spiders.gif (3561 bytes)

Things to look for when buying a Spider

Especially when considering a Series 2a, 2, or 1 Spider, the most important thing you need to look for is rust. The cars are simple enough mechanically to be repaired by just about anybody (more on this later), and interior trim is readily available and reasonably easy to replace yourself. But the bodies of the cars can be rusted or bent to the point that it is not economical to fix them at all.

In truth, Alfas do not seem to rust more or less than any other car of their era, although there are certain areas that need to be looked at more closely than others.

Spiders tend to rust around the fender arches, the rocker panels, and the floorpans. Test the floorpans by *looking* at them, both from the top and bottom if possible (crawl under the car if you have to). If you can, tap lightly with a hammer and punch to make sure the metal is good. Pay special attention to the driver’s side footwell, as this seems to be the first area to go on many cars. On later model cars, or any Spider with a battery in the trunk, be sure to check the spare tire well in the trunk for rust-through. Again, these things can be repaired, and replacement panels are available, but, as they say, they ain’t cheap.

Collision damage should also be checked. Bring a magnet with you and make sure it sticks well to all major body panels. Be sure that all the trim and the doors line up properly (if they don’t it could be a sign of hidden collision damage). Take a long, hard look at the front nosepiece, as people seem to just love backing into these cars, and I’ve seen entire sections of that panel constructed from bondo and scrap metal. Look in the trunk under the mat for wrinkling in the sheet metal… this indicates a hit in the rear. None of these things necessarily disqualifies a car, but knowing where things are could make the difference between paying enough and paying too much.

The cars are pretty sturdy mechanically. However, especially with older cars, "PO’s" (short for Previous Owners) may have done unusual things to them in a misguided attempt to get more performance (more on this later). Pay special attention to empty brackets, wires that don’t hook up to anything, or misaligned mountings. As will be discussed later on, Alfas don’t normally have anything "extra" in the same sense as American cars, and missing pieces are usually the sign of a hamfisted owner, an incomplete restoration, or collision damage (the body shop didn’t put it all back together right).

Mechanicals should be checked in the same way as with any car. For further information on checking the mechanicals of any modern Alfa, the reader is again referred to Pat Braden’s Alfa Romeo Owners Bible (see above). Some mechanical generalizations:

It’s normal for a Spider to leak some oil. The engine is aluminum and expands and contracts quite a bit. Oil pooling in the spark plug recesses is a sign of a leaky filler cap rather than any major engine malfunction. It is NOT normal for a Spider to leak anything else like coolant, brake fluid or gear oil. Leaks of this nature can indicate expensive repairs are needed. Pay special attention to rear ends coated with thick, greasy oil… engine oil usually doesn’t drip THAT far back (and tends to be a lot less viscous than gear oil), and this could be a sign of a failed pinion seal (in and of itself not a problem, but if the owner let it go the rear axle will get and stay very, very loud).

Open the radiator (when the engine is cold) and run your finger around the filler neck. It should be clean and free of any goop. If you come up with a glob of Vaseline-like stuff, the car has a leaking head gasket. Again, this is not something to necessarily disqualify the car, but you should be able to knock several hundred dollars off the price.

"Choke cables" on SPICA-equipped Spiders should be examined very carefully. I know that Series 2 SPICA cars, at least, came with a choke-like mechanism that, at first glance, seems to act as a kind of mechanical cruise control. In fact, they are really intended to help set the throttle for the first morning cold start (if you have one that works, DON’T use it as a cruise control… it doesn’t release with the brake and can be VERY dangerous if used in that fashion).

These must break a lot because I’ve only seen two cars with ones that functioned. These cables go to the throttle linkage. Cables that go all the way into the SPICA pump itself are mechanical aftermarket replacements for a device called a "thermostatic actuator", called a "TA" for short.

TA’s acts as automatic chokes for the SPICA unit, but are fragile, expensive, and tend to wear out over time. They are nearly identical in form and function to thermostats found on most older refrigerators. Because the replacement cost is so high (usually around $200), many owners opt instead for a mechanical cable device. Whether you want to put up with one of these is your business (I tend to be of the opinion that "sophisticated" Italian sports cars with exotic induction systems shouldn’t have something that I expect to see on an old International Harvester Scout, but I’ve been called a purist before). The system can be re-fitted with a proper actuator, but at some cost.

