By on June 19, 2017

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, LH front view - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
For as long as I have been poking around in American automobile graveyards (35 years), the presence of the occasional Fiat 124 Sport Spider has been a constant. Even while Pininfarina-badged, Malcolm Bricklin-imported 124 Sport Spiders were still available as new cars in the United States, I was seeing 20,000-mile late-70s examples about to be crushed.

Nowadays, most of these cars show signs of decades-long outdoor storage after awaiting restorations that never came. Here’s an extremely rough and rusty one that I spotted in a San Francisco Bay Area yard a couple of months back.

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, interior - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
How many of these cars have we seen in this series? Many. This ’71, this ’73, this ’75, this ’76, this ’78, this ’80, this ’80, and this ’80 (plus this ’80 in the Junkyard Treasures Series on Autoweek). That doesn’t count the many I didn’t bother to photograph, of course.

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, military parking permit - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
Like many older cars found in Bay Area wrecking yards, this one has ancient military-base parking permits. Having grown up in a Bay Area city with a huge Navy base, I’m familiar with the acres-wide long-term storage lots on bases where soldiers and sailors stored their often-quite-hooptified vehicles, and this car has the look of one that spent 25 or so years at the Mare Island Naval Complex (not far from this yard), getting the paint burned off by the sun and the metal rusted by the rainy winters.

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, rust - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
Cars do rust in California, sometimes very thoroughly in the case of close-to-the-Pacific parking places, and they tend to do it from the top down. This car has rust where rainwater gathered and where the paint failed.

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, AC evaporator - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
This is the only Fiat 124 I have ever seen with air conditioning. This looks like an aftermarket (probably dealer-installed) unit.

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, Twin Cam Engine - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
With only 86 horsepower available from the 1,995cc Fiat Twin Cam four-cylinder engine, acceleration with the AC on must have been leisurely. This car had a curb weight of 2,240 pounds, which gave it 26.05 pounds for each horsepower; compare that to the 62.5-horse/2,338-lb 1979 MGB and its 37.41 pounds-per-horsepower (or to the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider and its 15.26 lbs/hp ratio).

1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider in California wrecking yard, RH front view - ©2017 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars
Worth restoring? Hell no, not when you can get a nice one for five grand. Some useful parts are here, though, and we can hope that they get rescued before The Crusher digests this old Italian.


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22 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider...”


  • avatar
    skor

    I rarely saw cars like this growing up in Jersey back in the 70s. I guess it must have been a West Coast thing.

    • 0 avatar
      paxman356

      I got to drive one here in Indiana in the mid-80s. I drove it back to back with a VW Cabrio, and for speed and handling, I’d take the VW over the Fiat.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I had one, I think it was a ’76, had a 1.8 liter DOHC engine. Kept it for a year, did some minimal prep SCCA Showroom Stock racing in it, even won one because it rained. It was fairly pleasant car to drive, but I’m not a ragtop person so I sold it.

    Fun fact: towards the end of its production life, there was turbo version briefly available. I believe the turbo was installed by the distributor, I think during the Bricklin era. I did have a good bit more push, and was fun to drive. I don’t know how durable it was, we only sold a couple of them.

  • avatar
    tonyola

    My older brother bought a new wine-red 124 Spider in 1974. It even had A/C. The Fiat was a ball to drive, though there were problems with electrics and bits falling off. Plus it rusted in coastal Florida. One weekend, we were both going on separate trips – he to a campground and I to Gainesville, FL. He talked me into taking the Fiat for the weekend while he borrowed my scruffy and well-worn ’65 Mustang six convertible. At least the Mustang would consistently start. I had a lot of fun with the Fiat for a couple of days (fortunately it didn’t act up).

  • avatar
    twotone

    I’ve owned three Fiat 124 Spiders (1600, 1800 & 2000). Here in Colorado, it was easy to find no rust versions. They were the “Miata” of their day. Paid about $500 – $700 for each one. Apple Motors here in Denver was one of the largest Fiat/Lancia/Yugo parts dealers in the US, so keeping them running was pretty easy and cheap. The back “jump seat” came in handy to bring along another for that “three-some!”

  • avatar
    -Nate

    My Brother bought one of these new and enjoyed it quite a bit .

    I remember it broke a head to block bolt off (?!) and he smacked a tree with it before selling it before the tin worm ate it in Boston .

    Fiats like Renaults, need special owners then they’re fun and trouble free cars .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    RocketScience

    Is a car in this condition restorable?

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      It’s restorable, but it wouldn’t be worth it. You can still buy well cared for examples for around $5,000. The only way I would restore a car in this condition would be if it was something rare, that commanded a high price after restoration.

  • avatar

    Spring of 1980. I’m 17 and(barely) graduating high school. I don’t want to go to college yet. Nowadays they call it the Gap Year. Back then my old man called it being a bum. His words: “if you’re not going to college and want to stick around, get a job.”

