The Alfa Romeo Spider is a dream car that combines gorgeous Italian style with the romantic image of top down motoring. Which when combined with that wonderful Alfa Romeo twin cam soundtrack, gives an unforgettable convertible driving experience.
If you are in the market for an Alfa Romeo S3 Spider then now is the time to buy. Prices of the original Duetto and boat tail Spider’s have really shot up in the past few years. Which has had a knock on affect on the S2 Kammtail as well. For many enthusiasts these models are simply beyond reach as a result. But you can still get a slice of the Pininfarina styled Spider by looking at the often forgotten model in the middle, the S3 Spider. It costs a lot less than a Duetto and retains a lot of the classic styling that made the original Spider so desirable. The trick is to buy a good solid car that hasn’t been messed with or neglected.
So before you rush off and buy the very first S3 Spider you find, have a look at my free Alfa Romeo Spider S3 Buyers Guide. This is by no means the definitive article but it is based on my experiences of owning a 1988 S3 Spider. I’ve gathered together all the tips I picked up along the way and put them together so you can use them as a check list when you go to inspect a potential purchase. I hope it proves useful and helps you to track down the right car.
Disclaimer! Please note this guide is based on the experiences of owning a 1988 S3 Spider for over a year. I bought my very first Alfa Romeo in March 2017 (you can watch and read more here) and it is the S3 Spider featured in this guide. It was scruffy around the edges and needed tlc. So I rescued it and went through a long list of items to get the car back to driving well. I then sold the S3 in August 2018 (you can watch and read more here). This guide is not an expert mechanical one but more an enthusiasts guide, aimed at those considering buying their first S3 Spider. When I went looking to buy my S3, there was no buyers guide anywhere and I had to search high and low and gather advice and tips from many different sources. The information provided here has been acquired from first hand experience, conversations with Alfa specialists and owner feedback on the various Alfa web forums. Remember when you are buying an S3, you are buying an old Alfa. An old Italian car! Be realistic and try not to buy wearing rose tinted glasses… which of course is easier said than done. You are responsible for your own purchases.
Take to the Road Alfa Romeo Spider S3 Buyers Guide v1.0
A Note on RHD S3 Spider Conversions
All right hand drive Alfa Romeo S3 Spider’s left the factory as left hand drive cars. So every RHD S3 is a conversion of what was originally a LHD market car. The conversion work was carried out by a few different companies here in the UK, with varying levels of quality. Some were built to good standards, some were Friday afternoon jobs. It is important to bear in mind that no S3 Spider is the same with regards to the interior, because they were essentially hand built. All have their quirks and differences, so if something is out of place or doesn’t quite align right, it’s probably been like that since new. So don’t expect a perfect fitting interior.
It might be a bit harsh to start the guide off by delving into the one reputation that has blighted Italian car brands for decades. But like it or not, the S3 Spider does like to rust. Here are some of the key areas to look out for.
If you can inspect the car underneath then do so. The main weak areas are the chassis rails that run along the bottom of the body. Also the suspension mounting points should be checked. If you are in the UK check the cars MOT history which will give you a hint as to whether any repairs have been done in the past.
The front crossmember is a weak spot as it sits underneath the radiator. If the radiator has been leaking for a long time, that can lead to the crossmember rotting out. Which is an MOT fail. While looking at that area cast your eye over the Sump. It sits low and the S3 has a tendency to ground out, which can cause damage to the sump.
Sills and B Pillars
Sills are a weak spot on most classics and the S3 Spider does like to go there as well. Make sure when you open the doors to inspect the inner sill area. Thankfully repair sections are available for inner and outer sills.
While inspecting the sills it is worth looking closely at the B pillar area. Drainage from the convertible roof wasn’t designed all that well. So if water gets trapped in the B pillar area, it can rust through to the bottom. Which isn’t ideal in a car that suffers from scuttle shake (like most classic convertibles to be fair).
If there are problems in the sills and the B pillars you should be able to spot this. When opening the doors if you find they are tight, the cars structure may be weakened. Remember it is a convertible with no additional structural integrity from a metal roof so it is crucial the car is solid in this area.
Again when checking the sills have a look at the door bottoms. If the water drainage holes are blocked, moisture will take hold and blow the door out from the inside.
Also while checking the sills, have a look at the jacking points on all four corners. Like on all old cars, these can rust, so it is wise to have a good look around them. The chances are they may well have been replaced in the past. If they have check if the quality of the work is good.
The front wings can rust toward the bottom so pay close attention there. Thankfully the S3 Spider has plastic wheel liners which does help protect the inner wings. But it is worth checking to make sure the liners are present.
