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Alfa Spider vs Jensen Healey

Apart from prestigious badges, the Alfa Spider and Jensen’s Healey have a lot in common, not least being a cut above rest of the Published: 13th Apr 2017 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Maxim Banks, of Alfaholics, urges buyers to stretch their budgets and buy the best car rather than hold out for a specific model because the quality of Spiders out there is pretty patchy. And while the S1 and S2 versions are the most wanted (with as high as £60,000 price tags to match for concours S1s), he is a particular fan of the still good value S4, due to its modern features such as electric windows and fuel injection, although cautions even the official RHD conversions which he says were hit-and-miss. Bristol-based Alfaholics offers a wide range of upgrades with most popular being better suspensions and stainless steel exhausts. Parts supply is good but Maxim says you’ll will never see new bodyshells, for example, as the market isn’t “like an MGB,” as he put it.

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They say that opposites attract – but could any Big Healey lover, or owner, seriously consider its Jensen-badged namesake a suitable substitute, even if it was more in tune with the softer 1970s when launched, five years after the original was dropped in favour for the ill fated MGC?

Indeed, has there been a more exasperating sports car than the Jensen- Healey, that all new eagerly awaited and overdue Brit boasting a rich and exotic cocktail of some of the most respected names in the business? “Compare one to an Alfa Spider” that’s what the Jensen-Healey Owners Club Registrar said to us a few years ago reckoning 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, it reckoned.” But what about now?

Similarities to this Italian classic, introduced just as the old A-H was bowing out, are entirely valid. Both sported a spec (twin cam engines, fivespeed gearboxes, sporty suspensions and so on) that made traditional roadsters, such as the TR and MGB, seem prehistoric by comparison. When contemporary, both also suffered far higher price tags as a result although values have broadly levelled out – the exception being the Jensen-Healey that remains a comparative bargain thanks to a somewhat unjustified reputation that the Brit is only starting to shrug off. The Alfa Spider is a legend, but can owning this Healey be a graduation?

Which one to buy?

Brio against bulldog spirit

When launched in 1966, the Alfa Romeo was always a cut above the rest, and a world away from its cruder rivals – British mainly. All that changed in 1972 when Jensen, in cahoots with Healey, came up with the modern replacement for the much-loved, if old fashioned, beefcake big and brutish Healey.

Chiefly based upon Vauxhall (Viva) running gear along with a Sunbeam Rapier transmission, the Lotus-engined Jensen-Healey made the established TR6/MGB ranges look archaic, even if the styling rather aped that of a pumped up Triumph Spitfire and was thought disproportionately bland. The Alfa certainly has the most style; it is Latin after all! However, the Jensen has its good points plus, in its latter years, had the useful option of a closed GT version, rather akin to a posher, more upmarket MGB GT.

Because the Alfa survived well into the 1990s (after a short spell of being dropped 40 years ago) there’s far more scope of buying the right car you need, so long as you accept left-hand-drive, fat ungainly rubber bumpers and so on, the S3 and S4, the chief reasons why the earlier models are the most sought after.

The J-H remained in service for just a handful of years and remains the rarer sight plus was never a big seller, but if you could choose, go for the ‘Mk2’ (identified by side stripes) as it righted most of the wrongs.

The GT is much more than just a tin lid tacked onto the J-H; it’s a left field MGB GT/GT6 rival as a classic for the same price but with 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 an historic 27 year run.

Alfa Spiders are becoming exceedingly collectible and this has pushed prices for top pre-S3 models to as high as £40,000 for earlier S1/S2s with even decent-togood ones making five figures and so-so examples around £8000. The only ‘bargain’ ones are the cheaper S3 and S4 variants.

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. When Spider seeking beware of earlier models running later larger power units; it’s a good swap but on the 1.3s, the brake system was different and so should be priced somewhat lower.

We reckon that, for the average buyer, the choice largely rests between an S3/ S4 Spider or a J-H, but the later cars lost a lot of the appeal as they gained a crass 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 even three-speed autoboxes (for the United States market) were among the goodies lavished upon the restyle which was now only available in 1.6/2.0 guises.

