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Road Tests

Alfa Romeo 8C

Alfa's 8C convertible is fast, fun and very beautiful

It began at Goodwood. There, on the Saturday of the recent Festival of Speed weekend, I drove the very 1931 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 in which Sir Henry "Tim" Birkin won that year's Le Mans 24 Hours. I'd wanted to drive one of these for years, not least because under its long bonnet lies one of the most beautiful engines ever made by man.

Next day, the gods smiled on me again. A couple of years ago, the first buyers took delivery of the most brutal yet most beautiful Alfa Romeo of recent times, the 8C Competizione. Named after my Goodwood mount, this 8C had a curvaceous carbon fibre body covering modified mechanicals from Maserati, like Alfa a territory within the Fiat empire. The mechanicals included a 450bhp, 4.7-litre V8 engine (hence "8C" again), tuned-up with an exhaust note guaranteed to shatter any carelessly placed piece of Venetian glassware. Just 500 were made, all left-hand drive, and all now sold.

Now there's an open version, and here at Goodwood I'm about to hurl it up the hill. Again there will be 500 examples, of which 35 are UK-bound, wearing £174,000 price tags. That's a lot for an Alfa, but that has not deterred those with deep pockets, attuned ears and a sense of what's beautiful. All 35 are currently spoken for, but in this rarefied world of automotive exotica there's always a way ...

The hill beckons. Flag down, lovely tyre-smoking start, go easy on the long right-hander, snake all the way to the top. It's over too quickly; let's just say that the track feels damp even though it isn't, such is the excess of power over grip. This is one visceral car.

A week and a half later, I'm at Alfa Romeo's test track at Balocco, between Turin and Milan, to try the self-same open 8C for a little longer. This is a car as beautiful as its eponymous predecessor's engine, but for different reasons. Too many modern cars are hard-edged, blocky, oddly-proportioned, designed to shock rather than to delight. Creators of such shapes decry curves and beauty as retro and creatively bankrupt, but the 8C proves they are wrong. The nose is clearly Alfa, the shape clearly has proportions found in sports cars for many years, but there's nothing old-fashioned about its sensual sweeps and muscular haunches. It simply, obviously, just looks delicious.

There's more aesthetic joy under the bonnet, the V8 engine wearing crackle-red cam covers with black intake pipes set between them, like the fingers of two clasped hands. This engine is actually made for Alfa (and for Maserati) by Ferrari, and there's a lot of Ferrari in the way it feels.

Inside, functional proves slightly less beautiful – although the dashboard's naked, satin-finish carbon fibre and a centre console machined from a solid slab of aluminium are as pure as you can get in construction media. And the hood? Manual latch, the rest done by electro-hydraulics as it compresses Z-fashion into the rear deck. Two pieces of manually placed plastic can fill the gaps left at the side if you're fussy.

Onto the track, play with the paddleshift transmission, discover quite a docile automatic mode and a manual mode able to give smooth shifts if you ease the accelerator a little each time. Lap two, and I'm hurtling down the straight ready to blip-shift right down to second for the snake under the bridge. Then a long left and a tight infield section; foot hard down out of the corners and the tail drifts beautifully, controllably, thrillingly.

Now under another bridge at full chat, engine heading towards 7,000rpm, and there's a sonic-crackle-edged shriek before a series of minor ballistic incidents confirms I have lifted the accelerator. It sounds fantastic; how it can be legal I'm not quite sure.

But here's the bit I really wasn't expecting. The Coupé feels very firm undertyre, but the Spider is really quite supple, a suppleness which helps the progressive nature of its cornering behaviour. And the structure feels very rigid, helped by various bracing bars around the steel chassis. The Spider is that rare thing, a better drive than its closed sibling. Good to know the Spider is as satisfying to drive as to gaze upon.

The Rivals

Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster Sportshift: £93,957.

Similar-size V8 makes 420bhp. Looks and sounds fabulous and is more practical (and cheaper) than Alfa.

Ferrari F430 Spider: £144,597.

Mid-mounted V8's power here up to 490bhp, usual high-octane Ferrari driving experience, but less exclusive than Alfa. New 458 model soon.

Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG: £153,050.

A 612bhp, twin-turbo V12 here, giving a good impression of a jet fighter on take-off. Mad and expensive, neat folding metal roof, oddly beguiling.