    So my high school guidance counselor sends me to a factory that distributes fabrics and wallcoverings. They hire me. The manager of the factory operation is incredibly cool, only 25 and has a ’79 Fiat 124 Spyder. He likes me and takes me under his wing. He corrupts me by taking me out drinking and to the horse track for the trotters and pacers. We sit next to Telly Savalas. He teaches me to drive shift on the 124 Spyder.

    One day, the Spyder catches fire in the engine department. Insurance writes it off as a loss. Just as well, the thing was nothing but trouble. Several times another worker had to pick the Boss up on the side of the Belt Parkway when the car conked out.

    This time, he gets himself a nice gray 1980 Datsun 280ZX. Not as much personality, but a smooth inline-Six, reliable and well-made. I go to college a year later and work my summers at the factory. We continue to party but I’m more cautious with my body and intake.

    When I last saw the boss, around 1992, the 280ZX had 160K and was still going strong. Two years ago, I found out he was still working there – the youngest 60-year-old anyone there knew. I don’t know what he’s driving.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      When I was seventeen,
      I drank some very good beer,
      I drank some very good beer
      I purchased with a fake ID.
      My name was Brian McGee,
      I stayed up listenin’ to Queen
      When I was seventeen.

  • avatar
    pwrwrench

    Get one of these 124 things and you will soon know where the phrase
    Fix It Again Tony!
    comes from.

  • avatar
    Gayneu

    I bought a 1978 1800 from a friend of my brother’s on a lark as a second car. This would be about 1986. Dark blue with tan. It mostly sat because I knew it would cost me $300 to fix whatever was about to break. I will never forget the Thanksgiving when I decided to drive it to my mother’s and the clutch spring snapped. Clutch went to the floor so had to leave the car in some poor guy’s front yard, left a note, etc. Of course this is before cell phones, so had to walk back to my apartment to get the reliable car. A year of this nonsense was all I could take.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    ? Really ? .

    An Enthusiast who cannot drive a stick shift sans clutch ? .

    Wow .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      Gayneu

      -Nate, thanks for the kind words of support. Perhaps a different way to state that response would have been, “You should learn how to drive a manual without a clutch to be prepared for all situations” or something to that effect.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Gayneu :

        When a clutch linkage or cable snaps, warm up the engine in neutral whislt pushing the vehicle into the direction you wish to travel, shut it off and place in second gear, operate the starter with your foot no more than 1/2 throttle and it’ll buck and lurch to life and away you’ll go .

        Drive slowly in the slow lane and you’ll make it home, remember to give extra stopping time/distance and you may not have to shut it off again even once .

        For clutchless shifting you need to get it up to the cruising speed in each gear then lightly ease off the throttle and move the shaft lever to the next higher gear ~ this takes practice but (IMO) is a worthwhile thing to teach your self .

        I apologize for my ignorant comment before .

        -Nate

        • 0 avatar
          Gayneu

          Much more helpful and civilized Nate. I had forgotten that a similar issue occurred to my 1996 Miata a couple of years ago. I did something similar in that we pushed it into the street, started it in first and off we went to the local mechanic. What I don’t know how to do is to up-shift. What is cruising speed for each gear – something in the 3,000 rpm area? And yes, I know how to bump-start a manual car with dead battery (much practice here).

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Not sure how to explain it, the shift point is when the car is going along neither accelerating nor decelerating,….

    Very different from bump starting with a dead battery .

    Again, I have NO EXCUSE TO OFFER and apologize profusely .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    hamish42

    There were actually two Fiat sports cars in those days. Mine was the little one, the 850 Spider. 2-seats, soft top, rear engine, electrical problems that took your breath away but a total high-rev little blast of a car. Mine was mustard yellow. No knobs, everything was a toggle switch. And it was my first car with an FM radio except the car was too noisy to hear it. Loved it every day. Always will.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    Yes! The 124 was the Big, Luxury Spyder for fancy people. My sister had its bouncing baby brother, the 850 Spyder, in college…I suppose that signified 850 ccs, because “that washing machine engine,” as my dad called it, couldn’t have been packing more than one liter. My god, that little 850 Spyder was cute, bright red and sized perfectly for a 10 year old…I freakin loved it. By the time I was of driving age, there were plenty of beautiful 124 Spyders and Alfa Romeo Spyders for that matter available in the local Auto Trader for very reasonable prices: it was the Age of the Miata and the pretty, classic Italians had cratered in value. No 850s left to speak of by that time though, they’d all died of rust or parts shortages.

    Well, except for one: the screaming-orange one owned by the weekend racer up the street. Every weekday morning he’d give the thing an Italian tuneup: redline it in first gear, then floor the brake pedal to absolutely no effect…when the car eventually drifted to a stop of its own accord, he’d redline it in reverse and then ineffectually floor the brake pedal…back and forth he’d go until the racing pads had warmed up enough to safely drive the car to work. I suppose he did the same thing in the work parking lot every day after work too. Nutty SOB, in the best way.


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