Alwyn Brice had a fling with a latin lovely in Issue 86 (May 1996), and when it's as lovely as the Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider, who can blame him?
THE ALFA ROMEO GIULIA SPIDER
REMEMBER THE SIXTIES? If you were British it meant grooving in Chelsea, chicks and beatniks, Cuban heels, Afghan coats - and probably a Lambretta or Vespa for transport. But for a lucky few, those possessed with monied parents, a sports car was the ultimate accessory.
To really make the scene, the vehicle in question would have to possess two seats (no room for granny, man), be eye-catching, have a soft-top and preferably be finished in red. It would also benefit from being exotic: thus, at a stroke, all the UK's products were rendered square or trad, as we used to say. No, to really make your mark, an Italian car was the hip thing to have.
Across the continents, miles away from the UK's damp climate, Italy was only too happy to supply the goods. Latin designers with their intangible flair ensured their cars had instant appeal, both visually and mechanically.
Alfa Romeo were always synonymous with stylish, elegant vehicles and the Giulia Spider, available for just three years, was no exception to that rule. The car in this feature dates from 1964 and would have been the bee's knees along the Kings Road: mothers most definitely would not have approved.
If Abingdon's pride, MG, had been breaking new ground in 1955, then so had Alfa with their wares. That year saw the launch of the Giulietta Spider, a pretty little two-seater drophead powered by a four cylinder dohc engine which endowed it with a useful 65 bhp at 5500 rpm. The car immediately found favour with the motoring press because of its torquey performance and sharp handling. By 1962 the package had been upgraded and the Giulia Spider, although visually similar, benefited from an extra 280cc and a fifth gear which enabled it to comfortably exceed the magic 100 mph.
The re-vamped and uprated Giulia was in production for just three years until 1965 and in that time relatively few rhd Spiders were manufactured: just 333 were produced in 1963 whilst 1964 saw a mere 67 made. These figures include the rare Veloce variant which was tuned to provide 129 bhp, compared to the standard Giulia's 106. Predictably, survivors are quite rare and Michael Lindsay, who looks after the club, has details of about 50 in the UK, not all of which are on the road. "Rust has proved to be the main problem. These cars didn't fare too well once they'd left the Mediterranean!"
His comments will doubtless have ex-Alfa owners of all sorts nodding in sympathy. Rust was the great leveller in the car world 30 years ago - and it levelled a good many Alfas along the way.
Thirty years ago a racing heritage meant that any new Alfa had to perform well in competition and the Giulia fulfilled this criteria, incorporating design details from its saloon brethren. Whilst there were more mechanically-advanced vehicles about, the Alfa made up for any shortcomings by clever engineering. It used a live rear axle which was light and located within an aluminium casing. Telescopic dampers and coil spings controlled vertical play whilst a triangulated bar arrangement to the offside of the differential acted as a lateral stabiliser. The whole affair was positively located by radius arms, a superior arrangement to hordes that still relied upon somewhat agricultural leaf-springing.
Up front the Alfa employed wishbones of unequal length together with telescopic dampers and coil springs. Combined, this suspension layout provided a soft and absorbent ride which greatly enhanced the car's handling and consequently driver satisfaction.
Looking at a respectable example almost 30 years on, the immediate impression is one of how diminutive the car is. In fact the Alfa assumes Dinky toy proportions when placed in modern traffic and makes much that is on the road appear overweight and clumsy in style. Even when parked next to a run-of-the-mill British roadster it still seems tiny; it's almost as if stylists were given a minimalist brief when they began designing these cars.
The car is well-proportioned and lacks any outlandish design features. A typical Alfa front exhibits a vertical grille and horizontal air intakes. Bumpers are on the chunky side, though, for such a delicate car. The flat bonnet is spoiled a little by the exposed hinges which sit at the foot of the shallow screen. Behind the cockpit the boot slopes gently away, very much in MG fashion but again it is a little marred by an unnecessarily large badge and lock. The rear bumpers sport large overriders - but maybe all this was an aid to Italian drivers?
Closer inspection of this particular car reveals that owners have carried much work over the years. There are wheel arch repairs (indeed much of the body has had surgery at some time or another) and the chassis has also come in for attention. Despite this, there has been little problem with the mechanics and the current owner is quite pleased about how the engine and gearbox have stood up to the test of time - which says a lot for the quality of Alfa's engineering.
