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Collectible Alfa Romeo Spider Roadsters

by Bob Hagin

March 6, 2001

"Alfa Romeo is a very old and prestigious company."

These words were among the first spoken to an old friend who went to work for that Italian auto maker several decades ago as a factory field representative and troubleshooter. The speaker was an old-world Alfa employee who was interviewing my friend for the position. He apparently wanted to impress upon him that Alfa was not a fly-by-night organization with no substance.

Alfa Romeos haven't been sold in this country since 1995, and even then in very small numbers. The last of them were model 164 four-door sedans, which as I recall were somewhat undistinguished but well-made.

But it wasn't the sedans, trucks or other plebeian products put out by this "...old and prestigious..." company that it's best known for in the U.S. The items that are most treasured and respected by the average aficionado are its post-World War II sports cars; two-seater roadsters (although they all had roll-up windows) that were built like Swiss watches compared to their contemporaries of the day. In 1955, the rulers of the "affordable" sports car world here were the "traditional" British makes like MG, Austin Healey and Triumph, all built from uninspired parts gleaned from dull British sedans. Their engines were so archaic that they bordered on being antiques laid down in the '30s.

On the other hand, the Alfa Giulietta was a production line "exotic." Its 1.2-liter engine had an aluminum head that sported dual overhead camshafts, just like the race cars of the day. The block was also aluminum and had removable "wet" cylinder sleeves that could be replaced as the engine wore. The chassis was of a monocoque design that integrated the body and frame into one piece, and the suspension was an adjustable work of art. The solid rear axle was also a masterpiece of lightness and provided the little machine with almost unequaled roadholding as well as a comfortable ride. This latter distinction was an attribute that was nearly unheard of in contemporary sports cars. It had huge Alfin-type drum brakes that were made of aluminum, with iron liners bonded into them via a special patented process. They were superior to any other drum brake system at that time.

When those first Giuliettas showed up in the showrooms of foreign car dealers (there were few if any "stand alone" import dealers back then), they came in two degrees of trim. The Sprint Normale was the milder of the two. It had a single carburetor feeding its four cylinders and was intended to be an everyday touring car with lots of comfort for the driver and passenger.

On the other hand, the Sprint Veloce (a musical term meaning "with great rapidity") was a hopped-up version of the same car. It had a pair of two-throat, side-draft Weber carburetors and other internal changes that boosted the horsepower from 80-something to somewhere in excess of 90. This was a considerable boost in such a small displacement engine to be used on the street.

A well-heeled acquaintance and fellow member of our sports car club bought a Veloce with the intention of racing it. Under his keen eye, I was allowed to put it through its paces one night and needless to say, I was impressed. Its acceleration seemed as good as the all-conquering Jaguar XK120 and it stuck to the turns better than anything I'd driven up to that time. It was, in essence, the antithesis of the British sports cars that the rest of us owned.

Although they weren't as popular with us pur sang enthusiasts as the top-down, wind-in-the-hair open versions, Alfa also sent over coupe versions of the original small Alfa sports cars. And to an even lesser degree, we appreciated the small-engined Alfa four-door sedans that were probably meant to be Autostrade cruisers for Italian families with a penchant for driving in the fast lane and leaving prosaic Fiats behind.

Alfa Romeo brought exquisite open two-seater as well as coupes to the U.S. as late as 1993. From 1985 to 1990, Alfa marketed its decontented "Graduate" model two-seater which capitalized on the starring role the car enjoyed in the movie of the same name. In that 1967 award-winning film, a young Dustin Hoffman drives his Alfa roadster to rescue Katharine Ross from the "wrong" marriage to the tunes of Simon and Garfunkel. I'm told the Graduate label boosted Alfa sales somewhat during that period.

In spite of the political instability of the changing Italian governments (Alfa was state-owned) and labor unrest, the company survived. It was a part of Fiat (also state-owned) and most Alfa fans looked for Alfa to disappear.

Now there's been a new wrinkle in the Alfa Romeo fabric. Our own General Motors now has a controlling interest in Fiat and recently announced its plans to reintroduce the Alfa line here in 2004 at selected Saab dealerships. No doubt it will include the newest version of the Spider.

Welcome back, Mrs. Robinson.