(first posted 8/3/2015) In the US, the Fiat 124 Coupe has always lived in the shadow of its flashier drop-top sibling, the Fiat 124 Sport Spider, which was built for almost twenty years and is still a common sights on the streets here; or at least in the driveways. The Coupe was never as popular here as in Europe, and has become something of a rarity, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. If the 124 Sport Spider is a poor man’s Ferrari 330 GTS, then the coupe is a poor man’s Lamborghini Jarama. For the $2934 this cost in 1969, it was a lot of classic Italian flair for the money.
I’d long given up finding one on the streets, especially the two-headlight AC, the first series built from 1967 through 1969. And then one day I spotted a red one in the street, being driven by an old friend, no less. That was well over a year ago, and now he dropped by to show me all the work he’s done on it, as well as to say goodbye, as he’s now selling it.
Pininfarina was tasked with styling (and building) the Spider, which was executed by American Tom Tjaarda, who als did a number of fine Italian exotics at the time. But the Coupe was done in house, and the legendary Italian designer Mario Boano, who had moved to Fiat after his long association with Ghia, is credited with penning its lines. Unlike the Spider, the Coupe sits on the longer wheelbase chassis of the 124 sedan, which gives it a quite usable back seat, and different proportions.
Its exceptionally glassy greenhouse, even for the times, gives it an airy and somewhat delicate feel, one that is in keeping with the character of the 124, but decidedly different than the sedan.
The coupe clearly caught the attention of Bill Mitchell, who went to Europe every year and brought back a number of new cars to display in the GM Design Center. Usually these were exotics, but there’s little doubt a 124 Coupe found its way there too, as the 1971 Vega clearly pays homage to Boano’s Fiat, from the front end right to the squared off tail.
While the Vega hatchback coupe’s roof line was heavily cribbed from the Ferrari 365 GT 2+2, the Vega sedan’s roof line is straight from the 124 Coupe, with some adjustment to the Vega’s proportions. Speaking of, it’s rather ironic that the Vega’s proportions are more “sporty” than the 124 Coupes’, with its set-back passenger compartment. The 124 Coupe’s platform was shared with the 124 sedan, which had much better relative space utilization than the Vega.
The interior is classic Italian from the era, with comfortable buckets, a well-positioned shifter for the slick-shifting five speed gearbox, and the typical somewhat upright angle to the wood-rim steering wheel.
The instrumentation is clearly presented on its wood-grained dashboard.
The back seat is a lot more inviting than most sport coupe back seats, thanks to the nicely bolstered seat itself and the tall roof. Legroom is much better than typical too.
The Fiat’s DOHC four was one of the first to use a toothed rubber timing belt, which means that replacement schedules need to be followed. Robert has done a lot of work on this car, including a complete new freshly-rebuilt engine that is significantly more powerful than the original 1438 cc that came in the AC versions. This mill has a 2.0L block, and a head from a 1.8L engine.
It runs strongly, with a lot more low-end torque than the original small-displacement engine, especially considering the coupe’s 2084 lbs listed curb weight. And it makes lovely sounds doing it. The braking system (four wheel discs) has been completely redone, as well as the full exhaust system.
image by CC’s Don Andreina
In 1970, the AC was replaced by the BC, with a completely revised front end design that looked more like the “big boys” (Lamborghini and Ferrari) of the times. CC’s Perry Shoar looked at the BC and CC Coupes here. Along with the new front end, a larger 1608 cc engine was on tap, and that’s what was sent stateside. I find this front end to be very handsome, and am torn about which of these two I like more.
The final version, the CC, arrived in 1973 with a decidedly less attractive front end. In compensation, a new larger 1756 cc engine, sourced from the Fiat 132, was now available, with 118 hp on the European version.
The US versions were much worse, with rather horrific 5 mph bumpers grafted on and the ride height jacked up so that the bumpers were at the required height. The de-smogged 1756 cc four was rated at 86 hp in the Coupe and Spider. 1975 was the last year for the 124 Coupe, and not a good way to bow out, in America, anyway.
I first shot Robert’s car back in February of 2014, shortly after he bought it from California. It had non-stock alloys and beefier tires, especially the rears, which I rather liked, but Robert found some original steel wheels and has brought it back to stock appearance.