Even with the hood up it's not too difficult to get into the Alfa because the doors open wide to help you. You most definitely drop down into this car; comfortable bucket seats give good support and you are able to stretch your legs out in the footwell. Again, a large steering wheel sits fairly close to your chest but more worrying is the fact that it drops virtually into your lap, thus encouraging a splayed leg driving position. If you're of chunky build then you're going to have problems in this car...
Some will find the actual siting of the wheel a little annoying also: there is a most definite offset to the left and if you've long arms it becomes obvious that you drive the car from an angle. Indeed, I found the wheel boss was actually over my left leg; the car's owner, whilst admitting this detail, has come to accept it over the years.
The painted dashboard (heavily padded on top) is coherent in that the three main dials are spread out in an arc and are clearly visible through the thin steering wheel. Mind you, their visual impact is rather low-key and they do not compare with the usually sharp dials of a British sportscar of the era. Bits and bobs abound; at least six switches are tucked away under the dash and their use is not immediately apparent. Good to see column mounted switchgear, though, with an easily operated indicator stalk, even if it didn't always self-cancel.
Trim-wise, there is little to write home about. Painted metal extends to the door panels into which are let small padded sections containing the winders and handles. For an expensive import, it really does become a poor cousin.
The Alfa's transmission tunnel is quite fat but shallow and there is space alongside the clutch for your left foot to rest. The gear shift is long and comes up towards you at a sharp angle, terminating in a hefty boss, again not quite the expected thing in such a little car. A twist-off umbrella type handbrake hangs under the dash, to the right of the wheel in Lotus fashion, its location allowing the driver that little bit extra room in the cockpit. Indeed there is plenty of width inside for two, despite the car's seemingly petite stature.
Dash-mounted, the rear view mirror reveals very little of what is behind through the small rear window; added to this are the big blind spots created by a lack of rear side panes. This does mean you need to take care when overtaking or pulling out in traffic; a better bet is to take the hood down to increase visibility.
This is a simple exercise in which the two front catches are released and the hood is lifted clear of the two retainers mounted just aft of the cockpit. Like the MG, the hood stows behind the seats although there is a little room left; more importantly, there are no clumsy side screens to dispose of.
This Alfa required no choke the day I put the car through its paces and it pulled away cleanly from rest when asked. Its engine proved to be spirited in performance with plenty of urgency about it, together with that distinctive raspy note when it revved hard. And this, in essence, is what an Alfa does best; the twin-cam is sweet and flexible throughout its range and the car lends itself to quick gearchanges, despite the long throws of the gearstick. The supreme advantage is that of the fifth gear; taken for granted today, one has to remember that three speed boxes were still on the market in 1964. The Alfa was thus able to cruise comfortably at 80 or so and not sound as if it was doing the driver an enormous favour at the same time.
Engine noise, though, does build up, and with the hood raised the combination of wind and engine roar can become a touch tiring. In traffic a degree of whine in the lower gears became apparent and synchromesh on second was weak at times, indicating that some work was due on the gearbox.
If the gearbox was satisfactory in the main, the pedals fell short of expectations. The accelerator, a tapered sliver of steel, was lightly weighted and perfectly sited for the right foot but the clutch and brake, sprouting from the same source on the floor, were not. The problem was that these two pedals were positioned too low above the floorpan and in consequence a sizeable left foot (such as my own), when resting on its heel, was overlapping considerably. The only answer was to lift the foot and literally step on the pedals and this detracted from the quick movements that might otherwise have occurred. Once the art has been mastered, there is little to worry about but it required care since the clutch had to be fully depressed before a gear could be selected.
The handling of the Spider proved to be most satisfying. Admittedly there is some roll and pitching on quick corners but there is a surefootedness about the car which encourages enthusiastic driving. Understeer gives way to fairly neutral handling and the car would have probably benefited from a new set of dampers to fully illustrate its versatility. Steering was light and acceptably sharp without noticeable wander and only prominent bumps tended to knock it off its line. On the whole the Spider revealed itself to be a tight and responsive little package - one that was in its element topless on a sunny day.
And that legendary short trip for two could be comfortably undertaken in the Alfa. The boot is disproportionately generous for such a little vehicle and the floor largely flat, aiding the carriage of small suitcases and the like. The filler cap locates under the bootlid and so is invisible from the outside: a neat Italian feature that once again helps the flowing lines of the car.
Cost, to those who just had to have one back in 1964, was a thumping £1,396: a late MGA would have set you back £1100 by comparison. But looking at the benchmarks of performance and practicality, the Alfa with five gears, a twin cam engine and superb Latin styling had few peers in its price range.
Now, where did I put those flowered jeans?
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