When driving, the cars should track straight and have very little slack in the steering, regardless of age or mileage. If the car has more than 1 inch of free play in the steering, then something has worn out under there. Diagnosing such problems can be difficult. If you don’t feel qualified, take it to an alignment shop and have them look at it to tell you what, if anything, is wrong.

It is also quite normal for the cars (any year) to have poor second gear synchros. The symptoms of this are a "buzz" or "grind" noise when you try to quickly shift to second gear. Even long time Alfa owners sometimes graunch a second gear shift. Alfa never seemed to get around to fixing this problem, perhaps because it would have required a redesign of the entire gear box. The sychros themselves were designed by Porsche, leading more paranoid Alfisti to postulate conspiracy theories. The only real cure for this is to shift slowly, pausing briefly between first and second.

It is also normal for first gear to be difficult to engage after the car has been sitting still with the box in neutral and the clutch released. Lightly pull the shifter down to second before going up to first to cure this problem (you can do this with reverse as well… touch fifth before engaging reverse). Many Alfisti recommend touching fourth gear rather than second, to lessen wear on the already beleaguered second gear synchro. I had one Alfisti insist that touching fifth to get it to go into reverse doesn’t work. I can only say that it does in fact work on my Spider.

All the lights in the interior should do something, even if it’s not quite clear what that something means (it took me 8 years to find out what the light marked "throttle" meant on my ‘74 Spider). Non-functional lights are quite common, and many times require only re-seating the wires, but you should still be careful.

While later model spiders are not as electrically sophisticated as their 116 sedan contemporaries, in Series 3 and 4 cars you may notice a phenomena that has come to be known as "Jonny’s Disco". Warning lights and gauges flashing on and off occasionally for no noticeable reason and then working normally for long periods of time is the primary symptom of this syndrome. Again, this is usually the fault of flaky ground connections, something that is easily repaired, but as always be cautious. (The term originated from the owner of a Milano, who, tired of explaining why his car flashed so many lights all the time, replied once instead, "oh, that’s just Jonny’s Disco".)

On Series 2 and 2a SPICA cars, it is possible for the fuel pressure light (upper left red light, just to the right of the gauge) to flicker and still have the car run normally and read plenty of fuel pressure (my ’74 did it for years, to the despair of several very competent mechanics, one of which spent two off-time hours trying to make it go out). However, if the light burns bright and the car runs roughly, it could be the sign of a failing fuel pump (which is expensive).

It is normal for the cars to show strong, nearly constant oil pressure when cold, and then have very variable oil pressure when warmed up. It is normal for a warm 2.0L engine to show zero oil pressure at idle on the gauge. It is not normal for the car to show zero oil pressure on the gauge and have the oil pressure light (top right red light on a Series 2 car… just to the right of the gauge) activate, or show pressures substantially less than 57 psi (usually half way on the gauge) at highway cruise speeds. Beware also of cars whose oil pressure drops off quickly regardless of temperature, or that never reach roughly the middle of the gauge. This problem is expensive and difficult to fix (although, maddeningly, the parts to fix it only cost about $5.00).

Especially with the older cars, one of the best things you can do for yourself is find someone who owns a perfect Spider of the same series as you are considering (the same year is best). These people can be located through the nearest Alfa club chapter. Poke around on their car, stare at everything, ask for demonstrations with equipment you don’t understand (even figuring out the door handles can be a challenge to someone sitting in a Spider for the first time). Ask, nicely, if you can take it around the block. Take pictures if you like. This is the greatest weapon against "ignorance buys"… purchasing a car you shouldn’t simply because you didn’t know any better.

With the exceptions noted above, buying a used Alfa is pretty much the same as buying any used car. The reader is strongly encouraged to purchase and read one of the many "guide to buying used car" books available in just about every book store around before making any purchase. I have found Road and Track’s guide to used classics very helpful, although I’m not sure if it’s still in print.

<< previous || home || next >>

By Scott Johnson - Copyright 1996 - Third Edition, Released August 2001 - All Rights Reserved.