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I know nothing about car repair. Should I buy an spider?

2645 Views 22 Replies 20 Participants Last post by  Peter

I am newer than a newbie. I don't own a spider yet, but I love the look of them, and I am interested in getting one (probably a 1991 or newer, but possibly as old as 1986. I think those are S4 and S3, respectively). I don't know anything about repairing or restoring cars (the most advanced "repair" I've ever done is change out a battery). So, when I read all the threads about various problems people have and the repairs they have to make, I get nervous that a spider would just be a huge money pit for me (and a gigantic source of "I told you so" from my lovely wife).

I'm hoping some of you can give some honest answers to these questions:

1. If I spend the money up front on a spider that is in near-perfect mechanical condition, can I expect to be able to drive the car every day without needing frequent and expensive trips to the repair shop? Is a spider in excellent condition going to be a reliable car with an approximately equal rate of occurrance of mechanical issues to that of a newer car (e.g., like my 2003 Chevy cavalier. Lame, I know.)?

2. Are any of you out there like me--no automotive repair skills--or do you al know a lot about cars and do a lot of work on your spiders yourselves?

3. What are the most-common mechanical problems with spiders? How often do they occur, and how much does it cost to fix them?

4. Do repairs to an Alfa cost a lot more than repairs to a domestic car?

5. Are some of the more-common repairs that Alfas require something that a complete novice could learn to do?

6. How much money should I expect to spend for a newer Spider (Veloce, I think is better) in near-perfect mechanical condition and very good cosmetic condition (Nothing needing to be replaced--no noticeable dents, torn seats, faded paint, ripped top, etc.)? I'm not looking for a car to enter into shows, but I want a fully-functioning car that I don't need to fix or modify at all for it to be by daily driver.

7. What are the key items I should look for when evaluating the condition of a spider?

I hope this message doesn't sound too pessimistic. I love the look of the spider, and I really want to get one. I just want to know what I'm getting myself into before I take the plunge. I'd really appreciate any feedback anyone can provide. Thanks!
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Your questions are not pessimistic at all - very realistic.

My quick reply is that any of the S3 or S4 Spiders can be a fun & reliable car. The best thing would be to find a well cared for car that gets driven regularly and has had routine maintanance done.

Key items to look for are leaky head gaskets (coolant in the oil looks like 'chocolate milk shake' on the dip stick or under the oil fill cap). Oil in the coolant (look under the radiator cap for the milky goo) is more of a mess vs coolant in the oil but still not good.

I'm not sure of current prices for the later models. Try searching the For Sale section here. I would strongly suggest you track down a local Alfa Club. Members there would likely be willing to help you check out any prospects and they'd probably know of good models for sale. It is less likely you'd get 'ripped off' by a club member (I think).
Seems that everyone's "daily driver" is different. My S3 is a toy. My commute is nearly an hour. Even though the S4 is more refined, I wouldn't want to commute in one. I suggest you ride in one. Better yet, drive one. In a world of SUV's, Spiders and Miatas may not be the best choice for a daily driver.
Like you, I am not very mechanically inclined. I bought a pretty tired 78 Spider for $500 because I always liked the way they look and didn't have more to spend. I had never driven or even sat in one. The first thing I had to do (after getting it towed to my house) was replace the battery, it was melted when a golf club arced the pos/neg terminals.

I have never had a real mechanic work on my car and I drive it just about every day in the warmer months. It is not pretty and it still needs a lot of cosmetic work. The only reason I was able to do the minor mechanical jobs I did to get it going and keep it that way was because of this forum. If you have a question about something, chances are someone has already asked and had it answered, if not then post your question and chances are it will be answered very quickly. I have learned a lot from owning my Spider. Yes, there are times when I get frustrated, but in the end these are pretty basic cars to work on once you have a general understanding.

I could be wrong but I think you could buy an 86-91 in very nice shape for somewhere between $6-10K.

Go for it!

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1. If you get a spider in good condition then you should not experience "frequent and expensive trips" to the mechanic. But realize that you are buying a car 15+ years old, and no matter what condition you buy it, you should expect to experience occasional repairs. Well kept spiders have proven over the years to be amazingly reliable, much more so than almost any comparable sports car in its class.

