By on December 31, 2010


OK, we’ll admit that the ’75 Fiat 124 Spider was ridiculously underpowered with just 86 horsepower out of its Twin Cam engine, but compare that to the 62.5 horsepower of the ’75 MGB, a car so miserable that its manufacturer couldn’t afford to round the power figure down a half-horse.

This car scaled in at a lightweight 2,320 pounds, so it wasn’t quite as poky as the power numbers might suggest.

I’ve been seeing junked 124 Spiders quite regularly for decades now; my theory is that every 124 Spider still on the planet is now sitting in a back yard, waiting to be scrapped. You see one on the street every now and then, and some brave souls even race the things.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

51 Comments on “When 86 Horsepower Was More Than Enough For a Sports Car!...”


  • avatar
    bufguy

    Actually 86 hp is not ridiculously low for the time and especially the weight. I just bought a 1981 VW Scirocco S with a 1.7 L, 74 hp engine. It weighs less than 2000lbs. Although its not fast its pretty peppy, nimble and a lot of fun.
    What’s amazing is that I have a BMW Z4 coupe that is no larger yet it weighs 3200lbs.

    • 0 avatar
      mnm4ever

      An 81 Scirocco was my first car!  God I loved that thing, was so cool… much cooler than the GTIs that were so popular at that time.  Where did you find one??  I never see them…

    • 0 avatar
      MarcKyle64

      My uncle had one of these Fiats for 20 years. He put two Webers and some other stuff on it. It was that British racing green color and the top was tan. He was always working on it, but it kept running. It was fun to ride in and had a great sound from the motor when he’s accelerate.

      My father had a choice between one of the last ’79 Beetle convertibles, a ’80 Scirocco and a ’80 4 door Rabbit when he went shopping at the VW dealer in late ’79.  Why he chose the Rabbit I don’t know.

      • 0 avatar
        RayinBC

        I had the lighter Sports Coupe,a ’74. The first owner took it to a speed shop,by pulling the air pump,rejetting the 2 barrel Weber and cranking 8deegrees of advance,he claimed 98HP at the rear wheels and a 17second 1/4 mile.

    • 0 avatar
      SilverCoupe

      My thoughts exactly!  I had a ’75 Scirocco, which to the best of my recollection had 78 horsepower, and I got more speeding tickets in that car [3] than in any car that I have had since.  Of course, I was younger than than I ever have been since, too!
      Still, I was happy to trade it in after six years on an ’84 Chrysler Laser Turbo, which had almost twice the horsepower, at 142.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?
     
    When your car’s a featherweight you don’t need a crazy amount of HP.  That thought ran through my head watching the episode of TopGear US were they were hooning an old Pontiac Fiero and I remembered that some individuals had dropped supercharged 3800s and Northstar V8s into them.  Talk about power to weight ratio!

    • 0 avatar

      Except that a Fiero isn’t as featherweight as you might think. Steel spaceframe + plastic panels + early 80s GM engineering = 2500-2800 lb. curb weight. Light compared to say, a modern midsize sedan, but downright portly compared to a contemporary MR2 or CRX.

  • avatar
    twotone

    I owned three Fiat Spyders here in Denver during the late 1970′s – early 1980′s — two 1600 and one 1800. They were all great cars, ran forever and I could wrench them myself.  Having Apple Motors (Fiat, Yugo, Lancia parts importer) here in town certainly helped me keep them road worthy. The biggest Fiat disappointment was the 2000 turbo — gutless. Denver Fiats did not have the tin worm problem of east coast cars. They rusted out sitting on the dealer’s lots.
     
    Twotone
     

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I remember Apple Motors. I bought a number of items for them when my local foreign car parts stores and junkyards didn’t have/couldn’t get parts for my Yugos. I lived in Atlanta at the time and there were times Bayless told me they couldn’t or didn’t have parts; I ended up doing a search on AOL (this is how long ago this took place) and found Apple Motors. IIRC, they were pretty reasonably priced, too.
       
