1978 Fiat 124 Spider: Disposable Sports Car #11
After writing about that gorgeous Alfa Romeo Duetto the other day, I got to thinking: there are a lot of ways to enjoy sleek European styling and a sonorous dual overhead cam motor combined with open air motoring. Most of those have been covered in TTS before – cars like the Alfa Spider, the Jensen-Healey, and even Fiat’s 850 Spider and X1/9. Shamefully, we have not covered Fiat’s 124/2000 Spiders in any depth. Until now. This car, advertised on Craigslist in Leesburg, Virginia for $3,950, represents the same basic experience as the Duetto but for about 10% of the entry fee.
The Fiat 124 was basically the Torino firm’s counterpoint to Alfa’s Spider, and their specs are comparable if not remarkably similar: they were both penned by Pininfarina and released to the world in 1966, both had varying displacement DOHC inline-4 motors, both had full synchromesh manual transmissions and four-wheel disc brakes from the get-go, and both started rusting about six hours prior to leaving their respective factories. In many ways, choosing between the Fiat and the Alfa was really down to preference. Of course, the Alfisti will argue that their Spider came with oodles more pedigree and had sleeker, sportier styling. The Fiat side of the camp will conversely argue that their car ticks all the right sports car boxes, but with more robust running gear that was used throughout the world in hundreds of thousands of their contemporary models. Frankly, I like both of them, albeit for different reasons.
The 124 Spider was styled by Tom Tjaarda (of Ferrari 330 and DeTomaso Pantera fame, not to mention dozens of others) during his time at Pininfarina. The car shared many design cues with Tjaarda’s earlier Chevrolet Corvette Rondine show car, most notably those flared rear quarters. LIke many sports car contemporaries it had a sloped hood (complete with obligatory motor “bubbles” a’la the Mercedes Pagoda), large, round headlights, and opening quarter windows to help front seat passengers divert the wind. Note that last point: front passengers. Yes, folks, the 124 had a back seat. It’s not someplace anyone bigger than about 3’6″ would want to sit, but contrary to the Alfa’s vinyl- or carpet-covered sheetmetal intended as a luggage shelf versus an actual seat (ask my kid sister), the Fiat’s cushion was downright luxurious.
To all but the most trained eyes, the front seats look essentially identical to the Alfa seats and I would venture they came from the same suppliers. The Fiat’s dash lacked the Alfa sleek “twin pod” style and driver-facing, chrome-bezeled ancillary gauges but did offer a full complement of gauges in a more utilitarian but arguably easier to monitor layout. Like the Alfa, the Fiat’s shifter falls easily to hand, and is a joy to row, so long as you’re not expecting modern, short-throw, snick-snickprecision. Both cars also share the unique period Italian long-arm short-leg driving position. Happily for me, I fit that description.
By the seat of the pants the 124 and the Alfa feel very similar. although I’ve always thought the Fiat felt just a tad peppier. Neither is particularly nimble by moderns standards, but are more than happy to be manhandled and are a lot of fun at moderate speeds on the twisty lanes. A well-sorted Alfa feels a little closer and firmer to the pavement compared with an equally well-sorted Fiat, but a Miata will run circles around both of them. But that’s not really what these cars are about at this point, is it? These cars are about classic top-down motoring, with the hope that they’ll be at least marginally reliable so that you’re afraid to take them out of the garage. The key question, in my mind, is what makes the Alfa worth ten times what the Fiat is worth? Nothing, really.
Sure, they made more of the Fiats, and the round tail Alfas were only around for four years compared with twenty years for the Fiat (and the S2/S3/S4 Alfa Spiders), but I guess the bigger issue is whether you are buying to show and hopefully turn a substantial profit or are you buying to drive and hopefully break-even? Duettos are already high-priced, but I’ll wager they keep going up. I think the Fiats will increase in value as well, but not to nearly the same extent. To the general public, however, they’re both old sports cars and folks on the street will yell “nice car” regardless of which you choose. And that makes the Fiat a bargain in my world, and a far better deal than the Alfa. For the time being.
I had a ’69 and it did not have the hood bumps. I think they increased displacement
and need more room for the cam pulleys.
I have a ’78 that runs just fine as a day driver. My first car, 45 years ago, was a ’72 model that my Dad had to co-sign for. My ’78 is everything I wished my ’72 was. The horsepower of the ’72 with a 1600 cc engine was 129. By the time ’78 rolled around Fiat had increased the cc’s by 200 and lost 50 horses due to US pollution control requirements. My ’78 has a down pipe to a straight pipe to a cigar box sized third party muffler. Two Weber carbs, electric gas pump, high voltage coil and iridium plugs. This car is driven on the Coast Mountain highways of British Columbia and in Whistler in particular. It never fails to garner comments on a daily basis and can nicely perform for a middle aged woman.
