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Insuring your Alfa Spider

Insurance companies like to write policies for brand new cars and trucks that are used primarily as daily transportation. They will also write policies for new sporty cars, but don’t much like to. Finally, they hate to write policies for new sports cars, because they are usually more expensive to fix and are statistically more likely to be involved in an accident.

One of the least noted influences on the post-war auto industry is that of automotive insurance companies. An important limiting factor, at least in the US, on the purchase of very high performance automobiles and pure sports cars (like the Alfa Spider) is not government regulation, absolute price, safety or reliability, but rather the cost of insurance. Especially at the beginning of the 1970s, and then again in the middle of the 1980s, the incredible cost of insuring high performance automobiles has had a profound braking effect on the sales of those automobiles. To this day, it is quite possible to own a car (especially if one is male, single, and younger than 25) with an insurance payment noticeably greater than the payment for the car itself.

The good news for Alfa owners of all types is that Alfas are considered "good" cars by most insurance companies. "Good" in that they are usually owned by adults, driven rationally (or rather, driven well), and tend not to be stolen all that much. The bad news is that since they are rare, they tend to be hard to find body parts for.

There is also the problem of the way the entire 105 series was designed. Alfa has always engineered their automobiles as if they were race cars. This extends not only to the engine and suspension, but to the design of the body and layout of the interior as well. And, in a race car, one is not very concerned about what will happen to the body of the car during an accident. Rather, one is very much concerned about what will happen to the driver, and if designing the car to crush itself rather than the driver will increase his or her chance of survival, so be it.

This goes a long way to explaining why all of the 105 series have such long overhangs (especially the Spiders) and ridiculous bumpers. The former is the result of careful design considerations toward crumple zones and areas of energy absorption, while the latter is the disdain of (to a race car engineer, at least) the unimportant. The bottom line is that the entire 105/115 series are probably some of the safest cars of their era, certainly as safe as contemporary Volvos, and inarguably a heck of a lot more fun to drive.

Unfortunately this means that when an Alfa gets in an accident, it really GETS IN AN ACCIDENT. Both the front and rear zones of the car are meant to destroy themselves in an impact of any real force. Where other car makers designed the seats and seat restraint systems to help absorb the impact of a collision and thereby reduce overall damage to the car (if they considered designing any sort of safety features into their cars at all… many didn’t), Alfa designed the entire CAR to absorb the impact, thereby reducing damage to the driver. Ultimately this means that, in any given accident, an Alfa Spider will almost always come out more damaged than the initial impact would at first indicate, and this damage will subsequently be more difficult (and more expensive) to repair.

Nowadays there’s no such thing as an owner of a "new" Alfa Spider in the US. Even the last models manufactured are now several years old. Insurance companies as a whole are not used to dealing with used sports cars. Further, they very, very seldom account for regular maintenance or general condition of a car. As a whole the insurance industry is a large, downright paranoid bureaucracy that likes well-established, insurance industry-maintained tables of value for all the different cars of the world, with fixed rates of depreciation that in no way account for market changes. If any square pegs are presented that don’t fit these round holes, they are usually hammered away at until they fit, regardless of what this means for the client or the vehicle.

So what is a potential Alfisti to do? DOCUMENT **EVERYTHING**. When you purchase the car, take dozens of pictures of it… all angles, underside, engine compartment, interior, close-ups of every individual body panel. Update these pictures at least once a year. Make a videotape of you showing every angle of the car, the condition of the engine, etc. If possible, get a notary public to sign off that yes, these pictures were taken before this date, and yes, they are of that car. Keep every single stinking receipt for every little thing you have done to the car (this is one of the few ways that the do-it-yourself Alfa owner is at a real disadvantage… they can only provide receipts for parts, not for installation), and keep it organized and neat.

Which sort of policy you take out on your car depends a great deal on how you intend to use it. If you plan on driving the car less than 3,000 miles a year, then you should seriously consider "specialty" insurance either from your own provider or from an insurance agency that deals exclusively with unusual and/or rare automobiles.

For those who wish to drive their Spider considerably more than 3,000 miles a year, I have been advised that it is best to maintain a standard, full-coverage insurance policy with reasonable deductibles from a major insurance company. This will allow you to drive the car as much as you want.

