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Alfa Spider

Alfa Spider Published: 17th Jul 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Alfa Spider

What The Experts Say...

“Why not compare one to an Alfa Spider?” That’s the verdict of Jensen- Healey Owners Club Registrar who reckons that not only was the Brit the faster car in its day, but also had a lot more prestige about it as well. “You were a cut above an Alfa owner if you had a Jensen-Healey back then”, said the club, adding that its reliability record, while not good, was no worse than other cars of that era.

Alfa Spider
Alfa Spider
Alfa Spider
Alfa Spider
Alfa Spider
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With famous names like Jensen, Healey and Alfa, the J-H and Spider were always a cut above the rest and boasted specifications to match. But do they make good classics for the traditional enthusiast?

The common touch

Sports cars don’t need to be sophisticated to be a success, as anybody who has owned or driven a Caterham, MG or Triumph will quickly tell you. Raw fun is great – but technical progress has always brought massive changes to the cars we drove and still drive. Sometimes for the good, other times perhaps not!

In 1966 Alfa Romeo introduced its debonair Duetto Spider to a sports car market that still thrived on old school virtually pre-war designs due to their low cost and the average owners’ fear of being lumbered with a design so technical and advanced that he couldn’t fi x it by the kerbside.

In an age where separate chassis, cart springs, lever arm dampers, overhead valves and overdrive still rulled, Alfa provided twin cam engines, fivespeed gearboxes, all round disc brakes and a sophisticated suspension set up that which all told, when you look at it, is the blueprint for today’s supermini let alone sports car!

Mind you, at over £1700 when it reached the UK in 1967, you had to be a well heeled purist and enthusiast to gain ownership to this exclusive new Alfa club. Because the same outlay would have been ample for a year old E-type or a new if desperately vintage Big Healey with a few hundred pounds left over.

Fast forward five years and father and son Donald and Geoffrey Healey were ready to launch their new sports car for the 1970s that was the complete opposite to the Big heavy, brawny Healey and almost cloned the Alfa’s spec sheet! However, while the Italian soldiered on well into the 1990s, the Jensen-Healey lasted just three woeful years, a victim of the Energy Crisis, Jensen going bust and a whole lot more! What’s the best buy now as a classic?

Which one to buy? May come down to price

Let’s talk about the financial aspect first because there’s a massive gulf between these two cars and could well tip the buying decision. Alfa Spiders are becoming exceedingly collectible and this has pushed prices for top pre-S3 models to as high as £20,000 for earlier cars with even decent-to-good ones making five figures and so-so examples around £6000. The only ‘bargain’ ones are the S3 and S4 variants where they are roughly the same price as a typical excellent, if not concours. Jensen-Healey; £7000 for Condition 1, £5000 for good examples and up to £4000 for an average car.

So, for the average buyer the choice rests between an S3/S4 Spider or a J-H, but the later cars lost a lot of the appeal as they gained dubious bodykit and styling alternations. Happily, in 1990 Pininfarina penned the last S4 version and made it pure and simple again. Power steering, fuel injection and three-speed autoboxes (for the United States market) were among the goodies lavished upon the restyled car which was now only available in 1.6 and 2.0 guises. Also the S4 came with standard power steering, which may be benefi cial to some even if it loses out on precision to the earlier set ups.

The flipside to the S3 and S4 cars are fuel injection to improve drivability (those twin choke carbs are only good if in tune), electric windows and a hard top. In terms of desirability however, the original Boat-tailed variants are the most revered as is the 1750cc engine, due to its smoothness over the later lustier if not as sweet 2-litre.

There was even a 1.3 although check carefully what engine is now fitted as many owners fitted the more powerful units to 1.3 and 1.6 models; easy to do although there were differences to the gearing and brakes.

A great number of Alfas went to the US which led to detuned engines, softer suspensions and ugly crash bumpers – but they will be rust free, so you pays your money and takes your choice… Jensen-Healeys are far easier to de-cypher as there were only a Mk1 and Mk2 convertible and a sportshatch GT for 1975. Because the Mk1 was woefully slipshod (Engine by Lotus, gearbox by Sunbeam, suspension by Vauxhall – development by owners as one appraisal put it) and suffered from unreliable Lotus engines, the Mk2 is the better bet, although many early cars will have been uprated to Mk2 powerplants.

The GT is much more than just a tin lid tacked on to the J-H; it’s a genuine MGB GT rival but with much more upmarket trim that wouldn’t disgrace an Interceptor. A five-speed ZF gearbox is fitted too but less than 500 were made, as opposed to 10,926 convertibles.

This is dwarfed by the 55,000 Spiders produced over a 27 year run.

What’s the best to drive? Fairly similar in many areas

With their twin cam engines fed by a pair of twin-choke carbs, allied to modern coil spring suspensions with telescopic dampers, no wonder this pair of sophisticated sports cars make the MGB and TR feel so antiquated.

Power wise, the Jensen is the winner with its 140bhp albeit if on song as many aren’t or suffer with clapped out carbs. The classic Alfa units feel crisper, sweeter and nicer to take to the red line.

The stiffer engine fitted to Mk2 Jensens is better but it’s still not a refined unit although the later 2.2-litre unit fitted to Lotus cars after 1980 is a worthwhile fit.

A good J-H is about on par with a TR6. Even though the Jensen is a bit of a parts bin special, the Brit handles that bit better, in no small part due to the Vauxhall Magnum suspension employed to good effect and can be made even better with accepted mods developed by the late, great Bill Blydenstein. The Alfa was delightful in its day, and can still be made to handle well with an Alfaholics handling kit; older S1/S2s are said to be sharper and more fun, despite their skinnier tyres.

Alfa Romeo was one of the first to provide five-speed transmissions although more geared for response and acceleration than as a cruising gait and Spiders are no exception. The five-speed gearbox found on the Jensen is a mixed blessing as it’s a cumbersome, noisy affair; far better is the original Sunbeam Rapier H120 transmission but topped with overdrive. This was an option on the Sunbeam but strangely never provided by Jensen.

Owning and running Advantage Alfa

The Italian is the winner here. Notwithstanding the superior spare parts and club support, the Alfa’s superior engineering and continual development means better reliability and happier owners.

In contrast, only the very best Jensen- Healeys will be dependable as they were fi ckle beats in their day and their lowly values hardly encouraged studious ownership, although classic fans are now taking the Jensen far more seriously and the owners club says parts supply is also improving, Running costs should prove similar, with around 20-25mpg being the realistic fuel returns if in good tune. Both hoods are pretty easy to use and reasonably snug. The Jensen’s cockpit is streets ahead of an MGB and TR6 and is more ergonomic and comfortable than the Italian, albeit less appealing from a classic point of view due to its full on plastic splendour.

And The Winner Is...

Overall it has to be Alfa if for no other reason that there’s a sense of occasion with the Spider that the J-H lacks. Then there’s the Italian styling which has always been widely acclaimed, unlike the Jensen-Healey which was too conservative back in the 1970s, looking like a Spitfi re on steroids. That said, the Jensen-Healey was a bold attempt to break away from the Big Healey. Autocar went as far as to say that the Brit was going to become a future classic back but 40 years on it hasn’t really worked out like that, thanks largely to the car’s early reputation. However, we like this British underdog a lot and reckon that its day in the sun will come and pretty soon – so buy now while they are a bit of a prestigious and famous named bargain.

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