Beyond performance, two of the most sought after attributes a car can have are beauty and rarity. With only around 200 left in the country (most of which are left hand drive), and its sexy, red, Italian curves, this 1972 Fiat 124 Sport Spider ticks both boxes with ease.
Design and Styling
With classic round head lights and a sloping bonnet between them the Spider has a compact, elegant nose, not unlike that of an MGB. In fact, one could be forgiven for mistaking the two upon first glance. However, the Spider is distinctively longer and lower in appearance. The main curve from the headlights continues rearward, kicking up by the door handle to form slight shoulders astride the boot lid. This hint at the American market in which the car was so popular, doesn’t detract from its Italian grace, as it manages to square off at the boot while retaining a balanced aesthetic.
The wide mesh front grill and twin flared bonnet humps give promise to that fact that the Spider isn’t just a pretty face. The car looks well balanced on its alloy wheels and equally raring to go with the roof up or down.
You’re charmed as you enter the 124. It’s a wonderful mix of clutter free, clean lines, dials, wood, leather and the occasional touch of chrome trim. As such it’s both practical and avoids looking dated. The interior light set down by the heater matrix warmly reflects off the wood of the centre console like a tiny fireplace.
Shut the door, and after adjusting to it’s over friendly proximity, you’re cocooned within. With neat yet spacious cubby holes by your feet, any small items you deposit here will feel as cosseted as you do, especially since the heater works so well; perfect for extending those top-down cruises on into the Autumn.
Weather permitting; the ease with which the soft top can be folded down is about as good as it gets without modern buttons and motors. It’s probably quicker than most as well. Two catches above your head allow you to send it all aft, where the rear quarter glass panels slide back into the body beside a neat stack of roof.
The only real drawback is that there’s a fair amount of vibration a slower speeds, not through the controls but elsewhere in the cabin. Even with the roof secured, the rear view mirror for example moved around so much it was only good for seeing whether you had open road behind you or “something” else.
While the back end is beautifully formed, the boot lid doesn’t promise much in the way of space beneath. Despite this and the fact that the boot is rather shallow, there’s more space than first anticipated. Absent of modern plastic trim and bulky bodywork there’s certainly enough space for or a weekend away for two, or modest day luggage for the four potential occupants. Space is however, very limited in the back seats.
Cost of Ownership
Clearly we’re not talking about a cheap runabout but fuel costs for a start really aren’t that bad, with most seeing an average somewhere around 30mpg (UK gallons). Most parts are reasonably accessible with plenty of opportunities to pilfer from other Fiat models.
Specialist help will be inevitable for some tasks but on the whole a capable home-mechanic will be able to undertake most maintenance and repairs with a little resourcefulness. This all comes down to the reliability and comprehensiveness of the car’s history. With most being imported a good picture of the car’s past is essential in knowing what needs doing or may go wrong.
One area to check properly is the structure and body, as 124’s were made vulnerable to rust, so cars from coastal or damper climes are best avoided. Get all the above in check however, and you have a reliable classic daily driver.
Prices, Options and Variants
The 124 Spider’s life began in 1966 with a 1400cc twin cam engine and while this Spider is badged as the successive 1600cc it actually has a later 1800cc engine. A 2000cc engine completed the line up in 1978 and the car was available till 1985.
A 124 saloon will set you back around £4,000-6,000 for a decent example, yet as with any rare classic, prices for the Spider can vary wildly according to age, condition and history, swinging wildly either side the £10k mark.
Around 90 percent were sold in the USA and they were popular too in Germany. Either way this means that most were left hand drive, although conversions are not difficult. There are also subtle differences too between the European versions and American counterparts, most noticeably in the larger bumpers and larger rectangular indicators fitted to American models.
Safety and Security
Suffice to say that with a classic sports car of this age, safety and security are low on the agenda. On the plus side, the car’s ease of driving, generally good visibility and braking power to weight ratio make for a classic that’s better able to avoid an accident than many.
As for security: Well it’s a soft top, with no alarm as standard. Extra security has been fitted to our test example, but this is no substitute for a locked garage, as would be the advice for any rare classic.
Behind the Wheel
I’d prepared to tread carefully, keep my wits about me, brake early, leave space and be on the ball with the controls for our testing. I’d done so needlessly. Yes you do need to brake a little earlier, as although modulation is excellent and the brakes are well assisted by the servo, they did harden off a little when pushed. And you can’t go tearing off like a bull in a Lambo (excuse the pun), but beyond this the 124 Spider was as easy to drive as a modern car. There was no shock feedback through the wheel leaving me scrabbling at the controls, no feeling like something would fail or need nursing and this inspired the confidence needed in the car to really enjoy the drive.
Suspension and Steering
With new suspension shocks fitted and a number of bushes replaced I was confident that any misgivings about the ride could have had little to do with wear. Nevertheless I’d prepared myself to be avoiding pot holes and bumps if only to be respectful to the car. However, while clearly not as responsive as modern suspension, the 124 ironed out bumps with ease. In fact, cruising down not the flattest of tree-lined roads between 30 and 60mph it rode like a magic carpet. In such a setting you can really see why these cars were so popular as a 70’s coastal cruiser in the States.
Surely then limitations would be revealed in cornering; but again the handling was admirable. Stable through the bends and even changing lanes at pace on the motorway there was no concern or lack of confidence.
Tighter corners at appropriate speeds were negotiated easily too with the car sticking succinctly to its lines. I daren’t push it too hard for obvious reasons but only during the odd moment of spirited cornering was I reminded that yes, it’s 40 plus years old and won’t handle like a go-kart. Mind you it’s almost as tough to steer at slow speeds and a bit of muscle is required for parking manoeuvres. This was a common complaint about the car, even at the time of its release. It’s likely down to its worm driven steering box, which while offering a mechanical advantage for heavy trucks, makes for tough parking when applied to a light car and geared up in favour of the smooth cornering it offers at speed. That said, there was very limited play from neutral, and steering was very responsive on the move.
Engine, Gearbox and Performance
As with any classic car of this age I was conservative with my expectations for performance and naturally wary of over exerting such a well cared for example.
“Don’t be afraid of taking it to the red line if you need to!” Said Mike the owner. I didn’t need to. Joining the dual carriage way the chain driven 1800 engine put out plenty of torque and pulled up to speed as easily as the average modern car.
Moving on up the rev range the exhaust lets out a very satisfying throb which develops into a throaty howl at the end of each gear. It’s a sound befitting the car’s aesthetic appeal, both of which turn heads.
The gearbox feels sturdy and positive. You can hear what sound like heavily engineered components being lined up for another dose of raspy torque. This adds to the cacophony of other noises and vibrations and I couldn’t help being reminded for a minute of driving old vans round my father’s work yard. However, not only is such a comment a little unfair for a car of this age but you just don’t care! As soon as you leave the traffic behind you’re more focussed on the rest of the driving experience. Once you accelerate, the exhaust sound takes over, and with the roof down the problem is alleviated.
I really enjoyed my time in the Spider. It surpassed all my expectations. Elegant looks yet a raucous exhaust note makes it feel like a special place to be, while comfort for cruising, sharp handling and effortless power made it a doddle to drive. It’s an experience everyone should have at least once in their life and one I shan’t forget.