Hero Of Two Worlds: The Fiat 124 Sport Spider
With a production run spanning almost two decades, during which nearly 200.000 units were made, the 124 Spider is a beloved Fiat classic that enjoys a strong following on both sides of the Atlantic...
...Yet few people know that the timeless lines of this most Italian of automobiles were actually penned by an American for a Corvette!
Our story began in the spring of 1963, when the legendary GM design supremo Bill Mitchell sent a brand new Corvette Sting Ray to Pininfarina, with orders to turn it into a show prototype in time for the Paris motor show in the fall of the same year.
Mitchell was interested in seeing an Italian take on America's sports car, but little did he know that once that Corvette arrived at Pininfarina, the task of designing a new body for it fell onto another American: Tom Tjaarda from Detroit, Michigan.
The result was the beautiful Corvette Rondine, whose name is the Italian for "swallow" and was inspired by the car's peculiar rear-end design, reminiscent of the bird's tail.
The Rondine was shown at the Paris show as planned, and although the GM top brass was happy with the exercise, the Rondine was always meant to remain a one-off. It stayed in Pininfarina's possession until it was sold to a private collector in 2008.
GM's loss, Fiat's gain.
However, a few months later, Fiat came knocking at Pininfarina's door with the express request to adapt the Rondine's design for a spider derivative of its upcoming 124 family sedan. The result was presented in the fall of 1966 as the 124 Sport Spider, and, much to Tom Tjaarda and Pininfarina's credit, little of the Rondine's flair was lost despite the two cars' very different proportions and the project's cost limitations.
Under the 124 Sport Spider's hood sat a 1.4 liters inline-4 twin-cam engine rated at 90 HP at 6500 Rpm, sent to the rear wheels via a five-speed manual transmission.
This engine married the existing 124 engine's cast iron cylinder block to a new aluminum twin-cam cylinder head, and, for the first time on a Fiat engine, the two camshafts were operated via a timing belt instead of the traditional chain.
Derivatives of this unit would power all subsequent versions of the 124 Spider and spawn an entire family of twin-cam engines whose production lasted into the 1990s that are commonly referred to by the name of Fiat's legendary engine designer Aurelio Lampredi.
The first significant evolution of the model arrived in late 1969 at the Turin motor show, which saw the debut of the 124 Sport Spider 1600, equipped with the 1.6 liters twin-cam engine from the 125 Special and sporting a new egg-crate grille, larger taillights, and the now-iconic twin power bulges on the bonnet.
The 124 Sport Spider then received another performance boost in 1972, thanks to the fitment of the 1.8 liters version of the twin-cam engine from the new Fiat 132 sedan. However, that wasn't accompanied by any significant change in the model's exterior appearance.
After decades on the sidelines, the early 1970s saw Fiat's return to direct involvement in international motorsport following the purchase of Abarth as a more or less direct consequence of the sharp rise in popularity of rallies and the valuable promotional return that success in the discipline could provide.
Fiat's weapon of choice became the 124 Abarth Rally: a lighter and more powerful homologation special introduced in 1972 whose most important prerogative was the adoption of a completely new rear suspension with McPherson struts in place of the original live axle.
Despite stiff competition, Fiat's works team managed to win the European Rally Championship twice with the 124 Abarth Rally, first in 1972, then in 1975, the last year before the 131 took over the role of defending Fiat's honor on the world's rally stages.
Hero of two worlds
The end of 1975 also marked the 124 Sport Spider's exit from Fiat's catalog, at least in the home market.
However, demand for the 124 Spider from the US market remained strong enough for Fiat to maintain the model in production, which meant complying with increasingly stringent Federal environmental and safety legislation.
These later cars are known among Italian enthusiasts as "Spider America," even though the term was never officially used. They are recognizable at a glance by the raised ride height, side marker lights, and chunky bumpers, all of which did nothing for the car's look.
Choked by primitive smog equipment and fitted with a single small carburetor and a mild camshaft profile, the federalized 1.8 liters twin-cam engine only produced about 85 HP, and the 2.0 liters that replaced it from 1978 did no better. Things improved in 1981, when the adoption of Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection brought the engine's output to a more respectable 105 ponies.
The year 1982 saw Pininfarina (which manufactured the 124 Spider's bodyshell since its inception) take over the model's production and commercialization following Fiat's exit from the US market, while also making it available again to European buyers as the "Spidereuropa."
In 1983 Pininfarina offered a limited run of Spidereuropa Volumex, equipped with a supercharged version of the twin-cam 2.0 liters engine rated at 135 HP. This was never made available to US customers, for which a turbo conversion was offered instead, developed by the firm Legend Industries.
Production of the 124 Spider finally ended in 1985.
By then, the model was way beyond its sell-by date anyways, and the demise of the last rear-wheel-drive Fiat sedans meant Pininfarina lost the supply of engines and transmissions from which the Spider's production depended.
Thirty years later, Fiat revived the 124 Spider nameplate for a new small roadster developed with Mazda, but that's a story for another time...