Every supermodel has her favorite catwalks. In the case of the Alfa Romeo 8C Spider concept car, the most notable appearances so far have included Pebble Beach (concours d'elegance), Goodwood (Festival of Speed), the Nrburgring (Oldtimer Grand Prix), and Arese. Arese? That's the old home of Alfa Romeo, a tired and cluttered factory complex on the outskirts of Milan. When we arrived at the gate to take the lady in red carbon fiber out for a ride on the town, the clouds had opened up. Although the 8C does look pretty sexy with its tight-fitting black top strapped firmly into position, the angry Lombardian skies would have thoroughly soaked the flimsy fabric contraption in no time. Thankfully, the Italian car industry's recent state of decay provided a dry and convenient alternative location in the shape of three gutted assembly halls. Stadium-sized, with concrete floor slabs and long lines of evenly spaced cast-iron supports, these industrial monuments to former glory days turned out to be the perfect setting for this remarkable Alfa Romeo styling exercise. Penned by in-house designer Wolfgang Egger, the 8C Spider was inspired by legendary Alfa sports cars from the golden '60s such as the Giulia TZ and the 33 Stradale.
At the recent Paris show, Alfa Romeo unwrapped the production version of the 8C coupe. It goes on sale late next year for about $200,000, and as few as 500 units may be built. What about a production Spider, however? "This question is still subject to debate," answers Egger, lighting a Marlboro and puffing smoke toward the Vietato Fumare! sign on the wall. "Obviously, we would like to see the open-air version approved, too. Most of the design and engineering groundwork has been done. We now know how to package the folding top, we've made room for a 5.3-cubic-foot cargo bay, and we've triple-checked the body's torsional stiffness. But it remains to be seen whether or not we can find enough customers to justify the extra investment."
Most Italian concept cars have supertight cockpits, but the 8C Spider is an exception. The three-spoke steering wheel with the squared-off bottom adjusts in both reach and rake, the power-operated seats whir back a surprisingly long way, the footwell is deep, and there is sufficient clearance between the slab-sided door panel and the transmission tunnel. But when the manual roof is closed, the swayback silhouette causes taller people to duck and crouch in discomfort. The show car is fitted with a somber mix of black leather and brushed aluminum, but Egger has prepared a variety of alternative color schemes.
When I finally get in, I'm firmly secured in position by a clamshell carbon-fiber seatback and a merciless seatbelt. The aluminum pedals are well-spaced, but the clutch is too heavy. Unlike the production coupe, the 8C Spider concept isn't fitted with the paddleshift Cambiocorsa transmission we know from various Maseratis. Instead, it features the traditional six-speed manual from the Maserati GranSport Coupe. These cogworks can only be described as the second-best choice. First gear refuses to stick most of the time, reverse is hard to find, and the considerable slack in the shift pattern suggests that this particular gearbox was filled with grappa, not gear lubricant. Thankfully, the 32-valve V-8 plays in a different league. Its sonorous sound track makes your eardrums go numb with emotion, its subtle vibrations tingle your spine, and its take-off performance is impressive enough to briefly make the two Alfa Romeo PR guys fear for their jobs.
"This thing can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds," claims Egger, grinning from ear to ear, "which underscores that the 8C is a serious driving machine, not a boulevard poseur. We expect a maximum speed of about 185 mph. Theoretically, the car could go even faster, but the drag coefficient currently holds at 0.39, because we insist on zero lift at the front axle and downforce at the rear. That's why the rear spoiler points skyward at a nineteen-degree angle. Since we fabricated the entire body and the interior of carbon fiber, this droptop tips the scales at about 3300 pounds. The weight distribution works out to a perfectly balanced 50/50."
Compared with its closely related donor car, the Maserati GranSport Spyder, the Alfa Romeo 8C is 176 pounds lighter, 2.4 inches wider, 1.2 inches lower, and 1.6 inches longer. The wheelbase grew by 4.3 inches, and it now exactly matches the footprint of the Maserati GranSport Coupe.
With the exception of the heavy clutch and vague gearbox, the 8C Spider drives like a dream. Shod with twenty-inch Pirelli PZero tires (245/40 in the front, 275/35 in the back), the striking two-seater turns this sleepy industrial complex into an impromptu slalom course, with zero-tolerance steel pylons and unmarked random excavations thrown in as additional handicaps. Despite the treacherous, dusty concrete surface, the red rocket corners with precision and sharpness. The steering is accurate, progressive, quick, and informative. The brakes, four ventilated discs straddled by fat Brembo calipers, know the full spectrum between fine retardation and instant freeze-frame. The suspension--unequal-length control arms all around but with none of the electronic trickery they are so fond of in Modena --reads the road with a confidence-inspiring mix of translation and interpretation.
