Fiat 124 Spider. Under-rated roadster offers Italian flair and sprightly performance for under £20,000. How come you ...
Fiat 124 Spider. Under-rated roadster offers Italian flair and sprightly performance for under £20,000.

How come you can buy an enticing sports spider that taps directly into the DNA of Ferrari styling and V12 engines for little more than an MGB? That’s just one of the mysteries of the Fiat 124 Spider.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the MGB and its 1940s-derived pushrod engine. But wouldn’t you prefer a spirited, rev-happy and readily tuneable twin overhead-cam four designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who created the prodigious large-capacity Ferrari V12 race and road car engines of the 1950s, clothed in a body by the man who fashioned the Ferrari 275 GTS at Pininfarina? The similarities between that sublime million-pound Ferrari and the 124 Spider, which Tom Tjaarda penned slightly later, are plain to see.

In 1966 the new 124 Spider was a generation ahead of the well-established MGB, with all-round disc brakes, five-speed gearbox, superior appointments and comfort, and a one-handed folding convertible top that many rate as the best of its time, and infinitely superior to the MGB’s.

Even though the original 90bhp 1438cc Spider conceded nearly 400cc, it beat the Brit to 60mph in 11.9 seconds and all out, too, to 106mph. I don’t want to bash the much-adored B, but today’s ballpark market values force comparison, even though in its day the MGB was far cheaper than the Fiat - and that’s if you could have bought one in the UK. The 124 Spider was never officially listed for UK sale and was only ever produced in left-hand drive, although there are quite a few aftermarket right-hand conversions around.

However, the Spider was a hit in the USA, which accounted for around 85% of the 178,000 models produced from 1966 to 1985. There it came in cheaper than the Alfa 1600cc Duetto Spider, but had the edge in pace and, most would say, in handling too, which is sharp, nimble, chuckable and secure.

Indeed, the 124 Spider in Abarth guise was a major player in international rallies in the early '70s, while Alfa Spiders excelled on palm-fringed Pacific coast boulevards.

Like the MGB, the Fiat Spider was produced for nearly 20 years; unlike the MGB, the Fiat was continuously developed with engines growing eventually to 2.0 litres, but bigger is not necessarily better as US cars from 1970-on were detuned, then fitted with emissions equipment that further sapped performance; however, this can easily be undone. Impact bumpers came in 1974 with higher ride height, which didn’t help handling.

In Euro spec, the 110bhp 1600 of 1970 could notch up 112mph and the 119bhp 1800 topped out at around 116mph, with a 10-second 0-60mph time. The later 2.0-litre cars, initially for the US only, couldn’t match their predecessors, but Bosch fuel injection on later cars restored some of the lost performance.

In 1982 Pininfarina, which had always made the bodies, took over full manufacture, and as a fitting swansong from 1983 to the end in '85 produced the 135bhp, 120mph Volumex supercharged version.

The 124 Spider’s only fault perhaps is the stigma of its Fiat name. If it were an Alfa, what with all its hot-blooded connotations and romance, you’d have to pay a lot more for one. Mystery solved.

PRICE AT LAUNCH: The 124 Spider was special order only in the UK and not officially price listed. For cost comparison when new, in the US in 1968 a Lotus Elan cost $4545, an Alfa Duetto was $3950 and the Fiat $3181. For further context a Triumph TR250 (TR5) cost $3175, with the MGB at $2670. On that basis, if listed in the UK, Fiat would most likely have pitched it below the Alfa Spider (£1895) and probably ahead of the Lotus Elan (£1598) - over £600 more than an MGB.

1980s AND 1990s: In the latter part of the '80s price guides pitched top-notch Alfa Duetto Spiders at £15,000, MGBs at £7500 and 124s at a lowly £4500; that’s just not right. In the post-boom early-’90s, Alfas dipped to £12,500, MGBs were static while the Fiat was valued at £5500, marginally up in real and relative terms, but still not right. In the UK auction arena £5250 paid in 1997 for a freshly restored 1971 Spider was top price of the decade.

TODAY: In 2013 at a US auction an exceptional show-winning 1969 Spider 1400 made a truly exceptional but unrepresentative £29,200; in the UK no Fiat 124 Spider has ever topped £10,000 at auction. An uprated 1967 Spider with 1800 engine that made £7920 in 2014 was a decent car. That’s still MGB money; however, very higher-quality Fiats with the trade are currently on offer at up to £22,000. A Spider 1600 at £17,000 is described as perfect, while a ‘stunning’ 1977 1800 car in UK-friendly RHD is up for £15,950.
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  • Driveable Dream. A #Fiat-124 Sport Coupe gets back on the road. Sport Survivor. Sparkling performance from a rarely seen Italian charmer, Fiat’s 1969 124 Sport Coupe. By Mark J. Mccourt photography by Jeff Koch.

