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Britain v Italy

In the 1960s the world shed its post-war blues and celebrated life. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones burst from ever speaker, fashions got shorter and hair got longer. And Britain led the way, not just in music and fashion but with stunning new cars like the Aston Martin DB6 and Jaguar E Type. Prosperity and technology combined to put more money in people's pockets and more time to enjoy it.

If your budget didn't stretch to such rarified machines but you still wanted to mix it with the cool kids then a little car company in Oxford could assist you. The MGB, launched in 1962, was perfect for the era - stylish, affordable and designed for weekend getaways. It sold by the bucketload.

Over in Italy a group of car men in Milan had been working away on a very similar idea. Originally planned to launch a year before the MG in 1961, the beautiful Alfa Romeo Spider arrived in 1966. It was a car that, like the MG, was designed to appeal to the newly cash and time rich 1960s Baby Boomers.

The original 'boat tail' Spider is now considered amongst the most beautiful cars ever made, but contemporary reviewers and buyers were less enamoured. The style, intended to give the car excellent aerodynamics, was a major design departure for Alfa. And it split opinions, which explains why Alfa hurriedly revamped it to create the boxier 'Kamm Tail' Spider in 1970.

Where the MG borrowed heavily from other less sporting cars - the humdrum Morris Oxford gifted its 1800cc engine - the Spider had Alfa's lengthy heritage to draw on. So it got a revvy twin cam engine, sweet five speed gearbox and its ride and handling reflected the firm's sporting prowess.

They may have begun life in very different places but the Alfa Spider and MGB had very similar lifespans. Although new and fresh at launch, they stayed in production well beyond their expected duration - 21 years for the MG and 28 for the Alfa. The MG never really changed, just gaining big rubber bumpers and a few inches in height, but the Alfa went through four different iterations, all based on the same basic design. Spider fans have definite preferences amongst the different versions, although we think that overall Alfa did a better job of moderning the aging car than MGB managed.

We've been running MGBs and an Alfa Spider on our hire fleet for many years. And now, for the first time, you can put them back to back. In fact, I'm not sure why we didn't think of this before, because they make such natural companions.

The Britain v Italy experience lets you drive each car for 60 minutes to decide which nation truly hit the mark with its small two seater convertible. We've driven both and we change our minds each time we experience them.

For some, the MGB will always be the iconic British sports car, a simple, stylish and easy to own classic that does exactly what a classic car should do - put a smile on your face. It is a great looking car - decent space, good driving position, direct steering and comfortable seats. Owning one is much the same - virtually every single part is available off the shelf for any MGB ever made.

Others, however, might mumble about the MG's less than sporty 1800cc engine, which doesn't enjoy revs and lacks torque. Certainly it's not the quickest sports car on planet earth. But maybe it doesn't need to be.

On the topic of engines the Alfa is a very different beast. Under the car's sloping bonnet is the Milan firm's excellent twin cam engine. In our Series 4 1992 car it's been bored out to two litres and fuel injected. It's a sweet, easy-revving engine that doesn't have much more power than the MG but delivers it in a much more exciting way.

The Alfa also has the more sophisticated chassis, which is evident on the road with more fluid handling and better steering feel.

Practically the two cars are similarly matched - spacious cockpits, good boots and comfortable seats. They also have very simple roof mechanisms - something Triumph would have done well to note when they developed the Stag's dreadful drop top. But the Alfa loses to its British cousin in durability and quality - the Italian car feels thrown together while the MG feels, remarkably for a product of British Leyland, like a good quality job. There is a solidity to the B that nicely mirrors its more prosaic performance. And in that the two cars do seem to have inherited their national characteristics rather well.

We'll leave it to you to decide which is best. What we do know is that they are both a joy to drive - on a warm day or on a cold day with the excellent heaters belting out. But always, of course, with the top down.

The 2 hr Britain v Italy experience costs £89. Fuel, insurance and passengers are included. All of our driving experiences take place on quiet country roads - no windy race tracks, no nannying instructors. To find out more click here or call 01527 893733

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