At first glance this pairing may strike you as being a little odd. Certainly from a model hierarchy standpoint these two classic sports cars are poles apart.
The 1962-introduced MGB built on the success of the MGA; a sports car with genuine driver appeal but which lacked civility. Thanks to its bang-up-to-date styling and monocoque construction, allied to tried and tested mechanicals, the ‘B was praised from day one as being a hugely practical sports car. It enjoyed global appeal with over 500,000 examples of the roadster and the fixed-head GT built over a production run lasting nearly 20 years. With a launch price of £949, it was the world’s best-selling sports car until the arrival of the Datsun 240Z in 1969.
The Alfa Romeo Spider on the other hand isn’t what you’d call an ‘everyman’s sports car’. Based on the 105 chassis used for the ‘Sixties Giulia saloons, the Spider started life as the Pininfarina-styled twin-cam 1.6-litre Duetto of 1966. The car morphed into the 1750 Spider the following year, then in 1971 into the car that we’re testing – the 2000 Spider. At around the same time as the 1750 was introduced, so too was a 1300 junior version, which was built until 1978. The Spider range continued in 2000 form until (incredibly) 1993. And yet in nearly three decades only a little over 124,000 Spiders were made – a fraction of the MGB’s total.
Then there’s how much it cost; with a launch price of £2439 in 1969 the 2000 Spider was more expensive to buy than a contemporary Series II Jaguar E-type. Despite its comparatively low performance figures – especially against British-built rivals available at the time for a similar price – the Spider has always been seen as a prestige sports car here in Britain.
Today though, things are a little different. The MGB has enjoyed time in the limelight recently; having celebrated its golden anniversary last year, demand for top-quality examples of the original chrome-bumper models has never been higher. The Spider too has quietly gathered a dedicated following of enthusiasts and is well admired within the hobby. It all means that today good condition examples of both these sports cars are available at roughly the same price. We tought we’d drive both in an attempt to decide which is best.
MGB ROADSTER ROAD TEST
Faced with the choice of either British or Italian sports car, I decided to hop inside the car that I was most familiar with first. Indeed, I would argue the MGB feels familiar to anyone, even those who have perhaps never driven one before: It’s a little cosy inside, without being too snug, and the low driving position treats you to a decent view of what’s going on ahead. Pedals are well spaced, the dashboard is uncluttered and switches fall nicely to hand. Everything is exactly where you’d expect it to be – unsurprising really as the MGB was arguably the mould for pretty much every other British sports car that followed.
I don’t though remember the throttle pedal being so light on the last MGB I drove, nor do I remember the B Series engine note sounding quite this fruity. After turning the key the MGB’s 1.8-litre OHV four-pot erupts into life before quickly settling to an even idle. I blip the throttle out of gear and the engine lets out a throaty shriek – it sounds incredible.
Leaving MG Mecca, I took a set of B roads leading to the village of Roudham. On the way, I had a chance to again appreciate the MGB’s impressive road holding and manners: Suspension is independent at the front, but it’s still the original and more primitive ‘banjo’ rear axle, supported by semi-elliptic leaf springs, at the back. It’s a set-up that’s essentially the same as the MGA’s (no bad thing given its success) only with more ‘give’ in the springs. The result is that handling isn’t as sharp as some of its contemporaries – there’s the slightest degree of roll travelling through corners, but the car is able to very quickly right itself on exit – but it grips nicely and is extremely forgiving across uneven roads.
Leaving Roudham I found myself on an empty well-sighted stretch of unmarked road and open the taps. The MGB, with its 0-60mph time of 12 seconds, is not what you’d call a properly quick sports car but the twin-carb B Series engine has enough poke to pull you into the back of your seat when you do press the throttle (though the grippy aftermarket seatbelts fitted to this MGB do help).
Again the MGB’s suspension set-up impresses here as it’s notable just how stable the car feels on roads that aren’t perfectly flat. The ride isn’t accompanied by any annoying squeaks or rattles and there’s zero steering wheel play. This particular ‘B – a MkI with a five bearing engine – is fitted with its original steering wheel; it’s large but extremely direct (as you’d expect from a rack and pinion set-up), with a nice meaty feel that requires very little movement.
There’s a really nice solid-feeling gearchange too, although no synchromesh on first gear means that I have to quickly get back into the habit of double de-clutching. Between swapping cogs, what’s really noticeable is that the MGB’s 1.8-litre four has enough torque to pull well from low revs, while overdrive on third and top makes this roadster even more capable.
ALFA ROMEO SPIDER ROAD TEST
After enjoying the MGB it was time to switch over to the Alfa. I’ll start by stating the obvious; the Spider is an achingly pretty machine. There is something about Italian curves that really does make petrolheads go all weak at the knees – especially when they’re finished in red.