      I check their website every so often, but I haven’t seen a Yugo on their site in years. They offered a Fiat X1/9 motored (1500 cc?) Yugo that made something like 75HP, compared to the stock Yugo (1100cc, 55 HP) several times on their website. It would have been fun in an ironic sort of way to buy it, but I had other places to spend my money. Wait, did I say I had other places to spend my money? I meant my wife and children did…

  • avatar
    eunos

    It’s all relative though.  I had a ’74 Fiat Spider as my “summer” car in the early 90s when I was in college.  It blew the doors off of my “winter” car, the 1979 Toyota Corolla with the 3KC 1.2 liter engine producing a whopping -drumroll- 48hp.  I think 0-60 was about 30 seconds in that thing.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Can you imagine that sucker with the 1.2 replaced by Toyota’s modern 1.8 that’s the base engine in the current Corolla and Matrix.  100+ HP and variable valve timing, you could roast those skinny little 70s tires until they exploded.

    • 0 avatar
      eunos

      Actually I’ve thought about just such a thing.  Maybe it’s the rose colored glasses talking, but I loved that car.  And doubling, almost tripling the hp in a one ton, stick shift, rear wheel drive sedan sounds sort of fun.
      Finding one that hasn’t returned to the earth from whence it came might be difficult though.  Even at 11 years old, there was already a hole rusted in the floor so I could see the street go by under my clutch foot, and I dare not put anything into the trunk as it may fall through.  Never left me stranded though…

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        What was it about Fiat steel that made it rust so much? 1958 Fords too. And early 70s Beetles.

        I once heard that the Fiats were made with surplus Russian steel which was bad quality steel but by no means do I take that at face value.

        As for the VWs – having owned many – I know much of their problems were related to the lack of galvanized steel anywhere on the car. Paint only protects the steel for so long. It seems to me like the early 70s Beetles were worse than other years or maybe that’s just me.

        I had a ’66 Mustang which was horribly rusted – all except those galvanized rocker panels (under the doors).

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Wow, this one looks nearly complete, even the body looks straight, as long as the rust isn’t legion, it could be restorable.
     
    That said, 86 HP in a car like this is plenty, I had a 1983 Honda Civic hatchback with the 1500cc motor, pumping out all of 67hp and I never felt it gutless, in fact, it was zippy and way too much fun and I drove it like a mad bangee for 6 years. :-)
     
    Then again, it DID weight in less than 2000# in the curb weight too.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    2,320? That’s NB Miata territory. I was expecting more like 1,600 pounds.

  • avatar
    Monty

    My mother, in a fit of pique at my father, (he wanted her to buy a Granada or Aspen, something “sensible”) bought a ’78 Spider with the 1800cc, and IIRC, around 120hp, mated to a 5 spd manual stick – with a curb weight of about 2400 lbs that car was a rocket compared to just about anything else on the road. My father’s ’79 Bel air wagon with the 305 was a slug in relation to the Fiat.

    Unfortunately, after the third time having the top slashed following their relocation to Vancouver my mother tearfully relinquished the car, and bought a Mazda GLC (again with a manual tranny – she’s only owned two cars with an automatic since getting her license in 1949).

    To this day, she says the Fiat was the most fun she’s ever had driving.

  • avatar
    Monty

    Hmmmm, I can’t edit my post.

    I wanted to add – it was a beautiful chocolate brown with a tan leather interior and a ivory convertible roof. Gawd, it was gorgeous.

    4-wheel disc brakes, a top that could be put up in about 20 seconds, a throaty exhaust note made her the envy of all of her friends!

    Oh, and my father was mad enough to spit nails when she brought it home. It was a note of discord that didn’t happen too much in our house, but all was forgiven after he smoked a Trans Am with it the following weekend. The two of them drove that Fiat like they had stolen it; awesome behaviour for people in their late forties at the time! It certainly was a revelation to my 20 yo self to see my parents driving like that.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    i had an X1/9 from the late 70′s, the coolest car i have ever owned.  It had a  1.3l engine, and was slow off the line, but i could not have cared less. The car was so much fun, the steering and shifter so precise, the 13″ pirelli’s so grippy, the engine note so fine… ah… it attracted alot of attention, just what a 25 yr old guy likes! A gougeous piece of automotive art.  I still like looking at the at  shows.  I expect this was my first car love, so I wax nostalgic. I beleive it had about 75 hp. A tiny honda owned by my dad could not have been more than 50 hp, not as sexy as the x19 but a total giggilg blast to drive.

