Alfa Romeo’s popular and accessible sports car, the Spider, was sold in the United States from 1966 until 1994, its long run divided into four series. The early cars, with their distinctive boattail styling, were immortalized as Dustin Hoffman’s ride in The Graduate. Generally regarded as the most beautiful iteration of Pininfarina’s design, these Spiders also are the most basic in spec, the rarest, and the most expensive. After skipping U.S. exports in 1970 (as it had in ’68), Alfa brought back the Spider for 1971, beginning the second series, with a chopped tail and fussy Spica fuel injection for its enlarged 2.0-liter four-cylinder; heavy rubber bumpers arrived for 1975. The next iteration, the ’83 to ’90 Series 3 models, got a controversial black rubber ducktail rear spoiler, better-integrated bumpers, and (in ’86) interior revisions. They enjoy more reliable Bosch fuel injection and available air-conditioning (both of which actually came on board in ’82). For the final cars, the 1991-’94 models, the styling was smoothed out, power steering and a driver’s air bag were added, and an automatic transmission (!) was optional; they’re a bit more powerful but also slightly heavier.
Each era has its fans, but the Series 3 cars sit at a happy convergence of availability, affordability, and usability. Production peaked in 1986, and because Spiders were often used as fair-weather cars, there are plenty still around, even in the Snow Belt.
For most of the Series 3 years, Spiders were sold in three trim levels: the basic Graduate (steel wheels, vinyl seats, crank windows), the more deluxe Veloce (leather upholstery, power windows and mirrors, aluminum wheels, air-conditioning), and the flashy Quadrifoglio (two-tone interior with gray leather and red carpets, side skirts, removable hard top). Mechanically, the three versions are identical, with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 115 hp (120 hp in 1990), a five-speed manual transmission, and four disc brakes.
“This is my favorite Spider,” says Enrique Zuniga, owner of the 1984 Spider Veloce you see in these pictures. “It has the right combination of classic cosmetics and modern mechanicals.” Zuniga has a pretty sound basis of knowledge, being a director of the Alfa Romeo Owners Club (www.aroc-usa.org) and also having owned Spiders since 1975, when he bought his first one as a college student. Today, among the seven Alfas he owns are three Spiders.
Sliding behind the wheel, we find that the driving position has the pedals close and the steering wheel — a beautiful wooden wheel in ’83-’85 cars — far away, but it is less extreme than expected. The other immediately apparent oddity is the location of the stick shift, which pokes out from the lower center dash, but it, too, is not really awkward to use, as it’s within easy reach and possesses beautifully positive shift action. A charming aspect of the pre-’86 cars are the twin, deeply hooded speedometer and tachometer gauges. This ’84 car has the more basic seats with leather upholstery; ’86 and later versions got more contoured buckets. Leather was reserved for the Veloce and Quadrifoglio models; the Graduate got less fancy but more durable vinyl. At six feet, I had plenty of room, and there’s a modest cargo shelf behind the reclining buckets.
The Spider’s DOHC four-cylinder engine makes 115 hp in stock trim, and it’s generally criticized for being slow off the line, but it wakes up once you get moving. The Alfa engine is happiest in the upper rev ranges, generally from 3000 rpm to the redline at 5800. Zuniga’s car, however, has been updated with period Alfa performance parts, which give it a loping idle but really enhance takeoff. This Spider has no problem keeping up with the aggressive action on New Jersey freeways. You’ll hear the engine working, though. As Zuniga puts it, “When I got my first Spider, my friends could hear me coming from down the block.”
Hearing the engine sing is a part of the unfiltered experience of driving a Spider. So, too, is the unassisted steering, which provides great feel and reasonable efforts even at parking speeds. The disc brakes have plenty of bite, and the suspension is lively yet doesn’t crash over bumps. This is one fun-to-drive roadster that doesn’t feel out of its element in modern traffic.
Also contributing to the Spider’s livability are its large trunk and a dead-easy convertible top that can be raised or lowered with one hand. Parts aren’t hard to find, but it can help to have an Alfa specialist nearby — someplace like Col-Gen Motors in Newark, New Jersey, where we collected Zuniga’s Spider. Run by first-generation Italian Americans Mike and Tom deGennaro, the shop’s Alfa roots go back to Tom and Mike’s father, co-founder Angelo deGennaro, who worked with Alfa Romeo USA in New Jersey and before that with Alfa in Italy. It’s the kind of place where you’re offered an Italian pastry (from their sister’s restaurant) while you’re waiting, and customers are greeted in a mix of Italian and English.
The Italian connection is undeniably part of the Alfa charm, but these cars appeal to more than just Italian Americans. The Spider was one of the few sports car bright spots in the 1980s, so it left an imprint for many who grew up then. It’s also just a fun, affordable, relatively modern roadster. And it’s not so valuable that owners are dissuaded from upgrading or personalizing as they see fit. For someone who doesn’t demand maintenance-free Japanese reliability, the Spider is a more characterful, collectible alternative to a used Mazda Miata.
ENGINE: 2.0L DOHC I-4, 115-120 HP, 117-119 LB-FT
TRANSMISSION: 5-SPEED MANUAL
SUSPENSION, FRONT: CONTROL ARMS, COIL SPRINGS
SUSPENSION, REAR: LIVE AXLE, COIL SPRINGS
WEIGHT: 2550 LB
$13,495 (1985 Graduate); $23,950 (1990 Quadrifoglio)
An Alfa Spider represents a very affordable way to get the classic roadster experience. The
Series 3 cars are the least expensive of the Spider iterations, and they’re never going to be any cheaper. With an excellent, easy-to-use top; a roomy trunk; effective air-conditioning (if equipped); and a comfortable cabin (assuming you can deal with the long-arms/short-legs driving position), the Spider is a truly usable vintage roadster. The vocal engine, direct gearshift, and vivid steering provide a driving experience unlike a modern car. Steer clear of neglected examples, which can be hideously expensive to revive, and watch out for rust in the rocker panels, as well as weak second-gear synchros.