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.
Next week – a slight lapse in judgement.
Nice read. Always preferred the Fiat over the Alfa Spider, but small (or abarth-style) bumpers a must. I remember driving a friend’s father’s MG as a swap for letting him drive my Alfa 105 coupe. No comparison.
kickarse version of ‘Fall in Philadelphia’
Don,agree regarding the MGB.When I was 9yo in 1965 my cousin visited in his new 1965 MGB and took me for a ride in it,back then was used to being transported in Buicks.I liked the sporty nature of the MGB but it was noisy and had a really rough ride.A bit like the kidney jarring ride of early Minis.Often think Peugeot made a big mistake when it decided to no longer utilise the Pininfarina design house,with the exception of the RCZ.
Noisy and rough ride. Memories. Is ‘agricultural’ an apt description?
ADO34 below. The PF-built Mini-based Midget replacement. Yum.
I’m not sure there’s a place for styling houses anymore. The skillbase and knowledge has been adequately synthesised and the in-house facilities are more than up to the task these days (not that I’m personally impressed with much modern styling).
They’re mostly gone; Bertone – bankrupt, PF recently sold to Mahindra. Shame, but progress is what it is.
There’s not much room for coach built vehicles in an era when vehicle design and manufacturing have become such an integrated whole, but what goes around comes around. Look at beer (better yet drink it). Large brewers continue to consolidate (I assume there will eventually only be one) while at the opposite end of the spectrum craft brewing flourishes. In the future perhaps we’ll print our own home designed vehicles on our 3D printers.
“Agricultural” is very apt.
And that Midget concept is to die for. Just needs slightly larger wheels; 12″ Minilites.
Thanks for sharing the video. You’re right that the song catches the vibe of Philly at that time. Interestingly I had never really listened to the lyrics other than the refrain. I like how Daryl refers to it as an upbeat tune about a depressing time. The entire Abandoned Luncheonette album also belongs on the Philly soundtrack.
Yep. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff still a major part of the soundtrack to my life.
RIP to the thin white duke.
Thank you for the story.One of the most beautiful cars ever built.One weekend I read in the Sydney,Australia newspaper that an Italian classic car show was to be held in Sydney,so on the day of the show I washed my 1963 Fiat Multipla 600D and drove from the Blue Mountains down to the show.I parked the Multipla in the visitors car park and walked over to inspect many great Italian cars in the covered outdoor market space.There was a Spider,fully restored,late model,in black with cream leather and the timber dashboard and steering wheel.I couldn’t stop looking at it,sensual is an understatement.After some time one of the organisers came over to me and asked if I owned the Multipla,I replied in the affirmative and he asked if I would move it to the display area because so many people were going across to the car park to look at it.I moved my Fiat to the display area and still was entranced by the black Spider.You were indeed fortunate to own and drive such a great Pininfarina design.The black Spider on display was for sale and if I had the money I would have bought it in a heartbeat.
I love the Multipla! Bravo.
Chuckled about your story of Ziggy Stardust and the Spyder from Vermont!
A friend had a red ’72 version of your Spyder in the mid ’80s. Although bought on the cheap, it still looked good and ran well. Top-down motoring in cool weather was surprisingly comfortable. I remember very little wind buffeting and with the right heater setting from the floor vents you were good to go! Eventually too much deferred maintenance and no budget stopped the little Fiat. I hope that whoever ended up with it got it back on the road, as the engine, transmission and body were were still sound.
My belief is that if the temperature is at least 50 F (10C) and the sun is out you are required to put the top down.
The phrase “too much deferred maintenance and too little budget” will continue to be the underlying theme of this series for a while yet. Now that I think about it that would make a good epitaph on my gravestone.
I looked at a “new” 124 Spyder sitting on the dealer’s lot in 1982 or 83. The car had been languishing on the lot for over a year. It definitely had that “Fix It Again Tony” vibe going on with trim pieces lying on the ground directly below the places where they had liberated themselves from the car. Needless to say, I didn’t make an offer.
Hauling down the highway, listening to “Suffragette City” at volume and singing at the top of one’s lungs.
