Why We Love the Original Fiat 124 Spider
This week, we tried to cover all corners of the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, but no matter how hard we tried, we kept coming back to one car. The all-new Fiat 124 Spider is a retro-inspired little roadster that has captivated the automotive press. Why is this little ragtop with only four cylinders under the hood stealing all the headlines? Allow us to explain. RELATED: Here's What a New Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Could Look Like
The Fiat 124 was originally a compact family car that was built between 1966 and 1974. The original hatchback was introduced with the marketing stunt of dropping it out of a plane and having it land with the help of a parachute. A Spider variant was released the same year, at the ’66 Turin Auto Show. It had a 2+2 layout with a mostly unusable back seat, but that didn’t really matter.
Unlike the utilitarian hatchback, the 124 Spider was an exercise in Italian driving passion, but without the high prices of a Ferrari. The body was crafted by famed Italian design house Pininfarina. The design was penned by Tom Tjaarda, who created the lines for cars like the VW Karmann Ghia, Ferrari 330 GT 2+2 Series 1 and countless other sports cars through the years. Tjarrda said he used elements from his creations, the Chevrolet Corvette “Rondine,” and Ferrari 275 GTS. You can see bits of those cars in the 124 Spider.
Engines were never potent with the Spider, and there was a long, slow creep up to any relevant power. The 124 Spider originally featured a tiny little 1,438cc that made a scant 89 horsepower. In ’71 that would climb to 1608cc, and a robust 108 horsepower. 1974 saw the engine size expand to 1756cc. Some 1976-78 models featured Weber carbs helping it achieve a whole 116 horses!
RELATED: See Photos of the 1966 Fiat 124 Sport Spider
Fiat also released a 124 Abarth Rally version back in 1972. The idea was to homologate for FIA racing sanctions. It featured a 1756cc engine that put out a robust 126 horsepower, and featured all manner of drivetrain and chassis upgrades. Just 500 were sold in the domestic Italian market.
In 1979, the displacement for the non-Abarth models would grow to 1995cc. Early models would have a carburetor, but would eventually gain electronic fuel injection in early 1980, resulting in an output of 102 horsepower.
In 1983, the company that originally designed the 124 Spider would take over construction. Pininfarina took over marketing the car, and was sold until 1985 as the Pininfarina Spider Azzura.
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For a long time, the 124 Spider was not a beloved choice among classic car enthusiasts, but as prices for just about everything has gone up, the 124 has become a very attractive option for those looking to enjoy a fun little Italian roadster. Just be prepared to do a little restoration work.
The old acronym for Fiat was “Fix It Again, Tony.” While that is not exactly the most appropriate term, it certainly conveys the obvious truth that for years, like many Italian cars, the 124 Spider suffered from various mechanical and electrical issues. According to a Hemmings article by Craig Fitzgerald, many of those electrical issues can be traced to a corroded ground. The engine ins ’74 to ’76 models also featured a smog pump driven by the exhaust cam. That pump was prone to seizing, which could make the timing belt jump. Those can be expensive fixes for what was supposed to be an affordable old car.
RELATED: See more images of the all-new 2017 Fiat 124 Spider
But if you are over doing your own repairs and want a car that has all that passion, but in a newer, safert, more tech-savvy car, the new Fiat 124 is the best of both worlds. And we have to imagine if you can afford it (pricing is not yet been announced) the 2017 Fiat is such a better car to live with if you’re driving it every day.
If you look at the new Fiat 124 Spider, you can see many design elements of the old car. The rounded LED mimics the circular headlights of the original, and makes the same pinch towards the wedge-like upper grille area. The hood features the two character bulges that run front to back, and you can see them clearly on both models. You can even see the rear character line that starts above the taillights and meets at the kink above the door handles. It is incredible what a faithful interpretation of the original 124.
Why are we so amped about the return of the 124 Spider? For starters, there is something of a “full-circle” moment right now. The Mazda Miata has been the torch-bearer for nimble, fun roadsters for more than 20 years. And the Miata was developed with cars like the 124 Spider in mind. There is a sweet irony in the fact that the new 124 Spider runs on the platform of the latest Mazda Miata.
More than 200,000 examples of the Fiat 124 were built through 1985. 75 percent of those cars were built for the American market.
RELATED: Here's what a 2017 Fiat 124 Spider Abarth Could Look Like