It had been going so well. The loud bang from the underside of our Spider initially didn’t darken the mood of a great day. We were on a remote road in the far south west of France’s Dordogne region enjoy a fantastic, relaxing holiday. Whatever had just happened surely couldn’t be that serious.
We were on our way back from visiting some of the Dordogne’s famous hill villages in our burgundy Series 4 Spider when we heard the noise. We had the top down in the early evening sun and all was very well with the world, despite the fact that the isolated minor road we were on was clearly designed for softly sprung Deux Chevaux rather than scuttle-shaking Spiders.
I got out of the car to investigate. About 100 metres back down the road I found a large bolt. I ran back to the car brandishing it and muttering about ‘stupid French’ leaving bolts lying around in the road. My wife Janine sat silently and listened.
It didn’t take more than a couple of miles to realise that something was not right. The car wasn’t tracking straight and the right front wheel felt heavy and imprecise.
We limped the 20 kms back to our villa where it was quickly apparent that the car had a serious problem. Or rather we did. One of the front wheels was resting at a fairly severe outward angle, the sort of angle that is perfectly familiar to the members of the Triumph Spitfire Owners Club, but rather more alarming to a Spider owner.
At this point our breakdown cover came into its own – thank you Carole Nash – but my CSE Fail grade French proved rather less effective. It is genuinely remarkable how the French you learnt so fluently at school 20 years ago – ‘The motor car that I am owning is malodorous’ – has absolutely no value in conversation with a French man in France.
Our French seemed to stop where our mechanic’s started, which was roughly around the word ‘merde.’ As he rummaged in the Spider’s engine bay by torchlight his conversation was limited largely to that expletive, which we did not take as a positive sign.
Rather than the work of a loutish French man, it transpired that the errant bolt had in fact been casually discarded by me, or more specifically the car, from the offside front suspension. A lack of suitable parts – in other words, a bolt – meant the car had to be towed to a local Fiat garage. So our interim transport was a rented Nissan Almera Tino.
This virtually inevitable incident was the only one during a marathon 3,000 km round trip from Birmingham to the Dordogne. Despite a payload that would have challenged a Land Rover Discovery – including two suitcases on a boot rack – we travelled 1,000 kms down to the Dordogne in two days, scooting across France using a mixture of autoroutes and N-roads. Over two weeks we added another 1,000 kms before returning to Birmingham in continuous torrential rain.
Spur of the Moment
All of which highlights the problem of owning a Spider. It encourages spur-of-the-moment decisions. As winter turned to Spring 2006, and in the midst of a very stressful house move I idly suggested to my wife Janine that it might be a nice idea to go to Italy in September and perhaps we could take the Spider. Italy somehow became France and, with a glass of red wine to hand, we had clicked our way to Eurotunnel tickets, two weeks in a villa and new boot rack before the sun had set on the idea.
Realisation probably finally hit about six months later when we stepped back to survey the Spider’s payload. The boot was full, the behind-seat stowage area was packed and we had two suitcases on the boot rack.
Tail Heavy, Nose Light
We travelled down to a service station on the M25 and then on to the Eurotunnel, in itself one of the longest trips that the Spider had ever completed in a day. It is a surprisingly comfortable car, with supportive and figure-hugging seats and a driving position that is pleasantly un-Italian,’ certainly far better than my previous Alfasuds and 33s. The Series 4 is set up for relaxed cruising, with relatively pliant suspension and tall gearing, which makes motorway driving if not strictly pleasant then not overly demanding. The classic 2 litre twin cam engine – in the Series 4 with fuel injection too – is typically Alfa, combining sufficient power with plenty of torque to enable rapid but not frenetic progress. With the catalyser removed – as on our car – and a slightly beefier rear box, the engine crackles and fizzles in the familiar Alfa fashion. If you own a post-June 1992 Spider, this is a highly recommended conversion.
Even with the heavy payload the car handled well, the extra weight helping to plant the car firmly on the road and soften its normally skittish behaviour, as well as dialling out some of the scuttle shake. The worm and roller steering gets power assistance in the Series 4, a combination that isn’t entirely harmonious; it is direct but the over-assistance means that some of the feel is lost. This is a boulevard cruiser rather than a B-road banzai.
It is hard not to admire the simplicity and efficiency of the Spider. It was designed for summer top-down motoring and it is perfect for the job. The hood is easy to lower – just a couple of clips and it’s down – and with the windows down and the quarter lights adjusted there is just enough turbulence for excitement and comfort. And everywhere we went the car drew admiring glances and calls of ‘c’est un belle voiture!’ At the risk of heresy, it is difficult to look at modern convertibles – the Alfa Spider included – and not conclude that modern top-down motoring has become a little too heavy and comfortable.
From Calais we drove to Chartres, the Spider’s intrinsic charm helping us to avoid the worst of French tailgating tendencies. Which is probably just as well since rear visibility was somewhat limited.
Chartres is a busy regional centre with a charming historical heart but we had little time to enjoy it before heading south again in the morning. The countryside south of the city is very flat with long uninterrupted views across farmland and arrow-straight roads. Traffic was light and the only hazards were inebriated farm workers in Citroens and widely-held confusion over a particular traffic rules.
For many years France has operated a strange and frankly dangerous rule whereby traffic merging from minor side roads has right of way. Someone official somewhere in Paris clearly recognised that this didn’t make much sense and apparently the law was changed. Except no-one anywhere is quite sure if that is what happened. Consequently, every side road becomes a high-risk lottery and we had our fair share of close shaves. At least we discovered how good the Spider’s brakes are (so good, in fact, that we needed new ones when we got back).
Past Rouen the countryside began to change again, hillier, greener and leafier. We turned off the main roads and picked up a succession of scenic, winding minor roads where we could slow the pace and drop the top. A few kilometres from our villa we picked up some provisions and Janine spent the last half hour of the journey balancing milk, eggs, bread and wine as we snaked around the mountain roads to our villa.
The Dordogne has been unfairly dubbed Dordogneshire. It’s true that it not only looks very English but is also home to swathes of us, some residents, some on regular holidays to the region. Regular flights between Britain and Bordeaux haven’t helped the situation. But you can easily escape the Range Rovers and Discoveries and find a corner of France that is relaxing, quiet and almost quaint.
With its meandering riverside picnic stops, idyllic rural restaurants and winding roads splitting acres of vineyards, the Dordogne is the perfect destination for a Spider-assisted holiday. Before and after our untimely pothole incident, we had a great time touring around in the sun. When we switched to the hired Almera the weather changed to rain, perhaps in sympathy. But even in the wet we both wished that we were in the Spider; somehow the scenery and the holiday just didn’t seem the same from the anonymous safety of our rented Eurobox.
Rain Falls Mainly on the Spider
The rain followed us home. The Spider skipped and slipped through the torrents, the only problems being a drip above the quarter light; fortunately for me it was on the passenger side. And a swimming pool in the footwell; unfortunately for me, on the driver’s side. Aside from these niggles, and accommodation problems in Chartres, our trip back in the Spider was fuss-free and enjoyable. Back at home the only requirements were a service and oil change and new brake pads.