Other than physical locations (you’re talking Philadelphia to Vermont, I’m talking Johnstown to Erie, PA), cars (Fiat 124 vs. Vega GT), and a slight difference in sports (cycling and I assume downhill skiing vs. cycling and cross-country skiing) we seem to have lived very parallel lives.
And Bowie’s death is still flooring me to a point that I would have never considered possible. If you haven’t picked up “Blackstar”, do so.
There’s also a Fiat 124 Spider connection. This is the car I learned to autocross in, courtesy of a long-lost romance. Can’t even remember her name anymore. Nice lady who unfortunately queered the deal by being on a marriage/mommy track when I definitely wasn’t.
Can’t wait for the next entry – your COAL’s are definitely the most interesting to me of anything CC has published.
Regarding Bowie it was a little jarring when I heard his voice on the radio this week singing a song I didn’t know that opened with the lyrics “Look up here, I’m in heaven”. Not surprising that he’s incorporated his death into his art.
That was a great read with the coffee on a morning with snow on the ground and grey clouds looming. Sure looks like FIAT Spyder weather. I really admire your free spirited attitude to life. I couldn’t imagine packing up to go skiing for a semester and staying for 2 years.
ps: I think I detected a typo: “…….. in front and a live rear actual in the rear.” should be “axle”.
I’ve done the push without a driver trick many times, it works with a sufficiently low-geared EFI car too. But I soon figured out that you want to back *into* the parking space to do that – first on a manual is almost always lower than reverse, and in all circumstances it’s easier to get back in the car, especially if you stand in the open door and push on the A-pillar. And at least with an FWD car keep a good distance from the curb, so you can back up and build some momentum on the spot where the car was, this often eliminates the need to push.
And yes, the Mad River Valley is some great driving in summer – how’d the Fiat do on the Appalachian Gap? If it didn’t run out of oomph going up or brakes going down you know you had a good car.
Backing in to park? Thank you, Professor Obvious. Where were you 40 years ago when I needed you? Yes, brake fade was a major issue driving down the Apple Gap.
The small brakes on these are notorious…
Very good post – I actually read it twice! I grew up in southern VT so I know how painful winter driving can be up there.
I had to ask – when you lived there, did you ever own an old Volvo like, say, a 122S or 240? Back then, as it remains today, Volvos are one of the unofficial “state cars” of VT – whenever I go home during the summers, I almost always see a decrepit, clapped-out 240 or 740 roaming around the streets.
My middle school English teacher has a car similar in concept to your Fiats – a 1993 Alfa Spider. He has owned it ever since he bought it brand-new. And he never drives it in snow or salt, as in southern VT, we have “beaters” to drive for the winter.
I’m guessing I’m just a little bit older than you. I still think of the 740 as a contemporary Volvo. The 140 variants were new at the time, and the old Volvo’s were 122 Amazons and 544s.
My time in Vermont was the era of Saab 99’s with AWD Subaru’s just starting to appear.
“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.” This sentence alone qualifies you for a CC Medal of Honour. Michael, welcome to the Society of Curbivores!
The hand throttle was actually intended to be used as a sort of cruise control on autostrada, but I guess your use is just as valid, if unlikely to be detailed in the owner’s manual 😉
I particularly enjoyed these parts too.
Interesting write-up. The closest I’ve come to this experience is my having owned or driven a “string” of Honda Civics of several generations. Feeling how similar, and yet how different they drove with pretty much the same general parts. Or having driven 2 “large” RWD Ford sedans….built 40 years apart, a 69 LTD and a 09 P71.
Interesting that your 1st 124 had both a manual choke and a manual throttle, I’ve seen and used chokes on motorcycles but never saw either, much less both on any car.
There are a couple of these 124 Spiders in my area but the prices reflect their rarity instead of their mileage and/or condition. I have always been intrigued by them, but when new the contrarian in me wanted the smaller 850 Spider.
I did own a TR3A and before that, a Spitfire and even the Spitfire felt a bit antiquated even though the one I owned was less than 2 years old. But hey, isn’t that feeling of driving an antique part of a
British sports cars charm?
Not to criticize, but your history of 124s failed to mention the availability of both automatic transmissions and turbocharging.
COALs are about the writer’s experience with their cars, not a comprehensive article about the car’s history and all of its variants. There were all of 700 Turbos made; I never saw one.
