The Fiat 124 Sport Spider was Italian sensuality in automotive form at a price point the little guy could afford. Competing against the MGB and the Alfa Romeo Spider, the nominally two-plus-two roadster was first produced in 1967 and first imported to the United States in 1968.
I purchased two of these ten years apart – a 1969 in 1976 and a 1979 in 1986. There were a lot of changes in my life over those ten years and a lot of changes in sports cars during that time as well.
In the Fall of 1976 I left my Subaru 360 behind and returned to school in Philadelphia to begin my sophomore year. College life, and life in a major city, had begun to broaden my world view of automobiles and life in general. On the automotive front I was exposed to interesting and desirable cars on a daily basis. There were more than a smattering of BMW 2002s and Alfa Romeo GTVs around campus. Most were a few years old and priced reasonably enough that a graduate student (or perhaps the parents of) could afford a decent example.
I had now been introduced to the magazines Road & Track and AutoWeek. Road & Track featured irreverent road tests by Henry N. Manney III, stories of colorful road trips in restored English machinery by Peter Egan and up-to-the minute coverage of Formula 1 by Rob Walker. AutoWeek featured an eclectic fantasy land of used car classifieds in the back and the columns of the late great Denise McCluggage – racer, journalist and ski bum extraordinaire.
Having ridden my bike from Ohio to Philadelphia the previous year I was of course still cycling. What I was not doing, though, was skiing. With six ski seasons behind me I still had not skied anywhere except in Ohio! As Winter approached in Philly I felt a tug from mountains I had never visited. Course work in economics and accounting increasingly held little interest to me. It seemed a good time to take a semester off and go skiing so one day in mid-November I purchased a train ticket and hopped on an Amtrak bound for Vermont. The next morning, I walked into the ski lodge at Glen Ellen ski resort in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. By happenstance the General Manager, Bob, was the first person I saw. We struck up a conversation and I was hired. Bob would be my boss for the next four years. I would become his aide-de-camp specializing in other duties as assigned.
Returning to Philadelphia to finish out the term I now began to work out the practicalities of what a move to Vermont would entail. Naturally I would again need (motorized) wheels – something sensible that could transport all my belongings. A car that would be at home in a climate where the temperature routinely dropped below zero degrees Fahrenheit and where snow fell from October through April. In other words, a 1969 Fiat 124 sport spider – with no snow tires.
The 124 was my first true sports car and its specifications defined the affordable sports car segment of its era. It was designed and manufactured by Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina using much of the same running gear as Fiat’s 124 sedan and coupe models which were manufactured by Fiat itself. It featured an inline four with lovely twin camshafts that belied its affordable status. Originally a 1438 cc through 1973, the engine’s displacement grew over the years eventually reaching 1995 cc beginning in 1979 and continuing through the end of production in 1985. The engine featured Weber carburation through 1980 and Bosch fuel injection after that. My first Fiat had left Turin with 90 hp and the second had begun life with 83.
Backing up the elegant twin cam was a five speed manual transmission. Discs at all four corners served to negate forward momentum of the 165 x 13 rubber. Suspension was coil over dampers in front and a live rear axle in the rear.
Rather than a rack and pinion steering box the Fiat featured worm and roller technology. I observed that for “cars of a certain age” worm and roller meant either the steering felt loose when going straight and just right when turning, or just right when going straight and too tight when turning based on how one adjusted the steering box.
Over its eighteen year production run the 124 Spider changed remarkably little. Gangly lattice style five-mile-an-hour bumpers replaced the original minimalist units to meet US regulations beginning in 1973 and two bulges sprouted on the hood in later years in deference to the increased engine displacement. The convertible top of the Fiat was simplicity itself and could be raised and lowered with one hand while at a stop light.
My Fiats both featured somewhat foggy rear plastic windows but they served to make the driver adept at the interpretation of fuzzy blobs in the rear view mirror – a sort of automotive Rorschach test.
I purchase my first Fiat 124 from a guy in Philadelphia who made commercial speakers for rock bands and concert venues. He used fiberglass in his work and was adept in its application. He had restored the Fiat, repairing rust around the rear wheel wells with fiberglass and repainting the car in its original yellow himself at what I now recognize was a very professional level. A single Vermont winter was enough to reinvigorate minor deterioration around the rear fenders but overall the body and the respray held up well to the harsh New England climate.
The logistics of moving to Vermont required me to transport All My Worldly Goods including two road bikes home to Ohio and then swap bikes for skis for the drive to Vermont. While these trips were cramped, the experience from the driver’s seat was quite comfortable. The interior reeked of slightly down market old world charm with roughly finished wood veneer trim on the dash and transmission cover and a lovely two spoke wooden steering wheel.
Driving a rear wheel drive sports car with no snow tires in Vermont in the winter one developed tactics to combat the functional shortcomings of the drive train layout. On snowy mornings the Fiat was fine once moving, but gaining the traction necessary to initiate movement in the parking lot behind my apartment was more problematic. I discovered I could start the car, set the engine revs using a manual throttle lever Fiat had conveniently provided next to the manual choke, and put the car into reverse. At this point the wheels would spin but the car would not yet find its bite. I would get out of the car and push it from the front until the rear wheels engaged at which point I would chase it down and hop back into the driver’s seat hopefully before reaching the edge of the lot.