    No, you dont need alot of hp to have fun.  My Golf has about 100 hp, its a blast to throw around, my friends Mini ragtop is a riot on wheels, im sure its not 100 hp, for me its never been about horsepower, bit about finess, driving dynamics, that ineffable sense of driving a live car,  that has attracted me.   So now my favs are the GTI, i WISH it was a swoopy convertable! and of course the mini cooper.  Soon Fiat will rejoin us.  I hope their new offerings are as much fun as that sexy little X1/9.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @jersey: A buddy of mine had one back in the early 80′s. It looked good and was an unreliable POS, but he flat refused to get rid of it until it totally expired. Why? He got so many compliments (and phone numbers) from the ladies back then. It was almost as good as a puppy for a single guy! i experienced this phenomenon one Friday evening with him cruising the local strip, it was incredible. I guess the women in our part of Ohio were easily impressed by the little black Fiat…

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I absolutely LOVE driving a sporty low powered car like this Fiat, and all the British roadsters, the Mini and the Innocenti, the other Fiats, and the old VWs – watercooled and aircooled both. Just make sure it has enough gears for the ~70Hp engine.

      If I’m going to cross the continent I’m going to want something quiet and refined but the rest of the year I’m perfectly happy to zip 100 miles this way and that in a low powered, lightweight and sporty ride like this.

  • avatar

    “There is more joy to be found driving slow cars fast, than fast cars slow.”
     
     

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      Amen to that!

      After driving dozens of big-block V8s (Caddy 472 CID 11:1 compression ratio, can you say TORQUE), I have to admit that the funnest car I have ever drove was my 1981 Rabbit diesel with all of 56 hp (5-speed of course, only way to fly).

      I actually leaned forward while merging onto the highway, willing it forward!

    • 0 avatar
      dewfish

      truer words have never been spoken.

  • avatar
    don1967

    In the late 1980s I traded a 92hp Civic for a same-generation 108hp Civic Si.  I can still remember the thrill of pulling onto the street with all that added muscle, and those crazy-huge 15″ rims.  Amazing what a 2200-pound curb weight will do.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    As others have said, having only 86 hp wasn’t all that much of a handicap. Outright speed is not the point – it’s winding around on curvy roads that’s the source of joy here.
     
    My older brother bought a new ’74 Spider – wine red with black top and interior. He had it for five years under a true love/hate relationship. It was such a sweet car to drive, but it was also such a pain in the ass to own. Even though he had it serviced by the book, there were frequent electrical and fuel system problems and little bits kept breaking or falling off. After a few years, the rust started to settle in. We shared a house for a year in the late ’70s, and I had to go fetch him quite a few times when the Fiat left him stranded. If he wanted to go away for a weekend, he would take my extremely tired ’65 Mustang convertible (it had gone from Florida to southern Mexico and back) and leave me with the Spider. He knew the Mustang, for all its wear and tear, would at least get him there and back home. I didn’t complain much since I got to drive the admittedly very cute red sports car.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    Don’t laugh…but out of college I bought a second-gen ’97 Toyota Paseo. Hey, it was a reliable entry-level car, with a sticker mileage of 31/37.
     
    It featured a torquey, high-revving 93hp 1.6L four-banger, coupled to a 5-speed manny. Not much power, but the car only weighed ~2300 lbs. Combined with a good suspension, that car was surprisingly peppy up to 35 or so. It was good for spirited drives through tight, windy mountain roads.
     
    But freeway acceleration? Forget it. If I wanted to pass anyone on the freeway in under three days, I had to drop down into fourth and rev the hell out of it.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    My cousin owned a ’93 Tercel in the late ’90s. I never drove it, but rode in it more than a few times, and the handling was surprisingly good for a base Toyota.
     
    It wasn’t the fastest car around, but the engine was much more aurally pleasing at high revs than the ’03 Corolla an ex of mine owned.

  • avatar
    anchke

    Yes, yes, yes!!! Small and light, competently engineered, and pleasingly designed  is good.  Overdesigned, overengineered and overpowered hastens entropy. Pass it on, TTAC.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Many years ago a friend was in an accident with her Volvo (124?) and broke both her legs.  She asked her car mechanic what was the safest car to replace it with, and he told her the 124 Spider was because it had the handling to avoid accidents.
     
