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.)