Future Classics: Alfa Romeo GTV & Spider. Alfa Romeo 916 Series. Five-car group test of GTVs and Spiders. Rising Stars. It’s still possible to find a bargain, low mileage 916 series Alfa Romeo – but is time running out? Story by Richard Heseltine. Photography by Michael Ward.
It was affirmation, if it was needed, that Alfa Romeo was back. And how. The 916-series GTV and Spider represented a bold departure from the norm back in the mid ’90s, the styling being both bold and contemporary. There was no reheating of old models here, nor make do and mend engineering. The models’ debut at the 1995 Geneva Motor Show saw the once proud marque back in the limelight for all the right reasons. The thing is, that was then. More than two decades on, they languish in a netherworld between used car and classic status, so do they still stack up?
Now, as then, these wedge-shaped Alfas continue to polarise opinion. In period, they represented a new territory of aesthetic adventure. Not everyone liked the Enrico Fumia-penned styling, the car borrowing cues from his earlier efforts at Pininfarina including the Audi Quartz. Those who did, really liked them, and both models have aged better than many of their contemporaries. Beneath the dramatic skin, the GTV and Spider notionally shared their basic architecture with the Tipo but, in reality, there was little commonality. For starters, the multi-link rear suspension was all-new. It comprised an upper wishbone with a welded steel lower arm, coil spring/damper units and an anti-roll bar, mounted on a light-alloy subframe, which in turn was bolted to the monocoque. The front end was suspended by MacPherson struts, coil springs, lower wishbones and an anti-roll bar.
UK imports began in 1996, with only one engine being offered: the proven two-litre Twin Spark unit. The GTV was available with the glorious three-litre, 220bhp 24-valve V6 from 1998. In May of that year, both variants received a minor makeover, with external changes comprising a chrome surround for the signature triangular grille, and colour-coded side-skirts. Inside, these so-called ‘Phase 2’ models had reconfigured switchgear, but the bigger news occurred beneath the injection-moulded bonnet: the new intake manifold and engine management system raised power from 150bhp to 155bhp. The three-litre GTV also receive a six-speed ’box as standard.
As tends to be the way with these things, the UK had to wait as late as 2001 before we received the three-litre V6-engined Spider. Near concurrently, Alfa offered the three-litre GTV Cup limited-edition, upgrades being desirable but purely cosmetic nonetheless. The biggest changes across the board occurred in 2003, when both iterations received a styling facelift that consisted of a larger and deeper grille, with the number plate relocated to one side. At the same time, the V6’s displacement was stretched to 3179cc, which meant a useful 240bhp at 6200rpm. The two-litre Twin Spark unit, meanwhile, made way for the new 165bhp JTS unit.
Around 39,000 Spiders and 41,700 GTVs were made to ’04, the Brera replacement and its open-top sibling failing to raise enthusiasts’ pulses thereafter. Residual values subsequently took a tumble, but they have long since bottomed out and interest is on the rise. Should you be tempted?
LIVING WITH ONE
Even now, at a time when car styling seems to have fully embraced the maxim ‘It ain’t done ’til it’s overdone’, the Spider and GTV appear radical. Beneath the skin, however, they are relatively ordinary. One criticism that is often levelled at the Spider is that it isn’t particularly rigid. True enough, scuttle shake is never far away, but that is true of many open cars. You are all too aware of travelling on calloused asphalt as the ride comfort isn’t brilliant, but it isn’t appalling, either. It’s certainly a million times better than most modern-day German performance saloons we can think of. Some have argued that the issue isn’t so much an issue of regarding tyres or dampers as the seats. A few road testers in period complained that they were a bit too unyielding, but in either cloth or later Momo leather versions, it’s hard to understand what they’re on about.
That said, the one thing that you’re immediately made aware of on getting into a GTV is that headroom is at a premium. If you’re of even average height, your head will become intimate with the headlining. You do feel slightly perched, which, given the rakish drop-off the bonnet and shallow windscreen, does lend the impression that you’re driving into the road rather than on it. You soon acclimatise, however.
BELOW: Chris Eaton’s superb black 3.0 V6 has had a high quality repaint to concours standard
Performance wise, either model is fun to drive regardless of engine. The Twin Spark is in no way the duff old bluffer of the family. It’s a free-spinning unit that, as with all true Alfa engines, thrives on revs. It comes alive around the 3500rpm mark and sounds suitably tuneful. Not that it’s all at the top end. There is still plenty of torque when you need it. You’re rarely kept hunting around for a gear. The ‘Busso’ V6, meanwhile, is an absolute jewel of an engine. It is beautiful to look at and choral with it. Few mainstream ‘sixes’ have ever sounded this good. In run-out 3.2-litre form, the GTV in particular was good for almost 160mph and 0-60mph in a whisker over six-seconds. Even now, it still feels fast.
The one thing that tends to go unreported is how well these cars handle. Some might argue that a sportscar is not a sportscar if it isn’t rear-wheel drive. Drive one of these and the naysayers will probably believe otherwise. If anything, the fourcylinder cars are more fun to hustle. Cornering is neutral without any of the plough-on understeer you might expect. The V6 edition, by comparison, has a 63 per cent front-end weight bias which shows when pushing hard on a track. Even then, it doesn’t wash out. With a quick rack set-up with just 2.2 turns lock to lock, it’s a joy to drive in the real world, even if owners report that front tyre wear is horrific.
