The subject seldom is raised here, but when we’re not test driving new cars, what exactly do we here at The Garage actually drive? Well, for me, the latest addition is the 1981 Fiat 124 Spider seen above. Ok, you might be thinking that’s a slightly unusual choice, how did I come to arrive at this decision? Have I yearned for one for years? Did I spend months researching and shopping until I found the right one? No, of course not. This is a journey that started 25 years ago.
Yes readers, that is me at age 18 with my 1986 Alfa Romeo Spyder. Ah, to be young and own a car like that! I loved that car, and I have many memories I still cherish today. Then one cruel winter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania while I was in college we were hit with a terrible blizzard. When I was finally able to get to my car, I started her up, and within a couple minutes the parking lot was filled with smoke. It had gotten so cold the engine block cracked, and that was the end of my time with my beloved Alfa Romeo.
A few years had passed. I graduated, got a job, bought a house, got married. I had some extra money, and I wanted to buy a classic sports car. My first thought was a Fiat X1/9. Designed by Bertone, the X1/9 was a wedge-shaped, mid engine, targa topped sports car, and it was affordable. When I was a kid, my cousin had one, and I thought it was one cool ride. My wife shot that idea down, and we ended up getting an MG Midget. Still a fun car, but my appetite for an Italian sports car had not been quenched.
Time continued marching on. After a few years, the MG was sold to make room for another dream car of mine, a Porsche 911 (still have it!). We had a child, and sadly, a divorce. After the dust had settled, I had a realization. There’s no one to tell me I can’t buy a car if I want it! (This is either very good or potentially very bad, depending how you look at it).
I was looking for inexpensive transportation, but it had to be something interesting and a little quirky. Did I want another Saab? Something luxurious like a Volvo S80? Could I find an Audi Coupe GT? Another Alfa Romeo? On the other side of town at a shop that mostly works on Saabs and Volvos sat this little Fiat. I had stopped to look at it awhile ago just to eyeball it.
After Christmas, I decided I owed myself a nice present, so I returned to have another look, drove her, and bought her on the spot. Yes, I finally got my wish of once again owning a little Italian sports car, but I tend to get emotional about certain cars, and I couldn’t stand the thought of this pretty car languishing on a lot somewhere. She needed to be rescued, and after seeing her sit, it became clear that person was going to be me.
So, what’s s the story of the Fiat 124 Spider? Introduced at the 1966 Turin Auto Show, the Spider followed the recipe of most affordable sports cars of its day-take the chassis and running gear of your low cost volume car (in this case the Fiat 124 sedan) and bolt on an attractive body and off you go. MG and Triumph had been doing this for years, and while they looked dainty and oh so British, well, Fiat did it their way, because, well, they’re Italian. Famed design house Pininfarina was hired to not only design the car’s gorgeous lines, but also to build the car as well. If the 124 Spider looks like a miniature Ferrari 275 GTS, well, the resemblance is intentional. However, this car was more than just a pretty face. With four wheel disc brakes, a five-speed manual and an aluminum twin cam engine designed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi. Nothing exotic about that today, but in 1966, that was exceptional. The British roadsters the Fiat would compete against packed all the innovation of a farm tractor in comparison.
The 124 Spider would go on to live a long, successful run. Fiat even took the Spider rallying, and was pretty successful at it. Like its competition though, once it came out, the car more or less ran the course of its life unchanged. The only noticeable changes were to keep up with tightening US safety and emission regulations. We all know how this story ends. Fed up with rust issues and temperamental electronics, American buyers revolted, and Fiat threw up their arms and left in 1982. But, since Pininfarina was building the car, they took over sales, support and marketing in America until 1985. Why did they stop? Well, they needed to retool the factory for the next car they were contracted to build called the Cadillac Allante.
After such a long production run with few changes, there are still two camps of what the ‘preferred’ Spider is. One prefers the earlier cars, with no smog equipment and thin, elegant bumpers. Few will argue the post-1975 cars, with its larger bumpers and increased ride height was an improvement, the other camp will contest the ’81-’82 cars offer the best drivability thanks to Bosch electronic fuel injection.
Which brings me back to my ’81 Spider. Yes, she’s a little rough around the edges. Yes, there is rust (in 1979, Fiat switched to cheaper Soviet steel which did not help). The all original interior is pretty tired. The fuel pump quit days after I bought her, and after being replaced, was sent back to the shop due to a bad ground in the fuel tank. And even with a new wiper motor, it continues to be a struggle to have cooperating windshield wipers. The ergonomics are a complete joke, and at night the headlights have all the luminescence of your grandmother’s 40 year old Radio Shack flashlight.
But that’s life with a 35 year old Italian sports car. And last week, Connecticut’s weather finally decided to embrace spring. Down went the top in one fell swoop. The Spider is actually a roomy, comfortable car to ride in as long as you’re ok with the classic Italian arms out, knees up driving position. The 5-speed is a joy to shift. The revvy twin cam happily pulls right up to redline, and oh, only the Italians can make an engine sound that good. Cruising the back roads in an old Fiat Spider is good enough to forgive a multitude of sins.
It was that moment, with a grin that could not be wiped off my face, that I fully appreciated my twenty two year drought without an Italian sports car was over. It is an experience that is difficult to summarize; it must be experienced to be appreciated. This journey is just beginning, and the work that needs to be done to bring her back to glory will go slowly, but for now, my intent is to simply enjoy her, which was the Spider’s original purpose since 1966.