Be EXTREMELY careful of setting some "fixed value" on your car with your insurance agent, i.e. you and your agent agree the car is worth, say, $5,500 when you get your policy. WATCH OUT! Many, many times what the agent is ACTUALLY doing is setting a maximum value on WHAT THEY WILL PAY YOU, NOT on what your car may be worth. Even the agent may be convinced and sincere that, should your car be in a severe accident that destroys it, you will get the agreed on amount. But your agent isn’t the one that approves or pays the claims, and all the good intentions in the world won’t get your car fixed. Finally, READ YOUR POLICY VERY CAREFULLY. Especially any sections on what happens when you and the company disagree on a given settlement. This can be incredibly important when it comes time to settle a claim.

Another kind of insurance is worth considering. "Agreed value" policies, different and distinct from fixed value policies, are an extremely valid way of insuring your Alfa. Rates are very reasonable if your car meets certain restrictions, usually regarding the age and sometimes the mileage of the car in question. In the event of an accident, you inform the insurer of your loss (well, probably an adjuster will). The insurer then pays for the loss. No assesors, no value judgements, very clean, very simple.

If your Alfa is more than ten years old and you do get in an accident, assume the insurance company is going to "total" the car, regardless of what your agent said. As it would imply, "totaling" a car means that the insurance company has decided that the repair amount is greater than the value of the car (more on this later). While this seems rather dastardly, most people who own cars more than ten years old are perfectly happy to have their old vehicle declared junk, receive a check, and use the money to buy a new one. Insurance companies, in their own heavy handed way, are assuming they’re helping you out by doing this.

If your policy allows, tell the adjuster that you know where parts are… don’t let them try and find parts for you. The standard procedure on an older car is to call a large junkyard and see if there are parts available in your area (in the US most salvage yards are on a nationwide data exchange system that allows them to check availability over a very large area). Alfas are too rare to be profitable for junk dealers, so even when they are offered to salvage yards (rarely) they are seldom purchased. Because of this, your sources will almost certainly be far, far better than theirs. An example from my own experience: my ’74 Spider was once hit very hard in the rear (as I said, people love running into these cars, crumple zone worked as advertised). After two weeks, the adjuster called and told me used body panels were "impossible to find". After getting off the phone with him and making three calls, I had an entire rear body shell purchased… total time: 15 minutes.

If the insurance company is undervaluing the car (a very likely occurrence), whether you want it fixed or not, you will have to fight them. And make no mistake, you can fight them. By reading your policy very carefully you will be fully aware of your arbitration options. If you disagree with the company, say so and ask to enter the arbitration process. They can’t say no to you. By keeping receipts religiously, you have a documented, official record that the car was maintained properly and in good condition. Any improvements (rust repair, major mechanical repair) will also be documented and must be included in any value estimate. You will have the high ground, as they say. Many times, if you are really that well prepared, the adjuster will be so intimidated he or she will agree rather quickly to substantially raise the offered settlement.

However, if you do go into arbitration, be aware that you have probably now irritated a very large, very rich bureaucracy. Some insurance companies will assume that you are trying to cheat them, and do their very best to wear you down. This means never returning your calls, taking the absolute longest time to do anything, putting you off when you do call, and sometimes other, less subtle tactics. TAKE HEART! You aren’t trying to cheat them; you just want what’s right. Be pigheaded about it. Never, ever take no for an answer. Always be polite, but always be firm. The bad news is, it will probably take three to six months to settle. The good new is, you will win.

Be wary of having the car totaled and then buying it back from the insurance company (usually for a 25% deduction on your settlement). Many states require a notice that the car has been totaled to be printed on the title. Needless to say, this will slay the resale value of your car, even to another Alfisti. Repair first, salvage last.

I don’t mean to be discouraging. However, I have found in both my own experience and from my conversations with others that, of all aspects of automobile ownership, people know the very least about insurance. In some respects this is probably a conscious conspiracy on the part of at least some insurance companies… what you don’t know helps them. In other respects insurance companies are sincerely trying to help you out in the same way they help out thousands of car owners every year. It’s not their fault you treat your Spider better than members of your immediate family. Be careful, realize that insurance companies are one of the top three employers of both lobbyists and lawyers (just like the administrators of any successful protection racket), and always assume that you are right and they are wrong. Remember, there’s no such thing as a car that just can’t be fixed.

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