1986 Alfa Romeo Spider Graduate Review

Anthony Erickson
by Anthony Erickson
1986 alfa romeo spider graduate review

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.
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  • DecaturCentaur DecaturCentaur on May 30, 2012

    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).

  • B_w B_w on Jan 04, 2019

    This was a fine review, a trip down memory lane of such a lovely car, until it became sexist. Why does a woman become the passenger? Clearly an attitude also from the same era.

  • Dukeisduke The Chinese carmaker Nio also has a phone out (900 bucks!), and it has all kinds of hooks into their cars.
  • Dukeisduke I can't figure out who they plagiarized more - BMW (the M1), Toyota (the Gen 3 Supra), or the DeLorean. Maybe all three!
  • FreedMike Not to toot my own horn, but I seem to recall saying that these ICE bans would get walked back a bit due to realpolitik. Wouldn't shock me if California is next.
  • Johnny ringo Mechanically the GTOs of this period were good cars but their styling was an absolute disaster, this was one of the most spectacular cars of the 1960's. When Ford redesigned the Mustang during about the same time they made sure it looked like a Mustang. I pulled up behind a car in a parking lot around this time period, it looked as if someone had decided for some reason to customize a Chevrolet Cavalier. Then I walked by it and saw the GTO emblem. Saying it was designed to be subtle is a cop out as in the 1960's Pontiac had the most aggressive styling of any automaker; subtlety was not part of the design.
  • Undead Zed Interior and exterior looks clean, but the fact that he doesn't mention mileage at all in the ad bothers me. That combined with the mods and that little "over $36k USD invested" quip at the end are throwing up flags in my head. If the mileage is below 150k and it's accident free, then this could be a pretty good deal, if you don't mind the slushbox. But as-is I'd want to run a carfax/autocheck on the title to see what pops up before making an offer.