating North American customers and dealers like proverbial lepers persists to this day. It would be problematic for Honda or Toyota to do it (they don’t–the Asians are very good about warranty work); yet VW and MB do it regularly and I’ll wager there’s executives who can’t understand why their collective reputations are in the tank.

    In Europe, there is a very different mentality about customer is king than in the US. That has both it’s benefits but also drawbacks…

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    i owned an X1/9. what a magnificent car. LIke a go-card, unlike anything on the road, attracted all kinds of attention, fun fun fun. Just what my 25 year old self needed.

    Of course it started falling apart almost as soon as i drove it out of the dealer. It overheated all the time. The drivers seat broke, the driver window handle broke. what a mess.

    but my god what a ride, i still remember the wail of the engine, it gave me goosebumps. U didnt as much get into it, u put it on. LOved to be flailed, always came back for more. amazing vehicle, i miss it so bad. Nothing like it on the road today except the Lotus, but i can barely fit into that.

    sigh. few sexy cars anymore.

  • avatar
    BigChiefMuffin

    My mother had 2 Alfa Spyders, a late 70′s and one of the last ones. My brother had one, and my first girlfriend had one. These things have followed me wherever I go. And the thing is, by any objective measure, they’re crap cars – shoddily made ( even the last ones ), geriatric handling, a nice engine but no real performance. The thing is, none of them cared a bit. My father owned a 959, 275 and an EB110 – he told my mother that she could get anything she wanted, and she still chose another Spyder. They lived in the south of France and, to tell the truth, she probably made the right call. For anyone who enjoys living more than driving, it is the perfect car – stylish, different, doesn’t offend anyone but simply raises a smile and sometimes a waive from other road users. The strange thing is that, with so many car manufacturers these days claiming to be developing niche models, no one – not even Alfa – have really managed to do this with any current car. How strange and sad….

    Great article – let’s have more in this vein.

  • avatar

    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.

    Count me among those that worship at TOV, so this line caught my eye.

    Granted, variable timing has been around for a while – there was an aftermarket automatic timing adjust cam pulley available watercooled VWs back in the 80s – I know, I had a 79 Scirocco.

    Remember, though, that VTEC is timing and lift. I don’t recall anyone doing both until (for the US market) the 92 Integra GS-R.

    Nit-picking aside, nice review. Count me as another who is liking the “old car” reviews.

  • avatar
    kid cassady

    I think it’s important to remember context here – back then, 9.5 seconds was considered decent performance off the line, especially for a car powered by a four-cylinder NA engine. The far more practical, but less saucy, ’84 Porsche 944 NA still took a woeful 9.0 seconds to get to sixty.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    I owned an Alfa in the 70′s – The spider was a fun car with an aluminum DOHC engine, a 5 speed, 4 wheel disc brakes, and fuel injection and (as I recall 50/50 weight distribution). Those were rare features in those days.

    The Spider was a joy to drive. It would -always- do whatever you asked of it. I think that the author underestimates the car’s abilities (although I never drove the later 80′s versions so things might have changed by then).

    I remember reading a review of a late 60′s spider that really summed up the Alfa experience well.
    The author and a friend were testing the spider and found it nice enough, but not too exciting on the mountain roads they were using for the test. They stopped for a late lunch at a mountaintop cafe and lazed away the afternoon.

    They came out to the car about an hour before sunset, with a two hour drive home, and soon discovered that the headlights weren’t working. Typical.

    The answer: get home before sunset. The harder the author pushed the car, the more it responded. They made it back home just as the sun was fading below the horizon, with a new love for Alfas.

    His conclusion:

    Always drive your Alfa like it’s an hour before sunset, and you’re two hours away from home.

    If Alfa comes back to the U.S. and there’s any way I can afford one, I’ll own another one, and you practical types can go to Hel Toyota.

    Having said all that: In 1986, I bought my first Acura Integra. It had all the virtues of my Alfa (an aluminum DOHC engine, a 5 speed, 4 wheel disc brakes, and fuel injection); it was fun to drive, and it never, ever, needed to see the mechanic.

  • avatar
    Morea

    It should be pointed out that in 1986 the Spider Graduate was the bottom of the line Alfa Romeo for sale in the United States. It would be more relevant to write a review on the 1986 GTV 6 with its 2.5 liter V6 and 0-to-60 time of 8.8 sec or the 1988 Alfa Romeo Milano Verde with its 3.0 liter V6 and 0-to-60 time of 7.7 sec.

    More broadly, Alfa Romeo is known historically for its 4 seater coupes. Post-WW2 these have been the top of the model range. Only in the United States is Alfa synonymous with the spider.

    Put it this way, Alfa Romeo is more BMW and less Porsche; i.e. 4 seaters over 2 seaters.

