Collectible Classic: 1968-1985 Fiat 124 Spider
An approachable and affordable Italian classic.
Everyone's got a Fix It Again Tony story. (FIAT, get it?) A sometimes cautionary, often humorous, and always sad tale involving a friend, sibling, or father who brought home a brand-new Fiat decades ago only to be subjected to years of breakdowns, engine fires, and other mishaps until the car finally put the owner and itself out of their mutual misery by rusting into the ground. Such woe-ridden stories have given Fiats their Rodney Dangerfield status in the U.S., where these cars just don't get no respect.
And that's too bad because, given the direction classic car prices are heading, the Fiat 124 Spider is one of the few honest-to-goodness vintage Italians most of us can still afford. It was obvious even at its debut during the 1966 Turin auto show that the 124 Spider had all the right elements for success. Its styling came from Pininfarina, the signature of good taste in Italian design, although ironically the shape itself was penned by Tom Tjaarda, an expatriate American who incorporated elements from his previous project, the Corvette Rondine. Mechanically, the car was fairly state of the art for the time, incorporating a five-speed transmission, four-wheel disc brakes, and a softtop that could
be easily operated from the driver's seat.
The icing on the cake was a rev-happy, sweet-sounding, twin-cam inline-four created by none other than Aurelio Lampredi, designer of the four-cylinder engine of the Ferrari Monza. With a two-barrel Weber carburetor bolted on top, the little 1.4-liter four-banger delivered a healthy 96 hp. Unfortunately EPA emissions standards would strangle this engine's power in the U.S. through the years. To counteract the decline in power, displacement grew first to 1.6 liters and then to 1.8 liters. It was a losing battle. By 1979 displacement reached its peak at 2.0 liters, but the output of 80 hp was an all-time low, and the engine's love for high revs was lost. Nevertheless, sales of the Spider actually peaked in 1979 when Fiat introduced an optional three-speed automatic transmission. By 1981 the Spider 2000 (as it was then known) had acquired fuel injection, which boosted power to 102 hp. An optional turbocharger took output to 120 hp.
The rest of this elegant convertible received only small changes during its 17-year run in the U.S. The hood acquired small bulges, then larger ones to accommodate taller engine packages. The taillights grew in size, federally mandated 5-mph bumpers replaced the svelte chrome blades, and the ride height increased to meet government standards for headlight height. After the 1982 model year, Fiat abandoned the model. Because Pininfarina had always manufactured the car for Fiat, it simply continued to produce the Spider with minor changes as the Pininfarina Azurra. By 1985, production ended for good. Everyone who wanted a 124 Spider apparently already had one, some 170,720 people in the United States (198,120 globally).
Today the high production number for the Fiat 124 Spider has helped keep prices low. And it was mostly because of a low price that several years ago I bought the '79 Fiat Spider 2000 you see here. On the trip home with my new purchase, I knew the car would be a bit of a project. There was no real power to speak of, just a general inclination to move in a forward direction. Pressing the brake pedal initiated a sharp right turn but did little to slow down the car. Still, the Fiat was largely free of rust (a miracle), and the paint was shiny, making it a good starting point for a rolling refurbishment.
New Koni dampers and IAP sport springs soon replaced the standard units. An aftermarket rear anti-roll bar joined the factory front unit to curtail the car's tendency to plow through the corners like a farm tractor. The entire brake system was rebuilt. Through it all, parts were not only easy to find from U.S. suppliers but also surprisingly cheap. (Ask the owner of an Alfa Romeo Spider if his brake rotors cost $15.)
With the car cornering and stopping, I turned my attention to the engine. Allison's Automotive, a Fiat 124 specialist in Upland, California, installed a Euro-optional Weber 34 ADF carburetor and hot street cam, which together transformed the driving experience. No longer did I have to draft semi trucks in the right lane, as the car could now easily keep a pace of 80 mph. Feeling inspired, I sourced a Pininfarina-built hardtop and magnesium Cromodora CD30 wheels, plus I installed aluminum dash panels that made the car look a bit like the Abarth rally version. And I saved 100 pounds by ditching the heavy bumpers. The changes made a true sports car out of what had become more of a boulevard cruiser by the late 1970s.
And then after six years, I sold my Fiat Spider 2000 recently. But the legend of Fix It Again Tony still lives on at my house, as a Fiat 850 Coupe has burrowed into my garage.
- Years Produced 1968-1985
- Number Sold 170,720
- Original Price $3,181 (1968)
You just can't believe how beautifully elegant a Fiat 124 Spider looks in person. It perfectly expresses the spirit of Italian design with its clean, spare shape, a reminder that Italy led the world in automotive fashion during the 1960s. It is also a fully featured sports car, far from the crude, cheap cars with which the Brits dominated the sports car market of the 1960s—wretched things with four-speed transmissions, drum brakes, and convertible tops that had to be assembled and erected like tents. Of course, there are some equally distinctive Italian traits here in this small car on its wheelbase of just more than 89 inches, such as an extremely short-coupled driving position that combines pedals that are too close to the seat with a steering wheel that's inclined forward like something from a bus. Overall the Fiat 124 Spider is a real expression of sophisticated style, and perhaps Fiat's reintroduction of the nameplate will give this classic the respect it deserves.