After the false starts, unpredictable weather, and weeks of rain, summer is finally in full swing. And with summer comes that primal desire for top-down open-road driving. Whether it’s carving corners through the Northeast, bombing down the endless straightaways of the Midwest, or hugging the California coastline, this is the season of the roadster. It’s that all-to-brief time where an ageless, sexy, sports car with the perfect combination of looks, handling, and power makes sense no matter where you live.
And it’s impossible to talk about roadsters without focusing on the Alfa Romeo Spider. Over the course of its 28 year production run, it was the true budget Ferrari; a free-revving, Peninfarina-designed all-Italian beauty. When it was introduced in 1966, it hit American showrooms as the roadster craze was in full-swing. The muscle car wars were heating up in Detroit, but thousands of young buyers were still flocking to import shops and having their pick of Triumphs, MGs, Austin-Healeys, Fiats, and Volkswagen Karmann-Ghias – and the Alfa offered far more than its competitors ever could. Priced above its competition, but far below more formidable Jaguars, Porsches, and Corvettes, it was a true exotic sports car for buyers on a budget.
Few automakers have as much performance in its DNA as Alfa Romeo. Founded in 1910, the company went racing almost immediately, and by the 1920s, had developed into an international racing powerhouse under the direction of its team manager, Enzo Ferrari. In the decade leading up to World War II, it continued to win races, while produced impossibly beautiful coach-built sports cars that rivaled anything else coming out of Europe.
As the company struggled to find its footing in the postwar years, American importer Max Hoffman saw the potential for American success in the Italian automaker. As the man responsible for giving brands like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and BMW a foothold in the U.S., he began importing the Giulietta Spider roadster, and helped establish the company as a darling of the automotive press just as Alfa’s formidable racing team experienced a renaissance on racetracks around the world.
But the Giulietta was beginning to show its age by the early ’60s, and the brand turned to Peninfarina to design a next-generation sports car. The result was the Spider, a thoroughly modern car with a 118 horsepower twin-cam inline-four, five-speed manual transmission, four wheel disc brakes, and sleek good looks. It instantly resonated with a whole new generation of sports car buyers, and by 1968, it was an international film star too, appearing as Dustin Hoffman’s ride in The Graduate.
By the 1970s, the Spider continued to age gracefully while most of its competitors faded into history. It was one of the first cars offered in America with standard fuel injection, and its light weight and timeless looks seemed unaffected while other sports cars were made hideous by the new federally mandated safety equipment.
Alfa kept going strong through the 1980s, even while convertibles were in danger of disappearing from American roads altogether. In 1986, a new entry-level model called “The Graduate” was introduced to celebrate its role in the iconic film. By the 1990s, the Spider was the grand old dame of the sports car world. It was a throwback to the days when roadsters were allergic to rust, tinkered with with for half the year, then taken for a drive when they decided to start. Thanks to the Mazda Miata, the automotive world had fallen back in love with the roadster, but compared to the reliable Japanese upstart, the Spider had become a niche-market antique.
After 190 special edition cars were sold as 1994 models in the U.S. market, Spider production came to an end. An all-new car appeared in Europe for 1995, but by then, Alfa had pulled out of the U.S., market. It was the latest in a growing list of European automakers to disappear from the American landscape, and Alfa’s loss was felt harder than most. Every few years, as Alfa released another brilliant car in for the rest of the world, rumors would start to circulate of an imminent return to the American market. But with each passing rumor came another series of disappointments. Luckily, that may be coming to an end very soon.
After 27 full years in production, and nearly 125,000 cars built, the Alfa Romeo Spider is nothing short of an icon. And because of the sheer number them left, examples are available for every budget all over the world, making it the ideal beginner’s classic. Like any Italian car, the Spider is temperamental, but when it’s running well, there’s nothing else like it on the road. According to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles chairman Sergio Marchionne, not only will Alfa Romeo finally make its return to the U.S. market by 2018, it will offer 8 new models. No word a next-generation Spider yet, but we’d be shocked if an affordable corner-carving roadster wasn’t in the works.