Love makes people do the craziest things. Like buy an Alfa Romeo Spider. Thing is, a 1966 to 1994 Alfa Romeo Spider (just like so many cars from this marque) is so easy to love, at least from afar. The styling, courtesy of design legend Battista Pininfarina, is a big part of the seduction. Especially the Series I with that gorgeous sloping "boat tail" rear styling.
This model, the Duetto as it was named in a public contest, came out in 1966, powered by a 1.6L four-cylinder engine making 108 hp with dual Weber carburetors. Although Alfa Romeo has a wonderful reputation for making driver's cars, the Duetto really isn't one of them, despite a decent power-to-weight ratio. It doesn't even come with particularly impressive handling chops. But, boy, does it look elegant. Later S1 engines grew to 1779 cc, swapping the carbs for SPICA mechanical fuel injection and the Duetto name for Spider 1750. Since decent Series 1 models command high prices, Series 2 cars could be a good place to start the search if you're on a budget.
The Kamm-tailed Series 2 hit the scene in 1970, retaining the 118hp, 1.8L engine. But later that year came the popular 2.0L Spider 2000. These larger engines continued with SPICA mechanical fuel injection. This system was a bit ahead of its time and not well understood by some, so it's not unusual to find S2 models retrofitted with carburetors. Yet SPICA-equipped examples retain their value better. If inspecting a SPICA model, check the "choke cable," which is meant to provide a richer mixture for cold starts and not intended to be used as a kind of cruise control. By 1975, the Spider's elegant chrome bumpers morphed into large rubber items to handle U.S. impact standards. Smog regulations added catalytic converters and lowered compression, making mid-to-late S2 cars heavier and less powerful than ever before.
Some salvation was found in the Series 3. Contemporary Bosch fuel injection restored some of the 2.0L's performance and greatly improved its driveability and reliability. By 1984, the little Alfa had sprouted an ungainly rubber spoiler and in 1986, the classic dual-pod speedo and tach (with individual chrome-rimmed ancillary gauges atop the center stack) made way for a contemporary and unremarkable plastic-bodied instrument cluster.
A base model, the Graduate (named after the Dustin Hoffman film in which a red Duetto plays a major role), arrived in '85 with vinyl seat covering, manual mirrors, and steel wheels. Generally, a Series 3 from '82 to '84 represents a sweet spot for Spiders, still with a wooden steering wheel, classic instrumentation, and an un-spoilered Kamm tail, yet with more modern—and therefore more reliable—mechanicals.
The Veloce's interior was upgraded in '86 with better leather seats. This was also the year when the range-topping Quadrifoglio Verde (green clover leaf) model was introduced. It came with 15-inch "phone dial" wheels, while the standard car has 14-inch "five-pointed star" Cromodora alloys, gray suede-trimmed seats, a removable hardtop, side skirts, and unique badging.
Post-'90 models were face-lifted to create the Series 4 cars, which remained on sale in the U.S. until 1994. The tacked-on rear spoiler was ditched and the front and rear bumper fasciae were better integrated with the rest of the car's smoothed-out body. S4 cars also enjoy power steering and a new airbag-equipped steering wheel, along with more expensive-looking leather and standard Quadrifoglio-style wheels.
The usual gripes with an Alfa Spider center on ergonomics. It has that typical Italian driving position (for the era) where the driver needs long arms and short legs to really feel at home. The position of the long-throw gear lever is another idiosyncrasy, but at least the driver is always aware that this is far from the bland, instantly forgettable experience of almost any Japanese sedan. On the subject of gears, there's a general tendency for the synchromesh (designed by Porsche, incidentally) to wear out in such a way as to make swift shifts into second nigh on impossible.
Electrics are not a strong point (when were they ever in Italian cars?). Gauges shouldn't be trusted. The roofs don't age well, but there are specialist replacement companies, and do-it-yourselfers can buy new roofs from $309.95. Seals in the brake servos will perish over time, and leaking brake fluid gets sucked into the engine, creating white smoke. A servo reconditioning kit is an affordable fix, but a garage will probably replace the servos, lines, and master cylinder.
Rust. It's not that the Spider is any more of a rust bucket than other Italian cars of its time, but the most obvious flaw is that water coming down from the roof gets into the rocker panels (sills), where there's a distinct lack of drainage holes. Keep a magnet handy when inspecting a possible buy to make sure the whole thing isn't held together with Bondo. And if you're looking at a couple or three, buy the one with the best bodywork.
The aluminum engines are considered to be pretty strong. They're essentially the same motor, so parts are easy to get and often interchangeable. Just make sure it's fully warmed up before exploring the upper revs.
The Alfa Romeo Spider is too old to get any blue book treatment, so it's a question of scouring through classified ads. Auto Trader had a super-clean '91 model for $21,795 (from a dealer) at one end of the spectrum, while the other end showed an '87 Graduate with 128,000 miles in need of a paintjob plus a few other bits and pieces for $2,850 (still ridiculously tempting). A look on that well-known auction website unearthed prices ranging from $4,500 to $15,900. The Alfa Bulletin Board (alfabb.com) is a worthwhile resource with many helpful forum members.