    How is it that some cars have all but disappeared from our roads? We’re not necessarily talking about ultralow- production rarities, but mass-produced cars that sold in respectable numbers. What factors — mechanical failings, limited parts availability, a propensity to rust — could lead them to virtual extinction? We asked ourselves this question after stumbling upon John Barchus’s first-series 1969 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, a once-popular car that has all but vanished in America. We realized it was the first of its kind we’d seen in ages — perhaps, literally, in decades. That alone that makes it something to celebrate, but it brings so much more to the party.

    Phoenix, Arizona, resident John has a rich history with this Turinese marque, as his first car was a 1966 1100D, a tiny sedan with a four-speed manual shifter on the column. “I was a teenager, working part-time while I was in high school. It was available, it ran, and it cost me $50. That was a deal!” he remembers with a laugh. John has owned about 60 imported and domestic cars and trucks since then, but always maintained his soft spot for Fiats. Indeed, there were two X1/9s in his driveway when he encountered our feature Driveable Dream Sport Coupe in the fall of 2013.

    “Apparently, I have a reputation as the local Fiat guy,” John tells us. “My attorney, who’s a car guy himself, told me he was handling an estate sale that included two #Fiat 124s and a ton of Fiat parts. He said he’d be picking up one of the 124s at the Firebird International Raceway, where the guy’s son had stored it. I’ve owned a bunch of 124 Spiders, so I went with him. When I saw this car from a distance, I thought, ‘Man, that looks like a Coupe!’ I couldn’t believe it. I fell in love with it, and immediately, I wanted it. I didn’t know how the estate sale would handle it, so I made the family an offer before we even got the car running, and it was accepted.”

    This Sport Coupe dated from the second year Fiat imported this 124 variant to the United States, and represented the last year the model would sport designer Mario Boano’s attractive original single-headlamp/wide grille styling that visually linked it with the Spider. Like its soft-top sibling, this comfortable four-seater was an immediate favorite with the automotive enthusiast press, which lauded its mechanical sophistication. Few cars in its circa-$2,950 price range (the Spider cost roughly $200 more) could match this solid-roof Fiat’s combination of roomy accommodations and accessible performance. Indeed, even the equivalently priced BMW 2002 didn’t have the 124 Sport Coupe’s standard dual overhead cam engine design, five-speed manual gearbox or servoassisted four-wheel disc brakes with rear pressure proportioning to prevent lock-up.

    As it was purchased, this 124 was partially disassembled — its carburetor, a Spanish-built Weber clone, was in pieces and the accelerator pump leaked. The twin-cam four-cylinder under that forward-tilting hood was a circa-1972 1,608-cc replacement for the original 96-hp, 1,438-cc unit, and it was fitted with an aftermarket header, Formula 2000 racing-style flex pipe, large-diameter exhaust tubing and Magnaflow rear muffler.

    “In the spirit of speed, I ordered a really nice Weber progressive two-barrel from Vick Autosports,” he says. “The guy who owned it before me obviously massaged the engine; it doesn’t have a lope at idle, but you can definitely tell something is going on, and he definitely put higher-compression pistons in it.” The combination of higher compression and better breathing means John estimates its output at 110 hp.

    Because this car’s history was unknown and it had been dormant, he replaced all the rubber components and went through the brakes and front suspension, fitting braided stainless brake hoses, new tie rod ends, idler arms, A-arms, and springs, and incorporating upgrades like slotted and cross-drilled rotors and Ferodo pads, and larger-diameter anti-roll bars.

    It was obvious that the Sport Coupe’s previous owner had been a dedicated Fiat enthusiast, as the other 124 in his estate was a low-production 1982 124 Turbo — incidentally purchased from the estate by John’s neighbor — and there was that parts stash. “The family wanted everything out of his garage, so we sold what we could for them, and I bought the rest. He had an unbelievable amount of spare parts — many were still in their original shipping bags from Fiat, including wiring, and an original chin spoiler for this car that was never installed. There are enough window molding pieces for this and another car, and a removable hard top for a Spider that was in nearly perfect condition. He must have had it for a very long time, because I’m sure some of this stuff is made from unobtanium.”

