The Art Of Touring – 1971 Alfa Romeo Spider

Words by Edrich Santos    Photos by Jerel Fajardo & Randy Silva-Netto

I’ve always liked the Alfa Romeo Spider and although it never really had a particularly significant motorsport pedigree, it was nevertheless a true sports car blessed with an engine that could sing arias and handling that was tight and entertaining. Our featured car belongs to collector/concourse d’elegance judge Eddie Salonga and to make things more interesting, his car is shamelessly yellow.

When Eddie told us that he was entering the Alfa in the Tour De Cebu road rally and offered me a co-driver’s seat, I barely managed to get everything out of the way and sign up for it. It would certainly make for a more interesting feature. And I relished the opportunity to do a bit of Mille Miglia driving myself.

Many people will know the unmistakable lines of this charismatic Alfa from the movie The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman in that most memorable scene where the car grounds to a halt on the road –it ran out of gas. Classic. Another, less popular appearance (but one I actually love) is in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane. There was a black Alfa Spider driven by her Italian lover Marcello. It was amazing to see the (by the time this movie was made) classic Alfa Spider on modern roads and shot with modern cinematography.

Driving on the lawns; Alfa Spider delights crowds at the start of the rally.

Anyway, the Alfa should be given more credit besides its Hollywood resume. First released in 1966, the Spider was the successor of the Guilia Spider. The Italian company’s little roadster went through several evolutions before ending production in 1993 –the last model being a 1994 Spider. It would be the last rear wheel Alfa Romeo to be produced until the turn of the century.

Engine sizes grew from 1.3 liters to 2.0 by the end of the production life of the Spider. ‘Our’ particularly tasty little yellow car is a 1971 model with the ‘coda tronca’ or truncated tail design –also called the kamm tail. It also has the potent 1750 series engine with 1,779 cc. capable of 116hp and a top speed of 118mph (190 km/h). SPICA injectors mechanically fed fuel into the combustion chambers –SPICA which stands for Societa Pompe Iniezione Cassani &Affini, is a subsidiary of Alfa Romeo. North American spiders were equipped with the SPICA mechanical injection systems.

While many would argue that the original boat-tail of the first ‘Duetto’ model might be a more classic, resolved shape for the Spider, our car’s rear end is nonetheless attractive and glamorous. Pinninfarina created a timeless, beautiful shape in the form of the spider and it has hardly needed any modification throughout its production life –in fact, its enduringly stylish lines have changed little despite numerous technical upgrades over its nearly three decades of production. No wonder it’s a Hollywood darling.

Once in Cebu, Eddie first drove the car out of the city at the start of the rally. By the time we were in Moalboal, he turned over the car to his co-driver Manolet Ramos and myself. I got first dibs at driving. It was midday and blisteringly hot by the time I pulled out of the car park as we continued what was in essence a regularity rally –we had to clock an average speed to make a particular time at each checkpoint. Points were deducted if we were late or early. Perhaps this would account for a mysterious brace of roadside repairs just before certain checkpoints.

Spider interior is spot on and achingly Italian; wood-rimmed wheel is a joy to use; note matching woodtopped shifter; period outfit a must.

At any rate, the Alfa performed beautifully with Manolet urging me to open the throttle even more, letting the engine sing. I wimped out, car sympathy getting the better of me, but in the end I realized that the Alfa Spider is a car that you drove between 6 to 8/10 –go over that and you just end up with the car-equivalent of a stubborn, petulant and eventually very unhappy opera singer. Besides, I didn’t have it in me to flog the gorgeous Spider. Keep within the limits and you will be rewarded with sublime handling and excellent grip. Smoothly is the best way to pilot the Spider and if you really want to press on, as I discovered through the twists coming down from the mountains to the port leaving Cebu, settling into a rhythm is the best way to get the most out of the Spider. The aplomb with which the car handles is simply astonishing. And don’t forget, what it lacks in ultimate high-speed cornering, it makes up for in grunt and straight line speed –the engine is a diminutive thoroughbred gem that goes and sounds like nothing this side of a competition E-Type. The noise is tuneful and visceral. It really can sing, this engine.

