MAKE ALFA ROMEO WEIRD AGAIN
The 916 Spider was a genuinely great car let down in Australia by an ugly exterior, brutal competition and a population that didn't have time for it.
So before I get into it, I’ll preface this article with a bit of backstory. Earlier in the year my best mate decided it was time to give up on his first ‘car-love’ and pass his Alfa Romeo 159 down to his sister. The car in question had the 2.5L diesel which had plenty of grunt for its time and produced an engine note that can only be described as an ‘agricultural’ symphony orchestra thanks to that 5-cylinder FIAT engine which Alfa had tuned as if it were an instrument, not an engine.
Being his first, he’d owned it for several years and put thousands of rural-Australian kilometres on the clock. It’s needless to say, the Italian Stallion didn’t take very kindly to that. Because as it turns out, cars that are designed for the smooth and well-built roads of Western Europe aren’t akin to travelling pot-hole-rich Australian roads and muddy farm tracks.
Who could have guessed?
Anyway, the car became plagued with issues and started regularly breaking down, throwing itself into limp-mode and just being a general nuisance. And as you can imagine, this led to him losing interest in the car. The passion for the 159 was gone. But lose interest in Alfas, he did not.
The gorgeous, useless 159.
You see, he comes from a family of die-hard Alfa Romeo fanatics. Between when we met in 1st grade up to the end of high school, his parents went through several Alfas. It started with a silver 156 V6 (this car being the reason we became friends. 6-year-old me had to know which classmate was getting around in the only Italian car in town), which was followed by a blue 156 Twin Spark and finally a GT Coupe Twin Spark. Each one more unreliable than the last, but nonetheless it only made sense that his first car would be an Alfa 159 (though I’m not sure why he opted for an automatic diesel). And now that it’s gone, we can get onto his current ride, a white 1998 Alfa Romeo 916 Spider.
When he first showed me the listing for it I’ll admit I thought something was wrong with him. The little spider eyes for headlights and the moustache-grill created a face that only a mother could love; the fact the side-profile brought to mind a wedge of cheese and most weirdly of all, the fact that he was opting for a convertible.
But after reading on to find out it was a 5-speed manual with only about 65,000km (40,350miles) on it for only $5,000, I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t a good buy. So, he went off for an inspection and decided to buy the car. He even negotiated a few hundred bucks off because it had been in a small rear-end collision in its past and from what his mechanic could tell, the timing kit had NEVER been replaced.
When collection day came around, I went with him to lend a hand with registration and the like. And I’m going to have to say, my first impressions of it were pretty scathing, at least from the passenger seat. Being just under 200cm (6’5”) tall made getting in and out was a pain in the ass. What’s more is the fact that the roof didn’t work, the car was surprisingly slow and that it smelt like burnt oil. After driving his rather mundane 159 and being a passenger in the Spider I was failing to grasp what the go with Alfa was. For years I’d heard Mr Clarkson tell me on Top Gear that “you’re not a true petrolhead until you’ve owned an Alfa”, but from where I was sitting not only were Alfa’s not exciting, but they were actually a bit dull. That was however, until I drove it.
So, what's it like?
Well, let me tell you, in the short time I drove the car I almost instantly understood what Jezza was on about. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but the Spider gave a feeling of control over a car I hadn’t quite felt before. The steering was impeccable, the suspension rigid yet not uncomfortable and the gearbox (which has broken since I started writing this UCR) was perhaps the best I’ve ever experienced in a front-wheel-drive manual. Altogether this car was a level of driving enjoyment I hadn’t experienced before.
Alfa Romeo really had crafted a car that on paper didn’t have the best specs, but from the driver’s seat had some sort of X-factor that made you fall in love with it. I was wrong, it didn’t have a face that only a mother could love, it had a face that only a driver could love. Ugliness was suddenly transformed into character and cheese wedge I’d seen earlier… was now an exquisite slice of camembert.
Driving was great. In a matter of minutes, I understood the Alfa ‘thing’. But that’s not to say there wasn’t a catch. Behind the wheel of an Italian car I couldn’t help but feel a little pretentious, and it being a convertible really exemplified that fact. Every traffic light we stopped at it was guaranteed that someone was staring at us. I still can’t tell if they were just interested in the car or disapproving of the fact that two men in silly hats were driving a convertible together. Yeah, it was a weird mix of feelings driving the Spider because even though I felt pretentious, I didn’t feel sophisticated. I knew while driving that most people didn’t like the look of the car and were assuming things about me. And despite being appointed with a MOMO red leather interior, it just wasn’t luxurious enough inside to make up for that fact.
