If your build is more simian than hominid, you'll enjoy the angled wheel and long arms/short legs driving position
One of the most engaging things about being an automotive bottom-feeder is figuring out where to target one's attention when the object of first choice has appreciated beyond one's immediate grasp.
Previously in this column, I have suggested that those with around $25,000 to spend who are looking in vain for a Big Healey should instead look for a Triumph TR250. Frustrated 289 Cobra buyers would do better to find a nice Sunbeam Tiger Mk II than a Tupperware fakey-doo Cobra.
What to do, then, if you want a great Italian sport coupe but you missed the boat on an Alfa GTV during their recent doubling in price? Rather than settling for the GTV's successor, the homely and hopeless Alfetta Sprint, I suggest Fiat's handsome 124 Sport Coupe.
HALF THE PRICE, MOST OF THE FUN
The similarities are certainly there. Both are airy, enclosed coupes with alloy DOHC 4-cylinder motors, four-wheel disc brakes and five-speed gearboxes (first year 124s were four-speeders), and both are safe and predictable handlers. The Fiat lacks the performance of the Alfa as well as the cachet, and its boxier design is not as graceful as the Bertone-styled Alfa, but for about half the price, you get at least 75% of the experience.
The Fiat-styled 124 Sport coupe bowed in 1967, a year after the Pininfarina-styled 124 Spider. Although not technically based on the same platform as we understand the term today, they share the same powertrain, brakes, and suspension. Initially, there was a family resemblance, as the 1,438-cc "AC" series cars had a single-headlight front end similar to the Spider. Many consider these to be the prettiest and best-handling of the coupes, sort of the "step nose" Giulia of the bunch. Though they sold reasonably well, finding a good one today is a real chore.
The "BC" series coupes were introduced in 1971 with new taillights and a restyled front end, with quad headlights reminiscent of Bertone's Fiat Dino coupe. The engine was also stroked to 1,608 cc. For me, it's a toss-up between the single and quad headlight cars. Things went downhill in 1973 with a busier grille and larger (although not 5-mph) bumpers. The battering rams came a year later and lasted through the end of U.S. sales in 1975.
MAG WHEELS MAKE THE CAR
As I have said so often, the wheels make the car. The handsome coupe screams for good wheels. Factory Cromodoras like those on the Fiat Dino are rare on both the Coupe and Spider. In period, both cars were often seen with handsome, four-spoke aftermarket wheels by BWA or Libres by American Racing. Of course, Minilites or Panasports always look good on a vintage sports car. The stock steel wheels don't do the car justice.
Engine displacement was a somewhat confusing up-and-down thing, with a 1,592-cc unit replacing the 1,608-cc motor at some point in 1973 to appease the Italian taxman. In any event, the car ended its life with a 1,756-cc unit that just about kept pace with emissions and added bumper weight in 1974-75.
Interiors stayed much the same for the run of the car. They were utilitarian and not particularly rich looking, with a funky textured aluminum appliqué in place of the Spider's wood dash. However, the eyeball vents, rocker switches and full complement of nice Veglia gauges make it a more pleasant place than the cockpit of a BMW 2002.
If your build is more simian than hominid, you will probably not take issue with the angled wheel and long arms/short legs driving position the car forces you into. Hominids may do well to test-drive one before buying.
RESPONSIVE HANDLING, SMOOTH RIDE
Driving is what the 124 Sport Coupe is all about. The majority of cars were built with a close-ratio five-speed gearbox that is a pleasure. The four-wheel disc brakes have excellent pedal feel and the system includes an effective proportioning valve.
While not particularly sophisticated, the rear suspension-a live rear axle located by coil springs and a Panhard rod-is up to Alfa standards (which is to say about the best) for a non-independent setup. Like most Fiats, the 124 Coupe was a responsive handler with great steering and a smooth ride. At the limit, the cars understeered and plowed to the outside until enough speed was scrubbed off.
In 1971, Road & Track tested a 124 Coupe against an Opel GT, MGB GT, Triumph GT6 and a Datsun 240Z. The testers were surprised at how few points separated the Fiat from the vaunted 240Z. Unfortunately, it didn't matter―all of the aforementioned were casualties of all-conquering Datsun. And while the Opel, the MG, and the Triumph might have deserved their fate, I contend the Fiat did not. With a useful back seat and decent trunk space, it brought something to the table that the others couldn't. (Of course, this is coming from someone who has extolled the virtues of a Daimler SP250, so please value my judgment accordingly.)
MADE WITH LOUSY SOVIET STEEL
One thing 124s did have in common with the Datsun was rust. Finding a nice 124 coupe today is tough. Although produced in huge numbers, sometimes it seems like there are more Fiat 8Vs around than 124 coupes. Made with lousy Soviet steel, 124 coupes simply dissolved if they were anywhere with an average relative humidity of greater than 12%. The survivorship rate is minuscule.
Which gets us to the other challenge-parts. Drivetrain parts are easy and a 124 coupe suffers from the same maladies as a Spider, i.e., dodgy electricals, oil burning, blown head gaskets, and soft synchros. Trim items and body panels are unfortunately extinct. The only coupe to buy is a black/blue plate California survivor or the obsessive Fiat-weenie restored car. Do not get frustrated and buy a less-than-right car. Although rare, right 124 coupes do exist.
As for what to pay, 124 coupes trade in a thin market (SCMers Donald Osborne, Jamie Kitman, Publisher Martin, and myself may make up over half of the potential buyers). It is probably one of the few instances where a coupe is more valuable than the open car. My only advice is to remember that the field of sub-$10,000 interesting cars shrinks daily. And if a great Alfa 1750/2000 GTV is a $17,000 car, how wrong can you go paying $8,500 for a really nice Fiat 124 coupe? When you decide to move on, you can always dump it on Mssrs. Osborne, Kitman, or Sass. Martin won't pay you more than $6,000, I'm sure.