Fiat’s 124 Spider follows a simple and well-used formula. Take a great engine, some saloon-car running gear, then bolt it all into a pretty roadster body (from the pen of Pininfarina). The result was a hit all around the world and stayed in production for almost 20 years.
Launched in 1966 as a 1400, the car got progressively larger engines – and bigger bumpers – as the years went by. It was dropped by Fiat in 1982 but Pininfarina, who had built the Spider from the beginning, took over the marketing and it carried on until 1985. During its 19-year lifespan, more than 200,000 were produced, with around 75 per cent being exported directly to the USA, though many have since returned to Europe.
When it was first launched in 1966, the Fiat 124 Spider was technologically advanced, and in a lot of respects far ahead of anything coming out of the UK. The running gear might have been borrowed from a humble Fiat saloon, but that included all-round disc brakes, as well as a five-speed manual transmission and a stunning twin-cam engine.
Designed by Aurelio Lampredi – the man behind some of the great Ferrari racing V12s of the 1950s – this rev-happy, tuneful and readily tunable twin-cam engine was extremely well-suited to the lightweight Spider.
It’s fair to say that the classic 124 Spider has recently seen a resurgence in popularity, due to Fiat’s introduction of a new 124 Spider model. Based on the excellent underpinnings of the mk4 Mazda MX-5, the new car is clearly inspired by the looks of the classic model. Just like with the classic, there’s also an Abarth version for the more serious driver.
Which Fiat 124 Spider to buy?
The original 1400 AS model is the rarest of the standard models, and along with the later 1600 models is highly sought-after. The 1973-1978 1.8-litre models are arguably the sweetest, and are also the most plentiful. There is also a supercharged Volumex model which is quite interesting, however spares are hard to find, and they can be tricky to set up.
Fiat’s high-performance Abarth CSA was a homologation special and almost everything was upgraded. It had independent rear suspension, bigger brakes, twin carburettors and glassfibre bodywork. There were a number of different options offered, including limited-slip differentials and, towards the end, a 16-valve cylinder head from the factory.
The worst model in terms of power was the last of the carb 2.0-litre cars, which put out just 77bhp. All but the pre-1974 US cars were subject to the strict anti-smog regulations though, which means heavily strangulated power figures. The unnecessary equipment can be removed, if it hasn’t already, you really need to return the car to its lower Euro-spec suspension to improve the handling and looks.
People often think the later plastic bumpers are a bad thing. They actually look pretty good, and protect easily damaged body panels, but if you really don’t like them, there’s the option of converting to chrome bumpers, but it’ll cost a lot to do. The parts are not too expensive, although the different light lenses can be tricky to get hold of. There are various holes that need to be welded up. It’s a viable option if you’re going for a full restoration, but really not worth doing otherwise.
A US-spec car, imported in the 1990s, will probably offer the best value, although European cars offer a sweeter drive. With production lasting 19 years, there’s a huge choice out there and something for almost every pocket.
All cars left the factory in left-hand-drive form and, although a few have been converted over the years, you’ll struggle to find one. Expect to pay about £1000-£1500 more for a properly converted model.
Performance and specs
1969 Fiat 124 Spider
Engine 1608cc four-cylinder, DOHC
Power 110bhp @ 6400rpm
Torque 101lb ft @ 3800rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed 112mph
Fuel consumption 29.6mpg
Dimensions and weight
• Overall running costs are low, especially compared with rivals like the Alfa Spider. 124s are light, have modern engines with easy cambelt changes, and are generally easy to look after.
• Basic maintenance, such as oil and filter changes, is remarkably simple, and the parts are all still available off the shelf.
• Bodywork can vary massively from model to model, with post-1980 cars seemingly more prone to rot, but the bodyshells are strong and generally resist rust well, especially US imports.
• Most panels are still available, although early bonnets can be very difficult to find – Later versions feature two bulges.
• Because of all the different models and the fact that parts can be swapped easily between them, it’s not unlikely that you’ll buy a car that has been modified. It’s not always a bad thing, but buy the wrong car and you can get yourself into a deep hole very quickly. The key is to do a lot of homework on the various differences between models before you even go out and look at a car, it could save you from a lot of trouble further down the line.
• The Fiat twin-cam is a tough engine and was used for many years in many different forms. Most parts are available, and it’s a bulletproof unit generally speaking. As always, frequent servicing is key, and a fresh cam belt is a bonus for any potential purchase.
• All models are fitted with a five-speed gearbox, apart from the four-speed in the very early AS. Gearboxes aren’t available, but can be rebuilt relatively easily.
• Interior parts are surprisingly easy to source, with replacement seats, switches and dashboard trim available off the shelf in the USA and Europe.
1966: Launched as a revvy 89bhp 1.4-litre, with torque-tube rear suspension and a four-speed gearbox
1970: Introduction of the 108bhp 1608cc Fiat twin-cam engine
1972: Abarth Stradale homologation special launched. Twin-carb 128bhp engine
1973: 116bhp 1758cc engine now fitted to standard Spider, along with larger bonnet bulges and large impact bumpers.
1978: Production switches to carb-fed 2.0-litre unit, producing lowly 77bhp
1979: Bosch fuel injection fitted to 2.0-litre car, releasing 104bhp
1982: Fiat drops the 124 Spider but Pininfarina continues production, re-launching the car as Spidereuropa, or Spider Azzura 2000 in the USA
1983: 133bhp supercharged Spidereuropa Volumex model launched
1985: Production ends
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.middlebartongarage.com – Routine servicing to full restorations, it’s also a major supplier of 124 Spider parts.
• www.sportingfiatsclub.com – Sporting Fiats owners club and forum.
Summary and prices
The earliest 1400 AS models are rare, but also highly sought after, while the later 1800 is by far the nicest to drive. Although cheaper models are out there, £5000 is really the starting point for something usable and not in need of a full rebuild. At the other end of the scale, really special examples of the 1800 can push £35,000, although £15,000 will get you a very respectable example.
The supercharged Volumex models are rare, and can fetch about £2500-5000 more. You’d be looking at nearly £80,000 for a road going Stradale model now, although most have been turned into rally cars.
With so many Spiders being sold in the US, it's not surprising that many have made their way back. The gold-rush was in the 1990s, when 124 Spiders were returning to Europe by the boat-load. The market for importing 124s from the US has dried up in recent years, but it does still happen, with a good supply of cheap, rust-free cars still out there.
Restoration costs can be high, but no more so than MGs and Alfas of the same era – if done correctly. This high cost, combined with the relatively plentiful number and low cost of solid cars from the US, often made restoration an uneconomical option in the past, but as values have firmed up, so has the number of high-quality restorations.
A 124 Spider looks great, offers a characterful and engaging driving experience and can be run on a reasonable budget, if you buy well. What more could you want?