2. I too do not have any great mechnical skills. I once owned an 88 graduate, and have recently bought a 91 S4 that was in fair shape..needing more comsmetic than mechanical repairs. I have found a top-notch local mechanic shop that specializes in Alfas and Ferraris and have relied upon them for my mechanical repairs. I think this is the key for you, I wouldnt purchase an Alfa unless either I felt mechnically inclined or had a local shop I trusted. Spiders do have common problems and having an experience local shop is key. Also, the spider is a pretty simple car to work when compared to most newer cars which are loaded with the latest technology.

3. The answer here will vary somewhat with the year. Here is a good starter thread giving you some ideas and recommending contacting your local AROC club.

4. I have not found repairs to be significantly more expensive than domestic cars. The biggest challenge is finding a shop that is experienced in repairing Alfas. Since they are fewer in number, you can expect their hourly rate to be a little more than other average domesitic repair shops. Again, if you are not mechincally inclined to do your own repairs, and want reliability, then find a local shop before you buy your Alfa. In fact, I would have a local shop check out an Alfa before I bought one if you can.

5. In general, Alfas are pretty easy to work on. Some things can be more challenging than others, but that is true of any car. With the help of this BB, your local AROC, and getting the shop manuals on CD, many repairs can be done by a novice with a little patience and basic mechanical skills. For me, I have done most of the cosmetic type repairs myself (leaving the mechnical to my local Alfa shop). I have re-uphosltered the seats, fixed various burnt warning bulbs, repainted my dash and console, replaced my speakers, replaced the door panels, replaced trunk/gas release panel, replaced the emblems, repaired my seats, nd replaced cracked vents. All of the above were pretty easy, especially with the help of this BB. Also, International Auto is a great resource for parts and finding info on repairs and what to look for in an Alfa.

6. IMHO if I were you I would only look at S4s (91 or newer), and would expect to pay around $15K for one in excellent shape as you describe with lower miles (less than 40K). You might find one for less (around $10-12K - see here for example), but dont be surprised to see some for close to $20K. To give you perspective, a 92' spider in mint condition with only 135 original miles (was in a collection) recently sold on eBay for around $23K. That was about as near perfect as you can get (although it likely needed some things replaced, like hoses, due to age.) But I thought that was a pretty good deal since that was the original sticker price and was the nicest one I personally have ever seen sold recently. To get a broad perspective on prices see this thread.

7. You should be able to find lots of advice on buying a new spider by searching this board. Here is one thread to get you started. But the one thing I would avoid at all costs is rust. Most anything else can be repaird/replaced pretty easy, but rust can be a whole other thing to deal with. Rust isnt as big an issue with most newer Alfas, but I still wouldnt buy one with any significant rust.

I say take the plunge! If you get some help in finding an S4 in excellent shape (via either local shop or AROC) and are willing to pay for it, then I think you can find what you are looking for. Alfas truly are a unique car like no other and will bring you many reliable years of fun driving. But if you do decide to buy one, be warned, you have to treat her even better than your lovely wife...because if you dont, she too can make your life miserable, and no true Alfa fan or man will respect you :)
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Here is a simple thing to think about with any older car.
what other car are you looking at if not this?
it seems most look at a old car then look at a new or almost new car.
A older car will need some work time to time. but if you take the same or even part of what the payments of the newer car would be and put that in to the older car. It will be a very good car. a few payments for a newer car = a new paintjob
part to one payment = new seats.
a few payments = new motor or a new tranny. etc

You have to look at the total cost of ownership.
And do not forget the price difference in Car Insurance. That might pay for all the repairs alone.
I have had the pleasure of driving an S4 for the last three years. All I can say is, if a hot sexy babe wants you do you go for it or do you ask her a million questions and bore her to death.
All you need is a good mechanic and if in the end she breaks your heart you can always sell to someone with the alfa sickness and get most of your money back.
Hi jddela;

I second what everyone else has posted in this thread about Alfa's. By your profile I see you live in AZ also. Here are some local mechanic shops info and the local Alfa club URL.
I've had work done and bought parts at Auto International and am a current member of the AZ Alfa club.
Might be worth-while to ask the shops if they know of a car for sale and drop by a meeting of the club.