Since then, I’ve enjoyed seeing the Coupe in traffic and around town, as Robert drove it whenever it wasn’t in the midst of being worked on. Stephanie shot it no less than twice, and showed me her shots excitedly…yes, that’s Robert’s car.
So now I’m going to be sorry to see it go. Robert has listed it for $17,500 on craigslist in LA, hoping to sell it back to an eager (rich) Californian. Or maybe that CL is monitored by buyers all over.
And so Eugene will likely lose another CC, although this one did come from California. Which is a good thing, as these cars are notorious rusters. But except for that proclivity, they’re considered to be mechanically tough cars, like most of these older RWD Fiats. Seeing it in front of our house makes me imagine what it would be like to own it. I’ll just keep imagining that…
More on the Fiat 124 at CC:
Cohort Sighting: Fiat 124 Coupes by Perry Shoar
1977 Fiat Spider: Soup It Up Tony by Kevin Martin
Fiat 124 Sedan: How I Learned To Hate People by Gerardo Solis
These are really nice cars. With their twin cam engines and light weight and 5 speed transmissions, they promise to have performance to live up to the looks. I actually like the 74s best, as they look not so delicate. The space utilization is also to be commended considering the RWD.
I think that it is a gross overstatement to say the Vega or Euro Escort is some sort of blatant copy. All these cars look of their era and it was a good era. Let us leave it at that.
I will mostly agree with you on the Escort, because by the time the Mk2 arrived in 1974, its styling was pretty derivative. But I will not concede on the Vega; there are too many details that are two similar to be just a coincidence.
As I said, Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell made extensive trips to Europe every year, to check out the latest from the carrozzerias in Italy and other locales. That’s where the latest styling fashions were being created, and the best cars and ideas were brought back to be prominently displayed at the Design Center for “Inspiration. That’s just how it worked.
And the similarities between these two cars, which are two years apart, is too obvious. The earlier concepts for what became the Vega did not have some of the very distinctive elements of the final version.
I’ve attached a shot of the 1968 XP-997 clay; clearly there are elements that found there way into the final Vega. But the changes to the headlights, and most of all the roof lines, that strongly support my assertion. (And I’m not the only one who’s noticed it; it was commonly accepted in the automotive press at the time).
The resemblance is unmistakable as you’ve laid it out. I always had heard/thought that the Vega was “Italian inspired” but this really hits it home. I think Bill Mitchell was not at all shy about acknowledging inspiration from Europe, whether the Rolls Royce for the ’63 Riviera roofline or Ferrari for the ’75 Monza.
I am going to admit some details are close, and made more so by shots that are so close as to hide the scale or deemphasize the different grills and dimensions of the cars. That does not mean a copy.
There are going to be a lot of people here that are not too familiar with the early 124 coupe. A lot more of them know the Vega pretty well. I wonder how many of them saw the top picture and thought, wow Paul finally found an early Vega. Not many I would wager, even though Vega was in the title of the article.
I will admit that Bill Mitchell and every professional designer keeps abrest of everything from every manufacturer and especially closely studies his favorites. I will respectfully submit that the Fiat is a great looking Italian car. The Vega, for whatever its faults was also great looking car, unmistake-ably a Chevy, in a new sensible sporty size. I will respect both design teams in very different places for the great work they did on the 124 and Vega.
Concurrent with the PF influenced 70 Camaro as you have previously pointed out.
By the mid-70’s there was another similarity between the 124 Coupe and the Vega … both were among the few cars to be seen with visible rust in California.
Los Angeles assembled GM cars and trucks with the new water based paint rusted, not just the Vega. Also, I saw my aunt’s first generation Accord rust from the top down here on the California coast.
After seeing that ugly bug, I am so thankful they copied the Fiat.
The ’68 XP-997 prototype looks more modern to my eyes than the production Vega – it’s as though they were trying to make a mini-Colonnade fastback coupe in ’73, Grille looks more Monte Carlo than Camaro/Fiat/Ferrari.
I believe Paul’s 124/Vega argument, he has compelling evidence. If only GM was as willing to borrow European drivelines as well (from Vauxhall or Opel), that would’ve been a killer combination compared to the frumpy Pinto, which Ford wisely built with Anglo/German mechanical bits.
