Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

| 30 Oct 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

Over three decades and to the tune of some 120,000 cars, the 105-series Alfa Romeo Spider has secured a place in the pantheon of classic greats, yet it is a car that has somehow passed me by.

As someone who grew up with the pragmatism of Morris and MG, its design flourishes always smacked of frivolity, its delicacy of femininity and its sophistication of over-engineering.

To confirm or quash that impression, it seems only fair to spend some quality time with this quality machine, but the looming drizzle of Surrey in March is hardly the best place to form a lasting relationship with a sports car born for the sun-soaked Tuscan hills.

Salvation came in the shape of Regis de Nicolás López, who for some time has been trying to persuade me that the Sierra de Guadarrama, north of Madrid in Spain’s Castilla y León region, offers the perfect roads – and climate – to enjoy a classic.

And he just happens to have a 1966 Alfa Duetto 1600 that we can borrow; it’s a bit more vida dulce than dolce vita, but I’m not complaining…

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

Less than an hour from Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport, snapper Williams and I find ourselves in a landscape that could almost pass for the Swiss Alps.

The blue of a Spanish springtime sky is something to behold and, though there’s still the bite of late winter in the air, I’m determined to make the most of the sun so it’s shirtsleeves all the way. That said, the black plastic rim of Alfa’s familiar three-spoke wheel is cold to its core, so driving gloves are a must.

We collect the Spider from Mercedes-Benz specialist Cochera Clásicos in the pretty town of Cercedilla, where the marvellously bearded Pedro Noblejas Arroyo gives us a few route suggestions then sends us on our way.

After a single pump of the throttle to prime the carbs, the all-alloy, twin-cam ‘four’ bursts into life, initially lumpy before swiftly settling to a smooth idle with a couple of blips to clear the throats of those twin Weber 40DCOEs.

It’s tempting to head to the foothills of the Sierra and take a look at the Monasterio de San Lorenzo El Escorial, but instead we point the Duetto’s delicate nose upwards into the town centre and onwards to the mountain passes beyond.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

Favoured by Madrileños, Cercedilla is home to skiers throughout the winter and walkers in the pine forests during the summer – and a mixture of both right now.

Through the middle we pass a bronze of the town’s most famous son, the late Francisco ‘Paquito’ Fernández Ochoa, a World Cup Alpine ski racer who became the first (and so far only) Spaniard to take gold at the Winter Olympics when he won the slalom at the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan.

The combination of the Alfa’s noisy exhaust and lovely Pininfarina lines means it is already garnering attention, and it’s a shape few don’t recognise – or adore.

In part it’s the familiarity that comes with such a long production run, but also because it has been immortalised so often on celluloid.

It’s the go-to cliché for the chic man or woman about town, but perhaps most famous of all as the car that gave frustrated collegian Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) freedom from his parents and paramour in The Graduate.

Dustin’s was a 1600, too, and we’re grateful for the torque of the enlarged 1570cc version of Giuseppe Busso’s classic ‘twink’ as we head into the Guadarrama Natural Park, and the sweeping bends gently start to climb. There’s time for a pause outside of town for a few shots in the dusty yard behind La Fonda Real restaurant, where a ruined timber barn frames the view, then it’s back onto the M-601, which has suddenly taken a turn for the sinuous.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

Alfisti won’t like me saying it, but the dials are classic Alfa – and indeed classic Italian – as their needles waver all over the place, showing a full tank of benzina downhill, empty uphill.

There’s that distinctive 105-series shimmy from the softly sprung rear end, but it rides the few ruts in this well-surfaced road smoothly.

My brain, more tuned to the torque of an MGB, takes a while to realise that the engine wants to play. When you do work the five-speed ’box – long of throw and wide of gate, but light and sweet in action – and push it nearer to the start of the redline at 6200rpm, it responds energetically.

The road has begun to climb more sharply now; 1200, 1300, 1400, 1500m marker boards flash past the delicate chromed door mirror, and by 1700m snow has started to appear.

By the time we break out at the top beside Puerto de Navacerrada ski station, we’re at 1894m and surrounded by skiers heading to the chairlifts. Understandably, they all think I’m crazy for wearing short sleeves.

“He’s English,” explains our guide, but to be honest I’m freezing so pop on a jumper for the next leg while enjoying the sight of the gleaming red Alfa against the spectacular backdrop of the mountains known as the ‘Seven Peaks’, which climb to over 2000m.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

After the slightly slushy roads along the top of the pass, wincing at the thought of salt caking the underside of the Alfa’s recent repaint, the signs begin counting down as we enter a seemingly never-ending sequence of tight downhill bends, which swiftly reveal what a superbly resolved chassis this is.