Also the S4 came with standard power steering, which may be beneficial to some even if it loses out on precision to the earlier set ups. By the same token, S3 and S4 RHD converted cars aren’t done too well reckon some experts – Alfa had its own approved converter, Kent-based Seaking although well known dealer Bell & Colvill of Surrey did them as well.

Jensens are the much cheaper bet as they never caught on even when new and remain so now, perhaps worth as little as half the price of a top Alfa. Ten grand will buy you a really good model with average-to-good around £7500.

What’s the best to drive?

Neck and neck

Both in a different league to the likes of the MGB and a TR6, in terms of their mechanical make up and overall sophistication on the move. The Italian led the way in this respect, with its glorious twin-cam engine, standard fivespeed gearbox, all round disc brakes, et al. The J-H closely mirrors this layout with an even more advanced Vauxhall Magnum-derived chassis (rated highly in its day), although there’s only fourspeeds; strangely, the overdrive Rapier gearbox was never even an option.

The Alfa feels the classier of the pair; the engine is sharper (the 1750 is the sweetest) and the car is a delight to drive, thanks to its purer engineering and breeding, although the more modern design Jensen-Healey has far better pace when in tune.

The Vauxhall-based (not derived as many believe) 16-valve 140bhp engine can be extremely rapid (‘exhilarating’ remarked one road test), hitting 60mph in under eight seconds; in contrast Alfas, with a choice of four engines (1.3-2.0) are only nicely brisk at best.

Autocar described our Jensen- Healey as more akin to the original 100/4 in terms of character and sound and praised its secure (if soft) handling in particular. The Italian has less cornering speed, thanks to its older design and narrower tyres, but the fun factor probably exceeds the Jensen’s. However, the Alfa can still be made to handle exceedingly well with an Alfaholics handling kit; older S1/S2s are said to be sharper and a bit more fun-filled while the Jensen responds well to uprated dampers and an antiroll bar which wasn’t, oddly, carried over from the 2.3 Firenza/Magnum.

The Alfa’s five-speed transmission is welcome, although as the Italian’s box of cogs is geared for performance not cruising, so it’s not that much more restful than the Jensen at higher revs although hardly obtrusive.

These early Lotus 16V units can be sadly unrefined when extended up the rev range and, more so than when in a Eclat or Excel, while the later fivespeed gearbox, while welcome, is a noisy box of cogs at best of times.

Owning and running

Advantage to alfa

Alfa is the winner here. Notwithstanding the superior spares and club support, its better engineering means added reliability – rare for an Italian, we know! In contrast, only the best Brits will be trustworthy as they were fickle even when new. “Engine by Lotus, transmission by Chrysler, suspension by Vauxhall… and development done by owners?” was a well-used quip although as the owners’ club points out, reliability was no worse than many other cars from that era and the tide is turning thanks to specialists like Rejen and Martin Robey, both who have good stocks of spares.

Rust is a main cause for concern on both pair along with past half-hearted repairs. Alfa expert say from S3 onwards the manufacturing metal was better; hot climate US car are best although suffer from sun-damaged interiors.

Both can be transformed with some proper sorting from known specialists; for instance, both use a brace of twin-choke carbs that really require expert knowledge and setting up to make the most of the engines. Running costs should prove broadly similar, with around 20-25mpg the realistic fuel economy.

Hoods, while not MX-5 slick are pretty easy to use while the Jensen’s cockpit is more ergonomic and comfortable than the Alfa, although less appealing from a classic point of view, because of the typical 70’s expanse of plastics used.

It’s as well to remember that the Spider was a 2+2 although in 1979, Alfa then replaced it with a simple parcel shelf. Finally, there’s more a sense of occasion and heritage with the Alfa Romeo – a vital point with any classic.

And The Winner Is...

That sense of occasion wins it for the Spider along with the Italian’s classic styling. The Jensen-Healey which was too conservative back in the 1970s even though it was a bold attempt to break away from the Big Healey culture. In a twin test with the Alfa back in 1990 Supercar Classics said of the Brit; “Perhaps people will like the Healey better in 20 years’ time.” We’re still deciding so buy now while they are a prestigious famous-named bargain, the likes we shall probably never see again.

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