1979 Spider

Affordable Classic: 1971-81 Alfa Romeo Spider

Two ways to view the Spica fuel injection system: “diabolical” or “misunderstood”

by Rob Sass

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Universally regarded as two of the best open sports cars of all time, Alfa Romeo's 750-series Giulietta Spider and 101-series Giulia Spider of the late 1950s and early '60s were a tough act to follow. To remain the perennial darling of the enthusiast press, Alfa's new convertible would need to be nothing short of an improvement on perfection. Of course, Alfa failed at such an impossible task—or at least it seemed so when the 105-series Duetto debuted in 1966.

Whereas the Giulietta was regarded as a stylistic tour de force, critics panned the Duetto as contrived, heaping scorn upon its boat-tail rear and pronounced side scallop. That the car disappointed many onlookers when new may be hard to believe today, as the Duetto has since been elevated to iconic status, partly as a result of its appearance in "The Graduate," but more because its lines have simply aged well.

That hadn't yet happened in 1970, so Alfa tried to remedy things by lopping off about six inches from the rear of the "Spider 1750," as the car was called at its U.S. introduction in 1971. This new body style, whether you describe it as a "Kamm-tail," "square-tail" or by its least flattering appellation, the "chop-tail," soldiered on essentially unchanged until 1991.

Critics were unmoved by the new styling. Road & Track, in a startling about-face to its usual adoration of anything adorned with the cross and snake, stated testily that it "didn't care much for the original design and we don't consider this change to be much improvement, if any."

Aside from the styling controversy, for the first time a mechanical issue dogged U.S. Alfas. In 1969, displacement of Alfa's venerable twin-cam four-cylinder had been increased to 1779 cc, and a second displacement increase in 1972 bumped the engine up to a full 2 liters. Every Spider built for the U.S. market from 1969 through 1981 also came equipped with quite possibly the most controversial device ever fitted to a post-war European sports car, the dreaded Spica mechanical fuel injection system.

Stung by its inability to emission-certify cars for the 1968 (and subsequently the 1970) model years, Alfa adapted this system, which had been developed by a subsidiary for use in diesel engines. The precise workings (or non-workings) of the inezione Spica are beyond the scope of this missive, however, opinions as to its merits—or lack thereof—have been known to spark fisticuffs among Alfisti.

Editor Martin, an Alfa fanatic, has called the Spica system "diabolical," and characterized it as difficult to set up and maintain. Others, however, view it as "misunderstood." Given that I was once stranded by a broken injection pump belt while driving a college girlfriend's Spider in Nederland, CO, I'm inclined to agree with our esteemed Editor and say that a set of Webers is an enhancement. Whatever your opinion of the Spica system, you must accept the fact that its good health is critical to enjoying the car.

The rest of the Spider is refreshingly straightforward. Rear suspension consists of coil springs and a live axle located by a Panhard rod. It works well enough under most conditions that you'd swear it was independent. Relatively soft springs combined with an anti-roll bar strike a nice balance between a comfortable ride and sharp handling and help make the Spider a fairly neutral handler. The worm and sector steering is light and precise, especially when tires close to the original 165-14 size are used. Vacuum-assisted four-wheel disc brakes provide decent stopping power.

I think the styling of the square-tail Spider has aged well, especially the pre-1975 cars with the smaller chrome bumpers. They have an exotic look from the front, especially when retrofitted with Plexiglas Carello headlight covers that were standard on earlier Duettos. Ditch the steel wheels in favor or a set of five-spoke Cromodoras, BWAs or Panasports and the Spider really comes into its own. Cars built after 1975 with rubber bumpers are less attractive, but still not as aesthetically compromised as others of the era (think rubber-bumper MGBs).

The best part of the Spider is its cockpit. The main Veglia instruments are found in two "impale-o-matic" pointed binnacles and a full complement of secondary gauges is located on the console in beefy chromed metal bezels. The oddest thing about the interior is the shifter that sprouts nearly horizontally out of the console.

The most common steering wheel is a great looking and feeling three-spoke wheel in real wood. Alfa's convertible top design on the Spider is nothing short of sublime. You can actually raise it or lower it from inside the car.

Much has been written about the driving position of the Spider. If your build is of the long-armed and short-legged type (more like that of Java Man than modern homo sapiens), you won't have any problems. Otherwise, you may be forced into an extended arm, splayed knee position, unpleasant at best, an invitation to a visit to the chiropractor at worst. Sit in a Spider before you buy one.

Things to watch out for are pretty obvious. Rust is your paramount concern and you must be sure the injection system is functioning correctly. The car should start easily from cold, idle should be even, and the engine should pull cleanly from low revs, without surging or backfiring. Be wary of soft second gear synchros and the ever-common coolant in the oil or white smoke. Rather than the selection of a new pontiff, this indicates a bad head gasket.

Compared to the Duetto and the mechanically identical 1750 and 2000 GTV coupes, Spiders are grossly undervalued, though the market is wising up. With 0-60 mph times under ten seconds and engineering superior to a TR6, an Alfa Spider clobbers its more expensive British competition in every department but sheer machismo. (Let's not even mention the tipsy, wheezing, 1975-80 MGB.)

So there you have it: Now is clearly the time to track down a good chop-tail, a car that may truly lay claim to being one of the last really worthwhile convertible sports cars to be had for less than ten grand.

Years Produced 1971-81
Number Produced approx. 68,500
Original List Price $4,705 (1971)
SCM Valuation $7,500-$10,000 (at time of print)
Tune-up Cost $200-$400
Distributor Caps $17
Chassis # Location plate in engine compartment
Engine # Location stamped on boss right side near distributor
Club Info Alfa Romeo Owners Club, P.O. Box 12340, Kansas City, MO 64116
Web Site http://aroc-usa.org
Alternatives 1968-85 Fiat 124/2000 Spider, 1975-80 MGB, 1990-93 Mazda Miata
Investment Grade D, but with hopes of a C someday
 
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