The Fiat 124 Spider offers Italian flair and sprightly performance for under £20,000
How come you can buy an enticing sports spider that taps directly into the DNA of Ferrari styling and V12 engines for little more than an MGB? That’s just one of the mysteries of the Fiat 124 Spider.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the MGB and its 1940s-derived pushrod engine. But wouldn’t you prefer a spirited, rev-happy and readily tuneable twin overhead-cam four designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who created the prodigious large-capacity Ferrari V12 race and road car engines of the 1950s, clothed in a body by the man who fashioned the Ferrari 275 GTS at Pininfarina? The similarities between that sublime million-pound Ferrari and the 124 Spider, which Tom Tjaarda penned slightly later, are plain to see.
In 1966 the new 124 Spider was a generation ahead of the well-established MGB, with all-round disc brakes, five-speed gearbox, superior appointments and comfort, and a one-handed folding convertible top that many rate as the best of its time, and infinitely superior to the MGB’s.
Even though the original 90bhp 1438cc Spider conceded nearly 400cc, it beat the Brit to 60mph in 11.9 seconds and all out, too, to 106mph. I don’t want to bash the much-adored B, but today’s ballpark market values force comparison, even though in its day the MGB was far cheaper than the Fiat – and that’s if you could have bought one in the UK. The 124 Spider was never officially listed for UK sale and was only ever produced in left-hand drive, although there are quite a few aftermarket right-hand conversions around.
However, the Spider was a hit in the USA, which accounted for around 85% of the 178,000 models produced from 1966 to 1985. There it came in cheaper than the Alfa 1600cc Duetto Spider, but had the edge in pace and, most would say, in handling too, which is sharp, nimble, chuckable and secure.
Indeed, the 124 Spider in Abarth guise was a major player in international rallies in the early ’70s, while Alfa Spiders excelled on palm-fringed Pacific coast boulevards.
Like the MGB, the Fiat Spider was produced for nearly 20 years; unlike the MGB, the Fiat was continuously developed with engines growing eventually to 2.0 litres, but bigger is not necessarily better as US cars from 1970-on were detuned, then fitted with emissions equipment that further sapped performance; however, this can easily be undone. Impact bumpers came in 1974 with higher ride height, which didn’t help handling.
In Euro spec, the 110bhp 1600 of 1970 could notch up 112mph and the 119bhp 1800 topped out at around 116mph, with a 10-second 0-60mph time. The later 2.0-litre cars, initially for the US only, couldn’t match their predecessors, but Bosch fuel injection on later cars restored some of the lost performance.
In 1982 Pininfarina, which had always made the bodies, took over full manufacture, and as a fitting swansong from 1983 to the end in ’85 produced the 135bhp, 120mph Volumex supercharged version.
The 124 Spider’s only fault perhaps is the stigma of its Fiat name. If it were an Alfa, what with all its hot-blooded connotations and romance, you’d have to pay a lot more for one. Mystery solved.
Price at launch: The 124 Spider was special order only in the UK and not officially price listed. For cost comparison when new, in the US in 1968 a Lotus Elan cost $4545, an Alfa Duetto was $3950 and the Fiat $3181. For further context a Triumph TR250 (TR5) cost $3175, with the MGB at $2670. On that basis, if listed in the UK, Fiat would most likely have pitched it below the Alfa Spider (£1895) and probably ahead of the Lotus Elan (£1598) – over £600 more than an MGB.
1980s and 1990s: In the latter part of the ’80s price guides pitched top-notch Alfa Duetto Spiders at £15,000, MGBs at £7500 and 124s at a lowly £4500; that’s just not right. In the post-boom early-’90s, Alfas dipped to £12,500, MGBs were static while the Fiat was valued at £5500, marginally up in real and relative terms, but still not right. In the UK auction arena £5250 paid in 1997 for a freshly restored 1971 Spider was top price of the decade.
Today: In 2013 at a US auction an exceptional show-winning 1969 Spider 1400 made a truly exceptional but unrepresentative £29,200; in the UK no Fiat 124 Spider has ever topped £10,000 at auction. An uprated 1967 Spider with 1800 engine that made £7920 in 2014 was a decent car. That’s still MGB money; however, very higher-quality Fiats with the trade are currently on offer at up to £22,000. A Spider 1600 at £17,000 is described as perfect, while a ‘stunning’ 1977 1800 car in UK-friendly RHD is up for £15,950.
Words: Dave Selby/Octane Magazine