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.
My father bought a white Fiat 850 in the early 70s when he got his children (mostly) out of his hair. Myself and my brother use to sit on the rear deck and had a ball until some kindly policeman pointed out that it was dangerous!
It was a tiny little thing, not much bigger than a mini with nearly zero space behind the front seats. It’s demise was marked when he left it in an open air car park overnight with the roof off. Coming back in the morning, he found it full of rain water right up to the door tops. Strangely, it was a right hand drive; something that was not suppose to exist.
Oh, no! What a sad end to your dad’s car!
I’ll agree with you that the 850 is really diminutive. After I had watched this movie, I started searching classifieds to see how many nice examples of these still exist, and they even photograph tiny. Even seeing the yellow 850 in the movie with other people in frame / Anna driving it really emphasizes this. Maybe that’s why I find the 850 so endearing. It’s just so cute.
As I’ve shared before, my mom’s first car she ever purchased was a Fiat 124 Sport Spyder! Although the color was called Orient Yellow, it was really an orange shade like this one.
I’m not sure of its exact model year but she had purchased it from the original owners, a couple who lived next door at the time, sometime in the late-1970s. She still has fond memories of it, even though she naturally had many issues with it in her few years of ownership.
What a cool first-purchase, Brendan! I think “Orient Yellow” suits this car really well – it’s almost like the color of Tang (which I think is delicious).
I wonder if the new car comes in a similar shade of orange…
Reminds me of the “Yellow” truck line, which have orange colored writing on their trucks…makes me wonder where the “Yellow” comes in.
My friend had a 1979 Spyder which he got rid of for a 2000 6 cylinder Passat (manual). I think he previously had an X1/9.
Our neighbor in Virginia was a pilot, and had some interesting vehicles…I remember an original Ford Bronco (maybe a ’68) but later he had an 850 Spyder. He was pretty tall, not sure how he fit in the thing.
These were such beautifully styled little roadsters. It is interesting to contemplate how the English and the Italians gave us beauty and fun while the Germans and later the Japanese gave us reliability. Even today, I find the modern Fiat more attractive than the newest Miata.
I recall seeing these around when they were newer, but at the time they did not really grab my attention. They do now.
JP, I really had to think about qualities of cars from those respective countries, and I agree with you! Very insightful.
I had a ’77 1800 for over 25 years, in white, which looked really good with the red interior, Cromodora Wheels, and Ansa Exhaust.
Beautiful example. I think I prefer this taillamp design over what came after it. The simple, rectangular, tri-color lenses look pretty close to perfect on the back of these cars.
I absolutely love that color combo!
Very nearly bought one new in 1978—but realized that while my income could afford the payments and insurance, it couldn’t handle repair bills and maintenance that the FIAT reputation suggested would come with it. Bought a Toyota instead. Probably the wiser choice, but I can’t look at one of these and not play a little “what if” in my brain.
Mike, wasn’t the FIAT dealer network also kind of spotty back then? I’m thinking that not only would there potentially be mechanical gremlins, but you’d need access to the dealership.
I also wonder if these cars were some that, like our ’85 Renault Encore (Alliance hatch), if they were properly and regularly maintained, they operated close to perfectly without complaint.
That was my experience, Mr. Dennis. Change the timing belt, plugs and oil and adjust the valves as recommended and you were in good shape. The dealer network and mech support was spotty and highly dependent on your geographical location, but the trick was to find a good independent mechanic (after the warranty expired). I found a great one in Orange, Ca. back then.
When I was looking to buy a car in the late seventies, one of the models I seriously considered was a Fiat 124 spider. I don’t remember exactly what year the car was but it was only a couple of years old and didn’t have that many miles. It was certainly entertaining to drive but in the end the legendary Fiat “reliability” persuaded me to purchase something else. I ended up buying a VW Rabbit which might have seemed an odd choice for trouble free motoring but the one I had provided 117k miles of mostly hassle free driving. I hate being stereotypical but, to me at least, Fiat is one of those brands that should come with a full-time mechanic on speed dial. I don’t know if they were all poorly constructed or driving them “con brio” contributed to their early deaths but everyone I know who owned a Fiat moved on to something else in short order.