Heck, even if they had opted to use the Chevy II 153 four as the Vega’s engine it would’ve come with the needed durability right out of the box. Especially if they put some of the cost savings toward better rustproofing…
Still a stunning design. After driving my pal’s 124 coupe I bought a brand new 124 spider. Fiat’ slogan in those days was: “How can Fiat do it for the price?” We owners learned the answer to that question later, when the road salt hit the bodies made of cheap Russian steel.
My mother – now 90 years old – bought a red coupe in 1969, and turned it over to me in the early 70s. God I loved that car. The 5th gear overdrive was something else, it dropped the rpms way down, and the thing just flew efforlessly. Unfortunately (for the car) we lived in Monteal, Canada, with winter temps down to -35, and tons of rock salt on the road. Ultimately that’s what killed it: it simply wasn’t built for the climate. Everything would freeze up – steering, brakes – not to mention the rust. Summer was another matter, alla Italia. Built for pleasure, and pleasurable weather. Ciao
I love this place. Never saw one of these before even though we still see the 124 Spider all over here in FLA. Engine looks really nice, but I would point out to him the fire hazard from that cheap plastic fuel filter–a metal one would look less obvious and be WAY safer. Ethanol gas weakens those and they can crack and spray fuel under pressure.
I knew a couple of guys with these beautiful cars. Wonderful to drive, not always to own. One night we discovered that a slow fuel leak in the right location would eventually eat away at some insulation, causing a short that would energize the starter motor even if the key was not on or in the vehicle. Fortunately, he was within earshot when it started cranking in the carport, and fortunately it was in neutral as it was pointed toward a very steep drop off. I and a friend happened to be visiting and quickly realized we had to disconnect the battery, as the fuel pump was now causing even more fuel to leak. It was also dark and I remember a big spark in the fuel drenched engine bay as one of us wrestled off the battery terminal. All ended OK, but the 124 was soon replaced by a 510, which soon gained Corvair rims, Webers etc, but that’s another story. The other guy I knew with a 124 coupe replaced it with the first-gen RWD Mazda 626, and another colleague with a 124 Spyder moved on to a first-gen Celica lift back. I suspect most Fiats were replaced by Japanese cars at some point, in the U.S. In the ’70’s and early ’80’s.
I love these too, though the final version really was a facelift too far. I haven’t seen one in many many years ( and I don’t think I ever saw a Spider “curbside”)
I notice that these Fiats ( Like the Dino Coupe) have their fuel filler on the left, just like proper British cars and Japanese cars. European cars usually have the filler on the right..
I love how you can spot the same styling details in different cars and point them out here for us, Paul. Is just amazing relations that I don’t tend to discover.
That kink at the C pillar certainly turned up on the MK2 Escort its where they rust out I distictly remember bogging mine up and sanding it to the required shape, the Fiat is a better car than the Ford better engine a twin cam four instead of Kent crossflow better handling and its all metric meaning no need of two sets of spanners my Escort was a 75 metric body imperial engine, This Fiat body got cloned into a Lancia or if not this one another very similar because theres one around here wearing Lancia badging.
Additional the Vega 2 door sedan had a few additional inches of rear seat legroom than the 2 door hatch [33.2″ vs 28.6″]. Most of the time you see the rear seat specs for just the hatch.
Fiat 124 was 34.6. About what you get in a current Sonic.
[ Stats from period Motor Trend and Consumer Guide publications. GM Archives gives 33.8 and 31.8 to the hatch.
Ironically the Vega 2 door Sedan has more room in the rear seat than a Saturn ION, a much larger car. Ahhh, progress.
This is still a good looking car. Clean lines that make sense.
Would love to see a greenhouse that tall and with such great visibility available in a car today. It might start a whole new trend.
Fiat 124 coupes were a popular car in Australia,used to see them often.The big problem was rust and as the cars aged the mechanical and electrical systems could be a big and frustrating issue.Such a clean and pure shape,apart from the last iterations with that dropped down grille.
I like the looks of it and remember fondly the performance of the rag tops .
I hope he gets his $17K price .
Wow! I never noticed the similarities. I like them both! I test drove a very beat up 124 Spider several years ago, and I’m sure a decent one would be a great car to own. Beautiful!