Remember ALFA stands for: Always Looking For Another

Auto International
9609 N. 21st Drive, Suite J
Phoenix, Arizona 85021-1805
phone (602) 997-6792

2816 E. Jones Avenue, #2
Phoenix, Arizona
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I was in your position earlier this year and decided to take the plunge. I bought an '84 Spider for approx. $6K and she is in great shape. The body is the most essential part. I have very minor areas of rust which I'm going to take care of before the winter.

So far I've had to replace the motor mounts, the battery, a fuel pump and line, got an oil change and I'm about to have all the rear bushings replaced shortly. I will need new front rotors soon. I also got a stereo with a direct iPod hookup. All of this including labor and parts is less than $2k which is what I am spending on average per year to maintain a fairly new VW Golf The Alfa will become my daily driver once the bushings are replaced and the Golf will go up for sale shortly after that.

I don't have a commute as I work from home, but I'm as comfortable tooling around the city in traffic as I am roaring along the highway. So far she's started first time every time and I really get a sense that she is quite robust and reliable. All the same I have purchased a full AAA membership just in case I need that long haul tow on a flatbed in the middle of a road trip.

I'm learning a lot about the mechanics too so in the future I will be changing my own oil, filters, plugs and any other maintenance that doesn't require a lift or compression. I found a really good mechanic and had him look the car over to give me a sense of what maintenance she will require in the future. I'd strongly suggest following the advice of getting a thorough inspection done before buying a Spider. I had three done: the first by a fellow BB'er and long time Alfa owner, the following two by separate shops so I have a pretty accurate picture of what's going on.

I know that I will spend more in the next few years on upgrading parts, replacing hoses, getting a chassis stiffener, an engine rebuild and a transmission overhaul. If I calculate all the costs, I could perhaps buy a new VW Rabbit which isn't anywhere near as much fun to drive. I'll still have to contend with awful VW/Audi service (which is super expensive) and no where near the kind of character that the Spider has. I still get a kick out of all the looks she gets as I drive her around, especially with the top down and my little dog hanging over the edge with her face in the wind. The word "drive" has taken on a whole new meaning for my dog - she goes straight for the Alfa in the garage as opposed to either of the other two modern cars sitting there.

The other thing I'm sure of is that the Alfa will hold her value far better than any new car.
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I think Spiders can be daily drivers if you buy right. I'm actually comtemplating a move back to Phx for business in the next few months and will be taking two if not all three of my Alfa's with me. I have been looking at an 89 here in San Diego and I know Jason from Alfissimo Int in Tempe has one for sale too. Knowing the service history is important and buying right is too. Obviously S4's are a bit more money than S3's all things being equal and the choice is subjective. Having said all this, no older Alfa will be a Camry or an Accord at 200,000 miles but they will give much more pleasure when you're driving in PV or South Mnt at sunset with the top down (Only a Phoenician will know what I mean) or Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon for that matter. So buy one, live the Alfa life style and I'll meet you for a Williams to Grand Canyon tour when it cools down! ;)
I wouldn't want to advise you.

It's a decision laden more with emotion than cold mechancials.
The car evokes visceral feelings not connected with money.
If you have the passion, go for it.
It you don't, forget it.

But, if you have the love, the feelings, the sensitivity you'll probably regret not having made the attempt at creating such a wonderful'll always wonder, "should I have..."

My Alfa, on a curvy mountain road with a clear blue sky above is nirvana and nothing, nothing, can substitute for the feeling I have at that moment....well, almost nothing (wink, wink)
Don't listen to that line.

RS is just trying to ensure that there's more out there for him. ;)

BTW, fear of the wife's 'I told you so' bit?

Yeah, you'll get that anyway regardless of what you do.

Thanks so much for all the responses. It sounds like with a well-cared-for car and a good mechanic, owning an Alfa can be fairly easy and very enjoyable, even for someone with no mechanical experience.

