Culture

The Poor Man’s Ferrari

Most of us can only look at the glorious automobiles in Becky Graebner’s PJ Lifestyles article “A Handsome Stable: The 10 Most Beautiful Ferrari Road Cars” and drool. Heck, that may even be true for Becky! But what if you could own and drive a car that shared many of the Ferrari’s traits – even some of the same body and engine designers– without taking out a second mortgage or having to dip into the kid’s college fund?

Well, actually you can. That car is the FIAT 124 Sport Spider.

First shown at the Turin Motor Show in 1966, the FIAT 124 Sport Spider stayed in production until 1985. Yes, it was that good. And that beautiful.

Comparing a FIAT 124 Spider to a Ferrari is not as farfetched as it might seem. The 124’s lithesome body was designed and manufactured by the same Torino carrozzeria (“coachbuilder”) – Pininfarina — as many of the most desirable Ferraris. And its motor, a lively and very advanced for its time dual overhead cam 4 cylinder, was designed by Aurelio Lampredi of Ferrari 12 cylinder racing engine fame.

Even a quick look at the FIAT 124 Sport Spider makes its Pininfarina origin obvious.  Enough so, that you don’t have to squint too hard to see it as the cousin of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GT.

Spiders Front (1)SpiderS - Rear

Owning a FIAT 124 Sport Spider brings a joy, however, all its own – one without many of the ‘hassles’ (to say nothing of the costs) that come with owning a classic Ferrari. For while the latter often has to remain, due to its extraordinary value, locked in a climate controlled garage, the “lowly” FIAT is perfectly suited to drive, and drive hard, on a twisty two-lane road. There its little twin cam four is at its best, revving through the gears with a sound that is pure music. Its five-speed transmission is perhaps a bit notchy by today’s standards (as, indeed, would be the transmission of a Ferrari from the period), but mastering it is not difficult, and doing so is a large part of the joy of driving a classic sports car.

When, back in 2003, Classic Motorsports magazine did a comparison test of restored Drop-Top `60s Roadsters the FIAT 124 Sport Spider came out on top. The magazine’s editors praised “its tightness and driving pleasure” and took special note of the “awesome” revviness of its motor. In fact, so much did Classic Motorsports magazine’s testers love the Spider that the article ends with one of them commenting “I couldn’t get the car out of my mind all night. I’ve decided I’m going to buy it.”

For the author, who has owned the pictured example – a 1977 model – for over 25 years, certain other pleasures unique to the FIAT 124 Sport Spider repeatedly come to mind. One is its on-the-road comfort.  This is no small thing, as many classic sports cars from the period are famed for being just the opposite – leaving their drivers feeling spent and bent like a pretzel after even a short time behind the wheel. So comfortable is the FIAT Spider that the author and his wife think nothing of packing a picnic lunch, strapping the basket to the Spider’s rear deck cargo rack, and heading out for a long day’s drive in the country. Then, upon getting home six, eight, or more hours later, finding themselves feeling refreshed and looking forward to the next weekend when perhaps they can share the roads they have discovered with other Spider enthusiasts.

Another thing unique to the FIAT Spider is its easy to put down convertible top.  Undo two latches, reach up, and give it a rearward throw.  So quickly can this be done that you can even do it while stopped at a traffic light!

Putting the top up is not much harder. Just unstrap and uncover the top (if the straps and boot cover are in place), and with one hand lift the top back up. Two quick throws of the latches and the car is again water tight. Even the rear windows go down and up with the top! No other car, to this day, has an equally simple and effective convertible top design.

The price of FIAT Spiders remain amazingly low. A clean and road-worthy example can sometimes be found for as little as $6000-8000. And parts, for the most part, are easily available and inexpensive. -Something that one will never be able to say about a classic Ferrari.

So stop your drooling! The road awaits you! Classic Italian style, fun and performance are available to you now. Along with the joy of hearing almost daily shouts from other motorists … “Hey mister!  Nice car!”

Spyder with Cody