I hop inside the cabin and immediately the car feels alien to me – not least as it’s a left-hooker. It’s the driving position that strikes me as being the most odd: It seems as though the Spider was designed for people with shorter legs, so I’m forced to bend mine causing my knees to occasionally bump off the large wooden-rimmed steering wheel. I also later discover that my arms aren’t quite long enough either – even with my right arm outstretched I can only just engage fifth gear.
That said, having Alfa Romeo badges on all the gauges is a lovely touch, as is having the bank of three gauges in the centre angled towards the driver. The fit and finish of Alfa Spider cabins is generally considered to be poor and to quickly deteriorate with age, but this one is spot on.
This particular model is a Series II from the mid ‘Seventies, around the same time that prototype Spiders based on the Alfetta platform were being shown off – but which sadly never materialised. So even by 1976, the year when this Spider was registered, these sports cars were getting a little long in the tooth. The Spider shows its age most through scuttle shake, which over particularly uneven stretches of road is extremely off-putting. Russell Storer of MG Mecca had told us that there would be some scuttle shake – but I simply hadn’t expected it to be to this degree. To go from the always stable ‘B to the Spider was certainly a bit of a shock.
The Spider is perhaps best known in the US as the car driven by Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967 film The Graduate. There’s no denying this is a car that makes you feel rather special, with that lovely view down the car’s curvaceous bonnet, but as I wafted around the roads near MG Mecca I was concerned there may be a bit of style over substance going on here, with the driving experience not quite living up to the car’s looks.
Play in the steering is notable too and means that on even slightly uneven stretches of road lots of minor corrections at the wheel are required, making it a far more challenging car to drive than the MGB – there’s a lack of control and you can sense when the chassis and the suspension are struggling. Again unlike the MGB, which always seems to pull up to a halt nicely, the Alfa squirrels under heavy braking. In short, it doesn’t particularly inspire confidence.
While we’re drawing comparisons though, the engine note isn’t as brash as that of the MGB’s. Performance from the Spider’s willing and zesty twin-cam engine is also better – this Alfa is capable of going from 0-60mph in 10 seconds, which is notably quicker than the ‘B. The Spider’s more advanced 2.0-litre twin-cam revs nicely and power delivery is smooth, making it perfectly suited to cruising.
My immediate impression of the Spider then is that it is an open-top grand tourer in miniature: It’s a car that struggles with B roads, but on A roads, where you can exploit its five-speed ‘box to the full and where the road surfaces generally aren’t as poor, the Alfa makes a lot of sense.
I did though find my opinion of the Spider changing as I further explored the roads in this part of South Norfolk. It came as a revelation that, as with most Alfas, the harder you push the Spider the better it rides and responds. The scuttle shake is still terrible, but on a twisty bit of road you don’t notice it quite as much and I’m baffled at how the Spider somehow feels as though it finds more and more grip the more speed I carry into corners. There’s a limit to this obviously, but while the Spider does wallows it can handle – just not in the way you’d expect from a more traditional sports car.
Perhaps if I had been able to spend more time with the Spider I may have even adapted to its awkward driving position.
The MGB continues to be the first choice for many of those looking to buy their first classic sports car. After all, it’s probably the one car that epitomises the British classic car movement as a whole. And, as an extremely well-established classic, it boasts some of the strongest support networks for owners in the form of car clubs, servicing and restoration specialists, and parts suppliers. But with prices for the best examples of this week’s pair of roadsters being so similar, we asked the question ‘what about the Alfa Romeo Spider?’
Well, perhaps it’s because I’m not switched on to the Alfisti way of thinking but personally, and based on the hour or two I spent with each car on the day, I’d pick the MGB over the Spider. The MGB is just so straightforward compared to the Spider. It’s easy to forget that you’re driving a car at all when you’re behind the wheel of a ‘B, but I found the Alfa a much greater challenge.
For me, it’s telling that despite the Alfa Spider being the MGB’s junior by ten years, it’s the Alfa and not the ‘B that feels the older of the two cars.
That’s not to say that the Spider doesn’t have its merits. The MGB we tested is fitted with overdrive, though I would still chose the Spider if I was attempting to cover any sort of considerable distance as it’s an extremely rewarding cruiser. But judging each as an all-rounder, and with everything on the MG feeling so crisp, it’s difficult to see past the ‘B.
CAR: MGB roadster Alfa Romeo Spider
ENGINE: 1798cc 4-cyl OHV 1962cc 4-cyl DOHC
POWER: 95bhp at 5400rpm 131bhp at 5500rpm
TOP SPEED: 106mph 119mph
0-60MPH: 12 secs 10 secs
CONSUMPTION: 26mpg 30mpg
GEARBOX: 4-spd man o/d 5-sp man
WEIGHT: 966kg (2128lb) 1103kg (2430lb)