Everyone has their own idea of heaven on earth: the first snowfall, a cold beer on a hot day, a pristine azure beach... Cruising around town on a beautiful summer day in a classic Italian roadster may just be ours.
There's just something, what the French call a certain je ne sais quoi, an indefinable quality about a vintage Alfa – found somewhere in between the exhaust note and the chrome details – that has a unique capacity to make driver and passenger forget about everything else and just enjoy the drive. Don't get us wrong, we're big fans of progress. But after spending a few hours with this beautiful 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider, we're gaining a new appreciation for the phrase "they don't build 'em like they used to". Follow the jump to read why.
Related Gallery1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider
Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
Alfa Romeo is defined by its heritage. Take the new Mi.To, which we'll be driving next month in Italy. Though it incorporates the industry's latest, the hatchback is a clear throwback to Alfas of yore. So as the Turinese automaker rolls out its newest vehicle and prepares to return to America, we sought a deeper understanding of what Alfa Romeo stands for. That's where the Reverend Joseph Even-Hen came in.
Joseph is our kind of clergyman. In addition to being a biblical-liturgical virtuoso, he collects classic roadsters, and this is the pride of his collection. Not to be confused with the Giulia and the later Nuova Giuletta, the original Giulietta was produced in the '50s and '60s in Berlina (sedan), Sprint (coupe) and this Spider variant, designed by Pininfarina.
While Autoblog was in Montreal, Yosi (as he's known to his friends) was kind enough to let us take his pride and joy for a ride... after demonstrating some of its eccentricities, of course. This is where the character of a classic shines through, in splendid contrast to the polished vehicles rolling out of today's factories. Like many vintage motors, the Alfa's modest 80-hp 1.3-liter four needs to reach just the right revs to get rolling: dial in too much and it'll shudder off the line, too little and it won't go at all. Rev it to 40,00 and engage the clutch just when you think it'll stall and it pulls away smoothly. The long-travel clutch needs to reach just the right angle to mesh the gears, and the four-speed left in neutral while coasting to a stop for just so long before sliding it back into first. Imagine pleasing a demanding mistress and you're close, but you might feel more love for the Alfa.
Given Alfa Romeo's racing pedigree, you might expect that, once you get it moving, the Spider would drive on the knife's edge. But the Giulietta is a first-rate tourer. Italians call this a barchetta (little boat), and with good reason. An afternoon cruising around town feels like a weekend on the lake. It doesn't float around corners, but glides over tarmac, wafting with the wind in your hair. We drove to Île des Sœurs in search of a gas station, not because we needed fuel, but because in 1969, famed architect Mies van der Rohe built a service station there, which we thought would make the perfect backdrop for capturing the Alfa's lines.
Pulling into the Esso (ExxonMobil's Canadian stations still bear the old name) took us back, but not to the '60s. Between the post-modern architecture and the Pininfarina-penned coachwork, we felt like Ferris Bueller "borrowing" that Ferrari 250 California. The eventual reality check didn't bring us down, though: while Broderick drove a replica (a genuine example recently sold for a record $10.9 million), our ride was the real deal. And while his day off was as short as ours, we thankfully didn't crash the Alfa at the end.
Good thing we got there when we did, because one of the mechanics, drawn to the Giulietta's classic lines, mentioned that the station was being converted to a community center. He wasn't the only one attracted to the Alfa, though, as our drive held the precarious task of dodging fellow motorists who apparently favored watching the roadster over the road. Despite the drum brakes and no power steering, the Giulietta managed city driving with surprising agility. It soon became evident, however, that Alfas of that era were made for cruising Italy's shores and valleys, not metropolitan traffic. On the open road, the Alfa really stretched its little legs (at 62", the Spider's wheelbase is the shortest of the Giulietta range, but has the widest track), and how glad we were when it did. The recumbent driving position frames the road ahead between the upper rim of the wheel and the top of the instrument cluster. The speedometer wasn't functioning, but just as well, because the experience shouldn't be quantified. With the throttle acting as volume switch, the acoustics of the tunnels through which we passed sent the deep burble reverberating off the walls and through our ears.
That same day Yosi took a vintage Fiat out of storage to prepare it for sale, but when asked if he'd ever sell the Alfa, the Revving Reverend just smirked. We wouldn't want to give this up, either, and at the end of the day, getting out of the driver's seat proved no easier than putting away the camera after our photo shoot... and not just because of the low-slung seats. One day with this shining example of Italian craftsmanship demonstrated the amore between Romeo and Giulietta more vividly than Shakespeare ever could.
Special thanks to Rev. Joseph Even-Hen (www.affordableconvertibles.com).