Curbside Classic: 1964 Fiat 1500 Spider/Cabriolet – The Ferrari 250 GT Wanna-Be

(first posted 8/11/2011)     Everybody wants a Ferrari, at least at some point in their life. Once most of us get old enough to realize what’s really entailed in making that become a reality, we either forget it and move on, or get a job on Wall Street and actually do what it takes to make it happen. Well, there are two other options: be born in the right family, or just fake it. That last option has considerable scope in how that’s carried out, as body-kitted Fieros and Corvettes make all too obvious.

But how about a genuine Italian Pininfarina-designed GT Cabriolet? In this case, one that just happens to conveniently have all its Fiat badges removed? And with its engine transplant, makes rather Dino-esque sounds, and goes like stink? Now that may well be worth the effort that’s in this one, even if it didn’t fool me. But then I wasn’t exactly the intended target of this ruse.

I understand the temptation, and if this is what it takes to keep a Fiat 1500 on the road, so be it. At least it didn’t have a Ferrari badge across the back or the prancing horse on its flanks (at least not yet). But the first words out of its proud owner were: “Ferrari 250”. Well, contained within a sentence, with a question mark at the end. The exact phrasing is lost now, but its intent was clear: to make sure I knew what it looked like, and to ascertain whether I knew if it was the real McCoy or not. My response of “Yes, nice Fiat 1500” was probably the last thing he expected. Sorry, but I was utterly thrilled to find a genuine Fiat 1500 Cabrio, and probably more surprised by it then if it really had been a 250 GT. The Fiats are probably rarer at this point.

Before we explore the history of this little bambino Ferrari, let’s go ahead and take a look at what the Fiat’s owner was hoping to convey. There’s more than a bit of casual resemblance, eh? How nice, considering that the 250 family is perhaps the most classic of all the Ferraris, and the Pininfarina Cabriolet among of the best of that bunch. Actually, they’re all the best.

One of a series of production cars that appeared in 1959, the 250 GT Cabriolet has serious credentials, racing and stylistically. Let’s focus on the latter, since we’re talking Italian suits here. It reflects the classic Pininfarina era as well, right after his breakthrough into the really big time, just after his revolutionary Florida coupe. Suddenly Pininfarina suits were everywhere, on all kinds of cars, from tiny kei-cars in Japan to Cadillac concepts.

But the master had already been tailoring at least three long-time clients since the early fifties: Ferrari, Peugeot, and Fiat. And the particular Pinin-model suit that graced the Fiat 1500 and 250 GT also graced the Peugeot 404 Cabriolet/Coupe. OK, I’m not suggesting that someone is likely to mistake the somewhat taller four-seat 404 Cabrio for the 250, but for the Fiat 1500, quite possibly,

especially from the rear, where the two are virtually identical (404 above). And all three share that distinctive kicked-up hip, and a fair number of other details. Pininfarina knew how to get the most out his current theme, and if it was shared around the world, all the better, for him. Don’t we all want to spread our genes to the corners of the world? Today that would be impossible, which probably explains the demise of that legendary carrozzeria (and the others). Safe design means keeping the Italian lovers at bay.

Well it was a particularly nice set of lines that traveled so far and well; one of the best by the master. And if the Dino had come along earlier, this would have been the perfect place for its engine.

So what about the Fiat 1500 itself? It’s a car that’s quickly getting lost in sands of time. There was a time when it was fairly popular, especially in California, although certainly not like the madly successful MGB, which also shares a family resemblance from the rear, thanks to Pinin’s contract with BMC.

The Fiat may well have been the best looking of the class which included the Triumph TRs and the Datsun 1600/2000/Fairlady (also a Pininfarina client), along with a few others, but it just never took off in the way its successor did, the truly superb 124 Sport Spider (CC here). Why?

Oddly enough, in part because Fiat didn’t have the right engine at the right time, both for the 1500, and its predecessor, the 1200. Sports cars hopefully are more than just a pretty suit, which probably explains how hoary roadsters like the early TRs became so popular.

Fiat’s first crack at the fast-growing sports car market in the fifties was the 1200, which arrived in 1957, based on the popular Fiat 1100 platform. This was not a Pininfarina design, as if that wasn’t all-too obvious. An in-house design by Fabio Rapi, it was trying way too hard to look American, and ends up looking like an amusement park kiddie-ride-mobile.With 53 hp, it probably wasn’t much faster.

Too stubby and bulbous, with overwrought details, including that very badly cribbed vertical chrome strip on the hips à la Cadillac. An Allante, three decades too soon (oops; that was a Pininfarina).

Pininfarina did make a coupe version a year or two later, which improved on it by some measure, and foreshadowed the second generation Cabrio. And when it came time to design the 1200’s successor, the job was Pininfarina’s anyway, as he was now designing the whole Fiat family.