My wayward uncle had an AC. I remember being picked up from Rome airport in 1978 and experiencing the juvenile thrill of his lunatic driving. Hadn’t seen an AC for quite a while and recently a white one and a blue one have popped up. 124 vs Vega? Brad Pitt vs his brother Doug. Great piece Paul.
I’m not sure why, but when these were new I was more in love with the 850 series. I wanted an 850 Spider or Coupe, Coupe mostly, in the worst way.
Oddly (?), I would wind up with a 72 Vega….a Panel Express, though. In early 71 I drove a Vega sedan with Powerglide (a rental), and was not impressed by it’s “mini-me” Impala interior. The GT on the other hand? The resemblance between a GT and this 124 Coupe is very close. They could have been products from the same car company but different continents.
I prefer the second generation front clip. Kills me that Fiat makes such fetching sporty models, and such dumpy sedans.
I remember Popular Science testing a gaggle of roadsters, including a 124 Spider, and going absolutely squishy over the Fiat. I remember one line about how the engine would “wind up in a flash, and as smoothly as a generator”. Then there were the timing belt changes, iirc, at every 30,000 miles.
A neighbor’s son had a 124 Spider. She commented how, after he left after a visit, she would go out in the driveway and pick up the chunks of rust that had fallen off of it.
I wouldn’t say the sedans are dumpy. 124, 125, 128, 130 and 131 were good-looking cars, if not as flashy as others.
124, 125, 128, 130 and 131
Well, I remember seeing 124s, 128s and 131s when they were current. Not much more than a box to my eye. Now the Strada was interesting, but that was years later.
Here is a more extreme example:
I remember when these were new. I tried the coupe, sedan, spider and racer out at the auto show. Fit well enough in everything but the sedan. In the sedan, the front wheelwells intruded so much in the footwell that all three pedals were squeezed into such a small place that my two feet barely fit side by side. I don’t know how I would have driven it as it seemed impossible to press only one pedal at a time….and my feet are a 10C, so it’s not like I’m carrying a pair of stompers.
Then there are the looks of the thing
I like the 850, even the berlina was nice.
How about a 1300/1500 coupe? This only reached scale-model stage but sure was purdy.
The coupe version of the NSU Prinz did make it into production, but somehow, it looks to me alike an Amphicar with a fastback roof tacked on…..didn’t Amphicar use NSU engines?
One of the really neat things about the old “Mission Impossible” TV series was the crazy rare cars they used when they were picking on the Eastern European People’s Republic. I remember one ep where their tool to undermine the government was a gullible young officer, played by an impossibly young Martin Sheen, who drove a Simca 1000.
Banana republics were also common targets. Otherwise it was a “syndicate” of some sort, with good taste in suits.
IMF sometimes used a Citroën H van in foreign locales. Not bad for a budget-limited So. Cal. TV production. Gadget-dude Barney was our favorite; nerds could be cool.
You might want to take a look here:
850 coupes were great little cars but they rusted away before I could become licenced or I would have bought one.
This gen 1 was my first car, bought in 1987, in the same teal colour as the pic of the gen 2 above. Mine had chrome ‘rally’ lights which I think worked well with the design.
I loved that car, but it was pretty unreliable, electrics especially. And as a student I didn’t have the money to keep it in the best condition. It is still on the road though, coming up to 50 years old.
Ahhhh, to be 18 again….
My brother and I test drove one of these when they first showed up in Richmond in early 1968. Che bella macchina! The little 1438 mill sang like Pavarotti the higher you wound it. Loved these, and loved the little 850 coupes as well.
Now I know why I have always liked the Vega (except for the powertrain)! It was inspired by European design. I should have known!
Only tangentially related to the 124 coupe, but we old buggers remember a Fiat TV ad talking about how Fiats were frequently used by Remy Julienne in his film stunt work.
Here’s a clip from “The Burglars” where Remy and his crew beat the ever loving snot out of a 124 sedan.
Gee, some thoughtful person has uploaded that commercial. That sounds to me like Lloyd Bridges doing the voice over.
Four headlight front and twincam means its a 125 not 124, the 125 was the one homologated for standard production racing here only creating the 125T
No Kiwi; because the world extends beyond New Zealand, the stunt car with “Four headlight front and twincam” means this is actually a 124 Special. In other words, the (more) sporty sedan variant of 124.