If the 8C looks a little familiar from some angles, this has more to do with managerial fluctuations than with fast-moving fashion trends. After all, this shape was first shown in Frankfurt in 2003 to rave reviews, so the engineers quickly installed an interior and brought the stage-two model to Geneva in March 2004. Herbert Demel, then head of Fiat Auto, which owns Alfa Romeo, was fired before he could point his thumb in any direction, and his successor, Sergio Marchionne, was kept busy simply finding the money to pay the water and electricity bills--it was touch and go for Fiat as recently as two years ago. Did we forget somebody? Oh yes, there was KarlHeinz Kalbfell, who ran Alfa Romeo until September 2005 and Maserati until this past September. The former BMW manager was reportedly also a fan of the new sports car, but as he struggled to generate the required funds, his underlings quietly tapped other sources to keep the project ticking over. The Maserati connection remained intact all the way through the long gestation process, but the originally planned tubular spaceframe was eventually ditched in favor of a carbon-fiber monocoque, because, says Egger, "It didn't meet the pedestrian protection and crash performance requirements."
Despite the brand-new synthetic skin, the 8C Spider is, in essence, a Maserati in disguise. The transaxle layout is a straightforward carryover from the GranSport, as is the Cambiocorsa gearbox installed in the coupe. The engine was definitely not conceived in Arese, either. The beautifully detailed V-8 is a 4.7-liter version of the Maserati 4.2-liter unit. Rated at 450 hp, it produces more horsepower than both the Quattroporte and the Gran-Sport Coupe. In terms of displacement, the 8C engine even edges the Ferrari F430, which uses a 4.3-liter derivative of the same matrix. With maximum torque of 347 lb-ft available at 4750 rpm, the Alfa engine whips up more twist action than the F430, and it also distances both Maseratis.
This positioning doesn't make a lot of sense on an intracorporate level. Why does the least prestigious premium brand get the brawniest drivetrain? Who knows? Although the F430 replacement should benefit from a boost in power and torque, the GranSport replacement will be fitted with a mildly tweaked 4.2-liter unit.
The 8C Spider is a handbuilt concept, but it works well enough to keep breaking the lap record inside the shuttered Alfa factory again and again. The back straight of the building is long enough for a full blast in third gear, so here we go once more, molto vivace. With the throttle butterflies wide open and the four tailpipes blowing like chrome trumpets, you can almost see the plaster crack, and you can hear the skylights rattle in their frames. Redlined at 7800 rpm, the 90-degree V-8 keeps pushing you deep into the Sparco racing seat, which was originally developed for the Ferrari Enzo. Unlike the 8C coupe, which is all carbon fiber inside, the Spider's cockpit is dominated by black leather. Black is also the color of choice for the steeply raked windshield frame and for the steel rollover-protection elements.
Of the 500 8C coupes that Alfa Romeo will build between late 2007 and early 2009, approximately 100 cars will be exported to North America. After an absence of more than a decade from the world's largest new-car market, the brand plans to return to the States with a high-visibility, low-volume product that will be distributed through select Maserati dealers. Quite a few of the allocated vehicles have been preordered by owners of the classic Alfa 8C 2300, of which 188 units were built between 1931 and 1934. If there is demand for more of the same, the company could bring in perhaps fifty more cars, plus, of course, the 8C Spider.
According to those in the know, the parts situation is quite relaxed, thanks to the Maserati connection, and finding a suitable assembly site shouldn't be a problem. At this point, the 8C Spider squad is exploring four different avenues: Maserati in Modena, Bertone or Pininfarina in Turin, and Alfa's own in-house prototype shop. "We're always open to discussion," says Egger. "And we are every bit as enthusiastic about the Spider as we are about the coupe." I was ready to celebrate this statement with a donut that would have wrapped up a great day, despite the weather. But at 4000 rpm in first gear, the throttle cable suddenly snapped, and our supermodel slowed to idle speed. For the last few pictures, 15 mph was all the Spider could muster. No, dynamically not very exciting. But the perfect pace to dream about the day when this ragtop might join its coupe sibling on an Italian assembly line.