The result was the Fiat 1200 of 1959, which had some different front end details than our featured later version, restyled in 1963. But it still sat on the same basic platform as the earlier 1200, even though all of its stubbiness was now lost to the accentuated sweep of horizontality. A much more grown-up looking car indeed, despite being virtually the same size. What wasn’t lost was its little 1221 cc pushrod four.

“Taming the mountains, racing the wind” might make good ad copy, but “Eating the competition’s dust” would have been more accurate. With 53 hp, the Fiat’s competitors in the all-important US sports car market were leaving the elegant Fiat 1200 in their dust. Something had to be done.

Fiat turned to O.S.C.A., the Maserati brothers’ small sports-racing boutique. Their delicious 1500 (above) was a different animal altogether, and had a race-bred DOHC alloy four.

Fiat ponied up, and a detuned 80 hp 1500S model was born, also known as the Fiat-OSCA. But just like the painful lesson MG learned with its ambitious Twin-Cam MGA, the Fiat-OSCA was now too expensive for the heart of the market, and ended up being built in small numbers. A later 1600S version with over 90 hp succeeded it, both included four wheel disc brakes, larger wheels and tires, and other upgraded kit. More of an Alfa competitor, but still more expensive.

No, that’s not what our featured bread-and-butter 1500 (once) had. The regular 1500 came along in 1961, and used a pushrod four cylinder version of the Fiat 1800/2100 six cylinder. With all of 67 hp, it was an improvement, and had an actual five-speed gear box, but it was hardly a hot-blooded Italian. When the new MGB appeared in 1962 with its 1800 cc engine and 90 hp, the Fiat was relegated (again) to looking better than it went. Hence the advertising: pay no attention to what is under that hood.

Yes, the Fiat’s “second best shape in Italy” campaign might also have been a play on its similarities to the Ferrari 250, but something even more obvious was chosen to represent “the best”, at least in the ads.

So it should come as no surprise that this yellow Fiat has something other than the original mill under its second best shaped hood. And what might that be? I guessed wrong, and I probably should have known better. I imagined a modern DOHC four there, perhaps a later Fiat unit, or? I was also prepared for the worst.

It turns out to be a fairly logical and pragmatic choice: a 2.8 L Cologne Ford V6, courtesy of a Capri. A very compact motor, it can fit almost anywhere. And this one has been thoroughly massaged: head work, cam, headers, and a Holley four barrel that’s almost as big as the engine. The owner estimates it puts out about 185 – 200 hp, not much less then the Ferrari’s 240 hp.

Not bad, for a car that weighed about 2000 lbs. Well, that’s before the V6 went in, which does have more mass than the original four. Enough so, that the owner says that the additional heft can be felt up there, and he wishes he could have implanted it a bit further rearward. But the Fiat has a very unusual steering gear, as can be seen by that linkage across the firewall. It would have had to be completely torn out and replaced with a modern rack and pinion steering to do that.

The interior is a work in progress, and a genuine Nardi wheel would look good here, but then this is very much a budget project that started out fifteen years ago with a tired old Fiat found in someone’s garage. That shifter works a five speed from a Ranger truck.

The 1600S Fiat-OSCA had some nicer touches all around, including the interior with larger guages. Very much an Italian upper-middle class Ferrari indeed. With an emblem swap on that Nardi wheel, one really would be easily fooled.

Here’s the real thing, by way of comparison.

Having long given up hope of finding a Fiat 1500 in the wild, I’m in no position to criticize, but those wheels aren’t doing much to enhance the boy-Ferrari look, at least not in the vintage idiom. They are exotic: the owner thinks they might be the only set of wheels from a Renault Clio turbo/Williams in this fair land. And it took some custom made spacers to make them work. I know; some genuine Borrani wires would have been exorbitant. Maybe something else might have worked a bit better, perhaps the ever-popular minilite type wheels. Obviously, some vintage Italian Cromodora alloys would be just right. To each their own wheels.

The sounds that emit from the big exhaust is impressive; obviously nothing like that fabric-being-torn wail a genuine Ferrari V12 like the 3 liter 250 GT so forcefully dominates its surroundings with. More like the “junior Ferrari” Dino, since both of them share a 60 degree V6. Yes, there’s a certain aural resemblance to that raspy beast (CC here), except that the Ford does its song an octave or two lower. The Dino hit its high notes at 8000 rpm; I doubt the Ford goes much past 6000.

But it snarls impressively, as its owner cranks it up and readies for take off. He tells me he’s on the hunt for a 1600S rear end, which has slightly higher (lower numerical) gearing and a limited slip differential. The potent and front-heavy Ford V6 likes to spin those Yokohamas all too easily. In case he thinks I don’t believe him, he makes a noisy getaway blast, with plenty of smoking rubber as he grabs a few gears zooming down 30mph-zone Willamette Street. The woman he was visiting stands next to me as we watch his display, and utters the inevitable: “boys and their toys”. In this case, toy Ferraris. Or maybe she was convinced it was the real thing.