    I don’t know about that theory, but I was in it when her husband put it up to at least 110mph, and it felt entirely stable and effortless.  I also drove it through the BC’s mountainous Highway 1, and you could work your way past long queues of summer traffic so quickly it wasn’t funny.  It just took off when asked, and braked equally as effectively.  That was back in the 70′s, and I recall they averaged $1000 per year in repairs.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      The best handling in the world won’t help when someone runs a red light and hits you in the side – as any motorcyclist will attest.

    • 0 avatar
      Sam P

      “The best handling in the world won’t help when someone runs a red light and hits you in the side”
       
      And that’s why I always pause for a second before starting off if I’m first in line at a red light.
       
      It’s turned a couple of potential collisions with red light runners into near misses.

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      Checking for late crosstraffic and red-light running motorists before crossing an intersection on a green light while riding my bicycle has saved my life a few times.
       
      On the Fiat 124, I recall the beautiful wood steering wheel.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    For ten years I drove a 1984 CRX 1.5 with a seemingly paltry 76 horsepower. However, its light weight and tiny size more than made up for the power deficiency. Even a trip to the 7-Eleven was like driving an enclosed, comfortable go-kart. You didn’t need to go fast to enjoy the agility and reflexes. And when you did want to go fast, just lean on the rev-happy four and run through the ultra-slick gearshift. Nonstop fun at all speeds.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I bought one of those for $150 in 1994 from a friend that had bought it for $50 from a guy transferring out of a military duty station. I drove it for 18 months or so and had a blast in that car doing several 12+ hour trips in it.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Let’s be honest about something. The EPA and DOT’s rules really threw Detroit and Europe for a loop. They had no good ideas how to cope with the added weight of the 5 mph bumpers and emissions. Heck, the 350 V8 in my mom’s Oldsmobile Cutlass struggled to crank out 140 horsepower. By comparison, it makes the Fiat seem like some genius put it together since it was able to get 86 hp.
    The struggle for emissions vs. horsepower presented a tremendous opportunity for Honda and their CVCC engines. Add in a fuel crisis or two, and the Accord changed everything.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      Agreed.  The seemingly arbitrary EPA requirements exceeded the engine technology of the day, so just adding on parasytic devices (low compression, EGR, 1st generation catalytic converters with major back pressure) to existing engines was the only way to meet emissions.  Our ’76 Olds Vista Cruiser 350 4bbl was pretty anemic.  Quite a let down from our ’69 Olds 442.  The mid 70s seemed to be the least efficient era with low power, and even lower mileage.  By the late 70s/early 80s, engine computers came out and performance made a slow come back.  IMHO, that was a crappy time to turn old enough to start driving.  I felt so cheated!  All of my older cousins had the fun cars in a fun era.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      While they certainly had a disastrous effect on Detroit’s products, I wouldn’t call the EPA restrictions arbitrary.  I grew up about 60 miles from Los Angeles in the 60s, and I remember on trips there as a kid my eyes would sting from the pollution in the air.  If the government hadn’t done something, that town would be almost uninhabitable by now.
      Yes, the cars we learned to drive in during the 70s were pretty bad, but at least you could pick up plenty-fast 60′s Detroit iron for a song.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      The Olds 350 V8′s of the emission choked 70′s actually made between 170-180 HP depending on application and even that was a let down from the late 60′s when these engines were easily capable of 250 plus HP. Still even with only 170 HP in it’s lowest form the 350 Olds 4BBL was a pretty decent engine for it’s time. Keep in mind Fords 351 was only making 138-143 in the later 70′s and Chryslers 360 was downgraded to an honest 130 HP in 1980 so 170 doesn’t seem so bad. These engine still made loads of torque. 270-280 LBS FT to be exact. Not very many engine today make that kind of torque. Even engines like Fords 3.5 Duratec and GM’s 3.6 as in the Malibu are only in the 240-250 range.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    86 was fine.  Mine was a step up from a previous MG Midge.  Wood dash, wood steering wheel, nimble steering.  Compared to the Midge, it was a mechanical wizard of integrity, until one day the timing belt snapped in the parking lot causing major grief in both time and money expenditure.  Sold it for a 280Z.  The Z was much more solid, much heavier, and much less fun to drive.  In fact, in terms of fun, I’d have to rate the Midge as first, the Fiat second, and the Z as only fun to look at, but never to drive. It was about this time that I realized the Japanese could build a car that might last, but could never be very interesting to own.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Another temperamental Italian beauty.
     