Attention should be paid to the headlight area as water can get trapped behind the chrome finisher rings. The wing can then start to nibble away round the edges.
Nose, Bonnet and Scuttle
The nose cone of the S3 Spider is prone to impacts due to its sloping design. Pay close attention as it may have suffered a prang in the past and been repaired poorly.
The bonnet on the S3 Spider is another weak spot. The metal itself is actually quite thin (compared to the rest of the car) and is easily dented if you are heavy handed. They also like to rust towards the bottom edge.
The top scuttle panel area below the wipers is a common rust spot, mainly because it traps moisture around the edges. Thankfully this panel is easy to unscrew and remove, so repairs are not too complex.
The boot lid area of the Spider is another weak spot, with water causing damage to the channels either side. If water collects there over time it will start to rot out. This can then compromise the boot and it will drip down into the spare wheel well. Thankfully these are easy to spot by looking under the car from behind.
Make sure to pull the carpets in the boot as well and have a good look round. A musty smell will be a tell tale sign of water ingress. And any rust around the boot lid area will be easily visible when you lift it up, so carefully check the edges and rubber seals for any evidence of corrosion.
Also worth noting is the fact that the boot in the S3 Spider is actually quite shallow. Which can sometimes lead to damage to the boot lid itself. That can occur if the owner fills the boot too high with stuff and then forgetfully slams the lid down, leaving a nice dent in the lid.
Before you finish with the boot check the condition of the spoiler. These are made or a type of rubberised plastic that can start to disintegrate over time. Some owners replace them with a Zender spoiler kit which can be found online.
S3 Spider Engine
The Alfa Romeo 4 cylinder twin cam is a robust aluminium unit that responds well to tuning. As a design it served Alfa well and was fitted to a lot of its cars over the years. As with any car, if it hasn’t been serviced properly or has been neglected for a prolonged period of time, the engine will of course suffer.
The 2.0 litre in particular takes a fair amount of oil so make sure the dip stick shows it has got enough. A quick check of the oil cap will show if there’s any mayo like substance in the head area. If there is then it’s probably not very good, or the car has been used for short trips and needs a good run.
Alfa’s do sometimes suffer from oil leaks in the head, which can usually be down to loose cam covers bolts. A little oil on the spark plugs is usually a clue that there’s a leak. Sometimes a little nip on the cover nuts will tighten it all down. If it continues to leak then it is a good idea to whip the covers off, clean up the edges and reseal.
On a test run look out for the usual things like smoke when accelerating. The engines are strong and should pull and rev well. The Spider is not a quick car as it is quite heavy but the performance should be reasonable. The twin cam coupled with the carbs give a nice warble that is distinctive to Alfa’s and is the heart of the appeal for one of these cars. Remember the Spider is not a sports car and is more a cruiser.
Another characteristic to make note of is the fact that Alfa twin cams always sound as though they need a tappet adjustment. The tappet noise you hear on start up is normal and shouldn’t be a concern. But obviously do listen out for other sounds, just to be on the safe side. If the tappets are really, really loud, then they probably need adjusting.
Most S3 Spider’s left the factory with twin Solex carburettors. These have a reputation for being pretty poor and can be difficult to tune. If you have experience with Solex carbs then the car is in luck. But many owners will have replaced them with twin Webers or twin Dellorto’s. These are very good alternatives with replacement parts readily available. And there are a lot more guides out there for tuning these.
Obviously with twin carbs one thing to note is that they need to be balanced. If you have a carb specialist available then it is always worth having them check it over to make sure they are tuned correctly.
Starting an S3 Spider
Another detail to bear in mind is the manual choke. If you are running twin Dellorto carbs, you don’t actually need to use the choke cable. The recommendation for starting is to pump the accelerator four times and then as you start the car, feather the throttle. They don’t always fire immediately and is best described as an Alfa starting “characteristic”. Twin carbs will always require a bit more fuel to start than a single carb setup. So they don’t always fire up right away from cold.
Interestingly you don’t actually need to use the choke at all on an S3, which was claimed by my Alfa specialist. If you do pull the manual choke it can actually make it harder to start the car. And you will find that many owners will have had the cable removed. So if it is missing, it isn’t something to worry about. It might sound like a strange one but having had conversations with my experienced specialist, he confirmed it is just a characteristic of these cars.
The Alfa five speed gearbox is a very good unit and works well with the twin cam engine. The gears should feel nice and tight and when selecting, they should click in without any crunching. If you’ve never driven an Alfa before, then you will be in for a treat as the gearbox really is brilliant. So if you don’t get that feeling when test driving an S3 Spider, the gearbox may need some work.