Sorry I added my comments about the auto and turbo but when the “history” of the 124 was expanded beyond just the 2 cars the writer owned, I thought it would be appropriate to mention those available options.
And I don’t know, but considering how rare the turbo model is/was….to me that makes a better case for mentioning it in case others aren’t aware it was built?
my roommate in college had the turbo with an automatic. it was the first turbo i ever drove. the turbo lag was unpredictable and insane. my knuckles would go white gripping the steering wheel when it kicked in.
I never saw one of the turbo’s, but I have seen the occasional automatic in later model years. Psychologically I was blocking the automatic from my mind. I’ll add one other little tidbit about the later years. Fiat pulled out of the US market in 1983. The Spider was rebadged a Pininfarina and, with its sibling the X 1/9 rebadged as a Bertone, imported to the US and distributed by none other than Malcolm Bricklin through 1985.
One other little bit of history/lore. The Fiats and Lancias of the early 70’s rusted like crazy to the point where Fiat was forced to recall some cars due to a lack of structural integrity in relatively new cars that rusted quickly (history). The explanation was that Fiat was using imported Soviet steel (lore). This fit with the fact that at the time Fiat had sold Fiat tooling to multiple communist countries that manufactured variants of 124 and 128 sedans. Lacking hard currency these countries typically sought to trade commodities and manufactured goods such as steel with the West.
Michael, thanks for giving the Fiat Spider some love. I have had mine since the mid nineties… a rare 1980 with fuel injection. So true on the easy up/easy down top. Found it funny that you mentioned the rain drip on your left leg… thought maybe it was just a bad seal on MY car. Been enjoying your COAL series. Both you and Joseph Dennis really paint a picture. Can’t wait for your next installment.
Did you ever think of getting one of those aftermarket electronic ignitions that replace the points and condenser?
I’ve done that on one car I currently own – the PerTronix solution. At the time I had not heard of such wizardry. Interesting enough, mechanics specializing in vinage cars I speak with seem not to get excited about these conversions. They say these fail eventually as well and if you’re not carrying the replacement you are out of luck. In the interim, of course, one is not replacing and adjusting points. Mine has been trouble free for several years.
Wonderful story, imagery, soundtrack and pictures. Michael, I look forward to your next piece.
Ahh, youth – where we can make the very worst automotive decisions and the very best memories and stories, all at the same time. A delightful tale about a couple of delightful cars. I am looking forward to more.
I had a friend with a ’69 back in the 1970’s. That car was comfortable, fun to drive, and rather reliable by the standards of the day; one of Fiat’s best efforts. It’s stating the obvious, but it’s a beautiful car.
Another great COAL series.
Michael, great COAL….based on the years mentioned I believe you and I are of similar age. I went to school in southern Pennsylvania 1975-1979.
The Fiat Spider is one of the most sensuous designs in my opinion, certainly one of Fiat’s best. I guess part of the allure/love affair was tending to its peccadillos.
I have a friend in the market to replace his Saab…we’re looking forward to the new Fiat 124 when it arrives.
Michael thank you for your COAL stories specially this one. My first new car was a 1969 124 Spider purchased new in September 1969. Unfortunately for me and the Fiat, I was a crazy 20 year old that knew nothing about the care and feeding of automobiles or the fragility of Fiats. During the two years I owned that Fiat I made two memorable trips and one memorable ride. The first was a weekend trip to Boston. I remember cruising at 90 mph on the Mass Turnpike. The other trip, albeit rather short, was a visit to Al Consentino’s FAZA headquarters in Brewster, NY. The weather was perfect, cool crisp and sunny with the top down. At that time my SIL to be was dating a guy who raced a Porsche Speedster. One day I asked him if he would drive my Fiat and give me his opinion. We drove out to some desolate country curvy roads in Long Island and he let it all out. What a fun ride that was.I now have four 124 Spiders including a turbo.
Really enjoying your COAL series so far–your quirky imports are the perfect antethesis to my procession of (so far) mostly American iron. You also have a flair for storytelling. Looking forward to what’s next!
i learned to drive a stick on my father’s ’74 spider. after that one rusted away, he bought the fuel injected “2000” in ’79. there is still no car on planet earth that i prefer to drive.