For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
There is rarely a brighter moment for an engineer or designer than when tasked with making a new sports car, but for those at Fiat and Alfa Romeo in the 1980s there had been a remarkably long period of bleak automotive utility.
Production of the Fiat X1/9 had moved to Bertone in 1982, and while the venerable 105-series Alfa Romeo Spider remained, its origins dated as far back as the X1/9’s predecessor, the Fiat 124 Sport Spider of 1966.
Through the drudgery of hatchbacks and saloons, there had been some accomplishments.
The Fiat Panda and Alfa Romeo 164 were two such successes, elegant yet appropriately cost-effective cars reflective of an Italy in economic and political turmoil.
Through the mire of fading Communism and political corruption, Italy’s establishment was being overhauled so dramatically, with events such as the mani pulite (clean hands) investigation, that a so-called ‘Second Republic’ began in 1994.
Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo seemed to have lost its mojo in the acquisition by Fiat SpA, and the Turin giant was itself facing difficulties.
The idea of two stylish open-top sports cars entering this chaos and making it through to production appeared to be an almost impossible ambition.
Yet the Fiat Barchetta and Alfa Romeo 916 Spider embraced both the realities of platform-sharing (like the 164 with its other Type Four siblings) and the progressive ideas of Turin’s design talent (like the Panda with Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign).
As a result, after decades of quiet news days for those on the lookout for little Italian sports cars, the restless boot of Europe kicked these two beautiful roadsters into 1995.
Those with eyes for the Barchetta and Spider in the UK, however, had to navigate low production volumes and left-hand drive, at least at first with the Alfa.
The Fiat retailed at £14,000 in the British market, which was considerably higher than in mainland Europe and why so many of those found on our shores today are not official UK-specification cars.
The fact that all Barchettas were left-hookers made a cross-Channel purchase look particularly attractive.
With double overhead cams, 16 valves and a trick variable-lift inlet-valve system, the Barchetta’s 130bhp and 121lb ft of torque were appropriately sprightly for the new Fiat cabriolet – the engine would later also serve as the motivation for the Punto HGT.
Suspension was independent all round, with MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms to the rear, as per the Punto hatch but with bespoke tuning and the addition of anti-roll bars fore and aft.
For your pounds, guilders or perhaps lire, you got a slinky roadster with a new 1.7-litre engine and a five-speed gearbox fitted to a modified Fiat Punto floorpan.
Yet the main attraction was the Barchetta’s exotic shape.
Designed by the passionate team at Fiat Centro Stile – including Andreas Zapatinas, Chris Bangle (later of BMW fame) and Ermanno Cressoni – the project, at first known internally simply as ‘spider’, was from the outset planned to be something special, unconventional and new.
From the first clay model of 1991, it was clear that its elegant curves and delicate proportions required neat detailing: such as flush, pop-out doorhandles and one-piece headlights without separate rubber seals.
Inside, the Barchetta benefited from the efforts of young designer Alessandro Cavazza, who would later become chief designer at Centro Stile, taking over from Zapatinas in time for the Barchetta’s launch.
The freshly graduated Cavazza developed the initial ideas for the cabin into what he describes as “a soft cocoon”, which blended many shared components from other Fiats.
“I wanted to have fluid lines that would connect the various elements, which would also, at certain points, fade out to give softness,” says Cavazza.
The idea that the external bodywork would travel into the interior was developed not just on the doors, but continuing in a grand sweep around the inside of the curved ’screen and embracing the lower dashboard.
Production began with famous coachbuilder Maggiora in 1995, housed in the old Lancia factory in Chivasso, near Turin.
The Barchetta quickly became a hit with enthusiasts of modest means and, even in the UK, where its left-hand-drive-only format put it at a disadvantage against the similarly priced and dynamically superior Mazda MX-5, the little Fiat earned itself wide recognition and good sales numbers – albeit not all were recorded by the official Fiat UK distributor.
Unfortunately, Maggiora went bankrupt in 2002, and construction of the Barchetta was put on hold.
Shifting to the Mirafiori plant, Fiat relaunched the Barchetta in 2003 for a final run of lightly facelifted cars.
A centrally mounted brake light had been added in 2000, and many suggest that the 2003 facelift further spoiled the Barchetta’s looks, with a new nose and faux-aluminium trim for the cabin.
Production finally ended in 2005.
Alfa Romeo’s 916-series GTV coupé and Spider were larger cars than the Barchetta, both based on the flexible Type Two platform first seen under the Fiat Tipo and then on similarly sized Lancias and Alfas.