3.0 V6 SPIDER CHRIS EATON
There is so much to love about 916-series Alfas. But enough about our thoughts, what do the owners think? Immaculate doesn’t come close to describing Chris Eaton’s 2002 V6 Spider, which is unusual in being black on black. The car has been ‘refreshed’ rather than restored. Nevertheless, he baulks on being asked to lift up the bonnet. He hasn’t finished detailing it yet… “I bought the car around 4 years ago,” he says. “I got my first Alfa by default. I inherited it as a company car from my MD; a beautiful 156 2.0 Veloce in silver with red Momo leather. That was closely followed by another 156. I then moved up to V6 cars, firstly a 3.2 GTV in Etna black and then a pristine 147 GTA. After a brief fling with a Maserati and a couple of Abarths, I bought the Spider. I also own the last ‘Busso’ GT which has had a full Autodelta conversion from new.
“The Spider’s appeal is a combination of things: noise, rarity, and good looks. Oh, and the top comes down. It’s standard apart from a bespoke stainless exhaust, and the aerial has been removed and ‘smoothed over’ following its recent repaint. My cars are looked after by Alfa Tecnico in Sutton-in-Ashfield who I thoroughly recommend. I have had no problems with the Spider, though, apart from a few little electrical gremlins. Mechanically, it seems bulletproof.”
GTV CUP VIV STEPHENS
Something of a hardcore Alfista, Viv Stephens has owned ten Alfas to date ranging from a 33 1.5ie to a 4C Launch Edition. Tellingly, he has held on to the Cup for longer than any of them. While named after a one-make race series, this limited-edition (of 419) GTV was competition inspired, with changes over the standard car consisting of leather/fabric trim, colour-coded body kit, side vents and titanium finish 17in ‘telephone dial’ alloys.
“The car was first registered in September 2001 and I acquired it in February 2008,” he says. “The things I like most about the Cup are the engine, the looks of the car, the exhaust note and the cabin. There isn’t much to dislike except for the front brake squeal, which I hope to cure with new discs very soon. I haven’t had any reliability issues, though.” And is there anything he doesn’t like about the car? “The gearlever throw is quite long, but it doesn’t bother me. The Cup is completely standard apart from the stainless tail pipe, which came with the car which was supplied by Black & White Garage. I regard it as a ‘keeper’ as my son wants it when I pop my clogs!”
GTV 2.0 JTS MIKE CROLL
A relative ‘newbie’ by Alfa standards, Mike Croll is nonetheless making up for lost time. “I bought the GTV in August 2015. It’s a 2004 model, although I previously had a 1999 Twin Spark model. That was my first venture into Alfa territory, but prior to that I had run assorted classics including a ‘Frog Eye’ Sprite, a Ford Zephyr Mk3, a Triumph Vitesse and so on. For me, the Alfa’s looks are the main attraction but it has great performance, too. It’s a bit different from anything else on the road and is destined for classic status.
“I haven’t done much to it myself, though. I use Performance Motors of Loughborough for routine maintenance, and it recently had some major surgery at Alfaworkshop. Previous owners had not looked after it very well, so I put right their bunglings. The car is pretty standard apart from a full stainless exhaust by Powerflow. I may tinker with it at some point, but, to be honest, I’m quite happy with the performance as it stands. It’s got a lush set of limited edition alloy wheels, too. I have to say, the GTV has been quite expensive to run, but then it isn’t my main transport so…”
GTV 3.0 V6 BOBBY NOON
Despite working for Aston Martin, Bobby Noon is an Alfa man to the core. This 2001 GTV is his fourth V6 version, not forgetting a Twin Spark edition. “I bought the car off my dad in 2015,” he says. “He originally acquired it in 2011. I also own a 146 Ti and a GT Selespeed. In the past, I had another 146Ti, two 155s, three 156s, two 147s and I jointly owned a 75 and two 155 V6 models.”
So what is the enduring appeal of the V6 GTV? “I love the performance of the 3.0-litre engine. My favourite aspect of the car is the line in the bodywork from the front wheel arch to the rear window. The car is completely standard apart from a Ragazzon rear silencer and carbon-fibre look centre console which was done via Hydrographic. I generally do basic servicing myself. Any larger jobs like getting the cambelts done, etc, are done by independent specialists due to lack of space in my own workshop.” Are there any downsides to ownership? “Squeaky brakes are an issue when the car is driven hard. Generally, my car is well behaved until winter time. Then it’s almost unusable due to freezing locks and door handles!”
2.0 TS SPIDER ANDREW MAGUIRE
“I do have a bit of a thing for 916-series Alfas,” Andrew Maguire says, somewhat superfluously. He owns three, having spent the past nine years bringing this ’97 Twin Spark Spider back to factoryfresh condition. “It was my dad that got me started. I was thinking about buying an MG Midget, or something similar, and he told me that I would be better off getting an Alfa Romeo. He said they look good and sound great. Anyway, I bought this car in 2009 and have rebuilt it from front to back.”
So what is it about them that draws him on? “It’s hard to pinpoint. I suppose it’s a mixture of things: the looks, certainly, but also the performance. They also sound good. I think they handle well, too. I also have a Coventry Green V6 which I have driven on a lot of circuits, including Spa. I really like the way they drive. I think they’re underrated.”
And have there been any problems? “None that I can think of. I mean, there have been one or two little niggles, but that’s all. You get that with all cars. I have spent quite a lot of money on the Spider, but that was my choice.”
|142bhp @ 6500rpm
|125lb ft @ 3500rpm
|148bhp @ 6200rpm
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|153bhp @ 6400rpm
|138lb ft @ 3500rom
|148bhp @ 6300rpm
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|163bhp @ 6400rpm
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|2.0 V6 TB
|197bhp @ 6000rpm
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|3.0 V6 12v
|189bhp @ 5600rpm
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|3.0 V6 24v
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|3.0 V6 24v
|215bhp @ 6300rpm
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|3.2 V6 24v
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