And that’s no great surprise, when you consider that the Alfa Spider’s bloodline can be traced back to the 6C and 8C roadgoing racers, which were as at home in Grands Prix as they were on an Alpine tour.

The modern generation began post-WW2 with the 1900, masterminded by long-serving chief engineer Orazio Satta Puliga, but the Milanese firm found the perfect formula for the classic open Alfa Romeo with the gorgeous Giulietta Spider in 1955: a lightweight monocoque, sparsely elegant Pinin Farina styling, and a strident yet compact twin-cam, twin-carb ‘four’.

It evolved into the Giulia in 1962, but it wasn’t until four years later that the definitive Alfa Romeo Spider landed, the Duetto, although the name – a nod to its two-seater spec – lasted only two years.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

The refreshed Pininfarina shape, however, would form the basis of the model that rolled out of the new Arese plant remarkably little-altered for the next three decades (albeit with the delicate boat-like rump making way for the more aerodynamic Kamm design in 1971, and later a rubber appendage).

Under that barchetta body is coil-sprung wishbone front and trailing-arm rear suspension, which still strikes an impressive ride/handling balance today.

On tighter curves there’s a little understeer as the Duetto leans hard on its outside-front tyre, and if you’re clumsy enough it can be provoked into a tweak of the tail on the exit of a hairpin, but the majority of the time the balance is completely neutral.

The recirculating-ball steering is heavy at parking speeds, yet light and precise as soon as the wheels are turning.

While you steer more agricultural period rivals with your fists, shoulders and biceps, you guide a Duetto with the tips of your fingers – it’s a Mont Blanc to the MGB’s whiteboard marker. Neither is right or wrong, just… different.

The suspension, too, is in marked contrast to the classic British sports-car experience of a jarring ride and roll-free cornering. It’s softly sprung, so dives when braking and squats under acceleration, yet it soaks up the bumps and has wonderful poise – and plenty of grip, too, despite the skinny 155 x 15s at each corner.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

After a couple of runs up and down the mountainside, we roll into the outskirts of San Ildefonso de La Granja to give the car a rest and ourselves a bit of sustenance.

“Whatever you do, don’t miss the Judiones de La Granja,” were Pedro’s parting words, and we’re happy to oblige.

Amazingly, this delicious dish of butter beans, local sausage and morcilla (Spanish black pudding) is only the starter, and as we plough on through two more courses washed down by vino de verano (a weak red-wine spritzer), we gaze over at the rapidly cooling Alfa.

‘Our’ car was first delivered to Gran Canaria and came to Spain before being restored. It has a purposeful stance despite riding high over its perforated steel wheels, and the details are mesmerising.

The line of the boot flows into the tail-lights, the flat expanse of bootlid broken only by the company name in ornamental script, with nothing so clumsy as a lock barrel (it’s released by a lever inside the door jamb).

The shape of those tail-lights is then mirrored by the scallop that stretches away down the car’s flanks, disappearing in the curve of the front wheelarch. Every line is considered as part of a remarkably complete whole, bearing in mind that this was a production car for the (well-heeled) masses rather than a bespoke coachbuilt jewel.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

With stomachs full enough to test the twin-cam’s modest 109bhp, we head into town for a glimpse of how the other half live.

La Granja is home to a royal palace dating from the early 18th century, built as a summer home by Felipe V, the first Bourbon king, and more recently used to host summits during Spain’s EU presidency.

We’re generously given permission to come in and take a picture in front of the sprawling splendour of the restored palace, though a cheeky ask to drive into the elegant formal gardens – which give the site its ‘Mini Versailles’ nickname – is politely declined. We’re sadly back on the road before the fountains – including the 50ft-high La Fama – are switched on at 5.30pm.

Even though it’s out of season, we’ve been warned that our destination – the UNESCO World Heritage city of Segovia – is likely to be busy, particularly because we’re arriving in the middle of rush hour.

As we reach the outskirts, we spot what at first appears to be a classic meet, but turns out to be a clutch of ‘restored’ cars being used to tempt customers into Restaurante Lago. They include a pair of Fintail Mercs with hand-painted whitewalls, a Y-type Ford and a ’70s Mazda Cosmo – plus, briefly, our Alfa before we rejoin the queues into town.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

With 0-60mph in a fairly leisurely 11.3 secs, the Spider is hardly ideal for the traffic-light Grand Prix, but it’s otherwise a superb city companion.

