Britain and Italy, two countries with more in common than you might think. Sure, food isn’t necessarily one of them. Or climate. Or a commitment to democratic ideals. But we have both had empires, which we still sort of imagine we still have, and we both like open top sports cars.
Come to think of it, it is hard to imagine two countries more closely aligned on the subject of cars. We like small cars. So do Italians. We like small convertibles, so do Italians. We have a legacy of a highly unionised state-owned car industry churning out years of rubbish. So do they. And we both made some brilliant cars in the 1960s. And, sporadically, again in the 90s. So really, we Brits are more Italian than we think. Except perhaps in our love of brightly coloured trousers and slip-on shoes. You can keep those Italy.
Naturally, it is the ouvre of cars that interests us here at Great Escape most about Italy and Britain. And in particular, with spring a mere sparrow’s leap away, convertible cars.
The parallels between the pasta and potato chomping nations are pretty remarkable. In the 60s we amalgamated our car industry and stopped doing anything worthwhile for 20 years. Much the same happened in Italy. But before the rot set in we each produced two great sports cars – the MGB and Alfa Spider. These models, designed pretty much to do exactly the same thing, ie. help young men get the girl and whisk her away for the weekend, were spectacularly successful but in their own very different ways. 30 years later at pretty much the same time Alfa and MG decided to repeat the trick. Here’s the story of what happened and why.
The MGB was built to be a lithe, modern aerodynamic replacement for the MGA, an affordable, relatively simple car for Young People, here and in America. Despite being not exactly sporty to drive, or very quick, it won many friends because it looked great and was rugged and reliable.
The Alfa, meanwhile, grew out of a similar obsession with aerodynamics, initially launched as the beautiful boat tail Spider. It replaced the bigger and more expensive Guilietta Spider, part of Alfa’s drive for mass-market appeal.
The two cars reflect their national origins. The B has that peculiarly British pie and pint no-nonsense image that some love and others love to hate. The Alfa has the air of a floppy haired feckless, unreliable rogue. I love them both equally.
On the road the Alfa is undeniably the better car – sportier, more engaging and more relaxed with its bigger engine and fifth gear. It also has a bigger boot, better roof and more comfortable cabin. The Alfa crackles and fizzes and, for me, is one of the best if not the best convertible sports cars of the last 40 years. It is utterly brilliant.
The MG lags behind in all areas and yet seems somehow better for it. It feels more solid and more durable than the Alfa. It is so unassuming that it is hard not to warm to it; because the B is not the most capable sports car in history it seems to expect nothing of the driver, leaving you happy to just pootle along at a relatively sedate pace and enjoy what’s happening around you. That, for me, is the joy of the B.
Both cars stayed in production for ages. No, literally ages. The MG died in ’81 while the Alfa soldiered on until ’93. But their production lives were very different. While the MGB of 1981 was pretty much identical, save for the ugly bumpers, to the car of ’61, the Alfa changed continuously. The early boat tail design, lauded now for its beauty, was universally reviled for its ugliness in the 60s and so quickly replaced with the long-lived Kamm Tail design. Alfa developed the twin cam engine to two litres, added fuel injection later in life and executed its own impact bumper upgrade in the 80s – rather more successfully than MG even if the Series 3 Alfa is the least loved. The final hurrah was the Series 4, launched in 1990 and made over by Pininfarina (who also built it). Some dislike the colour coded bumpers but this is the best Alfa Spider for me – reliable, relatively modern and yet harking back to its 60s heyday. It is testament to the versatility of the original Spider’s design that it lasted 10 years longer than the B.
The last of the 105-series Alfa Spiderscoincided with the launch of the MGF in the mid 90s, a car designed to rejuvenate the mass market for small, inexpensive convertibles vacated by the B and Spider. Over in Milan Alfa had been having similar thoughts and within the space of a year or so launched the new 916 Spider, based on the Fiat Tipo floor pan. These two cars couldn’t have been more different, reversing the technological tables set up in the 60s. Back then the Alfa was the ground-breaker, now it was the MG. The F was mid-engined, relatively light and packed an advanced VVC engine. The Alfa wasn’t really competing on the same terms. It was bigger, more grown up, more conventional and more luxurious. It was also drop-dead gorgeous, from its clam-shell bonnet through its rising belt line to its cut off boot. Where the original Spider was intended to push Alfa into the mass market, the new one was aimed at pushing it up market. And it sold quite well despite some obvious flaws. Like contemporary Alfas it looked brilliant but wasn’t exactly reliable. The twin cam 2 litre engine was lively but not that quick and on the road it shook more than Mr Stevens. The car handled quite well but the Tipo’s front wheel drive chassis wasn’t as lively as the old 105 Series Spider.
Conversely, the MGF drove better than it looked. The F is quite a good looking car but lacks the detail finesse of the Alfa, yet it drives nicely with a good balance between handling and ride. It is also quite quick, particularly with the VVC engine.
So, two flawed but popular drop tops. Much, it seems, like the originals that we have come to love and hold dear. The MGF and 916 Spider are emerging classics and although they have their shortcomings they are hardly issues to worry classic enthusiasts and weekend hirers. I love them both because they are so entertaining – the F is a hoot, perfect for a weekend getaway, the Alfa is more mature and relaxed, the ideal budget drop top to get away from it all. And it’s an Alfa, a brand with magical DNA that this car has in spades.
Whether you want to buy a B, F or Spider or hire one for a weekend, the choice is not that simple. Like choosing roast beef or pasta, it depends entirely on your mood. The B and early Spider require more effort than their modern counterparts but reward with their head-turning style. The F and later Spider are much easier and more relaxing. Whichever you choose, with prices starting at just £160 for a full weekend, adding a budget sports car to your weekend away is a great way to turn it from a break into a real escape.
We have MGs and Alfas to hire for our sites in Yorkshire, Devon and Cotswolds. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk. You can also hire the Japanese upstart MX5, which took on Alfa and MG at their own game, from our Peak District site.