Euro Vision!

By: Dave Morley, Photography by: Coventry Studios


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Another Pininfarina masterpiece that almost became a 105 series drop top, penned by Bertone

Euro Vision!
1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600

recently filled in a gap in my cultural portfolio by watching the alleged classic movie The Graduate. Um …

Look, Anne Bancroft could have pulled off any role she cared to (and did you know she was married to Mel Brooks for four decades until her death in 2005?) with those bedroom eyes, and Dustin Hoffman was more or less playing his fidgety, breathless self for most of the flick. But the script? Yeah, nah. Same goes for the actual premise that saw old Dustin … Oh wait, maybe you haven’t seen it yet.

Anyway, the point being that, as is so often the case, the only thing about the film that hasn’t aged is the car. In this case, a 1966 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600. In fact, if anything, the 105 Series-based drop-top is sexier than ever. Which probably can’t be said of Dustin Hoffman (although I’m no expert).

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To be honest, the earliest Spiders (the Duetto) were the pick of the bunch to ogle, but there’s absolutely no doubt that even the later ones (with the exception of the fat-bumpered US-market version) were still gorgeous in that 1960s way only the best design houses like Pininfarina could consistently manage.

Funny thing is, Alfa nearly went with a Bertone concept for a drop-top 105-Series Giulia instead of the Spider. Back in 1963, a prototype was presented, which looked a lot like a Giulia coupe with no roof. Of course, it wasn’t that simple and the concept used a shorter wheelbase to get the proportions right. But for whatever reason, it never made it into production, Alfa switching to the Pininfarina design and waiting a further three years to plonk the original Spider on the turntable at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show.

Although we refer to it as the Duetto, the Spider was never officially called that due to a trademark dispute with a chocolate bar (of all things). So, Spider 1600 it was.

The early cars from 1966 to 68 used a 1570cc version of the remarkable Alfa twin-cam engine. And, as the name suggests, the four-banger was blessed with a double-overhead camshaft layout which, even though it still used two valves per cylinder rather than four, was an absolute revelation back when Mrs Robinson was still luring nervous boys between the sheets.

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In fact, so was the rest of the thing. Based as it was on the 105, the body was a monocoque and other elements were also pretty cutting edge. That included the disc brakes, twin side-draft Webers, sodium-filled exhaust valves, Pirelli radials and a five-speed manual box, even if the combination of an independent front and solid rear axle (albeit a De Dion set-up) was a bit more in line with the times.

All up, the original Spider weighed in at about 1000kg and, with just on 82kW or so, had a top speed of around 180km/h which was getting along in the mid-60s.

Just before the lovely, pert little boat-tailed, original shape disappeared, Alfa upped the power ante a notch with the 1750cc engine. Now with 91kW, top speed rose to 190km/h, but nothing else about the engine’s lovely flat torque curve or its willing smoothness changed. Nineteen-sixty-eight was also the year an entry-level Spider was introduced for some markets. With a 1300cc engine (borrowed from the 105 GT Junior) it boasted just 65kW but could still get to 170km/h with the right tail-wind.

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The second-gen cars (of which this is a fine example) got a modified tail which not everybody agrees was an improvement. But it certainly gave the car a more modern look from the rear-three-quarter angle if that’s what you wanted. Wisely, Alfa left the rest of the thing alone. That version landed in 1970 and stuck with the same engine options and outputs. But in 1971 or 1972 (depending on who you talk to) Alfa introduced the big banger, the two-litre version of the same engine, with almost 100kW (98, to be precise) and a speedo that could now give the 200 mark a fright.

The third and fourth-gen versions did what most latter-day variants of a great car do; they got fatter and uglier. You can blame USA crash regulations for most of it, but emission rules also took their toll on engine performance.

That said, it doesn’t really matter what version of the Spider you park in your driveway, it’ll be a fabulous thing to drive and, if treated with due respect, a terrific thing to own, too. Sure, these were complex cars when they were new, but the engineering has proven very robust over the years and the engines, in particular, feel, sound and are more or less unburstable.

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The gearboxes can be a bit frail in the synchro area, and any box that doesn’t shift smoothly into second when cold is a fair bet to be on the road to synchro-hell. Again, though, many an owner has figured that careful shifts until the oil is warm is a great alternative to the cost of a tranny overhaul.

Of course, the biggest potential drama is rust. Throw in the fact that convertibles rust faster than coupes anyway, and you can see why you don’t spot Spiders on the road much anymore. A good once-over with a fridge magnet is an absolute necessity before shaking hands on any Spider.

But find a good one, and I swear you’ll be amazed at just how good a car as old as this can feel. The engine is a true delight and every time you hoist the thing into a corner, you’ll wonder how on earth they managed to make the chassis so smooth and supple, yet still yearn for apexes the way it does.

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The car on these pages is a 1974 two-litre car with a few tasty features including the covered headlights, jazzy alloys and that eye-watering yellow-lime paintwork. It was recently bought as part of a job lot of cars by a collector and the Alfa doesn’t really fit with the rest of the vibe. So it’s being offered up for sale. Check the advert on tradeuniquecars.com.au and get in contact if this rather stunning little drop-top would make your life better.

Meantime, here’s the potential other nail in The Graduate’s culture-coffin. There’s a rumour that the Spider in the film was an early example of product placement, rather than being there for its stunning on-screen presence. The theory goes that Max Hoffman, the famous North American importer of luxury cars - who was also behind the Mercedes Gullwing, the BMW 507 and Porsche 356 Speedster - was also an Alfa Romeo dealer. And Dustin’s uncle. Maybe. 

VITAL STATS

Production run: 38,379

Body: Steel monocoque

Engine: 1962cc, 4-cylinder, dual carburettors

Power: 98kW at 5500rpm

Torque: 182Nm at 4400rpm

Performance: 

0-100km/h: 9.3 seconds

0-400m: 17.6 seconds

Gearbox: 5-speed manual

Suspension: Upper and lower wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar (f). Live axle, coil springs (r)

Brakes: Ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r) 

Wheels: Alloy, 14 X 5.5 inches

Tyres: Pirelli 185 70/14

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