I bought a new 1975 Fiat 124 Spider in February 1975, two weeks after my 24th birthday. It was a birthday gift to myself. It was my first new car. I knew all about Fix It Again Tony, but I was already familiar with automotive trash as my first car was a 1965 Corvair convertible that left me stranded about on the road when I was a student at Rutgers in 1971. My uncle felt sorry for me that I had been driving such a piece of trash that he gave me his 1967 Fairlane when he purchased a new ’71 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The 1967 Fairlane served me well, and it didn’t leak oil, or ever break down, but it looked exactly like the car Joe Friday & Bill Gannon drove. I learned a very valuable lesson that when you’re young and have no money and are a college student, that practical dependable transportation is the most important consideration, not what ride is stylish. It might not be hip to drive something so square but if it gets you there with perfect reliabilty, who cares that it has a zero cool factor.
I liked the looks of the Triumph Spitfire better than the Fiat Spider but I was aware that the Spitfire was rated as absolute garbage in reliabilty, and I didn’t want to buy a new car that was as junky as the Corvair was. I considered the Fiat 124 Spider to be better, with a much better top and more comfortable interior, and much more reliable than the MGB which was England’s best offering, but that wasn’t saying much because it was junk too, just not awful junk.
The 1975 red Fiat Spider served me well . Everybody said it would self-destruct but it was totally reliable during the four years and 68,000 miles that I owned it before I traded it in at the Datsun dealership for a new 1979 Datsun 280Z. Maybe I was lucky, but there were a lot of long Interstate highway trips in the ’75 Fiat Spider. It was flawless and totally reliable, but remember that I owned it from new and only owned it for four years, but the 68,000 miles driven was much more than average use during 4 years. It was parked in enclosed garage of my first house so it never rusted nearly as much as FIAT’s were known to if left outdoors in the rain/snow/elements.
I loved the Fiat Spider’s seats, and the convertible top was the best one ever on a roadster. The rear side windows went up & down with the top, providing excellent visibility. The only improvement would have been a GLASS rear window for the top, like the MIATA finally got in 1997.
I have now owned three Mazda Miatas since buying my first one in 1989 ( a 1990 model). The Miata is by far the best ever overall roadster.
Sad to see that the 2nd and subsequent generations lost the great style of the Nineties era MIATAS.
Sad to see that beautiful most recent FIAT 124 SPIDER that shared the Miata chassis, was only available with the FIAT engine, as that was a deal killer for me , otherwise I would have one in my garage as we speak. I don’t know how good or bad that a 2016 era FIAT engine actually is, but I wasn’t gonna find out. I feel like I was very lucky with my ’75 Fiat Spider during the Seventies. I don’t know much about automobile technology and why some manufacturers engineering must be considerably better than others. (….the Japanese & Koreans being signficantly better today than the Americans, Germans, Italians, and other Europeans….) Well, it has to be the engineering & design, because HONDA, TOYOTA, & KIA-HYUNDAI have been manufacturing cars in the United States for decades, and their reliability and engine longevity far exceeds anything GM, FORD, FIAT-CHRYSLER, BMW, MERCEDES, or TATA-JAGUAR build anywhere . Still, cars are much improved over the trash that Italy, England, France, and all of Detroit were known for less than 30 years ago. I would caution anyone thinking about buying a vintage Fiat Spider because they read that I had a good ownership experience in the seventies. I was probably in the 15% group, as 85% probably experienced a not so good ownership experience. Look at it this way, they had to be horrible cars because they were forced to exit the USA marketplace in 1982. Fiats did get good gas mileage which was significantly important during 1974-1975, and again during the hard times of 1979-1982. They were just significantly junkier than the trashy American cars of that era , that were bad, but more reliable than Fiats were. The Japanese & German & Swedish cars of that era delivered good gas mileage and good reliabilty. Fiats were a liability because you were likely to be on a first name basis with the Tow truck driver. Their cars then were at least as nice looking, and nice handling as the compareable offerings from Volvo and BMW except with Volvo & BMW, or Ford, GM, Chrysler, AMC, you did not always have to be constantly aware of the nearest telephone booth and always have your walking shoes on and several dimes in your pocket and the number of the tow truck driver in your wallet. These are not cars that you will want to own. If you must have a fun vintage convertible look for a 1992 -2001 MIATA, or a 1986 – 1995 Volkswagen (rabbit conv) CABRIOLET, & GOLF CONVERTIBLE with the ordinary 4 cylinder engine, not the 16 valve version and not the v6. An old gas guzzling big FORD (’65-’72 Galaxie/LTD) CONVERTIBLE or big CHEVY(’65-’75 Impala/Caprice) CONVERTIBLE will be twenty-five times more reliable than any old ’72-’89 MERCEDES BENZ 450 SL , 560SL or any ’66-’93 ALFA ROMEO Spider, or 1968- 1982 FIAT SPIDER–Pininfarina Spider ’83-’85, FIAT X-19 of ’72 on, or anything really old from Europe. It is easier, and inexpensive to repair the rather simple and crude American pushrod v-8 engines and the robust automatic transmissions seen on big US cars from about ’66 to the late seventies. Even at 11 miles per gallon at $4 gasoline, you will spend thousands less per year than if you purchased an MGB, FIAT, ALFA, TRIUMPH or old Mercedes Benz. Those old Mercedes Benz 450 SL do only get about 12 to 13 miles per gallon, and you could easily exceed $10 per mile in annual maintenance costs on those ’72-’89 Mercedes.