Owner Eddie Salonga and co-driver Manolet Ramos beaming at the start of the rally.

That being said, the Spider is something of a dandy in relation to its more sporting brethren along the Alfa range and is just as comfortable doing the boulevard route just as well as a B road escapade. It is just so achingly pretty. To prove this point, during the second day of the rally, we had an unfortunate encounter with an extremely straight MGB GT driven by actor and racecar driver, Dominic Ochoa. The MGB GT had stopped while Mano, who was behind the wheel at the time, was looking towards the right (there were just too many kids on that motorbike), and to my horror, the Alfa’s front end buried itself in the left rear of the hapless GT. The damage to both cars was not particularly large but because the cars were so pristine, the shunt might as well have been a proper crash. Afterwards, with a smirk on the Spider’s nose and a huge slice of humble pie (for us), we soldiered on despite the damage. Strangely, despite the Alfa’s disfigured front end, people we passed tended to look past the damage and were nevertheless thrilled by the little Spider –children would start squealing in delight whenever we blasted passed.

The interior of the Spider is typical Eddie Salonga quality: very straight, original and in fine shape. Everything just works: the controls are beautifully weighted and there is excellent feel from the lovely wood-rimmed wheel. The gear lever, a wood-topped affair that is both reassuringly warm and organic to the touch has a positive feel despite having longish throws –but even that fades into the background the longer you drive. Although you might have to coax it occasionally by slotting to the opposite gate from time to time, I never had any problems shifting directly into my desired gear, resorting to the technique only in the most extreme cases. That said, it’s not the sort of transmission that likes to be rushed but the shifts do get smoother the quicker you press on. The stylish quarter windows are a great invention for the times when the top is up during a downpour and, on open provincial roads, works just as well as a climate control system. The robust disc brakes are progressive and full of the right kind of feel –I was in utter amazement at how brilliant and blessedly fade-free they were.

The Spider just feels alive when you drive it. It always flatters when you respect its limits: it rewards with the promise of speed and the added benefit that you actually will look good flogging it. I was lost in my own personal version of the Targa Florio with the sound of the exhaust barking away as I pressed the throttle deeper into the floor. In the Alfa Romeo Spider, it’s not difficult to get a little carried away.

Preparing to board the ferry going to Bacolod

I actually prepared for this trip carefully, making sure that –as a mark of respect– I wore period attire and the requisite driving gloves to complete the ‘touring-in-style-look’. But there is a benefit to dressing up for the occasion: proper clothes mean that the sense of drama is heightened and you somehow feel more in the moment. And as you drive past waving crowds, you think to yourself: ‘So, this is what it feels like to be a Hollywood movie star..’

At the start of the rally, I joked that the Spider was just too reliable –it felt utterly unburstable while I was driving it. Well, towards the end of the drive, it decided to teach me a thing or two about Alfas: it began to sputter and then eventually lose power. A few phone calls and two service stations later, we managed to clean one fuel filter and replace the plugs. That did it. We were back on the road with me bringing the yellow Spider home. The city drive was pleasant and we stopped for a bite at Café Racer while we had the car washed –barbecue and hotdogs were the cuisine of choice. Ice cream followed. Then it was back to the hotel Montebello. Once I’d parked the car at the car park, I had a terrible bout of separation anxiety –I’m feeling it now as I write this– and asked if Manolet could take a final photo of me in the cockpit before I left it for good. It was a surprisingly emotional moment; I’ve had so many amazing memories in the yellow Spider and every single moment, in hindsight, was pure magic.

For a classic car enthusiast, going on a trip like this really makes you reassess what you’re missing in life. Doing it in a yellow Alfa Romeo Spider makes you realize that you may be missing quite a lot.

Ciao.