Quick — off the top of your head, what makes an open-top two-door a Spider? And why is it sometimes spelled “Spyder?” And while we’re on the subject, how did the term come to be attached to cars in the first place?
We’ve got the answer to that last question, and we’ll get to that in a moment. If you want to finally settle the contentious Y vs. I debate, though, bad news: As far as we can tell, there’s no definitive answer to why some automakers say spyder, others use spider and why a few have gone with both — sometimes at the same time.
Historical consistency is no sure guide here. Ferrari has used “Spyder” in the past; see the 250 GT California Spyder for one prominent megabucks example. Maserati used to build a Spyder, but it now calls its convertible the GranCabrio. Weirdly enough, the Italian alphabet lacks the letter “Y,” which might explain why Ferrari uses “Spider” these days … but not why Lancia, which introduced the B24 Aurelia Spider in 1954, released the Beta Spyder (aka the Zagato) decades later — right around the time it sold a sunroof-equipped “Spider” variant of its wedge-shaped Montecarlo.
In any case, Spider is what Alfa has gone with in the past — stretching all the way back to the prewar Alfa Romeo 8C Spiders, among the first cars to use the term that we could find — and Spider is what it calls its open-topped 4C variant (which is more of a targa, but that’s another discussion for another day).
Fiat, for its part, has stuck with Spider for both old and new 124s.
At the same time, Lamborghini has no problem defying Italian orthography with its Gallardo and Huracan Spyders. Or does it only do so because it’s a part of the Volkswagen Group, which uses the Y-spelling for its Audi R8 Spyder, plus open-topped Porsches like the 918 Spyder and the wonderful Boxster Spyder (to say nothing of the 917 Spyder variants and the 550 Spyder)? BMW is set to call its convertible i8 a Spyder; perhaps it’s a German thing.
Further, and probably because of the grabby unconventional spelling, “Spyder” seems to be the preferred spelling attached to truly exotic cars — and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, aspirational vehicles from normcore marques. On the one hand, you have the Spyker C8 Preliator Spyder and the Panoz Esperante Spyder GT; on the other, you have the Toyota MR2 Spyder, Mitsubishi’s Eclipse and 3000GT Spyders and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder (which, of course, could be had as both a convertible or a coupe).
If there’s a point here, it’s that there’s really no particular justification for either spelling of the word that we can identify. At this point, we’d guess that any automaker that has picked one will stick with it.
RM Sotheby’s sold this 1939 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Lungo Spider by Touring last year for nearly $20 million. It has a disappearing top.
What is easy enough to prove is that the word itself is, as are many other automotive terms, a relic from a horse-drawn world.
A spider — or more accurately, a spider phaeton — is a type of lightweight horse-drawn carriage. As a variant of the phaeton, also a name coachbuilders carried over to their automotive works, the spider phaeton was meant for sport and show, not cross-country touring; typically, any top it had provided only basic protection from the elements, and unlike some true “convertible” carriages, it lacked permanent side windows.
The exact origin of the spider name is somewhat murky. Some sources say the spider was developed by a certain Archibald Holmes of Dublin around 1860; others suggest that the variant arrived in Europe via America. Parallel evolution occurring on both sides of the Atlantic can’t be discounted.
In any event, with sparse bodies riding on tall, spindly wheels, these things do come off as spidery. Take a look at this baby, a drilled disc brake-equipped (!) model offered by WCC Carriages:
The original spyder.
As to why the term made the jump to sports cars, we have our suspicions. Early automobiles at all price points tended to be roofless or convertible. As the car developed and closed body styles grew in popularity, open cars became discretionary purchases (much like the original spider phaetons, which were meant for speed and sport). To help define their offerings in a crowded field, automakers borrowed names from the past or invented new ones.
Hence, the roadster (named after the roadworthy horse), barchettas (ultra-focused performance cars so named for their resemblance to “little boats”), speedsters (self-explanatory) and, of course, spiders. A few spiders emerged before WWII, but the name really seemed to take off with the explosion of sports cars that accompanied the postwar economic boom. For whatever reason, carrozzerias latched onto the word. Later, automakers from Chevrolet to Mitsubishi stuck it on their cars to cash in on that Italian glamor.
Over the years, the word has been attached to so many cars of so many varying degrees of hardcore-ness that to try to rigidly define “spider” is an exercise in futility. The meaning of automotive descriptors evolves over time, and marketing departments tend to speed up the process exponentially. Generally, though, we’d say that — in contrast to a convertible — a spider is a car that is designed to be driven open to the sky. If there’s a top in the picture, it’s meant as backup, not something meant to enable all-weather, all-season use.
With its sporting aims and somewhat impractical roof, the Porsche Boxster Spyder gets closer to the original intent of the term than probably any other recent mainstream offering; if you go a little further off the beaten path, there are niche offerings like the Drakan Spyder that more or less fit the bill, too.
But if you want the authentic spider experience with absolutely no doubt as to the appropriateness of the nomenclature, you’re gonna end up with something pulled by a team of fine horses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.