Whee! 70 124 coupe ride along video
A customer of mine had a 124 Coupe and I loved driving it, my first five speed experience. It did have some problems, but wrenching on it was mostly a pleasure. He did manage to throw a rod through the block by missing a shift and blowing past redline. The dealer had new short blocks in stock for under $400, so I suspect this type of failure was not too uncommon. That beautiful DOHC head was undamaged and looked great on my workbench during the repair. The only other thing I remember was the troublesome Marelli voltage regulator that kept sticking points and had to be hit with a suitable object occasionally.
I’ve mentioned on here before that I’ve owned two 124 Spyders (a 1600 and a 2000); and also that I used to drive a 124 Coupe (Series II) as the delivery vehicle when I was a gofer for the Parts Dept. of an Alfa dealership in the early ’80s. That Coupe was ugly, with an unbecoming light-blue paint applied with a roller… but it was a ton of fun to drive, with a springy ride and way better cornering than you’d get from an American or even Japanese econobox of the time. Nice dash, console, and seating, too. Just keep an eye on that Olio gauge. Come to think, keep an eye on all your gauges.
It’s odd, but I don’t recall the final, federalized 1975 Coupe with the hideous rubber battering-rams and the donked ride-height at all. I do remember similar disfigurements done to the 131s/Mirafioris/Bravas (and of course on other tiny imports, like the Spitfire and the MGB), but not the 124 Coupes. Never seen one with those rims before.
Robert’s car is a great driver, and one you could enjoy every day. The 2L has a significant torque advantage over the original 1438, as a result it’s easier to drive in town.
I’m sorry to see the car for sale, but whoever buys it should be happy with their purchase.
A couple corrections to note, worldwide there were many more coupes sold than spiders. Sadly as others noted, most have succumbed to the tin worms. Contrary to popular lore they weren’t any more rust prone than other cars of the era, but the coupes often were driven year round unlike spiders, and other convertibles, so they were exposed to road salt, water, and mud. The 73 cc coupes had lovely chrome bumpers that were replaced with the horrible federal bumpers in 74.
I should have been more specific: there were many more Spiders sold in the US than coupes. In Europe, it was the other way around. About 75% of total Spider production was exported to the US. Spiders are still quite common.
The coupe was more popular in Europe, as fewer Europeans could afford to buy a two-passenger sports car along with a family car. The coupe worked fine as the primary car in Europe.
I just read this, months after you posted it. Anyway, an AC 124 Sport coupe was the very first car I bought for myself. I was at Uni at the time and the running cost almost broke me but what a car. It outhandled, out ordered and outbraked anything any of my friends had. Engine note was sublime, steering heavy buy wonderful and the steering wheel and dash made me feel like Steve McQueen or Similar! Rampant rust to deal with, strange carb problems (later found out to be parts of the float breaking off and clogging fuel delivery) and flange caskets to be replaced. The most interesting episode of all though was driving along one night when all of a sudden there was a hissing noise followed by almost-boiling water spraying onto my feet!! Had to switch the car down and leave it. Had it towed to the shop the next day and the mechanic told me that a seal on the valve of the heater had gone. Apparently water from the cooling system was run through the heater which, on RHD cars at least, was located immediately above the pedals. Sold it after that and got a spanking new Alfasud Sprint…. That was a beautiful car too, but rust developed just where the wiper drive goes into the body in front put of the windscreen when the car was 7 months old. I took it to the dealer and was told that warranty on,y covered rust within the first six weeks! I have not bought an Italian car since. My next car was inherited from an Uncle – a Mercedes 250 CE. Every car I have bought ever since has been German.
The Chevrolet Vega coulda been a contender , if not for the bean counters who ruined it .
At least you can keep a Fiat running and in good order .
I would love this car, if I weren’t so practical. The thought takes me back to my first car purchase, a Fiat 1500 Cabriolet. I never knew just how rare that was. I envy those who buy the car of their youth in midlife crisis. They can find one!
PS- That’s the moral– if you drove common, everyday cars in your youth, at least of few of those will remain available to scratch your itch for nostalgia. But those of us who stumbled into rare and ridiculous models like the NSU TT and Fiat’s baby Ferrari roadster, that was a pleasure not to be repeated. Those cars aren’t there– they didn’t sell enough to more than a handful of collectible to survive.