The Fiat proved remarkably reliable that first winter and in the spring, summer and fall that followed it really came into its own. It was as if the roads of the Mad River Valley had been designed to challenge the Fiat in such a way that its driver could be continually entertained. I found ascents of mountain passes were the most fun as the tight curves meant living in second and third gear with a shift up or down every few seconds. While I could convince myself I was driving at the edge, the speeds on these tight climbs were in the 20 mph to 40 mph range and the steep uphill meant braking distances would always be short.
The 124 had an eight track tape player and I had purchased two tapes – David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”. I fell into a pattern whereby I would start long drives to Ohio or Pennsylvania around 10 pm. By 2 am I would be on the New York Northway with the top down as David and I sang “Suffragette City” at the top of our lungs.
My second winter with the Fiat was less successful than the first. Although the 124 now featured rear snow tires courtesy of Farm & Fleet, the water pump stopped pumping early in the ski season when a small pin sheared. I had now moved to a new place about a mile from the ski area so getting to work without a car was not a problem. I parked the Fiat next to a small barn on the property for the rest of the winter.
By spring the car was totally buried. When it was time to retrieve the Fiat I grabbed a shovel, climbed on top of the snow mound that I suspected my car was under and dug down for two hours until I found myself standing on the convertible top. Realizing that life was short I switched strategies and persuaded a member of the mountain crew at the ski area to drive a bucket loader to my place. To be honest, it never took much effort to get any of the mountain crew to play with heavy equipment (or dynamite, but that’s another story).
He completed the bulk of the digging in ten minutes without any untoward damage to the Fiat. After fixing the water pump I again had the pleasure of warm weather driving in Vermont although an issue developed with the transmission. When I shifted into fourth gear it would no longer stay there. The engine had enough torque that going directly from third to fifth was not a problem, but I sensed a line had been crossed and that a rapid mechanical demise might be in the cards. Shortly thereafter the automotive gods stepped in to rescue me. A former roommate had decided that she needed to experience convertible motoring and wanted to trade cars with me. I tried to discourage her – I honestly did – but I ended up trading the Fiat for her car, which will be the subject of next week’s COAL. I think I also got $300 in the deal – score!
Fast forward to the fall of 1986. I was now living in Washington, DC and had married my wife, Debbie, the previous year. She was finishing up graduate school that December and I would be done the following spring. That summer I had also begun working for a consulting firm. Logistically we had a legitimate need for a second car. This would be the first car jointly purchase by the two of us so it was important that I demonstrate to her my practical side. Naturally I purchased a 1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider.
This one was white. It suffered from the same rust around the rear wheel wells but this time it had never been repaired. Although Fiat II featured wider alloy wheels, five mile-an-hour bumpers and the 1995 cc engine with the hood bulges this new Spider was largely identical to the first.
Ten years earlier I had been given the opportunity to drive an MGB. The British roadster felt primitive in comparison to the Fiat. Now a decade later the second Fiat itself felt primitive in comparison to the cars of the 1980s.
Mechanically this second Fiat proved reliable except for little incidents like the time I came out of the house and discovered that the front bumper had spontaneously fallen off while the car was parked in the driveway. Debbie and I felt confident enough to take some long road trips in the second Fiat as long as we adequately prepared.
(A short history lesson for the kids. Cars once had parts called “points” and “condensers”. Automotive anthropologists are not exactly sure what these parts did, but they do know these parts had to be changed regularly as part of something called a “tune up”. Said “tune up” was a bonding ritual young male car owners performed in driveways and back alleys that anthropologists believe supported tribe cohesion.)
On my second Fiat the condenser would periodically go south every few months. Consequently, I made sure to always have an extra one in the glove box.
Debbie and I decided to drive the Fiat from Washington, DC to Maine to attend her college reunion. The drive up proved to be misery itself due to torrential rain the entire way and a temperature of about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike a car such as the Mazda Miata, the Fiat’s seal between the roof and the top of the windscreen did not live up to its name. The consequence of the heavy rain was a steady stream of cold water seeping through on the driver’s side of the car where it dripped steadily onto my left leg. The psychological scars still linger.
The drive back proved to be much more pleasant – sunny skies with just a hint of the sort of clouds you see on the backside of a New England cool front. Despite the cool temperatures we felt compelled to drop the top. There was only one minor setback. My wife is terrified of tunnels and one of her worst fears would be to suffer an automotive break down in one. After 1,000 reliable miles on the trip (the water torture notwithstanding) and only 40 miles from home, the latest condenser decided give it up as we were driving through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. The car immediately began to miss and sputter, but somehow we made it out of the tunnel and I was able to swap in the replacement part in a couple of minutes.
We finally sold the second Spider after about four years. Interestingly, the guy who bought it was a young German who shipped it home where he planned a full restoration. Hopefully it now spends its days cruising the winding roads of Bavaria – a singular Italian counterpoint to German automotive design.