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On a grey December day in England, an early ’60s Italian sports car definitely lifts the mood.
It doesn’t need to be packing 12, eight or even six cylinders: four good ones will do, particularly when they have two chain-driven overhead camshafts to make them breathe freely, smoothly and deeply.
Your day becomes even better when such sophistication comes attached to four or five well-spaced, slick-shifting ratios to make the best use of sweetly responsive torque and redlines of 6000rpm and above.
I almost feel too lumpy and Anglo-Saxon to be quite at ease behind the wheel of either: they were designed to be driven by the slim, tanned and effortlessly good-looking people of the world of 1960s Italian brochures.
These were attainable glamour machines, cars for gambolling along the sun-dappled roads of the Riviera or Lake Como that helped sell the dream of the modern Italian lifestyle to the world.
While the Fiat could be mistaken for a variety of pretty contemporary two-seaters, the 750/101-series Alfa Romeo Spider has a shape that encapsulates the essence of everything the marque is about, even today.
People with no interest in old cars could identify this jewel-like two-seater as an Alfa Romeo.
With their wind-up windows, decent heaters and hoods that are the work of a moment to erect, both of these compact Italians seem much more civilised than their early ’60s British equivalents.
Had you the necessary funds 57 years ago, you may well have found these two miniature exotics worth the price of admission.
Today, even allowing for inflation, those numbers are a lot bigger, although the £60,000 or so that might one day part the Classic Motor Hub from this 1961 Fiat 1500S (for now it’s been acquired as a car for Hub staff to drive to events in 2022) looks like a bargain next to the near-£100,000 sticker the Alfa Giulia Spider wears.
When did Alfa Spiders become so valuable? Ah, yes, but: there are Giulia Spiders and there are Giulia Spider Veloces.
This fastidiously restored example is one of the latter, a one-year-only model sold new in New York by Max Hoffman.
Only 1091 Giulia Spider Veloces were built, complete with a 1570cc, 112bhp engine – 280cc larger than the Giulietta – disc brakes and a five-speed ’box.
Like most open Italian machinery, they were intended more for export than home-market consumption: in truth most ’60s Italian motorists, a practical and thrifty breed, wanted tin-top cars that protected them from the sun.
Launched at the Paris Salon in 1955, this body style has a confusing 12-year production history that included not only a change of model identification in the late ’50s – from 750 series to 101 series, with a 2in-longer wheelbase and quarterlights on the doors – but a change of name, in 1962, to Giulia.
This aligned it with the latest 105-series cars, although the Spiders – by then with a bonnet scoop to accommodate the deeper engine block – were still identified internally as the 101 series.
The Giulietta and later Giulia Spiders were the most glamorous embodiments of the first stage of Alfa Romeo’s post-war mass-market ambitions.
All told Alfa sold 27,000 of them, a figure significant enough that it was never likely to be left unnoticed and unchallenged by the ever-expanding Fiat empire.
The initial response was a little feeble, however. Enter, in 1955, the 1100 Spider based on the 48bhp 1100 TV saloon.
With its wraparound ’screen and 81mph top speed, the 1100 (later upgraded to 1200) Fiat Spider was a gutless rust bucket of the first order: sales totalling fewer than 3500 cars tend to suggest that buyers had it weighed up as a fraud.
Behind the scenes, Fiat was presented with a short-term solution when Ernesto Maserati – then of his Bologna-based Osca and struggling to stay solvent – visited in 1957.
He was looking for help, and proposed a deal to chief engineer Dante Giacosa whereby Fiat built a civilised and productionised version of his racing twin-cam engine for semi-mass-production use in a Fiat Spider, while feeding Ernesto and his brothers a supply of engines for their more specialised, low-volume Osca road and competition models.
Ford would have a similar arrangement with Lotus before long, and the tie-up with Osca was in many ways a warm-up act not only for the Fiat Dinos of a few years down the line, but also for the fully productionised (and technically unrelated) Fiat twin-cam engines that emerged in the Fiat 124 Coupé and Spider in 1967.
The Fiat-Osca 1500S Cabriolet was launched in 1959 (a sneak preview had been shown at Turin the previous year), with a new unitary-construction body based on the suspension and drivetrain of the Fiat 1200 saloon, but built and styled by Pininfarina with a bonnet scoop to differentiate the more exotic ‘S’ version from the cooking, pushrod-engined 1200.
The 1491cc twin-cam, big-valve engine – bench-assembled and sharing nothing with any production Fiat unit – had nearly square bore and stroke dimensions.
It featured a forged crank, rods and pistons, but was somewhat detuned for reliability and flexibility by Fiat’s Aurelio Lampredi, who specified a restrictive dual-choke single carburettor and an iron – rather than aluminium – cylinder block.
With 80bhp, the Osca 1500S would top the ton, giving it a 13mph lead on the pushrod-engined 1200 while virtually halving the 0-60mph time of the cheaper car.
That was enough to persuade 3089 buyers to cough up the extra £500 for the twin-cam ‘S’, a figure that includes the facelifted 1963-’66 1600S (bored out by 2mm, with a pair of Webers and 90bhp), and an unknown quantity of two-seater coupé versions built and marketed directly by Pininfarina.
These Osca-engined two-seaters were second only to the 2300 Ghia coupé in the Fiat hierarchy, their shells put together on Pininfarina’s Grugliasco production lines in Turin alongside the Giulia Spider and the Peugeot 404 Cabriolet.
From the start the twin-cam models had bigger 15in wheels with drum brakes from the 1800/2100 saloon, then four-wheel discs from 1960.
This grigio example was sold new in France through the Simca agency in Paris in October 1961, at a time when Fiat was still the main shareholder of that company.
