I recently watched a movie made in 1971 for Italian TV called “L’Automobile”, which was originally part of a trilogy called “Tre Donne” (translated as “Three Women”). These films starred the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, playing three different characters in as many locales and points in time. Vintage American film buffs may know the late Ms. Magnani from her starring role opposite Burt Lancaster in 1955’s acclaimed, Oscar-winning film “The Rose Tattoo”. This newer film from ’71 was one of her very last filmed, starring performances. Sadly, she succumbed to pancreatic cancer just two years after it was made, though she still looked gorgeous and at least twenty years younger than her age of sixty-three at the time of filming.
I’ll try not to give away too many spoilers for my fellow fans of vintage foreign films who haven’t seen this, yet, but I’ll say the story involves the protagonist, also named Anna, and her cherished FIAT convertible. The car in the film (for which the trailer is posted, above) wasn’t a latter-day Spider 2000 (née 124 Sport Spider) like our featured car, but rather a pert and lovely, yellow 850 Sport Spider that Anna had purchased, new, as her first car.
I’ll save the actual plot twists for your own screening, but such unpleasant things ended up happening to her beloved, little FIAT that I actually, literally shed tears and snot for both Anna and her car. I ended up purchasing the DVD (with optional subtitles in English), as well as a compilation CD of the music of legendary composer Ennio Morricone, whose music was featured in this film.
Anna’s affection for her shiny, beautiful symbol of freedom and class resonated strongly with me and made me question what qualities among us car enthusiasts foster such strong, emotional connections to these mobile sculptures of metal, iron, chrome, rubber and glass. It’s a point that has often been debated here at CC, and I suppose the point of his piece is not to develop a “QOTD”, but rather to look at our featured car (clearly not a pristine specimen) within the context of having once been someone’s new toy, and then, later, someone’s new purchase at the time of these photos. We can tell from the yellow, temporary plate out back that this car had been a then-recent acquisition.
I’m a fan of these 124 Sport Spider / Spider 2000 convertibles probably now more than ever. It has been said that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, which is true in many instances, including with these cars. The FIAT 124 Spider has since been reintroduced to the U.S. Market for the 2017 model year, based on the Mazda MX-5 (“Miata”). Back before I had paid much attention to the original cars, they seemed both plentiful enough so as not to seem really special, and also sort of like a cut-rate Alfa Romeo Spider – as in, like, 70% of the style at as much of the price. Nowadays, I can really appreciate the little styling flourishes given these cars from the talented stylists at Pininfarina, as well as the idea of a really lightweight, tossable, sweet-handling little roadster like one of these.
The renamed “Spider 2000” arrived for model year ’79, powered by an 86-hp, 2.0L four cylinder with a two-barrel carburetor hitched to a five-speed manual transmission. A three-speed automatic sourced from GM was also newly optional that year. Horsepower dropped even further to just 80 hp for 1980, making the ’79 and ’80 models, notoriously, the worst-performing of these cars’ entire run.
Power would increase by 25% to 102 horses with the arrival of the fuel-injected ’81s. With a starting weight of only about 2,300 pounds, fuel injection gave these cars better-than-average acceleration during the tail end of the so-called Malaise Era. The convertible tops on these cars were said to be especially user-friendly, with a seated driver supposedly able to easily raise and lower the top. After FIAT’s exit from the U.S. market after 1982, Pininfarina continued production of these cars through ’85.
I can’t identify whether our featured car is a ’79 or an ’80, but judging by the “2000” badge out back and its wheels (which I presume to be original), this car must be from one of those two model years. Total production for ’79 (the 124 / 2000 convertible’s best year) was roughly 18,900 units; For ’80, the figure was close to 14,400. These cars were popular at the time. All up, and over sixteen years of production from between 1970 and ’85, almost 173,000 of them were produced.
I’ll avoid using the acronym that is usually associated with this car’s parent make, but one could cite the subpar reliability of these cars as part of the reason why so many seemed to have slid into beaterdom by the ’90s. I’d like to think this particular car was a hanger-on from someone who either knew how to wrench on it themselves, or knew someone who could. Aside from a few dings and minor cosmetic issues, it seemed to be in pretty good shape. I imagine its then-recent owner saw it as the perfect summer-mobile to drive to the nearby beaches off Lake Michigan in this part of town.
Returning to the movie, it was while en route back to the central part of Rome from the gorgeous, seaside beaches of Ostia when the fate of both Anna and her car took a turn for the worse. I think of a convertible as being the most desirable form of transportation for a beachgoer. If you’re going to the beach for recreation, you want to be exposed to the elements – sun, water, sand, sky, grass, and the wind. With the top down, you get instant access to three of those things. I’ve long associated warm, summer wind in my face with freedom, whether I’m riding a roller coaster, on a bicycle, or in a convertible. It makes sense to me that Anna’s first, semi-long distance foray away from familiar environments in her new car was to the picturesque beaches of Ostia.
While I recall having seen maybe only a handful of FIAT 850 Sport Spiders (like Anna’s) in my lifetime, and though the 124 Spiders / Spider 2000s had seemed relatively plentiful at one point, my recent viewing of “L’Automobile” called to mind the several examples of the larger car I had spotted in my neighborhood over the past few years. Perhaps with the recent reintroduction of the current 124 Spider, complete with its reliable, Mazda-based mechanicals, more interest will be renewed in the original models. In the meantime, I may now occasionally re-watch Anna Magnani on the small screen in my living room, dream of the day when I purchase my own Curbside Classic, and hope and pray for a happily-ever-after.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
July & August 2015.