Captain Misery's Miserable Mishaps

It's all a load of bollocks, quite frankly

Fiat 124 Sport Spider

Sometimes my job is just that – a job, a means to end which results in a pay cheque the end of every week serving as a reminder of how comparatively low my wages are and how much the tax man takes off me. The remaining amount gets swallowed up by keeping a roof over my head and paying various but ultimately necessary bills.

There are days when it is nothing but paper work and sitting at the desk answering such inane questions as “why has my engine blown up? I know it’s got no oil in it but I didn’t think that would cause a problem”.

However, other days are just perfect. I would normally say that would be a day off, but on this particular day it would be because I was behind the wheel of a 1974 Fiat 124 Spider for quite some time. And, I will accept no arguments on this, it is prettier than its Alfa Romeo Spider rival.

Launched in 1966 at a time where Fiat would make a boggo spec saloon car and make sports alternatives from them, the Spider was one of two spin-off models, the other being the Sport Coupe. The Spider, in typical Italian fashion, was both styled and manufactured at one of the great styling houses – Pininfarina. Production ended in 1985, the last three years the car was badged as Pininfarina and not Fiat.

Engines installed would be the celebrated range of Fiat twin cam engines, designed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi. The Lampredi-designed family of engines would remain in production well into the 1990s and a version of this engine could be found in the Lancia Delta Integrale.

The car I’ve driven belongs to where I work. It’s an ex-Californian import which has had a right hand drive conversion. This meant it was pretty free of rust. The engine fitted to the car I drove was the 1438cc twin cam which develops 96bhp which sounds as daunting as a plate of salad by modern standards, but was perfectly acceptable in 1966. This is mated to a slick five speed gearbox and sweet handling from its rear wheel drive set up. It’s had a photographic rebuild and feels tight and taut.

The Spider made a decent case for itself at the time with its road manners. Reports at the time tell how it was respected in the same breath as rivals from Alfa Romeo and Porsche, only being a humble Fiat cost a lot less. Now I’ve driven a few of the cars that were rivals at the time, so I can gauge the competition. Its chief British rival was the MGB, which I’ve driven in coupe GT form and roadster form. This is a car which has all the dynamic abilities of a drunken woodlouse, and later so-called rubber bumper models handle like a hippopotamus on ice. On the other side, the Triumph Spitfire had all the performance of an asthmatic fat man.

Now as we know, old cars will always be beaten dynamically by more modern cars. It’s simply progression – improvements through the years. The Spider does feel quite dated in comparison with newer machines but even now still makes a decent case for itself. It’s not fast and it’s not Lotus Elise precise but still feels quite nimble, balanced and certainly enjoyable. The gearchange is fantastic, except for reverse. The brakes felt reassuring, in small part due to having disc brakes all round but mainly due to needing a complete overhaul before I took it out on the road!

Sure, it has its flaws, like nearly every car I like. For instance, it has a very Italianate driving position. That means long arms, short legs – you have to be shaped like an ape to drive it. The glovebox is suitable for one glove, the sunvisors are useless and getting into reverse gear is an arse. The steering is a little vague, probably due to this particular car being ex-Californian and having a right hand drive conversion.

However, these flaws really, really don’t matter. It’s easily pretty enough and the interior stylish. The engine is such a gem, it pulls well and sounds fantastic all of which add up to make the driving experience so entertaining. Especially on this particular day, sun out, roof down, shades on and the Cornish roads. After driving so many modern cars – some excellent, some average and some terrible, I’ve driven some old cars that I really like only to come away totally disappointed. To be honest I’d still love the 124 if it drove like a horse and cart. But thankfully it didn’t disappoint and doesn’t drive like a horse and cart, it’s a truly entertaining car. I love it even more.


May 10, 2011 - Posted by | Motoring

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