  • avatar
    TR3GUY

    I learned to drive on my dad’s old TR, because he just bought an Alfa. I never wanted to drive my car again. Reliability HA! But a 1967 Alfa going down the highway at 110 felt very secure (I was 18 at the time). Pulling away from the light sounded like tearing silk. It was a head turner and just plan sex! But as TTAC says if you want idea and reliability get an MX5. Damp, didn’t start, Clutch ahh, Warped head, part of the fun. After buying a TR-3 10 years ago in memory of it being my first car, I dumped it for and ’01 Miata and now have an ’06. Every so often I see an Alfa or Rover 2000 for sale and think about buying it, then I remember that the money spent on the TR could have bought a really nice BMW and I move on.

  • avatar
    Zarba

    My wife has a 1990 Spider Graduate. Upgraded to the Quadrifoglio’s 15″ ‘telephone dial’ wheels.

    She’s owned it since new, and it served as her daily driver for 8 years.

    Reliability: The 1990 was a “transition year”, with the old body style and newer Bosch Motronic engine controls. The car never failed to start, even when the temp was in the single digits.

    Overall, it has been very reliable, never leaving us stranded. The key to these cars is regular (maniacal) maintenance. You have to stay on top of anything that goes wrong, or you’re in for a cascade of problems and repair costs. It helps if you’re willing to do basic preventative stuff yourself. The Alfa twin-cam holds 7 QUARTS of oil, so you have no excuse to let it get starved for dino juice. These cars were designed back when reliability was not a big concern, especially for Italians. Electrical gremlins can pop up and be Hell to track down, but the basic design is pretty simple and easy to fix.

    The biggest problem for these are the 3rd owners, who buy them used and who can’t afford or don’t understand the upkeep requirements. They let the car go, and then dump it on some poor schlub who has to fix years of neglect. You have to find and keep a good mechanic who understands them!

    Handling: Back in 1966, this was a great handling car, but let’s face it, chassis technoolgy has come a long, long way. These cars are best suited to top-down cruising at 7/10ths. Any decent Miata will run rings around one, but a Miata won’t ever have the soul of an Italian. Don’t get cocky, kid, and you’ll be just fine. An aftermarket chassis stiffener will do wonders, though.

    Ergonomics: The Italians, they spit on your ergonomics. One fine point: The shifter, directly hooked to the tranny and sprouting out of the console, is mechanical bliss. Watch out for those 2nd gear synchro’s, though.

    Engine: The classic Alfa twin-cam is a wonderful engine, and a thing of beauty under the hood. Emissions controls have dulled it’s rev-happy nature. Try a 60′s vintage Alfa, 1300 through 1750, and enjoy running that bad boy to 7,000 rpm all day long. The 2 liter still has all those wonderful mechanical sounds, and it returns great fuel economy to boot.

    We love the Spider, and it will remain the garage as long as we can keep the insurance paid. There’s nothing like an Italian roadster on a mountain road in the springtime.

    Tail of The Dragon, anyone?

    Maybe one day I’ll set keyboard to blog and defend the honor of my ’95 164 Quadrifoglio.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I’m curious. Is the two star rating in the context of today’s new cars, today’s available special interest cars or as compared to what was on the market in 1986?

  • avatar
    TR3GUY

    Well after reading all the posts I mentioned that Alfa was coming back with their already sold out car but might bring the brand back. I got this stare of death. “You just said the Miata is better quality, etc etc etc.” Well that was compaired to the 85 I said. There is something about an Alfa — If they’ve solved the oil leak and wiring problem, I know I’ll look. While there aren’t that many new MX5′s out there, the cool think about an Alfa (and mom’s Rover 2000) is that there were only a couple in town. And people who say, wow what’s that. It was so anti snob it was snob!

  • avatar
    ambaker

    As a former owner of a couple of these puppies, I highly recommend them for teenage boys. An Alfa will keep your children off the streets.

    On the other hand, I drove one from Idaho Falls,ID to Sacramento, CA after working a graveyard shift. 735 miles to be exact. I’ve driven that route in various cars and trucks over the years. The ride in the Alfa was the best. Got to Sacramento and I felt like I could turn it around and do it again. The car fit like a glove. No sore spots, no pressure points, no stiffness. All without inflatable back support, lumbar adjustement or other fancy new stuff.

    That being said, the Alfa is best as a second or third car. They have their own internal maintenance schedule. Which they do not share until it is time for you to fix them.

  • avatar
    stevelovescars

    Funny, the steering wheel in this car doesn’t look anything like laquered wood in the photos. Not to nit pick, but I believe that after 1984 none of the Alfa Spiders came with wood wheels and they lost the metal dash pods at the sametime. I can only assume that these changes were made either in the name of safety regulations or lowered manufacturing costs. OTOH, the Alfa Spider is one of the few cars around in which an aftermarket wood wheel doesn’t look out of place.