    The photos gave me flashbacks to my shapely 74 Fiat 128 SL, whose 2-bbl Weber jets would clog with a single particle of dirt, and whose banks of electrical relays were unreliable but photogenic.
     
    The 128 could stop on a dime, and that was before I learned the rear wheel cylinders were seized.
     
    The fun wore off, and I had to move on to a more reliable car, like a 76 Pinto.  Heh.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      I think my 128 had about 75 HP.  What I forgot to point out is that the engine was turning at 4000 rpm at 60 mph, giving it a top speed of 100 mph.  So the short gearing made the most of the low HP numbers.

  • avatar
    tklockau

    I can’t believe no one has taken that wood-rimmed steering wheel. There was a review on one of these in Sports & Exotic Car last year I believe, it was a very nice restored one. The last time I saw one of these here in the Midwest was about 10-15 years ago, but it was a driver, not parked in a back yard.

    And you can have a lot of fun in a sporty car with low horsepower, the Porsche 356 in particular. In the 60′s the top engine was the Super 90 – that meant 90hp. I’ve never driven one, but my dad had several of them in the 70′s when they could be bought cheap.  He averaged two parts cars for every driver!  Most of the cars he found were really rusty as this was in the IA/IL Mississippi river valley. He still has a ’60.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      There was one here for sale on the side of the road for about four months. The body looked solid. I was afraid to stop and look at it though. I might buy it… LOL!

      Uh-oh – I just looked and it is still for sale. It’s on GOLSN.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    It is criminal to scrap a 124 Spider with a good bodyshell. Any other parts can be replaced. Don’t forget , it had 86 bhp because it was detuned to comply with US emissions regulations. Cars sold in Europe had much more oomph than this. Same goes for the MGB.

    • 0 avatar
      ciddyguy

      Can’t say for certain but I think even in Europe, this car didn’t have that much more power.
       
      According to Wikipedia, the 1400cc DOHC motor produced only 86 hp and that may likely be Euro rated as they show it in Euro spec, and converted to US hp numbers.
       
      To get more horsepower, the motor had to be bigger with the fuel injected 2.0 (1991cc) motor only cranking out 99hp, even if the US spec cars were a bit lower, that’d still make the 2.0L fuel injected motor churn out perhaps 80-86hp max would be my guess.

  • avatar
    JaySeis

    86?  That more than 3 times the poop of my  long dead ’62 transporter (may she rest in peace) which with all of its 1192 cc’s rung out had an earth shattering 28 horsepower. Of course, it’d get 30 mpg, was rated at 3/4 ton and could haul any number of stoned flower childern. Must have been a really really short ton.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Even today my Jetta only has 105hp. Hp is overrated. Torque, gearing and bodyweight tell the tale. Or put another way, properly engineered cars, not the usual fat bastards we’re constantly seeing these days, will be the goal.

  • avatar
    superasiaone

    YAY! Fiat talk! One of the first thing I do to ANY Fiat I bring home is chop the bumpers off. With those US spec bumpers you might as well be driving around with 2 large rottweilers strapped to the front and back of the car. My ’81 Spider is FI, 2.0L with a ported 1800 head, lightweight flywheel and 14″ wheels. I love this car. It is reliable after sorting out some minor electrical issues. I would not reccomend one to any of my friends who are not handy with a wrench but it is easy to work on if you are. Between my father and I we own 4 running and driving Fiats and you cannot get more style, driving fun, easy to own, realtively inexpensive classic cars than these.

  • avatar
    RayinBC

    I bought a ’74 124 Sports Coupe in ’77,a poor man’s Alfa. The savings from not driving my ’74 W-200 Dodge pickup paid for it. The fellow I bought it from had taken it to a speed shop and they had removed the polution equipment , rejetted the two barrel Weber  and advanced the timing. 98hp at the rear wheels. A great little car. Fast,it cruised effortlessly at 95,at 100 it started to get busy,so I drove her at that speed,corners, straights, whatever. The Coupes were better handling than the Spiders.Boy, could I cover long distances quickly.And I got 39miles per Canadian gallon at that speed. More reliable than any of the Rabbits that followed. Gut rust got her. 

  • avatar
    and003

    Maybe Dustin Hoffman should have driven THIS in ‘The Graduate,’ no?

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    You don’t think 62.5 hp is enough? Try having a brake line rupture when driving in traffic.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India