1981 Fiat 2000 Spider - The One Not Made in Japan
The new Fiat 124 Spider may be thought of as a spiritual successor to the classic Fiat 2000 Spider. It’s no secret, however, that the new car is really a re-skinned Mazda MX-5 Miata powered by the same engine as the current Fiat 500 Abarth. The only parts truly new to the Fiat are some exterior panels. That’s not a bad thing as the new Miata seems to be quite amazing in all regards.
The question, despite Jack’s opinions, is whether the Abarth engine and some suspension tuning will give the 124 Spider that much coveted Italian flair, the sales numbers Fiat desperately needs, and the passion and drama that we all love so much. For better or worse, that’s been somewhat absent from the Miata over the years.
To answer that question, and to discover the ingredients in that secret Italian sauce, I recently spent some time in the classic Fiat roadster.
The Spider, due to its convoluted American sales history, was known as the Fiat 124 Sport Spider, Fiat 2000 Spider and Pininfarina Spider Azzura. It was sold in the United States between 1968 and 1985 with relatively minor changes, such as an increase in engine displacement and a switch to fuel injection, all in the name of satisfying the EPA. Similarly, as was the case was for many others in the 1970s, its bumpers went from slick to stocky. In all, over 170,000 units were sold in the U.S. of the nearly 200,000 units sold worldwide.
The 1981 Fiat 2000 Spider pictured here belongs to a coworker of mine who received it as 50th birthday gift from his wife. The car is close to factory stock with some minor improvements: it’s been repainted, the seats have been re-upholstered, and its bumpers have been swapped out for older style pieces. The owner is not a complete nut-job car guy and does not obsess over the car too much, but he drives it on every sunny day he can.
This Fiat came with the iconic 2.0-liter DOHC engine under its long hood. With Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, it produced an impressive (for that time of ridiculous emission controls) 102 horsepower. This original engine has been relatively trouble-free for its owner. They are known to last and replacements are inexpensive. The guys running a Fiat 131 Mirafiori in 24 Hours of Lemons can’t say the same, so perhaps (probably?) it’s simply not suited for endurance racing, despite the model’s rich history of rally racing.
Throws of the five-speed transmission are rather long, but finding the right gear is never an issue. The soft clutch pedal catches a bit high, but is easy to get used to. There is no power steering; it’s not needed. The manual steering constantly reminds the driver to keep both hands properly on the wheel. In sharp corners, the driver must pull the large steering wheel in the intended direction and not just casually spin it.
The interior is as charming as it is ergonomically different from modern cars. The layout of the big gauges, the position of the shiftier, and even the angle of the steering wheel, which was here replaced with a Nardi unit, is just about perfect for a sports car. Even the location of the ashtray (remember when cars had those?), just south of the shifter, is great for those who enjoy a smoke while motoring. Things get dicey with the heater controls, which are located around the hand brake lever. In the middle of the dash are three idiot lights that the United States Department of Transportation required: hand brake, oxygen sensor, and seat belts. There is real wood and real leather inside, the smell of which quickly overwhelms any coolant or oil you might have whiffed outside the car.
The perspective from the driver’s seat is very different from any modern roadster. The low beltline makes the driver feel as though he’s sitting more on the car than in it. The thin and short windshield pillars and the lack of any kind of roll protection behind the driver’s head makes one feel exposed and it takes getting used to. Taller drivers will find the top of the windshield hilariously low, yet feel surprisingly comfortable inside. The navigation system is located in the glove box and is made out of paper. The radio sounds good when the car is parked, but you should be listening to the wonderfully, if slightly raspy, sounding motor while in motion. Looking out, every modern CUV or pickup truck will seem bigger than before.
What makes this, and just about any classic sports car, special is the mechanical connection to the driver. The speedometer vibrates slightly, disproportionately to the speed, revealing it’s connected to gears in the transmission and not some electronic sensor. Slam on the brakes and your body will know if the road is angled slightly to the right. Shift points are best determined by audible and vibration signs and not by looking at the tachometer. No matter how slow or fast you’re driving, driving this Spider demands concentration. Perhaps the means of ending distracted driving is forcing everyone to drive older cars?
Power steering aside, the Spider does not seem that much different to drive than many new cars. Despite being a sports car, it is rather slow and one would not dare race any new minivans with it. Toss it into a corner and the little roadster feels very confident, mostly due to its modern tires, but there is a feeling of a limit approaching suddenly and without warning. Younger drivers should be reminded that there is no ABS, ESC, TCS, or any other sequence of letters that might save their ass in an oh shit! moment. Respect this car and you’ll grin.
Whether or not the new Fiat 124 is a worthy replacement to this iconic roadster remains to be answered. It is based on one of the best sports cars on the market, which should make it great right out of the gate. Or perhaps not. What makes this old 124 Spider so perfect is the fact that, like so many other Italian cars, it is so imperfect. The engine of the new 124 Spider is made in Italy and the car has its own suspension tuning and styling, but only time will tell if that enough to really give this new topless Fiat its own soul and identity.
[Images: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars]
Kamil Kaluski is the East Coast Editor for Hooniverse.com. His ramblings on East European cars, $500 racers, and other miscellaneous car stuff can be found there.
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Classic look. Much nicer car than the Japanese 124 of today.
I always liked the 124 Sport Spider. The rear bumper looks like it's missing the end caps that had the original license plate lights. The color combination is nice.