But maybe it’ll make up for that when we take a look at the specs sheet…
Or maybe not. To begin, the Alfa featured the 2.0 Twin Spark 4 cylinder. A smooth engine for sure, but fast? Ehh, no. It made a very average for the time 110-115kw of power which translates to about 150 imperial horses. And as for torque? 185Nm.
This is bad news, especially considering one of its biggest competitors since new has been the Mazda MX-5 (NB) which, for a considerable amount less cash, made nearly the same power (103kw) but weighed about 250kg less and gave you rear-wheel drive. The MX-5 would most likely outrun the Alfa on a track, but if you’re worried about that then you’d probably want to look at one of the V6 models. They’re a little more expensive and harder to come buy but the power gets upped to about 141kw (189hp) which is more than enough in this type of car.
But the big difference between an Alfa Spider and an MX-5 is the fact the latter is a cheaply made little car from Japan that feels like a go kart, whereas the Spider was clearly engineered to be more of a GT car with its softer suspension and all the creature comforts that come along with an Alfa Romeo. But… there was another competitor that featured creature comforts and hovered around the same price. The BMW Z3. The Bavarian was as well-equipped as the Alfa, had the rear-wheel drive layout of the MX-5 but was also available with a number of engine options to fit just about any budget or preference. So, if you can handle being seen in a BMW, that seems like the right choice now if you’re in the market, yeah? Well, that brings me to my next point.
Where did the Spider, and Alfa Romeo in general, fit into Australia in the 90s?
When the Spider was brand new it really did cost bucket loads, especially down here in Australia where foreign brands were still having to deal with our import tariffs. So why did people opt for the 916 Spider? This generation of Spider had a real tough act to follow on from its sleek, rear-wheel drive predecessor, and even that wasn’t a sales champion. And as I admitted earlier, until I got to know the car, I thought it was hideous, as did most of the people I know, which didn’t bow well for sales worldwide and really didn’t help it in Australia.
What’s more is the aforementioned competition. Convertibles never were particularly popular down under, and those who did buy them generally opted for one of the competitors since they all seemed to offer something better. Mazda had price and RWD, and for about the same price BMW Z3 had more engine options and German prestige (which was massive in Australia in the 90s). BMW was also offering the 3 series convertible and that offered RWD, German prestige and rear seats, not to mention a whole catalogue more engine options than the Alfa. It really did beg the question, why did Alfa Romeo even bring it here?
Even with a raging distaste for BMW, I still think it looks better than the Alfa.
It really is amazing that Alfa survived the 90s down under with what they were bringing to the table. Especially considering nearly every Alfa on sale had a cheaper, faster and more reliable competitor. For instance, the 156s I mentioned earlier may have been cool cars, but they were slower, less comfortable, and more expensive than all the cars I grew up in. To reiterate, the Alfa thing baffled me until I drove one, but relying on some mystic driving-feel to sell cars doesn’t seem like enough to keep a company in a country for as long as Alfa has stayed here. Whatever the reason they kept it up though, I’m extremely glad they did. And I’m grateful for the people who bought them, as nearing 30 years on from the weird 90s Alfas, seeing one driving around adds a bit of happiness to my life.
So, are they worth it?
Well, whether or not the old Spiders are worth it is completely subjective. My friend thinks he’s going to own this car for many years to come, and after driving it, I can completely understand why. They’re quickly being recognised as a modern classic around the globe and they’re currently at the bottom of their depreciation curve (although some hopeful sellers on Carsales will have you believe otherwise), so if you plan on buying one, now would be the time to find yourself one around the $5K mark.
In my personal opinion I think it’s a great car to own if you’ve already got something else to fall back on, as its not practical, can only carry one other person, and the bloody thing’s already broken after only a few weeks. But despite that, it is hands down the most enjoyable slow car I’ve ever driver; so as long as you can deal with being a little bit pretentious, a bit silly, and having old-timers be suspicious of your sexual orientation, I fully recommend this car.
So to conclude, if you’re into going fast and making every trip a thrill ride, then this isn’t the car for you. But if you can appreciate engineering that favoured driver enjoyment, passion and soul over speed, reliability and comfort, then I suggest you bypass the MX-5s, Z3s and 3-Series convertibles, and find yourself one of these. But I do warn you, you will probably never want to let it go.
Photography by me and my partner.