One thing to bear in mind is that Alfa gearboxes like to weep oil. They have a reputation for not sealing very well, even when new. So it is not unusual to see a little patch of oil under the car. It is not serious but it does mean you do need to keep the gearbox topped up.
As with any classic car, checking the radiator and coolant is always recommended. The expansion tank should have enough coolant in it, as should the radiator. As the Spider has an aluminium engine, the correct coolant should be used. If it hasn’t it can cause harm to the engine. Once warmed up the temperature gauge should hold steady at 80. If it climbs higher than this and into the danger zone, then the radiator may be blocked. Also worth considering is a sticking thermostat or a faulty radiator cap, cracked hoses or loose clips. All are standard items on the check list with any classic.
The factory engine fan is enough to cool the aluminium twin cam. Some owners do fit electric fans to aid cooling, especially for stop start urban traffic. The slight issue with that is the fact that the nose cone of the Spider doesn’t let a huge amount of air flow into the radiator. Adding an electric fan in front of the radiator, to act as a pusher, can actually restrict the airflow. So if you are planning on adding a fan do think carefully about the setup. If you are worried about the cooling system, a brand new custom radiator with extra cores would be a wise investment.
One tip to aid cooling is to drain the old coolant, flush the radiator and the engine and then remove the radiator. The front of the radiator will likely be covered with dust, dead insects, leaves and bits of debris collected over many years of driving. Using a jet wash, carefully blow the fins from behind to remove all the debris. This will clean the fins which will improve air flow and this will help the radiator cool more efficiently. If the radiator has hasn’t been taken out of the car in a few decades then it is worth doing.
One weakness of the Spider engine arrangement is its habit of damaging the engine fan. The engine mounts can sag with age, which can be a big issue if you like a spirited drive. Hitting a bump at speed can ground the car out, which will move the engine forward, hitting the engine fan off the radiator shroud.
This can snap a fan blade which can then go on to sever a coolant hose, pierce the radiator or even spit a blade out through the bonnet! Its been known to happen and is not ideal! A crack in the radiator shroud and gouge marks in the engine fan are tell tale signs to look for. If you spot this kind of damage you may need to fit new engine mounts, fan and shroud. And probably drive less like Enzo Ferrari.
On the electrics front, Alfa Romeo actually used a lot of Bosch components for the S3 Spider. If the car is all original, some of these factory parts may be starting to age and wear. Starter motors can fail as can ignition switches. If you hear a click when you turn the key, the car might have a faulty starter or a failing ignition switch. Replacement parts are available, they just take a bit of time to fit.
But the best way to make sure all the electrics are in good order is to fit a new distributor cap, rotor, ignition leads, spark plugs, coil and battery. If it looks like they haven’t been replaced in a while, factor these into your costs. Again this is the sort of work you can do yourself and can be done relatively inexpensively.
A weak spot on the Alfa Spider S3 are the wipers. In fact the S3 is notorious for having very slow wipers. Sometimes this can be down to a worn original Bosch wiper motor. But even replacing this with a new one doesn’t always fix the problem. So if the Spider you are looking at has slow wipers on the standard setting, it is probably “normal” behaviour. Just run them on the fast wipe. And plan to avoid driving in the rain… well it is an Alfa after all… one doesn’t want to get it wet!
There is no power steering on the S3 Spider. Which does make a three point turn a bit of a work out. But on the road the steering should feel nice and light and direct. On a nice stretch of twisty tarmac they steer in and out of corners nicely making them a lovely drive. Steering boxes can leak. The recommendation is to use half LM grease and half gear oil when topping up. Also f you plan on changing the steering wheel note that to do this you need a special tool to get it off. A big socket and wrench won’t do it unfortunately. A typical Alfa quirk you might say. Most Alfa specialists will have one if you are planning on swapping the wheel.
The brakes on the Alfa Romeo S3 Spiderare actually pretty good, with a servo and discs all round. So they should stop the car well. If it pulls slightly under heavy braking on a test drive, then the brake balance might be off. Or some of the suspension components may have some wear or need adjustment. But for a car design that started its life back in the 1960s, the brake performance is good by today’s standards.
S3 Spider Differential
The back axle on the S3 Spider is a fixed beam type with a limited slip differential. The design is relatively primitive by today’s standards. But it suits the Spider setup and driving characteristics. The diff can leak so check to see if the diff housing is wet. If you let the diff run low on oil it will lead to premature failure. Which will require a rebuild of the axle and the diff.
If the diff itself is starting to wear, they usually make a noise, which will come from the back of the car when driving. Another sign is when pulling away at a junction. If you hear a noise from the back as you turn left/right the diff is probably worn. If there isn’t any noise then it is something to tick off the check list. You can also check for wear by rocking the rear wheels when the car is up in the air.
