89 HP doesn’t seem like much to motivate a sportscar around, but the DOHC engine also produced 80 ft. lb. of torque to move a 2,083 lb. car. For comparison, a 1966 Corvette weighed just under 3,500 lbs., even with its lightweight fiberglass body, and a 1966 Mustang with a base 200 cu. in. 6-cylinder that made 31 more HP than the Spider tipped the scales at 2610 lbs., nearly a third more than the Spider. It was no Ferrari, but it was a capable little Italian convertible sports car for the time, designed by renowned Italian coach maker Pininfarina…and could be had for considerably less than Ferrari money, about $3,200 new. A new Ferrari 275 GTS would set you back north of $14,000 in 1966, but that also got you a 260HP Ferrari V-12. For comparison a 1966 Mustang convertible was $2,759 and the ’66 Corvette Stingray convertible was about $4,500. Its main Italian rival, the Alfa Romeo Spider (also later known as the “Graduate” model after the 1967 film starring Dustin Hoffman, who drove one in the film) was similarly priced to the Fiat at about $3,000.
A notable feature of the car was a very easy-to-use manual convertible top. While we take easy-to-use convertible tops, mostly power-operated, for granted nowadays, the ragtops of the time were cumbersome, ungainly and required considerable effort to operate. The Spider’s top, on the other hand, could be put up by the driver while seated behind the wheel at a stoplight…with one hand.
The 124 Sport Spider went through five build series’ in its 19 year run. They were labeled AS, BS, BS1, CS, and CSA.
The earliest AS models were powered by the initial 1,438 cc DOHC engine connected to a 4-speed manual transmission. A 5-speed manual was optional and later became standard. The rear axle and drive wheels were connected to the transmission via a torque tube, which tended to crack and was replaced in the next series. The AS series also had smaller taillights than the later models and an egg-crate grill. AS series cars arrived in the United States in 1968.
BS-series cars switched to the familiar mesh grill in 1969 and sported black-rimmed gauges in the dashboard. These were produced alongside AS-series cars for the first six months of 1970 and utilized the same engine.
The BS1 series in July of 1970 heralded a new 1.6 liter (1,608 cc) engine with a 19-HP boost to 108. It can be identified by twin humps on the hood and rubber bumper guards on the bumpers.
The CS series arrived in 1972 and went to the end of production in 1985. Engines gradually increased in size to 1,756cc, then 1,995cc in 1979 when the model was called the Spider 2000. Unfortunately due to US emissions regulations the 2-liter DOHC engine with its smaller US-spec carburetor actually made less HP than the 1966 1.5-liter engine: 82HP vs. 89HP. The non-US models without the stringent emissions requirements and larger carbs made about 120HP. Even the fuel-injected model released in 1981 didn’t make much improvement in performance. In an attempt to achieve some sort of parity with the European models that had a 38HP advantage over their US cousins a turbocharged model called the Spider 2000 Turbo was unveiled in 1982 that produced 120HP. Only 700 of these were made before Fiat pulled out of the North American market in 1982, making them the rarest 124 Sport Spider models. Few remain in existence.
US Cars built from 1975 onwards had Federally-mandated 5MPH safety bumpers that were ugly, ungainly, added weight and cluttered the svelte good looks of the Spider. (See picture above)
The CSA series was a limited run of less than 1000 units produced to fulfill homologation requirements for the rally version produced in 1972. Also known as the Abart Spider Rally, the suspension was upgraded to an independent rear that replaced the solid-axle rears of normal production cars and a re-worked 1.8 liter engine. This engine produced 128HP in the street versions, but the full-race models eventually sported 16-valve engines producing nearly 200HP by the time they were replaced on the rally circuit by the Lancia Stratos in 1975.
With Fiat having left the North American market in 1982 and Pininfarina ending production of the Lancia Montecarlo, Pininfarina decided to take over full production of the 124 Sport Spider instead of just building the bodies. The new car was christened the Pininfarina Azzurra and was mostly the same Fiat Spider 2000 with the exception of a new center stack in the interior and larger front brakes. The Azzurra was discontinued in 1985 and it would be 31 years before the US market saw another Fiat 124.
The 124 Spider returned to US shores as a re-bodied Mazda MX-5 Miata in 2016. This version has a different, 1368cc (1.4 liter) 160 HP turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine than the 4th-generation Miata as well as tuned shock absorbers. The engine uses variable valve timing to control air intake to the cylinders throughout the powerband. It’s also slightly longer than the Miata and has more cargo capacity. The Fiata, as fans call it, has a completely different body than the Mazda with styling cues from the original 124 Sport Spider even though they were made in the same Mazda plant in Hiroshima.
An Abarth version of the 124 Sport only gained 8 HP from the original, although it does manage 0-60MPH in 6.8 seconds with a 144 MPH top speed. The package came with heated leather/microfiber seats with optional all-leather Recaro seats and 17-inch wheels. A wide black racing stripe on the hood and trunk was also optional. In 2016 a limited edition of 124 cars commemorating the 50th anniversary of the original 124 Sport Spider was produced with upgraded trim, chromed mirrors, red paint, a black leather interior, a numbered plaque on the interior and a red “124” badge on the grill.
My very first car was a blue 1972 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, upon which the Spider is based. My father brought it over from Germany where he drove it for the few years we were there, so it was a Euro-spec car unburdened by pesky US emissions regulations and had a pretty stout little 1800 cc four-cylinder mated to a 5-speed manual transmission…enough to beat the son of the local Chevrolet dealer in a drag race with his brand-new Camaro Berlinetta, which had the worst of the 1970’s Chevrolet V-8s, the 305. His engine had a puny 135 HP to push the 3,500 lb. Camaro to a 1/4 mile time of over 19 seconds. My Fiat only had 117 HP, but weighed less than 2,200 lbs. and had a 1/4 mile time of 17.1 seconds. Imagine the shock on the rich boy’s face when my 6-year-old four-cylinder Fiat blew away his brand-new Camaro. It was priceless.
I had the opportunity to buy a Sport Spider back in the late ’80s, but I passed on it in favor of my Datusn 280ZX. I got the better car, although I paid much more for it than I would have the Spider. Sometimes I wish I had bought the Fiat just the same. ✪