Buying Guide: Alfa Spider
Gorgeous and great to drive if sorted – here’s how to net a good one
What you need to know before you buy this little sports car.
Until relatively recently the Alfa Spider was surprisingly undervalued despite its excellent dynamics and appealing design. This was especially true of the earlier cars – and it’s these models that are now the most sought after and most valuable. But with a production run straddling four decades with four distinct series, the Alfa Spider range offers something for everyone.
Although each series has its own specification and exterior design, all are basically the same under the skin, so it’s a question of buying whichever model takes your eye. The S3 is the runt of the litter with its less cohesive styling, while the S4 has a following and was offered with a right-hand drive conversion (by Seaking or Bell & Colvill); look out for corrosion in the bulkhead of such cars.
The S4 has modern additions such as fuel injection, power steering and electric windows. Earlier cars are no more reliable even though they’re simpler – they’re also more likely to be rusty because they’re older and have inferior corrosion protection.
The 1300 is rare and came in S1 and S2 forms only. This is the sweetest-revving of the engines; although short on power it means you have to use those revs and the gears more, which gives a more involving driving experience. The 1750 and 2000 powerplants have significantly more performance, especially the latter with its extra low-down torque.
If you want an automatic you’ll have to buy an S4, but the three-speed ZF gearbox on these cars is hardly a joy to use. Besides, one of the loveliest things about the Spider is its manual transmission.
It can be worth shopping in Europe; there are rust-free cars in southern Italy. If you’re buying a car that’s had work done, pin down who did what. Says marque guru Richard Norris: ‘Be wary of cars that have had a small amount of work done by a specialist, but which are passed off as completely restored by them. It’s easy to buy a Spider that has been badly restored and will end up costing you more to put right than an honest car needing work.’
Get a Spider professionally restored and at least three-quarters of the £25,000-£40,000 typical cost
will be spent on the bodywork and basic structure. There was no factory-applied rustproofing in period and lots of rust traps mean corrosion is common, exacerbated by a three-piece sill structure. If you can see signs of rust, there will be much worse hidden from view. Original cars are rare and many Spiders that have been restored have been the subject of low-quality work when values were lower.
Home in on the crossmember under the radiator; on Kamm-tail cars there’s a plate on either side of the radiator and water gets trapped where these meet the lower panel, so it rots through.
You can also expect corrosion in the sills, wheelarches (especially the double-skinned rears), floorpans and in the seams where the front valance attaches to the wings.
On all cars but the S1, drainage pipes run on either side of the car from the hood scuttle to an outlet in the chassis. These pipes get blocked leading to rotten lower rear wings, but the rot often isn’t obvious. Also, scrutinise the trailing edge of the bootlid and spare wheel well; water leaks cause this to fill with water, which then eats its way out. The fuel tank mounts rot too. From inside the car, thoroughly check the base of the footwells for holed floorpans and also crusty inner sill walls and seat runners. Examine the area behind the front seats; the S2 is the only model that got a small back seat, with all other Spiders being two-seaters. Other weak spots include the area around
each front jacking point, and the rear suspension mounting points. Any sign of bodged repairs in these areas means major expense to put right. Also inspect the front and rear valances, which rot from the inside out.
The front wings rust along the edges and in the seams, while at the front of the wheelarch there’s a ledge that traps mud and rots through; at the rear, a removable splash panel protects the structure behind. You should be able to take this off to check the condition of the panelwork behind, including the front of the middle sill.
The all-alloy twin-cam fours are renowned for their sweetness but they won’t tolerate neglect, so look for a blown cylinder head gasket betrayed by white emulsion in the oil; allow six to eight hours’ labour to fix and maybe some machining too, plus the cost of a gasket set (£30). If the all-alloy unit is warmed thoroughly before the revs are applied, the oil changed every 3000 miles and anti-freeze levels maintained, 120,000 miles between rebuilds is typical. When a rebuild is due, budget between £3500 and £6000 to get it done properly. Spider engines can appear healthy long after a rebuild is due. Expect things to sound a bit thrashy with noise from the timing chains and valvegear, but it shouldn’t be unpleasant. Oil pressure shouldn’t fall below halfway on the clock (4kg/sq cm) above
tickover and make sure you check the air cleaner, which may have traces of oil from the breather pipe if the engine is getting tired.
Other weak spots are the O-rings in the cylinder head gasket. If these have failed, there will be a trio of oil trails down the side of the engine block (from the head) or traces of oil in the cooling system’s header bottle.
Because of its cast alloy construction, the block is easily frost-damaged. Modern sealing compounds can hide this effectively, so check the thermostat housing for evidence of these compounds. Engine mountings fail, especially on the exhaust side, so rock the engine by grasping its cam cover to check its mountings.
Apart from some Us-spec automatic S4s, all Spiders got a five-speed manual gearbox that should be quiet and easy to use, although the change won’t be too sweet until the oil is hot. Eventually second-gear synchro wears; budget £1000 for a gearbox rebuild.
The shrink-ring used to retain the rear hub bearings means they’re not easy to replace, but a decent specialist will fix this for around £250 per side.
The Spider got a steering box rather than a rack; either a recirculating ball or worm-and-roller set up. Neither box gives problems, but the six track rods (or steering joints) wear, so check for play here by moving the steering wheel and seeing if the road wheels turn straight away. If not, budget £70-£75 for the parts.
The bushes within the steering and suspension systems are wear-prone, as are those in the rear suspension’s trailing arms. Replacing these can transform the car’s handling. The central reaction trunnion locates the rear axle and uses cone-shaped rubber bushes which wear, so the rear wheels feel unstable. The trick is to fit a bush made of harder rubber or nylon.
There are four Metalastik bushes in the front wishbones, which seize once water has found its way into the trunnion, potentially damaging the
‘The all-alloy twin-cam fours are sweet but won’t tolerate neglect’
Nickname Only the 1600 S1 is known as the Duetto – and even then, that’s an unofficial tag.
Is it original? Unrestored cars are ultra rare, so check the history to see who did what, why and when.
The S3 is sweet to drive and a great-value Spider too.