Fiat 124 Sport Spider front exterior

Fiat 124 Sport Spider

BUYER’S GUIDE

Fiat 124 Sport Spider Review

More sophisticated than contemporary British rivals, the Fiat 124 Sport Spider is a more stylish way to live the ‘60s roadster dream…

What Is It?

British roadsters from the likes of MG, Triumph and others may have been hugely popular in their day but the Italians were arguably doing it with more style and rather more modern and sophisticated engineering. Take the Fiat 124 Sport Spider, launched the same year as the Alfa Romeo Spider and, from the start, packing a feisty twin-cam engine, five-speed gearbox and disc brakes all round.

While it shared underpinnings with the 124 saloon, the timeless quality of the crisp Pininfarina lines ensured a long lifespan stretching nearly 20 years from its 1966 unveiling and all the way into the mid-1980s. Engines grew from the 1.4 original up to 2.0 litres for the later ones, carburettors were replaced with fuel-injection and later gained turbo- and supercharging for some models. 

Corrosive Areas

Sills

Front crossmember

Front suspension turrets

Checklist

  • 124 Sport Spider (often just shortened to ‘124 Spider’) enjoyed a long life over four main evolutions, often referred to as AS, BS1, CS and CSA
  • Styled by Pininfarina’s Tom Tjaarda, the coachbuilder eventually took over production from Fiat in the early 1980s, meaning later cars were rebadged as the Pininfarina Spider or Spider Europa
  • First cars used a 1.4-litre twin-cam engine, the five-speed gearbox using a torque-tube mounted propshaft to drive the coil-sprung live axle at the rear
  • Torque tubes were found to crack and dropped for the BS1 second-generation, reverting to a more conventional ‘open’ propshaft
  • 1970 model year updates included a new honeycomb style grille, a 1.6-litre engine option and bonnet bulges to clear its twin carburettors – some aficionados considering this the sweet spot of the range
  • 1972 update introduces new 1600 and 1800 single-carb engines from the Fiat 132, power dropping slightly
  • European sales paused in 1975; US-market 2.0-litre engine introduced in 1978 but ride height raised for crash regs and power output strangled by emissions regulations – these modifications can be difficult to reverse so cars of this era are less desirable than later fuel-injected Spider 2000s
  • Fuel-injection introduced in 1980 and restores power output to where it was; semi-official US market retrofit Turbo model introduced, followed by a small number of supercharged examples
  • Fiat twin-cam one of the first mainstream engines to use rubber timing belts – if there’s no evidence of these having been recently changed budget to do this job immediately upon purchase and stick to the service intervals for future replacement
  • Engines generally tough when looked after properly and well-understood; check for usual signs of overheating or head gasket failure
  • Low sump is vulnerable to grounding so check for serious oil leaks and obvious signs of serious damage
  • Rust can strike anywhere – if you can see it in obvious spots on the outside it could be a sign of worse underneath or within
  • Serious structural corrosion can present as poor vertical alignment on door shuts
  • Sill covers can be unbolted to check for corrosion beneath
  • Front suspension turrets another known corrosion weakspot and difficult and expensive to repair; while there check state of bolt-on lower crossmember, which can come loose
  • Loose connections can play havoc with electrics – dim headlights are common but other issues may require a methodical check of all connections and grounds

How does it drive?

Very much as you’d expect of a ‘60s Italian car, the revvy twin-cam at the Fiat 124’s heart was originally developed under former Ferrari man Aurelio Lampredi and as enthusiastic and characterful as you’d hope. Even the original 1.4-litre version was doing around 90PS (66kW), the first of the 1.6s taking that to 110PS (81kW) and all but the sluggish automatics driving the coil-sprung live-axle at the back via a five-speed gearbox.

These early cars are popular with the purists, later models somewhat less enthusiastic until the arrival of fuel-injection in 1980. Fundamentally, though, the 124 is small, light and fun to drive with performance, braking and handling that still make sense on modern roads. Little wonder it was one of the major inspirations for the first-generation MX-5, much of the Spider’s spirit reimagined in the iconic Mazda. A debt repaid some years later when Mazda supplied MX-5 foundations for a reborn – if sadly short-lived – modern day 124 Spider.

 What’s good?

The 124 Spider might not look much like a Lada but both were spun off the same Fiat foundations, taking them in rather different directions but, by degree of separation, loosely including it in one of the most produced car platforms in history.

That’s about where the similarities end, the Spider’s shorter wheelbase and timelessly elegant Pininfarina bodywork adding up to beautifully crisp proportions that barely changed over its long life. So elegant, in fact, even the addition of American impact bumpers didn’t ruin the looks the way they did with many other European imports of the day.

That long life means plenty of expertise supporting restorations or upkeep, albeit much of it Stateside where the vast majority of production ended up. OK, the badge may not be the most exotic. But the provenance of its engine and styling more than make up for it, life in the shadows of its sexier Alfa Romeo contemporary meaning the Spider was for a time somewhat under-appreciated.

What’s bad?

It’s an Italian car of a certain age, so the script pretty much writes itself. And if the rust doesn’t drive you to despair the flaky wiring might just. Given its popularity in the States the usual advice might be to source your car from a dry state in the hope of finding one relatively free of rot, but legend has it the cars were often shipped across the Atlantic in the open air and then undersealed on arrival, trapping sea salt underneath with predictable results.

Then there’s the fact many US market cars were strangled by anti-smog rules until fuel-injection arrived, making them slower than earlier cars or European-market models. Speaking of which all Spiders are left-hand drive as well, which may or may not be an issue for you. Some have been converted into right-hand drive but, frankly, it seems more trouble than it’s worth.  

Which model to choose?

In the way of things purists will inevitably chase the purest expression of any given model, which in the 124 Spider’s case means the cleaner, more delicate looking ‘60s cars with the original 1.4-litre engine or significantly feistier twin-carb 1.6-litre from the second series.

Look out for the distinctive bulges on the bonnet, post-1972 1.6 and 1.8-litre cars still appealing but slightly less zesty. With European sales ending in 1975 (before resuming in 1981) anything from this period will likely be an American import and potentially strangled by smog-restricted engines, even on the 2.0-litre cars.

If you’re heading in that direction better to hold out for a post-1980 Spider 2000 with fuel-injection, the curiosity value of the run-out Turbo or supercharged models there for the real superfans while the 124 Rally is a properly exotic homologation special.  

Specifications – 1969 Spider 1600

Engine

1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol

Power

110PS (81kW) @ 6,400rpm

Torque

137Nm (101lb ft) @ 3,800rpm

Transmission

 Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Kerb weight

c. 950kg

0-62mph

c. 10sec

Top speed

c. 114mph

Production dates

1966 – 1985 (all models, including Pininfarina-built versions)

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