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Fiat 124 Spider turns 50

"The Turin Motor Show under the sign of optimism" was the positive-sounding title of the 48th edition of the event held in halls of Torino Esposizioni in 1966. The Motor Show welcomed visitors with a magnificent display of lights and colors. The glossy paintwork of the cars reflected the bright neon lights multiplying the effect: it was the 1960s and waves of enthusiasm were rolling across Italy.

Fiat 124 SpiderThe Fiat stand stood out for its sheer size in the exhibition hall, among those of 515 exhibitors from 13 different countries: the very comprehensive line-up displayed at the Turin Motor Show in 1966 was capable of satisfying the most diverse tastes and needs and was complemented by three brand-new models. Visitors could admire the Fiat Dino, the production of which was being kicked off at the time, and the models which completed the 124 range.

An estate version,the Fiat 124 Familiare, was introduced at the Motor Show, but that 3rd of November would be remembered above all for the Fiat 124 Sport Spider. The 124 Sport Spider was designed for motorists seeking performance at an affordable price: it was a sporty car with a wide circulation. The 124 Sport Spider was the evolution of the 124 saloon but was also a genuine sports car with which everyone soon fell in love. To design the car Fiat called Pininfarina, long-time partner of the auto maker and a respected name in automotive car design worldwide.

The model picked up most of the mechanics of the Fiat 124 saloon but was designed from the start with some quintessentially sporty features. The name of Pininfarina was in itself a guarantee of design and interior elegance. The car was 3.97 metres long and its exterior style was modern, restrained and well-proportioned. Its streamline side was enhanced by the rear wing that dipped slightly in the connection to the front wing. The front end was flat and compact with a light look determined by the recess housing two slightly retracted headlights. The air intake presented an original hexagonal shape, while the bumpers were stark, wrapping and free from overriders. The tail was characterized by two slightly upward inclined fins forming a concave line connecting to the boot profile. In short, it expressed one of the most attractive style and proportions of its time.

It stood on that Fiat stand in November 1966 with two beauty pageant winners and actress Marisa Solinas. The car had a Vinilite rear window and two side windows that retracted when the top was folded down. The large glazed surfaces ensured visibility in all directions. Aerodynamics were suited to motorway speeds and for agile driving in city traffic at the same time. The design of the windows and the windscreen, as the details of the handles, headlights, seats and colors, were all characterized by research focused on utility and elegance. The interiors were also crafted with anatomic seats, wood trim and a very complete dashboard as instruments included a speedometer, an electric oil pressure gauge, a coolant thermometer and an electronic tachometer.

With the same rear-wheel drive, the Spider version was powered by the 124AC.000 engine. It was a straight-4 with bore and stroke of 80 and 71.5 mm, respectively, producing a displacement of 1438 cm. It also had a dual overhead camshaft and valves arranged in a V. It developed a power of 90 HP at 6500 rpm and reached a top speed of 170 km/h. It had a double barrel vertical carburettor, while a double oil filtering system ensured better lubrication and longer life.

Other features placed the model squarely in sports car segment with a five-speed gearbox as standard equipment, radial tires and sporty two-spoke steering wheel. The later was connected to the steering box with a two-part steering column joined by CV joints for excellent handling. Besides the style and good engine performance there were also four disc brakes with vacuum brake booster along with the presence of a Panhard track bar for better load arrangement on bends. The 124 Sport Spider was priced at 1,550,000 Lira, approximately half a million more than the saloon. "Cromodora" alloy rims and hard top were available for an extra 65,000 Lire. About 25,000 units of the first series were made until 1969.

In 1966 the Italians were singing along to the cover version of The Mamas and Papas' song and dreaming of escaping from grey skies and winter days to the freedom of a new life in California like many Americans.

Bolstered by the good market response, Fiat was working on the development of the model that would be launched in the USA in 1968. The Americans loved the proportions and quintessential Italian style of the Spider, as its top that could be quickly and easily folded directly from the driver's seat.

The second version proper was introduced in October 1969, again at the Turin Motor Show, as part of an overall revamp of the range. It maintained the rear-wheel drive arrangement and the typical sporty driving feel despite the number of cars with front-wheel drive that were being presented in that edition of the event.

It could fit either the traditional 1.4-litre or a new 1.6-litre engine. The latter, also with four cylinders and dual overhead camshaft, had two double barrel vertical carburettors: displacement increased to 1608 cm and performance was even better. It delivered 110 HP and reached a top speed of 180 km/h. The braking system was of the independent circuit type.

From the point of view of appearance, it had a new grille with honeycomb radiator. The most obvious difference were the two significant oval-shaped humps on the bonnet needed to accommodate the larger engine. The rear lights clusters were modified and a reversing light was added. Radial tyres and waterproof top completed the standard equipment. Hard top and light alloy rims were available as optional equipment.

The roadster evolved while remaining true to itself, with its elegant design by Pinifarina, and was as successful as ever with some 27,000 units being made in the years from 1969 to 1972.

The 1970s were years of major cultural and social changes. Fiat introduced a new generation of the Spider in 1972, the style was basically unchanged but minor tweaks had been made to the dashboard, like replacing the chrome-plated instrument panel with a black one and the addition of a clock. The most substantial news concerned the engine because both the "1600" and the new "1800" engines of the Fiat 132 were fitted on the Fiat 124 Sport Spider. They were both straight-4 with dual overhead camshaft, overhead valves and a double barrel Weber 34 DMS or Solex C34 EIES 5 carburettor. Displacement was 1592 cm for the "1600" and 1756 cm for the "1800". Power was 108 and 118 HP with top speeds of 180 and 185 km/h, respectively.

Fiat 124 SpiderProduction of the 124 Sport Spider continued from June 1974 until 1982 for exports to the United States where the model was still successful. The style remained the same. The only change concerned the adoption of energy-absorbing bumpers, as required by US safety standards, and the introduction of a 2-litre 87 HP engine starting from 1978.
In 1981, Pininfarina displayed a new model called "Spider Europa" at the Geneva Motor Show. The appearance was essentially the same with upgrades focusing mainly on safety and comfort. Under the bonnet was a 1995 cm twin-shaft four-cylinder engine that delivered 105 HP. Handling was as excellent as ever and fuel efficiency was improved. The last development came in 1983 with the 136 HP "Volumex" with volumetric turbocharger. It was designed mainly for the US marketl with over 200,000 units sold worldwide, 75% of which in the USA.

The United States had always been the target market of the Fiat 124 Sport Spider and not by chance the new Fiat 124 Spider was presented at the Los Angeles Motor Show last year. The 124 Spider is the authentic roadster experience with all-Italian flair turns 50 today.

11/03/16

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