That may have been true circa 1978, but really, the reliability factor really had a lot to do with the owner keeping up on maintenance as much as any other issues. Remember that the Rabbit you bought was also considered poisonous in regards to reliability, yet you got 117K miles of mostly hassle free driving. I remember our family having a Fiat 1100 back in the early 60s, with no major issues with it.
We, as enthusiast, love our tropes of what cars are good, and which ones are total crapcans. The sad part is that we are usually wrong, and deny ourselves and through our words, deny others the opportunity to experience a lot of brands because we “think” they are no good.
I’ve always felt this was the most beautifully styled of all the roadsters of my childhood. The current model as well is quite handsome; if only I could shrink down to 5’9” or so to fit comfortably.
“If only I could shrink down to 5’9” or so to fit comfortably.”
Not picking on you, Dave, but have you actually tried sitting in one? Or do you mean by “comfortably” that you need to be in a full sized SUV or else you get claustrophobic?
I hear that well-worn phrase so often, yet I, at 6’2″ fit fine in one. I have a NA Miata that I drive often, no problem, and have been comfortably behind the wheel of that giant of a car, a MG Midget. Did I have tons of elbow room? No. Was the passenger seat really close beside me? Yes. But did I have room for my legs, could I shift the gears and work the pedals and steering? Yes.
Funny how cars one does not like are too cramped, yet cars that are desired are fine. A Fiat 124 with a roof that closes just above your head? Horrendous. A Ferrari with the pedals offset and the steering wheel to one side and too far from the seat? No problem, just a quirk.
A timeless design. I chose an X1/9 for my first new car purchase way back in ‘74, but had also looked at a Spider. I lived in SoCal at the time, so I had no rust issues and also found that if the maintenance schedule was followed, the car had no issues other than breaking a window regulator every 2 years or so. I put 99K miles on that X before selling it to buy something larger, a sale I came to regret.
I currently own an ‘81 X with well over 200k miles on it and a 2012 500 Abarth, which both continue to put a smile on my face when I drive ‘em. I’m currently fighting the urge to purchase a new 124 Spider Abarth. With two other cars besides the two mentioned, I don’t need another car, but you know how that can go, lol.
The late Tom Magliozzi of NPR’s Car Talk used to have a white ’79 Spider which he sold to Joe Wiesenfelder of Cars.com. Wiesenfelder then drove the car from Boston to Chicago, and they were taking bets as to how far he would make it before it broke down (he actually made it all the way to Chicago). That car was then auctioned off in 2010, and I have no idea if it remained in Chicago after that, but it’s fun to imagine that this is the same spider that was once owned by a somewhat famous car guy.
I used to love “Car Talk”! That was one of my go-tos for listening on Saturday mornings when I needed to get caught up at work. Those guys used to crack each other up all the time, and then I’d start laughing at their laughing.
I’d like to think (to your point) that this was that auction car.
Here’s the video announcing the auction: https://youtu.be/K-ZViPyLX4g
It looks like this isn’t that car. The most obvious difference is this one doesn’t have the rust spot above the left rear fender. And Tom’s Fiat looks like more of a cream color while the featured car looks to be “refrigerator” white. And there’s the trunk mounted luggage rack, but that can be removed.
Oh well, it was fun to speculate anyway.
Growing up in the late 60’s and early ’70’s I was fan of big V8 pony and muscle cars. These Fiats and other smaller sports cars were quite common. I thought they were good looking but projected a delicate, under powered vibe. I admit that I would have derisively labeled them a “chick car” at the time. ( Yes, I have grown and matured since then.)
I have really grown to appreciate these Fiats, and their brother Alfas and MGs. I was sitting in a ’75 Fiat like this in a consignment lot a week ago. I found it to be very pleasant and vintage feeling.The seating position was bit odd, but not as bad as I’d read. These cars are starting to become more expensive but this one was priced at less that 5 grand. Though I’d probably choose something else for the price they were asking.
Nice find. I still prefer the in-house coupe to this shape, but it has held up. Not so impressed with the modern iteration though.
Shaped by the late Tom Tjaarda, following a rear-end theme he had applied to the Corvair Rondine and Ferrari 275 GTS. Vale.
These are very attractive looking cars but I do prefer the 124 Sport coupe