More substantial and overtly more luxurious than the Fiat, the Spider was understandably more expensive but, at £20,110, it still undercut rivals from the prestige German marques.
You could also, from 1996, buy an Alfa with UK-friendly right-hand drive.
Designed by Pininfarina’s Enrico Fumia, the 916 Spider’s defining feature is its inclined shoulder groove that, on the Spider, neatly wraps around the rear as the soft-top cover – it also slashes a dramatic line down to the front, defining its vast clamshell bonnet.
Distinctive poly-elliptic headlights, seemingly punched into the bonnet, date back to Fumia’s Audi quattro Quartz design of 1981 and remain a proud feature for the star designer.
Initially prohibited by cost, it was developed in parallel in Japan for the Nissan Cefiro, which ultimately enabled the detail’s use on the Alfa Romeo.
A bespoke, waterproof interior designed by Giuseppe Randazzo, also at Pininfarina, was proposed for the 916 Spider but wasn’t approved.
Instead the GTV’s cabin, designed in-house at Centro Stile, was lightly adapted.
Borrowing parts from the 155 saloon, the 916’s front MacPherson-strut set-up was joined by a completely new rear end, of the fashionable multi-link type.
Conceived by Alfa Romeo chassis engineer Gianclaudio Travaglio, this used double wishbones combined with a toe-link and clever geometry, promoting progressive rear-steer characteristics under load.
Another technical ‘wow’ feature was the so-called Rapid Response Steering, which employed Ackermann-effect geometry to provide a sharper response on turn-in.
Unfortunately, its 2.2 turns lock-to-lock came at the cost of a turning circle greater than 11m.
The famous Twin Spark name continued from Alfa Romeos past, but this was actually now the same Pratola Serra engine series as used in the Barchetta.
Using a slightly different twin-spark-plug design that sought economy more than performance, the 2-litre iron-block, aluminium-head engine featured variable inlet-valve timing but added double counter-rotating balancing shafts for smoothness, and there was also sophisticated Bosch Motronic fuel injection.
This unit made 150bhp and 137lb ft of torque – up on the Barchetta, but ultimately not enough to recover the Alfa’s 310kg weight penalty.
There were V6 options, too, starting with the old 3-litre 12-valve unit that was replaced in 2000 by the 24-valve first seen in the GTV.
In the final two years, the 2.0 JTS ditched twin-spark technology in favour of direct injection and a new 3.2 V6 topped the range.
A 2-litre V6 turbo was available, briefly, on the Continent.
Less a special project than the Barchetta and instead a focal point of Alfa Romeo’s renaissance for the 1990s, the 916 aspired to far greater sales volumes and enjoyed much more investment through its life.
As well as continuous technical revisions, there were three distinct phases for the model: the second arrived in mid-1998, with cosmetic upgrades including a chrome-framed grille and new interior centre console; and the third in 2003, with another round of similar changes.
Through its production run, first at the old Alfa Romeo Arese plant near Milan and later at the Pininfarina facility in Turin, a total of 39,088 Spiders were made, nearly half of all 916s – but, surprisingly, some way short of the 57,571 Barchettas produced.
‘Our’ Barchetta is a Series 1 car and an example imported into the UK from The Netherlands.
Owner Eric Trump bought it in August 2019 from specialist DTR European Sports Cars in south London, finally filling the void left by his original.
“I’d previously owned a green 1998 Limited Edition Barchetta, which was my daily driver for nine very happy years,” says Trump.
“I actually looked forward to the commute!”
Eventually, that first car developed a mysterious engine problem that DTR suspected to be a cracked intake manifold; rather than chase an expensive Italian part, Trump decided to sell: “While it was the right thing to do at the time, I always missed owning the pretty and quirky Barchetta so when the opportunity arose to buy a low-mileage replacement with solid wheelarches and floorpans, I jumped at the chance.”
This 1999 example, with just 28,000 miles (albeit still reading in kilometres), didn’t come with much history but is thought to have been bought by a professor of cardiology for his wife, who then didn’t use the car much.
Apart from some floor mats – the Barchetta famously wasn’t equipped with them – an aftermarket stereo and a stainless-steel exhaust, Trump has kept his Barchetta standard.
All that’s left, he says, is a trip to Scotland or the Continent.
Alex Payne’s Alfa Romeo Spider is one of the very first right-hand-drive examples to be sold in the UK, registered in October 1996 – Payne thinks it’s either number six or seven.
A keen Alfista, he quickly points out the launch colour, Proteo Red, the special-order, colour-coded sill panels and the fact that it’s a Lusso – meaning standard air-conditioning and Momo leather.