Thanks again to everyone!
BTW, fear of the wife's 'I told you so' bit?

Yeah, you'll get that anyway regardless of what you do.
Not if your wife points at an Alfa Romeo and says, "I like that one. I think we should buy a sports car like that one."
From a Newby to a Newby
I’ve been looking for a Spider for the last couple of months and finally bought one 4 weeks ago.
I do not know anything about mechanics but this BB is AMAAAAAZING
My experience is that price does not necessarily mean top quality.
There are too many people out there who want to make a quick buck.

Found a 1989 Graduate on EBay with 28K original miles.
After talking to the guy in Florida he guaranteed me again that the vehicle had 29K original miles. BUT he changed the clutch, timing chain, master cylinder, upholstery etc.
YEH right !!!

Drove 440 miles to Maryland for a 1989 QF with NO RUST.
Asking price was 8K vehicle had 70K miles, pictures looked gorgeous.
I came back by train; there were holes in the floorboard and trunk, bigger than Fats Domino’s head!!!

Finally found one at the local Air Base (previous owner had to deploy)
1987 Veloce, 84K miles, NO RUST whatsoever, all records of maintenance, new trany, new Bosh ignition, new top etc… for 3.5K !!!
Needed a new paint job, new seat upholstery and I’m driving my dream…

Good Luck
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Alfas are very well built, and the S3 models are a great crossover; they have an injection system that is found on MANY European cars of the 80's so parts and expertise are not hard to find. Prices for ones in good shape are well within reason, if not undervalued. Many were made, and they evolved slowly and remained basically the same car the years, so there are lots of spares, and lots of knowledgeable people to help you with the expected issues as they come up. This BB is very helpful, plenty of trusty Alfa enthusiasts ready to give you a hand.

So, they are a safe bet even for an adventurous novice, and very dependable, BUT-

since rust is an issue, you may wish to consider it a second car, keep something a little more modern (and disposable) for the winter months, and preserve the old Alfa for future generations. After you buy one and fall in love with it, you'll agree.
Not if your wife points at an Alfa Romeo and says, "I like that one. I think we should buy a sports car like that one."
And thus she told you so.... ;)
My '86 Graduate has needed occasional work in the couple of years that I've owned it, but some of that work has proven to be do-able by me. A couple of things have been farmed out to my Alfa mechanic, though. To own a Spider, you need three things IN VARYING DEGREES: a modicum of mechanical skills, a viable bank account, and a nearby shop that specializes in Alfas. If you're grossly lacking in two or three of these things, then maybe a Miata is more suited to you. But if you've got two or three of them covered, then do as I did...GO FOR IT! Good luck mate,

A spider is not more expensive that any old car of the same age. However there are a lot of things that wear out over time. Unless you have plenty of money in the bank I suggest that you do not buy this car. Yes I know it's contrary of what everyone else is saying in this board. UNLESS you are willing to learn to work on it. Parts are no more expensive that any other car (I also have a 94 Jeep, 90 Toyota Tercel and 95 ford windstar). I bought my spider for 2,600 and have put on it more than 5,000 since 2001 (the internet is your friend). Some was planned some was not. I do most of the work on it myself - I can change the doughtnut on in my sleep, but I can't do other engine related things (adjust valves etc..)
Working on the car is half the fun, but you do not wnat too much fun.
My spider is my daily driver in the summer - but I'm glad I have the Tercel when the spider is up on jacks. I bought My first spider NEW in 86, I only knew how to change the oil then.
My daily driver is an '86 Graduate which I purchased new. It's far and away the most reliable car I've ever driven. The same mechanic has serviced this car for it's 21 year life. I take it in once a year for an oil change and review of it's records. Most year's it only gets an oil change.

My thought is that it should be driven 5000 miles per year and not sit out in the rain. As long as it's driven all the electrical and mechanical part should stay functioining. The other problem most get is rust.

So I'd shy away from either a rust bucket or an extremely low mileage car.

I've often thought of replacing mine with a Porsche Boxster but I just can't justify parting with a perfectly good car.
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