I have never truly understood why some convertibles are called spiders, since spiders are creepy and generally undesirable creatures and not small sporty topless fun machines. There are a few potential origins for this automotive arachnidian nomenclature mashup, one rooted in a poor translation, and one that comes from way back in the horse-drawn carriage days. Regardless of the true origins, both of these stories are intriguing looks behind the curtain of automotive history.

The funny tale that legend has perpetuated is that an Italian journalist attended an auto show where he saw a street-legal car without a roof. It was the same car that James Dean famously and tragically fatally crashed, the Porsche 550 Speedster. This was in the late 1950s, so there was no live tweeting, no TikTok or Instagram Live, and no YouTube to share videos on, so the journalist was forced to call his Italian coworkers on the phone and share the news. The connection was poor, so his team had a hard time understanding him, but they did understand that the car had no roof. According to JD Power, his journalist’s magazine printed the news about the Porsche 550 Speeder, but spelled the model name as ‘Spider’ instead of Speeder.

A rear 3/4 shot of a gray Porsche 718 Spyder RS driving through the desert

Photo: Porsche

The more likely etymology of the term Spider is rooted deep in history, before the days of the automobile. In the late 18th century, coachbuilders produced Spider Phaeton carriages that were lightweight and weren’t meant for cross-country trips. Think of them like sports carriages. These carriages also had removable roofs, and removable side windows, much like a modern convertible. Legend has it that these sporty convertible carriages were fitted with large wooden wheels with thin spokes that vaguely looked like spiders, so they were called Spiders.

Once automobiles came along and relieved horses of their duty, the concept of a Spider stayed the same. The term Spider was used to refer to light, topless automobiles with large spider-like wheels that were meant for fun and not cross-country trips. Mostly a term used by European and Asian car manufacturers nowadays, Alfa Romeo, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Fiat, Lamborghini, Maserati, McLaren, Mazda, Porsche and Toyota have all used the term Spider to classify their convertibles to list just a few.

A dark blue McLaren Artura Spider driving across a winding bridge in front of mountains

Photo: McLaren

Why do some automakers spell the word Spider with an I and some with the letter Y? It’s actually just a stylistic decision. The Italian alphabet doesn’t have the letter Y, so most Italian Spiders are spelled like the arachnid, while other companies choose to spell it Spyder. There are no differences between the vehicle ethos of a Spider and a Spyder, just a single letter.

As a huge fan of convertibles, I’m surprised I didn’t know the etymology of this automotive terminology. Regardless of how it’s referred to, there’s something enchanting about a sporty lightweight topless form of transportation that has resonated with humans for hundreds of years, and I hope to see many more Spiders in the future. Not a phrase I envisioned myself saying, but you know what I mean.

A silver 2020 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth driving across a bridge over water

Photo: Fiat

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