And three's a crowd in the Alfa Romeo 1300 Junior Spider
All those of you who remember the extremely catchy and hummable Simon & Garfunkel number Mrs Robinson from the movie The Graduate, raise your hands. And those of you who’ve actually seen the movie, raise your hands ...hmm. And those who remember the car that young Dustin Hoffman drove in that flick? Just as I thought, not many of you guys around.
For the benefit of those not in the know, The Graduate was a major success, and propelled Hoffman to stardom. And being a rich California boy in the movie, the car he drove around in was a red Alfa Romeo Spider, quite similar to the one you see here. The movie, the music, the star and the car were all inextricably linked in the impressionable minds of youth in the late 1960s, and it did wonders for Alfa Romeo imagery. Yup, it was classic product placement even before those two words were used together.
When you strip the hype around it, you get a car that’s a true collector’s item, and that’s not just for the history it came along with. The Spider was advanced, its engine featured twin cams and hemispherical combustion chambers, and its petite body was designed by Battista Pininfarina, yes, the master himself. Not surprisingly, it was known as the poor man’s Ferrari. So you get an immortal shape, an advanced engine, the legendary, almost a century old Visconti badge, all in one package. What are we waiting for?
A little clarification, actually. This car, though identical, is not the famously known Duetto (as seen in the movie). The Duetto was the name reserved for the similar-looking, bigger-engined 1600 Spider. Might as well give you an interesting aside now. Alfa held a massive naming competition for this car, which was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1966. Of the 1,40,000 names which were received, there were shining examples like Lollobrigida, Acapulco, Bardot, Nuvolari, Stalin and even Al Capone and Pizza. Ultimately, a certain Guidobaldo Trionfi noticed the three ‘twos’ in the car – cams, carburettors, seats – to give the name Duetto. Cute, huh?
Back to our car. You sit low in the Spider,with your arms splayed out on the wheel, legs folded to use the pedals, a rather long gear lever that’s positioned close to your body, and measuring instruments that are turned towards you. Pride of place on the painted metal dashboard goes to the tacho and the speedo. So typically Alfa. But in this car, the original wooden steering has given place to a modern after-market four-spoke Alfa wheel.
It’s a sweet car to look at, all right, but turn the key, and what greets you is an unmistakable sound, a right-sounding ferocious growl that seems at odds with the rest of the car’s delicate features. It’s deja vu all over again for me, having driven an early sixties Giulia Sprint about two years ago (Slice of life, Motoring, May 2001), which made these kind of happy noises, much more in tune with its fastback shape. Here, in the Spider, the raucous note emerging from the single exhaust pipe was like the sweet girl in The Exorcist
talking in the devil’s voice.
The main source of that racket is not a large displacement motor, but a small and fuel-efficient all-aluminium 1290 CC inline four, featuring double overhead cams (at a time when these could be seen only in larger, more expensive cars), that breathes through twin Webers. Which meant 89 lively Italian horses at 6000 revs, directed to the rear wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. The 1300 Junior was introduced in 1968 to make these Spiders more accessible to the masses, coming as it did under a different bracket according to Italian tax laws. Which is fine by me – it may not be a 125 bhp Duetto, but is still a potent and cheerful convertible – an Alfa after all.
The Spider seems eager to set off, and she’s happy only when you rev her hard. Almost gratefully, this little number thrusts her elegant nose forward, and off we go. I take her along the curvy, hilly roads of Lonavla, a hill station near Mumbai, and she’s in her element. I am in my element too – cool weather, wind in the hair, and a lovely burble behind me. For a car that’s this old (sorry, as young as my 34 years), with a relatively small engine, the Spider effortlessly clambers up the gradients without wheezing (unlike me). The engine revs without missing a beat, and you know all the while that there’s more juice waiting to be extracted from it.
Being a convertible, there’s no compelling reason for this car to be quick or fast. In fact, unlike most other British roadsters of that era, by giving it a five-speed gearbox with neatly spaced gear ratios, Alfa made sure that the Spider would give its owners a laid-back cruising experience. Cruise it does beautifully, as I found out in one of the straight roads off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway – a muted thrum and a relaxed engine, droning happily on fifth, but you forget the badge it wears. Early British test figures for this model say that it was capable of touching the 60 mph mark (96 kph) from standstill in a neat 11.2 seconds, attaining a top speed of 170 kph. Which is comparable to the figures of, say, a Honda City.
Added to that robust engine and neat gearbox is the precise steering. Getting back }on the curved stretches, the sharp nose goes perfectly where you point it – no lag, no second thoughts, it’s quite responsive and almost instantaneous. Helping the delightful steering is an independent suspension set-up at front, while at the rear, the car gets a live axle and coil springs. You may think the set-up is primitive, but I think it did a good job of being true to the Spider’s nature. The ride was firm and the handling sporty without being scary. Even though I didn’t push the car too much, it felt perfectly competent and unflappable. This Spider ran on 14” rubber, and Alfa was generous and thoughtful enough in those days to give it disc brakes on all four wheels.
Actually, if not for its performance and handling, the Spider had a good chance of bombing in the market – unbelievably, Pininfarina’s personal masterpiece was thrashed for its appearance. The sloping front end and matching boat-tail rear, and the deep troughs on the side didn’t go down well with the motoring press. One British magazine called it ‘compact and rather ugly’. And in the Spider’s launch year, Road & Track said it was a ‘contrived design with meaningless styling gimmicks’, at the same time praising its steering and handling.
But those lines would withstand the test of time, automotive mags notwithstanding. People began to fall in love with its iconic appearance, and Road & Track ultimately ate its words in 1989 – ‘pure beauty and refined aesthetic detail’ is what they eventually said. Perhaps it was Mrs Robinson working her charms.