    I was at a charity auction a couple of weeks ago and there was a red Graduate almost identical to the one in your test for sale. It only had about 60k original miles and looked great. It sold for a market-correct $5,100. A lot of fun for the money. I was very tempted until I remembered the 1991 silver Miata sitting in my driveway at home.

    The late 1980s and early ’90s surely had a lot of interesting Japanese cars hitting the market. Objectively, any CRX, MR2 or Miata were all superior to the dated roadsters from Alfa, Fiat, and MG that were either being sold or on their last legs just a few years earlier. The Miata was the first modern roadster introduced since, I don’t know, the Triumph TR7?

    You do need some perpective in your article. In 1986 the Ford Mustang’s base 4-cylinder had something like 85 hp and build quality was abysmal… my girlfriend (who’s father was a Ford exec) got one new and the paint started peeling off before the car was 2 weeks old). Other alternatives included the Chrysler K-car convertible or from GM, a Cavalier or Sunbird convertible… white vinyl was available if you were feeling sporty. Against this, the Alfa with a twin-cam engine, slick 5-speed manual, one of the best operating tops ever designed (save for the Miata’s) and, of course, a bit of style was still dated, but not totally out of the running. Basically, nearly every car on the market sucked big time compared to even the cheapest appliance available these days.

    • 0 avatar
      asummers

      I had an ’89 Spider Quadrifoglio, bought in ’91 w/12000 miles. It was still under warranty and I used that warranty liberally, to the point where I’m sure Alfa lost a lot of money on that car. But I will say that in 10 years and 70000 additional miles as my daily driver, it never failed to start and get me home safely (once the fuel pump died 300 feet from my parking lot and I could push it home, so I don’t count that) I drove it through Michigan winters and it never rusted. It’s biggest issue was head gaskets. I went through 4 in 40,000 miles. The last one was going 30K miles and holding strong when I sold the car. An ‘alfisti’ gave me the sage advice of using the aftermarket German gasket, and to retorque the head every 6 months regardless. That was easy to do as the head bolts sit on top in plain view. I think the key for these cars is to have a mechanic that knows them well and can impart this special knowledge. Overall it was a wonderful experience. I sold an Acura NSX, superior in every measurable way, and bought another Spider, this time a ’71 with the 1750 engine and Weber carbs, and I enjoy it so much more than the NSX.

  • avatar
    Rutlefan1

    Ok, I’ve got two Alfa Spiders I drive regularly — a silver ’87 Quad and a black ’91 Veloce. The ’87 is a fair-weather 100 mi round trip daily driver; the ’91 the weekend touring car. Both cars run fine if maintained half-decently (you mainly have to keep on top of air hose replacement to keep the Bosch elec fuel injection systems running right). No rust issues of any concern. App 30 MPG. Say that for most 20+ year-old cars.

    I’ve owned a 911S, a Cayman, a Boxster, and an S2000, among others. The Boxster/Cayman and S2000 have the best dynamics of any car I’ve ever driven, but I always went back to my Alfas, so I got rid of the expensive alternates. Granted the Alfas are basically small, topless trucks, but I love everything about them (except maybe for the antiquated gear box with it’s weak synchros).

    And stop with the Miata comparisons; of course they’re dynamically better than Alfa’s ’60′s body on frame design, but if I wanted dynamics, I would stick with an S2000 or a Boxster instead of the homely (IMO) Miata.

  • avatar
    vintageyouth

    I currently own an Red ’87 Spider Graduate and love the car. My Alfa turns heads, I get waves and smiles and people stop me to talk about the car. The engine sounds gorgeous and has a nice Italian rev. I’m sorry, but the Miata is a very gay looking car. I wouldn’t be caught dead in one…and I’m gay! I’m also Italian and there is something great about driving an Italian-made car, with Italian fake-leather, Italian clutch and seat positioning and Italian engine sounds. It’s a piece of art that you drive. It has cost some money to repair, but has been much more cost-effective and more fun than buying a new car that is less unique.

    I recently overheard some folks talking as they walked past my car, they said, “Hey look, it’s a James Bond car.” Well…that was the GTV6 in Octopussy, but I’ll take it!

  • avatar
    DecaturCentaur

    I must really be the exception when it comes to old ALFAs….I’ve got a ’83 Spider Veloce that’s been driven just about every day for several years. It’s pushing 200,000 miles on its’ original engine and drivetrain…..have only had one breakdown, and that was my fault when I decided to change a blown fuse(dashlights) with a larger one,and without disconnecting the battery…very stupid and a big mistake, blew the main computer. That’s been six years ago and since then I’ve just changed the oil(with no oil use between changes). I’ve owned several autos, and this ALFA has been the most trouble-free(much better and more reliable than the Porsche 911S I gave up on at 36,000 miles}. My dad always told me that anything worth owning was worth some trouble…my Spider has been a very pleasant surprise as opposed to the 911 that was a tempermental piece of junk(and it’s a good thing, just try and find an ALFA mechanic in Alabama, USA).


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