By on June 10, 2016

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Side, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Front 3/4, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Engine, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Interior, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Exterior, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Interior, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

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.

1981 Fiat 2000 Spider Rear, Image: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars

[Images: © 2016 Kamil Kaluski/The Truth About Cars]

Kamil Kaluski is the East Coast Editor for His ramblings on East European cars, $500 racers, and other miscellaneous car stuff can be found there. 

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44 Comments on “1981 Fiat 2000 Spider – The One Not Made in Japan...”

  • avatar

    These cars were never about all-out speed and it matters not if a modern-day Camry (or Caravan, for that matter) can outrun it. Throw the top down on a pleasant Sunday afternoon and simply enjoy the ride. There are days I really wish I still had the old X 1/9 I had. Slow? Absolutely. But I just smiled when behind the wheel with the targa top off, rowing the gears to keep the little engine on boil. I’d seriously love to have one with a little more reliable engine plant spinning away behind me (like a decent Mk1 Toyota MR2 powerplant, or the like). I get the thrill of mad power in today’s new sports cars, but there is something pleasing about driving just for the sake of driving, even when 9/10th (or even 10/10ths) is below the performance envelope of your neighbor’s family-hauler.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed this article, provides an understanding of why Fiat presents the new model within the context of the original.
    Thank you Kamil.

  • avatar

    I had several 1600/1800 124 Spyders in the 1980’s – 1990’s. They were great fun and more reliable than I expected. I have more fun driving one of these at 9/10 than a new sports car at 1/10. A 3rd (small) person could actually ride in the jump space behind the seats.

  • avatar

    Kamil & Christian “Mental” Ward write really well, and on interesting topics (like Murilee), but don t get the praise they deserve.

    (p.s. – Hooniverse is awesome, Kamil.)

  • avatar

    Don’t lay metal keys on paint! The hell is wrong wit choo!?

  • avatar

    Unlike many cars of this vintage, I’ve actually seen one on the road before. I love the little details. The nub on the fuel door, the way the lock cylinder is inside the 2000, and the little door handles which Mazda would copy 10 years later for the Miata.

    Things I’d lose include the chrome door rub strip, and the wheels which are a bit too aggressive looking.

  • avatar

    Also, why is the plate two years out of date?

    • 0 avatar

      @CoreyDL: Probably not. I expect it’s due this year. Not all states re-register vehicles every year.
      Some stickers may show year registered while others may show year expired.

  • avatar

    Sweet little thing. I always wanted one but there were influences in my life that never permitted it.

  • avatar

    I had a 1980 one of these bought it well in collage and moved my self to and from collage w it, the top was simple to drop, the gar looked good, rust was a emery of the rocker panels, it ran pretty well but getting parts was not easy back then, I t moved into a summer ragtop when I got my first job and the car did not like sitting for long times, also to be praised was the back seat, yes no one could sit back there but it was great for dropping a cooler or a set of clubs for when I hacked up a course on a weekend, I sold it and bought a Saab vert for a summer car but still miss it, still see a few on the roads heading down the shore in NJ and I smile.

    • 0 avatar

      Please spell college properly when referencing how you went to college.

      • 0 avatar

        I understand that “standard” spelling and “proper” grammar are now considered racist and classist by some collage perfessers.

        Did you read how some Yale English majors are protesting a course on the great English poets?

        It’s just so illiberal and seems to me to be completely opposite any notions of what a “university” actually means. It says that our human experiences aren’t shared across ethnic and racial lines.

        • 0 avatar

          That sounds like some rich people are bored, so they’re being more liberal than is necessary just to give themselves something to do. Pulling that “free to do things as human being people our own way” card is absolute garbage with regard to language.

          There is a correct way to spell things, then there’s the wrong way. End of story. They can take that free spirited BS elsewhere.

    • 0 avatar

      “I had a 1980 one of these bought it well in collage and moved my self to and from collage w it, …”

      Holy smokes, there are so many errors in this paragraph-long run-on sentence. How you write reflects greatly on how you are regarded; we don’t know anything else about you.
      If I were an English professor and you were my student, and your writing did not improve by the end of the semester, I would consider it a failure to teach on my part, and a failure of effort on yours.

      That aside, everyone should own a convertible like this one at some point in their lives.

      • 0 avatar

        “How you write reflects greatly on how you are regarded; we don’t know anything else about you.”

        Cut him some slack – my understanding is that people often append their birth year to their names to create Internet handles; if that’s the case for seth1065, he can be forgiven for being a bit rusty in the grammar department.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That’s a beautiful example of a Spider. Thanks for an excellent write-up!

    As cool as these cars were then, at the time Fiat was already in serious decline in the US. Serious build quality problems, rust, electrical failures, poor dealer service, and strong competition all conspired against them.

    VW made the more practical Rabbit, Mazda made the crazier RX-7, and the 3-series was just emerging then. Besides, after two gas crunches and high inflation, Americans were migrating toward safe, reliable purchases such as the Japanese econoboxes, or soon after, domestic hotties like the Buick Grand National or Omni GLH for the flag-wavers.

    Lacking substantial improvements in its game, Fiat USA was doomed.

    Still, I’d love to have a clean Spider like this in my garage.

  • avatar

    I had a 1978 Spider, which I did a little Showroom Stock racing in. I even managed to win a race, mostly due to the spider’s good wet track manners. I also spun a bearing because of its poor oil pan baffling. It was a pleasant enough car, but I’m not really much of a roadster person, so I sold it.

    I do recall driving it one summer evening near my home, when Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” came on the radio. That summed things up quite nicely.

  • avatar

    As an owner of 3 variations on this theme over the years, a couple of points. They are not fast, body roll does exist, tires make a huge difference, but they are surprisingly modern. In 1971 a roadster with a real heater and intermittent wipers? Whoa. If you are over 6′ forget about it, and that weird Italian driving position will challenge many. Many people forget how modern this car was in 1968. An Abarth exhaust is mandatory. Get on a curvy road, shifting 2nd-3rd gears, just a delight. And you probably can’t go fast enough to hurt yourself.

  • avatar

    I drove one of these and a VW Cabrio from that era of my life (84 maybe? This was 88 and it was used) back to back, and I liked the VW better for driving. But for being seen in, the FIAT was the way to go. It wasn’t about how good it drove to me, just how it looked. The VW just drove better.

  • avatar
    Jim K

    I too had a 1981 spider in college. British racing green, tan top, tan interior. Seeing these pictures sure bring back memories.

    Mine was a little rough, but it ran great and was very reliable. It only left me stranded once when the fuel pump quit. I was driving from Atlanta to Athens GA for finals at UGA. Missed a french final.

    I bought it from a freiend’s father for $1000 down and a couple of $500 payments over the summer while I was home from college and working.

    I drove it for 2-3 years, replaced the top once myself, and when I graduated I traded it in on a new Acura Integra (also a great car).

    I do miss the Fiat and would love to have another one.

  • avatar

    Never mind the car, I want a wife like this guy has.

  • avatar

    I guess the author of this article did not notice the jabs Jack had thrown out at the product execs who spent time comparing the new Spider to the old one. Like who gives a damn, right? But hey, the new 235i is just so much better than the 2002tii.

    Clickbaits continue on TTAC.

    • 0 avatar

      I couldn’t have. This was written well before Jack was anywhere near the new Fiat. Furthermore, after reading Jack’s story, two hours after this was posted, I thought it fit in quite well.

      Thanks for clicking.

  • avatar

    I grew up in the days when Fiat’s were tiny little things , 600 CC rear engined for the most part and not well considered no matter how much fun they were to drive .
    My big Brother bought a red Coupe in..?1976? and enjoyed it immensely , as mentioned it had a great heater , wipers and good lighting , all important when you live Down East where it’s soggy so often .
    The thing that most Americans never ken is : it’s a _Sports_Car_ , NOT a Race Car , there’s a HUGE difference .
    Sports Cars are meant to be FUN TO DRIVE , not particularly fast and certainly not designed to win any races .
    This car looked great when new and still looks sharp all these Decades later .

  • avatar

    Great looking car. I love the keyhole for the trunk hidden in the “2000” logo. And the wooden glovebox door.

  • avatar

    Great article. My buddy had one of these with 150,000 + miles. We were always working on it. biggest problem was the rust, rust & rust. It never stopped. Everyone should own a convertible once in their life time. i owned 5 in my life time including a Miata but the one i miss the most is a 1991 VW Cabriolet. 6 years of pure fun. Only problem i had was people following me into parking lots or following us home and wanting to buy the car. It was mint and garaged when not driven. Finally someone made me an offer that i could not refuse. 2 months later i missed that car and still do. As i said buy a convertible once in your life and have some great times.

  • avatar

    Not to pick nits, but I don’t think the 124 Spider ever came with “real leather” inside. They were always vinyl except for a “special edition” in 1982 or something. Not to say this one may not have been upgraded, just wanted to point that out. Perhaps the later Pinninfarina-branded examples did?

    The Fiat Spiders always seemed to lag the values of Alfas and MGs made around the same time. They are going up a bit now, but I never understood this. Compared to the later MGBs, especially, the Fiat was a lot more sophisticated, had much more attractive interiors, had a twin-cam engine, 5-speed (vs. 4), and super easy to operate tops.

    I wanted one with modern reliability as well, so I bought a 1990 Miata. They are a lot more common, but still are amazing fun to drive. So, perhaps the Fiata partnership was a good idea after all. I think it’s promising, but I wonder if the market for 2-seat roadsters is a bit too limited to split between two manufacturers. I look forward to seeing the new 124 Spider in person. The 500 Abarth I had a for a while was great fun and totally reliable for me. I’m thinking a base 124 with an Abarth exhaust may be in my future.

  • avatar

    Classic look. Much nicer car than the Japanese 124 of today.

  • avatar

    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.

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