This looks like a beauty. If only I was buying a car for my teen. This would be perfect… and she’d get to drive my GTI.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one of these “in the metal”. Pretty cars, and the Vega resemblance is way too obvious to be coincidence. But I suppose that’s why the Vega looked good, its one virtue.
I think I like the BC with the four-lamp nose slightly better, though the AC does have a purity of design to it. The CC’s somewhat unfortunate face reminds me, for some reason, of the facelifted Bristol 411.
The twin cam engine changed the face of engine design.
Compact, reliable twin cam engine.
Before anyone else thought of it!
great article, thank you!
i had been looking for a 124 “Boano” sport coupe for about 3 years. i found one a few weeks ago in the yampa valley of colorado in a hay pasture where it had been sleeping for 15 years…
it’s complete, and quite well preserved – let the fun begin!!!
i also have a NSU Prince Sport Coupe which i love…
compared to what i have had to spend for my ’66 912 and some other vintage Porsches, i find these obscure little known Fiat & NSU coupes are just as loveable, if not more so, for their rarity and their ability to stump many fairly well versed auto affecionados when they stumble to correctly identify exactly what they are looking at….
John DeLorean called the Vega-based Monza 2+2 “The Italian Vega” because it had roof and quarter window designs exactly like a certain Ferrari. Well I guess the Vega qualifies too since the Vega hatchback looked like another Ferrari model in the quarter window area and the sedan looks like the Fiat 124. Obviously GM stylists was inspired by Italian designs for the Vega, but the Chevy stylists reworked the Vega front end, hood and tailights for the Camaro/Chevy association.
How did he manage to fit the 2.0l in the car without having to have a bulge in the bonnet?
After getting a Covid test I decided to take another route home. I get off the short hop on the freeway and head down the exit to see a yellow car start to go through at the bottom. Luckily I don’t have a stop but can take a turn to the right to merge and it is what I thought it was. A Vega which I haven’t seen live on a road in 40 years. This one was in nice condition, moving well, and piloted by someone with gray hair. This pic is the best I could do with a cellphone camera, didn’t have a good camera, while traveling over a bumpy road through the Concord Naval Weapon Station. Blue plate circa 1974-75.
Once again, Paul and I agree on a car.
Pre-internet, I searches for a long time here in New Orleans to find a decent 124 coupe. No joy!
All I found was 124 Spyders and 128 4 doors.
I loved these 124 coupes when they first came out in 1969 and still do. With the 2.0 liter engine they would be the perfect little grand touring car. Too bad they recycled themselves into iron oxide after a few years.
Even here in snow/rock salt free New Orleans these Fiats were serial rusters.
As I have opined before, the forward-tilted steering wheel in the 124 Sport Spider—and in many another Italian car, including our subject vehicle—along with its relatively great distance from the driver’s chest—can be no accident; it turns out to be a stroke of ergonomic genius, oddly ignored by most of the rest of the world’s car designers. It took me a while, in my ownership of the first-mentioned vehicle, to notice the effect of this wheel’s placement on the act of steering: one doesn’t so much lift the wheel to make a turn as one pushes on the rim of the wheel—a motion which, it could be argued, is more easily accomplished than lifting. And this action is accomplished most efficiently when the arm is allowed to approach its maximum extension.
Thus, when auto reviewers remark disparagingly or in perplexity about the “ape-like” posture that the driver is “forced to take” to drive an Italian car, I laugh—“ha-HA !”—because I came to see, through owning and driving one such car, of the advantage that such a driving posture can bring.
By the way, the “wood” wheel of the 124, while simple and handsome, is no Nardi, but a blend of steel and plastic—in keeping with the brief no doubt given the designers, to make a practical driver’s car, for the automotive gourmet on a working-man’s budget ? Viva Fiat !
Had the CC version as an 18 year old here in the UK. It was blisteringly quick at the time early 80s. I now am lucky enough to own 2 ACs one with its original 1438cc and one with an 1800 lump and twin 40s. They fetch gasps of disbelief when at car shows here. Estimated to be in single figures the numbers that remain running on the road in the UK. They really are such fun to drive with that revvy little twin cam! Bella bella!