It’s tiny by modern standards – particularly its slender 5ft 4in width – and takes speed bumps well, though the way the nose bobs reveals why this car has a sump-guard fitted.

Segovia is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, with a grandeur far beyond its size. Much of the city dates from the Middle Ages, and there’s no better way to take in the churches, monasteries, Gothic cathedral and the Alcázar (which reputedly inspired Walt Disney’s castle) than from an open sports car.

The centre is split over two levels, with the cathedral high on the rocky Postigo outcrop met by the Roman aqueduct that once supplied it with water. By the time we’ve taken our last photographs, night has long fallen and we head back to the hotel following the warm glow from behind the Carello headlamp covers.

In the cool evening air the Webers pick up even more eagerly, and the twin-cam fizzes as we dive between roundabouts, the exhaust rasping with each lift for a gearchange.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

The morning dawns as damp as our humour – blame the local Rioja and cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) for that – so we’re grateful for the brilliance of the Alfa’s hood, which takes just one arm and one movement to raise.

As the hand-clap wipers make their weary way across the ’screen, inside the mood is lifted by the bright red dash, fronted by a large Jaeger rev counter and speedo, with the central dials angled towards the driver.

Lacking the rear side windows of a Fiat 124 Spider it feels a little claustrophobic, but it’s snug and only a temporary state of affairs because the sun soon breaks through and we can drop it – when it’s best to get out and give the rear screen help to avoid splitting the plastic.

We’ve been told a visit to the nearby Navas de Riofrío is a must. There’s another royal palace to see, but we’re here for a rather more exciting attraction: just outside the town there’s a snake of hairpins zigzagging down the valley to the river and back up the other side.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

The middle pedal has long travel – not ideal as a base for heel-and-toeing – but the discs are sharp and have plenty of bite.

Weaving through the steep turns you can understand why the Alfa draws comparison with the Elan: they have that same nimble nature, the same sense of striking a perfect balance between comfort and agility – though there’s little doubt that the flyweight Lotus would show the Alfa a clean pair of heels through the twistier stuff.

We have to be at the airport before nightfall, but we’re keen to see one more historic site before handing back the Alfa.

And a high-speed run reveals another string to the Spider’s bow: it’s chilly with the roof down, but the Duetto is perfectly happy at the 130kph limit between villages, pulling a little over 4000rpm.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

At last the extraordinarily pretty fortified village of Pedraza appears atop its rocky outcrop, almost perfectly preserved from the 16th century.

Perched at the top of a hill, it’s entered via a single stone gateway and the cobbled surface tests even the Alfa’s sweet ride quality, as the front anti-roll bar rattles in its mounts.

Apparently it’s busy here at the weekend, when the beautiful people of Madrid drive out to enjoy the local roast lamb, but today it’s all but deserted.

We even get a chance to drive right up to the remarkably preserved castle, something that would be unimaginable in the UK. It’s now privately owned, but is famed for being the place where the eight-year-old Dauphin of France and his younger brother were imprisoned in 1526, after their dad François I swapped them for his own freedom following his capture at the battle of Pavia.

We’re a bit more interested in the abandoned Seat 600 off the main square, one of the few other classics we encounter on our trip.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

All too soon we’re back at Cochera, and unpacking the Duetto’s long, shallow luggage bay. It’s only been a short tour, but long enough to prove that Regis was right: this is indeed the perfect place to enjoy a classic sports car.

And I’m struggling to think of a car that could have been a better partner for the journey; only an ache in my hips from the splayed-legs driving position counts against it as the perfect all-rounder.

For confirmation of its enduring charm, you only have to look in the garage of the man who has driven just about every important car in history, from pre-war Grand Prix titans to the Bugatti Veyron: our Mick Walsh has cherished his own Duetto for more than 30 years.

Beautiful, practical and still attainable, the original Spider is the last affordable dream car.

Classic & Sports Car – Dream drive: Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

Images: Will Williams

Alfa Romeo Duetto 1600

  • Sold/number built 1966-’67/2959
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, dohc 1570cc ‘four’, twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors
  • Max power 109bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 103lb ft @ 2800rpm
  • Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing arms; telescopic dampers, coil springs f/r
  • Steering recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 13ft 11½in (4255mm)
  • Width 5ft 4in (1626mm)
  • Height 4ft 3in (1295mm)
  • Wheelbase 7ft 5in (2250mm)
  • Weight 2181lb (989kg)
  • 0-60mph 11.3 secs
  • Top speed 109mph
  • Mpg 27
  • Price new £1840 (1966)
  • Price now £25-50,000


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