“My wife purchased the car for my 60th birthday in November 2012, from its original owner,” says Payne.
“It was a company car from 1996 to 2000 and accumulated 80,000 miles over that period.”
It’s done more than 140,000 now, but thanks to a pampered life as a company car and a healthy mixture of servicing and use by Payne, it hardly wears a tenth of them: “We’ve enjoyed the car over the years, and it has been to many shows and events.
“The highlight for us was taking part in the Dutch Alfa club’s Coppa Spettacolo Sportivo in 2016 – a fantastic week of driving with fellow Alfisti that culminated in a few laps around the legendary Zandvoort track.
“We have also been fortunate to drive around Silverstone and up Prescott hillclimb.”
Appropriately dainty for a car that is just as titchy on the inside as without, the Barchetta’s doorhandles are a vintage delight and open with a satisfying, positive click.
It’s not uncomfortably cramped, though – the seats hug you in just the right way, and the controls are harmonious enough to forgive the usual Italian short-leg, long-arm driving position.
Immediately it feels peppy and eager to tear up the road, its supple suspension and light controls offering nothing but playful encouragement.
You can quickly forget about driving it quickly, such is the basic charm of watching the countryside blur over its curved bonnet and away from its relatively wide haunches in the rear-view mirror, but the rich tone of this car’s stainless-steel exhaust has to be explored.
The sweetness of its controls continues at higher speeds and there are hints of the Barchetta’s short wheelbase pivoting around corners.
Body roll is noticeable, but the soft springs and an impressively taut structure see it over rough Tarmac, even vicious potholes, without upsetting the fluidity with which the little Fiat zips along the road.
The Alfa Romeo is much more car than the Barchetta: bigger doors, larger interior, wider windscreen, and a sense that there’s more going on behind its controls than in the Fiat.
It rides more firmly, in part as a result of having to control its extra weight, and the engine has considerably more inertia in response to a blip of the throttle.
But a downchange into second and a foot into the carpet reveals a tantalising bark behind the smoothness of this balanced 2-litre ‘four’.
Once into its stride, the Alfa’s quick steering and sophisticated suspension give it a composure on the road that is multi-dimensional compared with the Barchetta’s rather singular, carefree attitude.
Put up against the Fiat’s snappy gearchange and springy pedalbox, however, the Alfa’s long-throw lever and mushy brake pedal disappoint.
The luxuriantly rich leather seats don’t, though, and the rest of the interior, while subdued compared with the Fiat, does have its moments – particularly the crisp, white-on-black dials sitting beneath the leather-trimmed binnacle.
It’s just a shame that the Spider’s rather firm ride and vulnerable structure tend to shudder over the worst of broken surfaces.
The Alfa Romeo is a treat for the eyes and, particularly in this deep, glossy shade, begs more loudly to be driven than its little Fiat cousin.
Its dramatic shoulder line oozes dynamism, while its generous but fine proportions promise a luxurious outing as befits a car bearing that famous badge.
In this, the Spider mostly delivers, though not without the occasional flaw.
The Barchetta, meanwhile, makes no more projection of its intent than a smiley face.
It is simply the happy product of designers and engineers let loose with their professional excitement, and that purity of purpose has been translated throughout.
If reward is measured not in sophistication, performance or practicality, but simply the unconditional fun of an Italian roadster out in all weathers, then the Barchetta’s slender doorhandles are the ones to pull.
Images: Luc Lacey
- Sold/number built 1995-2000 and 2003-’05/57,571
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1747cc ‘four’, with fuel injection
- Max power 130bhp @ 6300rpm
- Max torque 121lb ft @ 4300rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 12ft 10in (3916mm)
- Width 5ft 4½in (1640mm)
- Height 4ft 1¾in (1265mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 5½in (2275mm)
- Weight 2328Ib (1056kg)
- 0-60mph 8.7 secs
- Top speed 118mph
- Mpg 28
- Price new £14,000 (1995)
- Price now £4-10,000*
Alfa Romeo 916 Spider
- Sold/number built 1995-2005/39,088
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 1970cc ‘four’, with fuel injection
- Max power 150bhp @ 6200rpm
- Max torque 137lb ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear multi-link, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 14ft ¾in (4285mm)
- Width 5ft 10in (1780mm)
- Height 4ft 3¾in (1315mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm)
- Weight 2985Ib (1354kg)
- 0-60mph 9.4 secs
- Top speed 122mph
- Mpg 27
- Price new £20,110 (1995)
- Price now £2-8000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication