Junkyard Find: 1979 Fiat 124 Sport Spider

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

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.

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.

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.

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.

This is the only Fiat 124 I have ever seen with air conditioning. This looks like an aftermarket (probably dealer-installed) unit.

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).

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.

“Engineered for the Eighties.”

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Hamish42 Hamish42 on Jul 09, 2017

    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.

  • HotPotato HotPotato on Aug 06, 2017

    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.

  • Tane94 If there is market demand, build the vehicle. That's what Ford is doing. Kudos
  • Cprescott Looking like that? Egads
  • The Oracle This thing got porky quick.
  • Kwi65728132 I'll grant that it's nicely kept but I'm not a fan of the bangle butt designs, and I know better than to buy a used BMW while living anywhere in the world other than in the fatherland where these are as common as any Honda or Toyota is anywhere else.
  • ChristianWimmer When these came out I thought they were hideous: now they’ve grown on me. This one looks pretty nice. Well-maintained, low mileage and some good-looking wheels that aren’t super fancy but not cheap-looking or boring either, they are just right.