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Maintaining your Alfa

Many people are afraid to purchase an Alfa Romeo of any sort because they think it will be impossible to work on, difficult to find parts for, or repairable only by a handful of mechanics.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With the exception of the SPICA system, Alfa Spiders are very straightforward cars. 75% of the things that go wrong with them can be fixed yourself if you have the right set of tools and a garage. Even the SPICA system is easy once you get the right manuals and tools.

Parts are in fact harder to find than, say, Chevy or Ford, or even Toyota or Nissan. You won’t be able to walk in to just any old parts store and find what you need. However, most foreign auto parts stores will carry at least some parts for them, and there are at least a dozen places scattered over the US that specialize in Alfas (if you live in a major metropolitan area, one is probably near you… check your yellow pages.) This means that even if you live out in the middle of nowhere nearly all of your parts needs are just an overnight shipment away.

A word on the parts peculiarities of Alfa:

Alfa Romeo before WWII was a company that built hand made, very expensive cars in very small numbers (in this, they were somewhat similar to what Ferrari has become today). Even though the company switched strategies and went to midrange mass-produced automobiles, they never really lost that "hand built" legacy.

While not as bad as the 750/101 Spiders before them (when entire drivetrains would be placed in cars they weren’t listed for), your Alfa Spider will probably have quirks unique to it AS A SINGLE CAR. The older the car, the more likely you are to have unique features. For instance, I have never seen the radio antenna on a pre-‘75 Alfa Spider in the same place twice. I have also seen at least one ‘74 model with totally different interior door handles and window cranks than what I found on other ‘74s (it was a one owner car that had never needed restoration… it just came from the factory that way). Wiring and brakes seem to be the most likely areas for these "off part" occurrences.

This tendency also led to some interesting transitions in the models as time went on. For instance, Alfa’s 2.0L engine was introduced in 1971, but I have only seen 1750 engines in ‘71 models (in the US at least). It was quite common for Alfa to introduce significant mechanical changes without the slightest bit of promotion or notice (again, this had gotten better than it was before… it is my understanding that the 101 series was never even announced to the public… it just started showing up on the docks). Sometimes cars would be built in one year and, if sales were slow, sit on the docks and be sold, and titled, in the next.

There has also been at least one reported occurrence of something I call "back-production", a practice I had previously only heard associated with much lower-volume marques such as Ferrari and Lamborgini.

Everyone knows emissions and safety regulations got tougher and tougher in the US in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It would appear that 1969 was the last year that car companies could easily pass these inspections with very minimal adjustments to their designs. 1969 cars are also protected from later, more restrictive regulations.

It would seem that some of the more devious people at places like Ferrari and Lamborgini got a really great idea. "Since cars produced before 1970 don’t have to bother with all those fiddly emissions laws," you can almost hear them say in the board rooms, "let’s just stamp ‘Made in 1969’ plates on all our new cars!"

Apparently they did exactly that, and it took the customs people about a year and a half to catch on. To this day, apparently, people trying to bring in certain makes’ 1969 models have the serial number of the car cross-checked by customs. If the number is below a certain threshold, in you go. Above, and you have to conform to later, more stringent rules.

It is unknown exactly how many Alfa Romeo automobiles slipped by customs in this fashion. Most were probably brought in through Canada. An easy way to find out is if you have a Series 2 car titled as a 1969 model. Alfa didn’t MAKE any 1969 Series 2 cars (I don’t think they did, anyway), so, if you are one of these people, try and cross-check your serial number. You may just own a 1970 after all! (Special thanks to David Mericle for bringing his "1969" Series 2, and its story, to my attention.)

For these reasons it is not always possible to rely on parts catalogues for accurate dates of transition. For the most part, mechanics and specialist auto parts stores are aware of the really troublesome model years, and will advise you if you need to go out and check the number on a part you want replaced. But there is always the possibility that Luigi just happened to run out of one part that day, and substituted another instead when your car was built.

This does add a certain maddening charm to the cars. In comparison with the cookie cutter cars of today, you can legitimately claim that your Spider is unique in all the world… because it came from the factory that way!

Again, with the exception of the SPICA system, most mechanics familiar with other European makes should be able to work on an Alfa. The electrical and suspension systems especially are generic enough to be worked on by just about any competent mechanic. However, the cars do have their quirks, so if there is a shop in your area that specializes in Alfas (or Italian cars in general), you almost certainly will be better off going there. Asking for mechanics in your area on the Alfa Romeo digest (http://www.digest.net/alfa) will usually net good results.

Joining the Alfa Romeo Owner’s Club is also recommended. You will receive a monthly magazine called the Alfa Owner that will contain all sorts of useful information. You also gain access to the Alfa tech support network… a group of volunteers who you can call that will be happy to give advice on how to work on the cars, or what a certain sound or smell might mean. There are also a large number of publications available only to AROC members, and members of your local chapter (with a few exceptions, there’s at least one in each state) will be able to give you tips, perhaps loan you specialized tools, and, as mentioned above, give you access to perfect examples of just about any model Spider you may be looking for.

One final word on shortcuts and "enhancements". As discussed in the performance section above, the factory did most of the performance work already. Be very careful about any advice you may get that seems to "get around" the factory. Ask around about these "tips", especially from mechanics very familiar with the car. Many times, a shortcut will only work for a short amount of time, and then either fail or cause serious damage.

If you’re working on your own car, always be sure to put back what you removed. Even if you had nuts so tight on their studs they had to be ground off with a motor tool, if they had lock washers be damned sure to put those lock washers back. Nothing is "extra" on these cars, everything has a place and a purpose, even if that purpose is not immediately apparent.

If you are coming to these cars after owning and working on American cars for years, be especially careful. Like fine watches, they are designed to tight tolerances, and because of their small overall size tend to have parts that, while bulletproof on a Ford, may be quite fragile on an Alfa. What you can get away with on a Chevy (such as tightening a nut down until it hurts, prying on a surface with the longest screwdriver you have, or whacking away with a hammer) will very likely do permanent damage to your Alfa. Be careful.

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