At some point it made its way to California. Last registered for road use in the early ’70s, the car lay unused until being subject to a concours-standard restoration in the mid-2000s.
Chassis number 118S016042 then turned up in the Gooding & Co Pebble Beach sale in 2015.
Like the Giulia, the Fiat 1500S is small, but not so small that it feels vulnerable in modern traffic, with more chrome tinsel than the Alfa and a bigger boot: large enough to swallow, with ease, the big plastic home-delivery basket that fell out of the unsecured side of a supermarket van during our photoshoot.
There is a touch of Lancia Aurelia Convertible about the Fiat’s big instruments, but not so much the simulated wooden dashboard.
The footbrace on the passenger side was a bit of a Fiat favourite also seen on the 2300S Coupé.
The beautiful Nardi steering wheel sits very upright and almost looks too big for the car, but at low speeds you are grateful for the leverage it offers.
Overall, Fiat tried hard to make the 1500S look like an expensive car inside. Alfa focused on keeping the fittings Minimalist and practical, with rubber mats on the floor, a body-coloured fascia and basic controls for lights, choke, wipers and hand throttle across the centre.
Both cars have floor-hinged clutch and brake pedals.
The Alfa’s doors are shallow to make room for deep sills, but its footwells are not as dished as those in the Fiat; there is a touch of long-arm short-leg posture about the driving positions in both.
This Giulia’s well-stuffed seat cushions don’t ‘give’ much post-restoration, so even people of average height find that their foreheads sit in the slipstream above the windscreen frame.
The Alfa’s bonnet is rear-hinged, with the engine canted slightly over to the right to get clearance.
Under a front-hinged bonnet, the Fiat’s twin-cam unit, with its elegantly formed manifolds, is a similarly snug fit.
There is the usual Italian ‘colostomy bag’ screenwash reservoir and an unexciting airbox, but the eye is drawn to the arrangement of bushed drop-arms for the steering-box linkage on the firewall, which creak during low-speed manoeuvring.
In the UK, dealer Huxford and Son offered right-hand-drive conversions on the 1500S, which, at first, was listed as ‘POA’ in the UK.
Both cars need fairly extensive throttle pumping to fire from cold, but soon warm to the task.
They bark healthily when roused, yet also tick over quietly and evenly, and must have represented the ultimate in four-cylinder road-car engine technology in the early ’60s in the way they tolerate low speeds while pottering through town as well as enjoying high revs with equal good humour and refinement.
With hoods down, both are surprisingly quiet – without excessive wind buffeting – and they have sufficient suspension movement to ride firmly but well, without scuttle shake.
Of the two, the Giulia rolls more obviously but feels handy and almost modern, rarely betraying its near-60 years.
It burbles and sucks through its Weber 40s and, being 20bhp up on the 1500S (combined with a substantial weight advantage), it can’t help but feel marginally the stronger of the pair, with a gear for every eventuality and an easy stride that makes fast progress natural.
If anything the Osca engine in the Fiat sings even more sweetly, but its handy gearchange cannot match the slick action of the Giulia’s shift, with its spring-loaded centre bias that allows you to drop from fifth to fourth as fast as you like and with strong – but never obstructive – synchromesh on all the other ratios, which, like the well-located rear axle, are quiet.
Coil-sprung all round, the Alfa’s bodyshell feels slightly stiffer than the Fiat, of-a-piece with its suspension and blessed with beautifully accurate steering that does not kick back.
The Fiat feels safe and steady through corners, and you would never guess it had cart springs controlling its back axle.
Totally forgiving, it’s a car you learn to exploit quickly. It drifts easily on its skinny little tyres but the steering – slack around the straight-ahead – is porridgy after the Alfa and feels lower-geared although, at three turns lock-to-lock, it isn’t especially.
Even if the Giulia didn’t drive so well the looks might get you anyway: with its hunched ’screen, curved hips and short overhangs it has a compact sense of purpose about it somehow lacking in the Fiat’s pleasant, balanced, yet slightly more formal lines.
While the Alfa summons images of Edward Fox crossing France, in his white/blue example, for his murderous appointment with General de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal, there is an elegant playfulness about the Fiat that suggests an Audrey Hepburn type in a technicolour romantic comedy.
Despite the (mostly) clear superiority of the Giulia, I would find it hard to choose between these two. A certain familiarity with the Alfa initially draws you to the novelty of the Fiat.
If its pretty shape, balanced chassis and nice finish don’t quite hang together as completely as the Giulia’s, it has a pleasant, carefree character bereft of the bar-room clichés that attend the mythology of all things Alfa Romeo.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to Classic Motor Hub
Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider Veloce
- Sold/number built 1964-’65/1091
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1570cc 'four', twin Weber carburettors
- Max power 112bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 96Ib ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones rear live axle, radius arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Brakes discs
- Length 12ft 10½in (3924mm)
- Width 5ft 2¼in (1581mm)
- Height 4ft 4½in (1334mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 4¾in (2254mm)
- Weight 1860Ib (844kg)
- 0-60mph 10.5 secs
- Top speed 109mph
- Mpg 25-30
- Price new £1498
- Price now £90,000+*
Fiat-Osca 1500S Cabriolet
- Sold/number built 1959-’63/3089
- Construction steel unitary
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1491cc 'four', single Weber carburettor
- Max power 80bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 77Ib ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Brakes discs
- Length 13ft 2¾in (4032mm)
- Width 4ft 12in (1524mm)
- Height 4ft 3¼in (1308mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 8¼in (2343mm)
- Weight 2260Ib (1025kg)
- 0-60mph 10.6 secs
- Top speed 105mph
- Mpg 30
- Price new £1500
- Price now £60,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication