- Best model: 1600
- Worst model: Late US cars
- Budget buy: 1.8/2.0
- OK for unleaded?: Yes
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): L3970mm x W1250mm
- Spares situation: Surprisingly good
- DIY ease?: Good
- Club support: Fine
- Appreciating asset?: Yes
- Good buy or good-bye?: Former – buy now!
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Fiat’s Spider is grossly overlooked as an alternative to that other Italian of the same name as well as the likes of the MGB. But in many ways it’s the better car
Pros & Cons
Have you ever considered Fiat’s 124 Spider as your next sports classic? Thought not! There again people rarely remember Fiat as a soft stop specialist even though it’s produced some lovelies during its time such as the 1500 Cabriolet, the 1500/1600S, the cute 850 Spyder, the brilliant X1/9 and latterly the Barchetta. And yet here’s a car launched the same time as the Alfa Duetto and one which enjoyed an equally long and illustrious production run. It went head-to-head with our home grown and far more antiquated MGB and Triumph TR sportsters in the United States and even outlived the pair of them! The Fiat 124 Spider was the choice of the purist who saw most British offerings as positively pre-historic in comparison. Today this overlooked sports classic makes an exceptional buy if you‘re not a badge snob. Of course the main reason this Italian has been so grossly ignored is due to the fact that it was never offi cially available in the UK! Any cars that you fi nd over here have been imported by enthusiasts and specialists. But this doesn’t imply that the car is diffi cult and overly expensive to own and keep on these shores. There’s a handful of dedicated enthusiasts and experts around plus spare parts are readily available. And all for £4000 or less! Interested?
The Fiat 124 Spider surfaced around the time Alfa launched its iconic sports car of the same name. Both were based upon a their saloon and coupe counterparts, in the case of the Fiat it was the angular but highly advanced 124, albeit shortened by 5.5inches. As with earlier Fiat rag tops the car’s design and build was entrusted to specialists Pininfarina but the car was actually penned by a young up and coming American named Tom Tjaarda. And a good job he made of it as those Alfa-ish still lines look great! The car went equally well too care of modern twin cam engines, disc brakes all round and a sophisticated suspension set up; it all made our Austin Cambridge-derived MGB look terribly antiquated even though the Brit was introduced just four years earlier. Initially the Fiat used 1.4-litre power that was good for 93bhp, allied to a four-speed transmission. Exports to the United States commenced in 1968 while for 1970 the car was upgraded to what was termed BS1 spec, comprising a longer stroke 1608cc engine which posted 104bhp (but as little as 90bhp in US tune) plus more torque. A close ratio fi ve-speed gearbox was now standard issue to make the most of that rev, happy engine. It’s interesting to note that by this time Fiat had acquired Alfa Romeo (along with Ferrari) and didn’t see any confl ict of interests with two Spiders spinning their respective webs!
Another engine change occurred in 1972 where new ‘Twinks’ of 1592cc and 1756cc replaced the older units yielding 108bhp and 118bhp respectively although some still feel that these later units lack the character of the original 1.6 and again US regs stifl ed output to a measly 87bhp. These cars are known as series ‘CS/CS1’ with the battery now relocated in the boot on the 1.8. By now the US was eagerly taking 85 per cent of all Spider production and the Fiat was enjoying a head-to-head battle with our MGB. Sadly both carmakers had to cow-tow to US safety legislation for ‘75 by fi tting rubber-faced bumpers and raising the ride height, although the Italian didn’t come off half as bad as our poor MG!
A two-litre engine surfaced in 1978 (CS2) while a year later it boasted Bosch fuel-injection but alas power output wasn’t improved over the 1.8! Even a special Turbo model (launched 1981 for US consumption only) could muster just 120bhp. Fiat largely washed its hands of the Spider by this time and in 1982 the car was badged the Pininfarina Azzura for the US market and Spidereuropa elsewhere. In 1983 Pinin dropped in the sexy supercharged ‘Volumex’ engine first seen in the Lancia Beta. With 135bhp on tap and identifi ed by bigger wheel arches and red or black livery, just 500 were made. Then after a run of almost 20 years the Spider spun its last web with the fi tting of precise rack and pinion steering.
Overall198,034 models were made, 60,233 of these being pre-CS models. Interesting off-shoots included a rare spotted 2.0-litre automatic option (for US owners only, naturally!) and the sensational Abarth Rallye Stradale model. Made between 1972-75 with motorsport in mind, it was based upon a 1.8 albeit with a strengthened body, lightweight panels, Recaro seats and a factory fi tted rollover bar. Up to 170bhp was claimed to be on tap, although most road cars had to make do with a still perky 128bhp and a 16-valve head was offered in the last year of production. Rallyes are rare, only 1013 were made and despite their rawness, they go for massive money these days – around £25,000 is common!
Comparisons with the MGB are inevitable and as you’d expect given its mechanical spec, the Fiat feels far more modern and sporty today. It’s not so much due to the Italian’s outright performance which is roughly on par with the MG (0-60 12 seconds for the 1.6, for example), but rather a completely different character where the Latin lumps love to rev their cylinder heads off. In terms of handling, it’s a similar story thanks to a pretty sophisticated chassis. That’s not to say that the Fiat can take on any grippy modern diesel repmobile, but the Spider displays classic rear wheel drive characteristics on a lower, more accessible grip level. Fun too. One area where the Fiat still stands up well against moderns is in the braking department, thanks to all round discs that can also be simply upgraded. As a tourer the 124 Spider stacks up well. While the fi ve-speed gearboxes help for high speed cruising, the cogs are more aimed at speed than serenity but the car rides comfortably and what’s more it can take a pair of bambinos in the back – just. Of course this may all be on no relevance at all to you whatsoever if you can’t abide driving a left-hand drive car in the UK. However, there are conversions around, based upon the similar aged 124 Coupe which was freely available in the UK. Spider specialist DTM of Surrey (0208 8786078) sells a nut and bolt complete kit but it costs £2500.
Affordability is the watchword here! Prices are generally at decent MG levels and you can buy a good example for £4000 although it will probably need work. You will fi nd cheaper cars around but beware as the cost of a restoration will outweigh the fi nal value as the top cars rarely breach £9000, except for the Abarth and VX versions. In terms of desirability pre-75 cars are the most wanted due to their purity plus the fact that those US smog laws really stifl ed performance on later Spiders, ‘blown’ models excepted. Here, reckon on £10-12K for a good car and you may have to personally import one into the UK, further bumping up the costs. Converted right hand drive cars are around but there’s probably less than 100 in existence and bank on paying at least a grand over usual prices due to added desirability and convenience. If you have £15,000 to spend you can have DTR of Surrey build you one to your personal requirements.
Despite hardly being in the limelight over here, there’s a fair bit that you can do to sex up the Spider. The brakes are usually fi ne if in good nick and may only need harder pads although you can fi t vented types from the VX or an aftermarket kit which go as far as twin pot calipers and so on if you have £700 to spare. There’s a fair smattering of uprated engine bits (heads, carbs, cams, manifolds) that aren’t dear although Spider specialist DTM reckons 130bhp is pushing it for the transmissions, especially on post ‘79 models as they use less robust Seat-made gearboxes and rear axles. A conversion to later more robust Fiat transmissions is available but requires major surgery to the fl oor and to your bank balance (around £1800). On the other hand, if a clutch is required on later 1.8s and 2.0 cars, then simply fi tting a stock unit from the Fiat Barchetta pays dividends as it’s lighter and tougher.
What To Look For
- Fix It Again Tony goes the saying, but despite its rarity, the 124 Spider is no worse than any other Fiat. Indeed because most cars are sourced from the US, rust isn’t as terminal as it is on others in the range. That said, the earliest model is now almost 30 years old.
- Check for rot. The prime areas are the structural chassis of course although it’s not as bad as other Fiats. Inspect the inner wings and sills, especially around the jacking points. The sills are three-piece affairs with a cosmetic outer cover, which should be removed annually, inspected and rust-proofed.
- The front and rear bulkheads should be vetted along with the floors from above and below; these are quite complicated and expensive in labour to repair. While crawling underneath check the suspension mounting points at the front.
- The 124 Spider was said at the time to boast the World’s best hood. Sadly this doesn’t mean that water can’t get past and soak the interior, attacking the critical fl oor pan, especially behind in the area of the rear seats. So check well.
- More cosmetic are rot at the rear wheel arches, doors, wings, boot and bonnet. Fiat switched to cheap Soviet steel in 1979 and later cars rust more quickly than earlier vehicles.
- Replacement parts supply, both new and used (from the US and Europe), is pretty good and prices aren’t that bad either. Front wings cost around £250, floors less than £100 with section panels for the vulnerable rear arches working out less than £30.
- A knock at the front may be more serious than it looks, especially on US-bumpered models as it can effect the front inner wings plus fracture the front sub frame.
- However later point is not uncommon on all cars and if bad render the car dangerous to use, let alone fail the MoT. Only Spider experts really know where to look it’s claimed and repairing a suspect sub frame is a major engine out job. Check its security as well as condition.
- Mechanically in the main the Spider uses trusty 124/125 mechanicals; later ‘72 cars used different engines. Cambelt changes are important plus check the alloy unit for signs of overheating. Head gaskets can let go as a result (£1000 machine and repair).
- Don’t underestimate a worn engine. Fiat twin cams aren’t cheap to repair, especially the later units shared in Lancias. Last of the line 2.0 units are thick on the ground unlike 1.8 parts. The good news is that thanks to its appeal in the US, the vast majority of cars can happily run on unleaded already.
- The carbs (Weber or Solex) could well be worn and out of adjustment. Overhauling the units is costly but worthwhile to get the best from the engine. The Bosch fuel injection is typically German reliable if looked after.
- The transmission is a bit of a weak point and certainly a liability if the car is tuned. Check for undue noises and jumping out of gear. A proper ‘box overhaul is a £1000 bill but on later 1.8/2.0 cars you can fi t the later clutch from the Barchetta, which is far superior and more durable. 2.0 axles are a liability.
- The suspension is simple but critical to vet; just look for the usual, paying close attention to the front suspension bushes and the wishbones themselves, which can rot through with obvious consequences.
- Also there’s a lot of ball joints and links to wear or seize up, which if bad can even cause a wheel to come up. Steering idlers can stiffen up leading to heavy, vague steering.
- Remember that 1975 US cars featured raised suspensions, just like our MGB. Similarly, to make the car handle to our tastes it needs re-jigging. There’s a fair bit you can do to improve the handling at moderate cost.
- Ah, Italian electrics! Expect to fi nd so no go components. Inspect the wiring for butchering, bad connections, poor earths, etc. If a car has been DIY converted to RHD, check that the wiring has been done properly and not bodged.
- Yes you can convert a Spider to UK use by using 124 Coupe parts. Unlike many other classic converts, it doesn’t spoil the car’s feel although it’s an involved and costly job. There’s probably a 100 or so cars converted to RHD, many done by specialist DTR. European Sportscars of Surrey.
- The interiors are typically Fiat, which means that they don’t wear particularly well. US cars may suffer from sun bleached, fl aky trim, while cracked dash tops are commonplace but inexpensive covers are available if you don’t want to spend the £500 it usually costs to right. The seat backs can become loose and require rebuilding, the trim splits while the hood should work swiftly and smoothly. New hoods are readily available for around £250.
- Specialists worth knowing include Middle Barton garage (01869 340289), DTR (0208 645 5050) Spider-Point (0049 7822 61704), Guy Croft (engines 01522 705222), Fancy Engineering (013000 345577) and DP Motors (01727 836673).
Three Of A Kind
Alfa Romeo SpiderLaunched at exactly the same time as the Fiat at the ‘66 Turin show, the Alfa benefi ted from a high brow name and image although to drive it wasn’t any better and is less practical. Like the Fiat, the Duetto also suffered as US regs ruined the looks and performance but there’s the choice of RHD cars. Rust can be bad but there’s always plentiful parts supply and good aftermarket and club support to fall back on. Production ran until 1993!
MGBArch rival to the Fiat in the US, their careers ran parallel for two decades. A nicer, more modern drive than the MG but with similar characteristics. there’s more cockpit room with the Fiat and so can even seat four. The MG scores with its lustier engine and sheer usability – you really can’t go wrong with a good B. Ditto service and spares is second to none. Rubber bumper cars least liked yet they offer benefi ts plus cheaper prices.
Jensen-HealeyIn terms of mechanical make up the Jensen-Healey has a lot in common with the 124 Spider, while their shapes are not dissimilar either. But the Lotus-powered J-H was a sales fl op from the word go thanks to middling build quality and a changing market. Today a good one makes a fi ne sportster that’s miles more modern than a TR6 or MGB. The J-H is also a logical Elan alternative and they still represent strong value for money.
The Fiat Spider is probably the car you’ve never even considered yet as a stylish sporting sports car it beats most–and yes that includes the higher brow Alfa. With its perky performance, predictable poise, four-seat practicality, cheap costs and rarity it’s the other Italian Job that’s become a true classic. Get one before others cotton on to the fact, as well.