    Those polished stainless window moldings, particularly the pieces surrounding the rear window, are linked to one of this wellpreserved car’s minor condition issues. “I’ve been all around under the car, and it’s never been crashed, and there’s no evidence of rust underneath. If it hasn’t been here [in the desert] its entire life, it’s been here most of its life,” he says. “I think it has its original paint, but someone sprayed clear on the top surfaces at some point, and that’s peeling, so I’ll have to pull everything off to have it repainted properly in the original color. Also, there’s some rust around the rear window that I’ll have to address — I’ve started pulling back the rubber around the headliner in preparation for removing the glass. My neighbor, who bought the 1982 Turbo, is an aircraft-certified welder, so if anyone can weld new pieces in there, he can do it.”

    In the process of sorting the 124, John completed one previously begun modification and followed up with another. “In this car, the battery can be mounted in the trunk or up in front, and here, it’s in the trunk. Whoever repositioned it didn’t use the right gauge of wire. I was having trouble with it reliably starting — it seemed not to be getting enough power. NAPA sells bulk battery cable for RVs that is #2 wire, legitimate battery cable with good copper. I ran that from the battery all the way up front, but that didn’t really solve the problem, so I got a high-torque starter from Vick, because I knew the compression was a bit higher. That starter weighs nine pounds, compared to the stock one that must weigh about 24 pounds. It was a pricey unit, but my gosh, that car starts every time, right now!

    I no longer have to worry if I’ll have to push it. It’s been fantastic. “And now, every time I take it out, it seems to run better,” John says with a grin. “I don’t know at what point the 1,608 appeared, but I’m not complaining. It idles like a normal Fiat, but it loves when you get into the RPM, and it pulls really well, and accelerates hard through the gears. I honestly think this would probably beat that 124 Turbo, straight ahead, since it’s a couple hundred pounds lighter. I’ve driven Formula Fords before, and it’s like driving that: you use the RPM, and the car is willing to do whatever you want it to.

    “Going down the road, it tracks really well, there’s no slop in the steering since I’ve replaced the tie rods. It loves double-clutch downshifting and going into turns, staying on the throttle and driving through,” he says. While the 124’s live axle, parallel trailing arms and Panhard rod may not be as sophisticated as the competitive 2002’s independent rear setup, the 185/60-13 radial-shod coupe holds its own. “It pitches a bit, going into turns, but this doesn’t upset the chassis, and it doesn’t try to plow or oversteer — you can just lay into the throttle, and it’s really neutral. The brakes are phenomenal, especially since I put the rotors, pads and braided hoses on it; they bite right at the top, and are really easy to modulate, so if you need to stop, you can do it in a hurry.”

    Considering how fun the Sport Coupe is to drive, it’s no surprise that John isn’t in a hurry to take it off the road to effect the body repairs, and the car’s clever, forward-thinking engineering means it’s a pleasure to keep in good shape. “You don’t have to open a bottle of whisky to get the courage to work on them,” he laughs. “Fiats have notoriously been a bit underpowered, but they’re so light, nimble and fun to drive. My attorney asked if he could take this once around the block. He came back 35 minutes later, with a big grin on his face. That says a lot!”

    Aside from some splits in the OEM vinyl upholstery and cracking in the dash’s wooden fascia, this Fiat’s interior is in remarkable condition. The Cavallino Rampante on the aftermarket steering wheel boss works the horns. The stock 1,438-cc DOHC four-cylinder was swapped for an upgraded 1,608 unit with a two-barrel Weber.

    ”When I saw this car from a distance, I thought, ‘Man, that looks like a Coupe!’ I couldn’t believe it. I fell in love with it, and immediately, I wanted it”

    CAR #1969 #Fiat-124-Sport-Coupe
    Engine DOHC I-4, cast-iron block and aluminum head
    Displacement 1,608 cc
    Horsepower 110 (est.) @ 6,400 RPM
    Torque, lb.ft. 100 (est.) @ 3,600 RPM
    Fuel system Weber 2-barrel carburetor
    Gearbox Five-speed manual
    Suspension Front, wishbones, coil springs, tube shocks, anti-roll bar; rear, live axle, trailing arms, Panhard rod, coil springs, struts, anti-roll bar.
    Steering Worm and roller
    Brakes Four-wheel discs
    Wheelbase 95.3 inches
    Length 162 inches
    Width 65.8 inches
    Height 52.8 inches
    Curb weight 2,110 pounds
    0-60 MPH 10.0 seconds (est.)
    Top speed 106 MPH (est.)
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