Although the "Fix It Again, Tony" reputation of these cars will not die,
at least they're cheap to repair
at least they're cheap to repair
Reviewing the Fiat 124 when new, Car and Driver wrote, "The Fiat 124 Sport Coupe costs $1,400 less than an Alfa 1750 GT Veloce and $2,300 less than a Porsche 912. Within the limits of sanity it handles just as well, it has way more useful room inside, and it even has better acceleration than the Porsche. Do we have your attention?"
Indeed, both the Fiat 124 Sport Coupe and Spider were impressive sports cars when they were introduced in 1966. Almost 40 years later, these 124s still offer loads of style and a spirited driving experience, and both models can be enjoyed on a jug-wine budget.
Based on the 124 sedan, the coupe used the same platform, allowing it to be a true four-seater. It boasted a clean, elegant, factory-built body with a large and airy greenhouse. Pininfarina built the Spider on a shortened version of the sedan chassis, with 5 1/2 inches removed from the wheelbase. This certainly enhanced its looks, but rendered the rear seating area useless. Regardless, the design was certainly one of the fabled Italian coachbuilder's best, with simple lines mixing flat and rounded surfaces in a modern fashion.
The sporting 124s featured a heavily modified version of the sedan's engine, with dual overhead cams rather than pushrods, stronger rods and shaped pistons, as well as tuned intake and exhaust ports. The result was a robust, rev-happy, 1,438-cc engine producing 96 hp with a 6,800-rpm redline. A five-speed transmission was standard in the convertible and optional in the coupe until 1969. Early cars had a torque tube rear suspension, which was replaced in 1968 with an axle with trailing arms for more predictable handling. Four-wheel disc brakes were standard on both models.
The duo went on sale in the U.S. beginning in 1968, and enjoyed long production lives, going through numerous changes in appearance and mechanical spec over the years. As with most cars of the era, these changes tended to be mostly for the worse, as the original designs succumbed to increasing emissions and safety regulation.
Under the hood, a larger 1,608-cc, 104-hp engine was fitted in 1971, a powerplant which most consider the best of those to do service in the 124, due to its free-revving nature and reliability. This was later dumped for a 96-hp, 1,756-cc unit based on the engine in the European 132 sedan, part of Fiat's effort to meet American emissions standards. Characteristically for an Italian carmaker, there is no record of when exactly the swap occurred, as both engines were fitted to cars built in 1973.
By 1976, an added smog pump dropped power to 87 hp. This is the least desirable engine, as the exhaust-cam-driven pump is prone to bearing seizure, which causes the timing belt to jump, with expectedly unfortunate results.
A 1,995-cc engine came along in 1978, yet despite the increase in size, it produced no more power. A generally undesirable automatic transmission also became available around this time. Thankfully, Bosch fuel injection debuted in 1979 and restored some of the grunt, bumping the 2-liter's output up to 102 hp.
As the 124 suffered through its crippling engine transplants, it also suffered aesthetically. The simple, single-headlight, slim-bumper look of the coupe was changed in 1970 to a less appealing design with quad headlights and a larger grille. In 1973, a heavier bumper was added, along with an even fussier grille. In the final variant launched in 1974, the car was further beaten with the ugly stick, gaining dreaded impact bumpers, larger taillights and a larger trunk lid. Over the years the coupe also lost its attractive wood-grained dashboard for a vinyl covering which finally gave way to a grooved aluminum panel.
Changes to the Spider were a bit more involved, unsurprising given its longer production run. In 1970, larger taillights with integrated backup lights were fitted, along with a mesh grille in place of the original horizontal bars. Twin "bubbles" appeared in the hood to clear the twin carburetors in 1971. The grille changed in 1974 to a black metal stamping while the bumpers gained rubber mounting blocks to meet impact standards.
In 1975, the coupe was discontinued and the aging Spider was withdrawn from the European market. It would still be sold in the U.S. for another decade, however. Even after Fiat pulled out of the U.S. entirely in 1982, Spider production continued, thanks to coachbuilder Pininfarina. It sold the car directly, now renamed "Spider Azzura," after a championship Italian racing yacht. These last cars had an attractive new dashboard and leather seats, and the diminutive rear seat was replaced with a more functional parcel shelf with covered compartments.
In looking for a 124 Sport, it's important to know that the market doesn't much value originality with these cars. Many have been modified with updated or improved mechanicals and appearance items. Sometimes the modifications have been tasteful, other times less so. What matters most is finding a car that suits your needs and budget, and as none are too expensive, that shouldn't be too hard if you're patient.
Although the "Fix It Again, Tony" reputation of these cars will not die, it's not that tragic, so long as you have a Tony in your neck of the woods. These are not only cheap cars, but cheap cars to repair.
The engines are all quite durable and can cover 100,000 miles without major issues if they're well maintained, excepting the aforementioned issues with the smog pump. Cam belts should be replaced every 30k miles to be safe. The synchromesh in the transmissions can also be a concern, mostly from owners using the incorrect fluid.
Rust can affect the suspension towers and rear suspension trailing arm mounting points, as well as the inner fenders, floor pan and rockers. This is obviously a greater concern in the Spiders, where leaky tops tend to compromise sealing. Trim and switchgear are not of a high quality, and an original car will likely need many of these parts replaced.
Parts support for the 124 is excellent, however, with a number of different sources serving a fairly large market. An active club, Fiat Lancia Unlimited (better known as "FLU") hosts many events for these Fiats, as well as the Lancia Beta models that share their engines. FLU owners tend to use their cars in rallies, tours and autocross events, rather than the typical "fluff and buff" car shows.
It is on the road that the Fiat Sports are at their best, where their light, quick feel makes them great fun to drive. The Sport Coupe is one of the few genuine four-seater GT cars for the family man enthusiast, while the Spider is as beautiful as any Pinifarina-designed Ferrari. While there is little prospect of long-term appreciation for either model, miles of enjoyable, affordable pleasure await anyone who parks one in their garage.