Fate is strange, that I should find myself driving a thing called a Fiat 124 Spider. Forty years ago, this was my first car, with Carolina blue paint and mildewed black vinyl interior. It had sat out a while.
I grabbed my dad’s tools and crawled up its bunghole for about three months. I replaced the engine, which then blew up on its first pass over 100 mph in a cloud of rust. I replaced the engine again, fitted with tube headers and all, got it back on the road, and the following weekend the car was smashed to bits in a rear-end collision by a friend driving the exact year-make-and-model Fiat.
He probably saved my life. That car’s oversteer was satanic, and I don’t think the tires had been changed since the first owner shipped off to Vietnam.
At the press event in northern San Diego County, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
execs noted that the Fiat 124 Spider was one of the most popular sports cars of its era (1966-1985), with over 170,000 sold. Even more amazing, the briefing went, 8,000 of these cars are still on the road in the U.S. So remain vigilant.
There are two assertions I would like the reader to value equally, if at all. The first is that my 1971 Fiat 124 Spider—penned by the prolific Tom Tjaarda for Pininfarina in Turin—was a fantastic-looking car: A lithe, graceful cabriolet, smart as paint, with 2+2 seating and a very sound umbrella top, come to think of it. Even as the 1970s wore on, and the federally mandated baby bumpers got clumsier, the 124 Spider maintained its visual lightness, like a scarf in the air.
Second, this new Fiat 124 Spider, this Mazda with Italian chest hair pasted to it, is less than fantastic, styling-wise. And not because Fiat is invoking the sacred memory of my old car. You could call it Luigi Pepperoni and it still wouldn’t be Italian.