It was one of those deceptive early spring days, the kind where the calendar and the sun peeking through the clouds hint at warmer conditions than I was actively experiencing as I zipped along with the top dropped back in my dangerously rusty 1986 Alfa Romeo Spider Graduate.
Whenever I had time—between classes, on weekends, and even occasionally when I was supposed to be in class—I took my little roadster out for a spin through the wooded rolling hills of southern Indiana. I was a senior at Indiana University, just finishing up my degree in journalism, and the world, or at least the 20-year-old Alfa with its mismatched tires and ripped-up vinyl upholstery, was mine. The twin-cam 2.0-liter engine loved to rev and its 5-speed manual could usually be coaxed into gear. Just enough oil dripped from parts unknown onto the exhaust that the smell of burnt petroleum accompanied me around campus, even when the Spider was tucked into its little garage.
It was the scent of freedom, and on this chilly day as I bombed down a single-lane country road in Indiana’s limestone country, it was there in full force. So strong was the pungent oil that I thought perhaps I was light-headed when I spotted a forlorn, decades-old Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider partially hidden by a wind-torn blue tarp. I hit the brakes and my Spider pulled to the left thanks to a perennially sticky caliper. I wrestled the gearbox into reverse, slid the clunky clutch out, and backed up to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.
There it was. The white roadster, with its body panels hammered out by craftsmen at Pininfarina’s workshop in Milan, now shared yard space with beige Oldsmobuick and some scrap wood.
Here, in the hills where Midwestern farmland rolls into the kudzu-enveloped South, two Italian roadsters built 25 years apart were reunited. It wasn’t technically a barn find since it was parked outside, but the white Giulietta was nonetheless a reminder that the road less-taken is full of surprises.
The voluptuous Spider certainly would have been a looker when it was new in about 1961, but it showed signs of being a low-value used convertible that might have been raced on a club level at some point. Stone guards adorned its round headlights, and its gentle chrome bumpers had been discarded in favor of rails probably welded on by a shade-tree mechanic. Still, its dog-dish hubcaps were intact and none of its panels were mangled. A 1980s Minnesota license plate was screwed onto its bumper, hinting that the Spider’s flat tires hadn’t been filled with air in a couple of decades.
As Italy began its lengthy recovery from World War II, Alfa Romeo remade itself from a builder of exotic sports cars renowned on race tracks into a builder of stylish, sporty coupes and sedans available at a more palatable price point. The Giulietta Spider represented war-torn Italy’s take on 1950s excess with its flamboyant lines. Its little 1.3-liter twin-came inline-4 engine revved high in marked contrast to increasingly torquey American sports cars with V-8 engines. Perhaps most notably, Edward Fox drove one in his portrayal of assassin The Jackal in the film adaptation of “The Day of the Jackal.”
Later Alfa Spiders like mine were made more famous by Dustin Hoffman, who picked up Mrs. Robinson in an early boattail model in “The Graduate.” It’s that film that inspired Alfa Romeo to rename the base model of its aging Spider lineup in a bid to boost sales in the mid-1980s. It worked for the original owner of my Spider two decades before I bought it from a sketchy Englishman in a seedy neighborhood near Baltimore’s airport.
Honestly, I’m not sure if the older Alfa Spider I stumbled across was a Giulietta or a later Giulia. Its single-piece taillights suggest it’s the latter, but the absence of an intake grafted onto its hood hint at the former. Alfa Romeo wasn’t exactly known for its consistency six decades ago, and it’s likely that Spioder wasn’t wearing all of its original body panels and parts—it was just a used car at one point, after all.
It’s been a dozen years and several moves around the country since I last drove by that Alfa, and my rusty ’86 Spider has been replaced by other sporty classics in my garage. I often wonder what happened to that white roadster and, given that good examples trade for $100,000 or more today, I hope it has been restored. But every time I take the time to zip down a twisty road instead of a busy highway, I keep my eyes peeled for the next barn find. Even if it’s parked outdoors.