Another detail to note is that diff wear is sometimes compensated for by over tightening a nut on the diff housing. This provides a temporary fix but ultimately leads to more wear in the diff. Ideally you will need an experienced mechanic to check if this has happened.
Also worth keeping an eye on is the prop shaft. Wear in this department is usually down to worn flex joints, or a centre support bearing. Bolts have been know to work themselves loose which can lead to vibrations. Ideally you need to inspect for these when the car is on a ramp. Having an experienced mechanic on hand would be recommended.
Another item you need to be aware of is scuttle shake. As it is a convertible that was designed in the 1960s, the S3 Spider does suffer what the industry calls scuttle shake. This is the flexing of the body shell, due to the lack of a fixed roof. It is especially noticeable on poor quality twisty roads.
Some cars will suffer more than others, it often depends on how good and tight all the suspension components are. New shocks, suspension bushes etc can help a lot. You can also get a suspension kit which is essentially a bolt on frame, which improves the rigidity of the car. It isn’t cheap and it does add extra weight to the car. But if you spend a lot of time driving fast on very bumpy roads, then it is something to consider.
The built quality of the interior will depend on how well the car has been looked after during its life and as mentioned at the beginning, how well the RHD conversion was carried out when new. No two S3 Spiders are the same and all will have subtle differences to how the dash and instruments were fitted. But they generally follow a similar layout. Of course being an Italian car the pedals and the steering are slightly off set, which can be hard to get used too.
Another important detail to note is the the fact the S3 started life as a LHD. This means the passenger in a RHD converted car has more leg room, as they are sitting in the original drivers position. Which is all well and good for the passenger, but the disadvantage for the driver is they are effectively sitting in what would have been the LHD passenger seat. So if you are over six feet tall you might find the space a little tight, which just adds to the slightly awkward driving position.
The seats in the S3 are over all comfortable but it will depend on the condition of the foam cushions. These cars are getting old now and if the interior is worn, you’ll probably need to get some new seat cushions if they are damaged.
At the factory the seats and door cards were trimmed in vinyl. The seats can sometimes be replaced with leather. As its a convertible, door cards can suffer from warping due to water ingress and it will be easy to spot this. Replacement vinyl door cards are readily available from Alfa specialists.
Another detail that can cause frustration is the gear stick cover. If it is torn the cover is very hard to replace, as it requires removal of the centre console. Which can lead to part of the dash being taken apart. It looks a simple job at a glance but it is actually difficult to get right. As you can imagine this is very frustrating and is a knock affect of the cars hand built interior. If the replacement gear cover is too tight, which can happen with new fresh fabric, the car can actually pop out of reverse gear. It might look like there’s a gearbox problem but it could just be down to that, so it is worth bearing in mind.
The Convertible hood
The convertible top or hood on the Alfa Romeo S3 Spider is one of its main selling points. It’s a top down motoring classic that makes you dream of summer and the open roads. Which means you tend to not thinking about the hood in the fixed up position. In general the hoods on the S3 fit ok. It is not a complete 100% waterproof design, especially around the windows. Most owners are aware of this and will take care when washing their Spider, so as not to get water into the interior. Go crazy with the jet wash and you’ll have wet seats, carpet and door cards.
The same applies to the rear perspex screen. If the stitching has come loose or rotted away, water will seep in. The screens can dull and crack with age as well. They are not expensive to replace and are worth doing as a scruffy one really detracts from the look of the car.
Also the design of the hood where it sits on top of the windscreen frame isn’t a tight, flush finish so this does generate wind noise. This is very noticeable on a motorway, so it is worth bearing in mind.
Like with any classic convertible, if the car has been cared for and the hood used correctly, it should fit nicely. If the hood spends most of its time down, then the fabric will likely have shrunken a little and will be a tight fit. This can make clamping the hood down a bit fiddly and it is something you certainly shouldn’t do when driving.
Again old convertibles can suffer from rusty frames, especially if the fabric is torn or has lost its waterproofing abilities. So if the hood needs repair, you should factor in stripping down the frame and repainting it. It is also worth checking if a tonneau cover comes with the car. Its not a deal breaker but they are useful to have.
So if the Alfa Romeo S3 Spider you are looking at buying checks out ok on all of the above and has good service history, then you’ve probably found a good one. And if the price is right, you could get to enjoy that exotic Italian convertible experience.
I hope you have found this Alfa Romeo S3 Spider Buyers Guide useful and hope it will help to those looking to buy an S3 Spider for the very first time.