Vintage Views: Fiat 124 Spider


Story By Alan Cesar

The Mazda Miata is one of our perennial favorites, but its styling could be more adventurous. It’s very Japanese, very efficient. Maybe you’re after something lustier, something sexier, something penned by Pininfarina.
It’s time to act on that passione, that sense of adventure. For Miata money, you can get the F-car of your dreams: an engine designed by Aurelio Lampredi, a body by Tom Tjaarda. Point your craigslist searches toward the Fiat 124 Spider.
The 124 Spider is essentially a scaled-down Ferrari 275 GTS in the looks department, and it feels much more modern than a contemporary MGB or Triumph. It didn’t get the movie treatment, either—unlike a certain Alfa Romeo in “The Graduate”—so there’s nothing to inflate its price beyond reach.
It’ll beat many of its contemporaries in every category, starting with basic specs: All Spiders had five-speed transmissions, four-wheel-disc brakes and twin-cam engines. Ergonomics and usability are topnotch, excepting only the slightly goofy driving position typical of Italian cars from that era. The interior is roomy and comfortable. It’ll accommodate drivers of nearly all sizes, and there’s even a small back seat.
We contend that its convertible top is the best we’ve ever encountered: It can go up and down in seconds, and small, triangular glass windows move in concert. They provide excellent rear visibility, too. The top is also insulated, providing a bit more protection from the elements and cutting down on noise.
Engines grew throughout the production run, ranging from 1.4 to 2 liters. The earlier engines are less powerful, of course, but they’re more eager to rev and more fun to wring out as a result. All of them emit that unmistakable, loin-igniting Italian sound.
Despite the “Fix it again, Tony” reputation of the era—which may be the cause of this car’s low price—the 124 Spider is actually a very livable machine. That poor reputation came from the carmaker’s weak dealer network in the U.S.; many cars were repaired by independent mechanics who didn’t necessarily know much about Fiats.
Like so many first-generation Mazda RX-7s, these Spiders eventually fell into disrepair or succumbed to rust at the hands of owners who weren’t interested in keeping them nice. All the 124 really needs are oil changes, along with the occasional timing belt service and valve adjustment. It’ll leak oil, but not as badly as many of its British or Italian cohorts.
It’s hard to get this much passion on four wheels—at least at this price point. Look for nice drivers at $3500 and excellent cars at $5000; the very best examples fetch $10,000. For everything you get, you won’t find a better deal on an Italian car or vintage roadster.

Shopping and Ownership

Fiat 124 Spiders started arriving in the U.S. in 1968, but these early first-generation cars are hard to find. A flat hood identifies them most easily. In European markets, later models received bigger and bigger bumps on the hood to clear the carb setup. Enthusiasts call the lovely Fiat lumps “boobs” and, naturally, brag a little about their size.

When Fiat pulled out of the U.S. market in the 1980s, Malcolm Bricklin imported the car as a Pininfarina Spider Azzura. These 1983-’85 cars received interiors with a touch more quality, and rack-and-pinion steering became standard. Despite what you may think, the original worm-and-roller setup was just fine.

Racing history? The Abarth crew built a 124 Spider to Group 4 trim in the World Rally Championship. They earned several wins during the 124’s campaign in the early ’70s.

The wood dashboard took a hiatus from 1972 through ’78; a plastic one filled in for it. The available factory air conditioning is ineffective, so don’t pay extra for it. Just put the top down.

Upgrades adorn the new-for-1979 Spider 2000: leather interior, a Momo steering wheel and door pull handles, from the Ferrari Mondial, for example. Early 2000s were carbureted, but hold out for a fuel-injected one. A GM-sourced T180 automatic transmission was also available. If you must have an automatic, this transmission isn’t inherently awful. However, it’s a typical three-speed of the era. You’ll at least be able to rebuild it cheaply, if necessary.

Some of the 1981 and ’82 models received a turbo installed by Legend Industries. These aren’t worth the $1000 premium you’ll see on the used market, as the turbo just adds complexity.

Every part remains available, and they’re all reasonably priced, too. Cracked dashboards are probably the biggest single expense you may have: A replacement can cost $700. Simply because of the car’s age, things like the switchgear will start to fail.

The motor mount design allows the engine to shake when it reaches resonance, which can make it feel like the clutch is failing. This trait is most noticeable on 1.4- and 1.6-liter cars, and driving around the problem is easy.

As everything did during that era, federal laws concerning automobiles underwent a lot of changes in 1975. They affected the 124 Spider in the form of a raised ride height, more weight, an emissions-choked engine and rubber bumper protectors. These are solvable problems, but consider how much work you want to put into the car.

Plenty of performance parts are available, and 130 horsepower is pretty easy to achieve. The hot setup is to use a non-smog 1.6-liter head on a 2-liter engine, with a dual-Weber intake from a Europe-only model.

The timing belt needs servicing every 30,000 miles, but consider doing it every 15,000 if you don’t drive the car much. Changing the belt is a time-consuming but easy process if you have a good manual with you. Budget about $20 for the tools to do it and about 3 hours for the labor.

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