An Interview on the Fiat 124 Spider

Recently, Tim, the publisher of a popular publication on vintage autos, contacted VAS about contributing to an upcoming article on the Fiat 124. Of course, it’s thrilling to hear of a feature on the car we all know and love, so who wouldn’t jump at the chance?!


Tim: What do you like best about the Fiat 124?

VAS: Thank you for the opportunity to share thoughts on the 124. When most people think of the Fiat 124, they actually remember the 124 “Sport Spider”. This is the beautifully styled two-door convertible variant which was introduced to the US in 1968 and later sold as the Spider 2000 and Pininfarina Spider, up through the 1985 ½ model.

Often Italian cars are considered finicky to the point of being unreliable. Not so with the 124! Most of the Spider’s drive-line and suspension components had been tested and proven on the 124 Sedan, which saw production licenses extended to numerous companies globally, and production numbers around 20 million units. Also, the dual-overhead-cam (DOHC) powerplant devised for the Spider was the earth-shaking design of famed Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi.

Lampredi’s DOHC engine was a breakthrough when introduced. His design was so good that Fiat continued to produce it in various forms until 1999, giving it a production span of 33 years! Numerous manufacturers worldwide would go on to emulate his belt-driven dual-cam design, even implementing it on many of the most reliable cars available today. Throughout its tenure, this motor won Fiat and Lancia (between 1977 and 1992) a total of TEN World Rally Championship Manufacturer’s Cups!!

Not only are they powerful and flexible, these motors are VERY reliable if proper maintenance is observed. Like many modern import cars, long life is par for the course with the proper care of your Spider.

To sum up an answer to question number 1: The mix of  timeless styling, cutting-edge suspension and drive-line, plus a revolutionary engine design make the Fiat Spider an exceptionally fun and reliable car.

Tim: What is the biggest problem or frustration with this car?

VAS: Many would immediately answer, “Countless, impossible electrical issues!” However, unlike many of its contemporaries (like the MGB!), the Fiat 124 electrical system was well thought out and engineered. With color coded, circuit-specific connectors and an easy to reach fuse box, it was a dream to maintain among imported cars.

If connectors are clean and grounds secure, the system is first rate with one glaring exception: nearly all necessary electrical current is routed through the ignition switch which diminishes the available power and causes premature ignition switch failure.

The answer is not to install over-capacity alternators; at best a risky proposition!  Oversized alternators have been known to burn up voltage regulators and ignition switches: a sure indication of additional damage to the electrical system.

The great news is that for less than $40 the do-it-yourselfer can install relay kits and a few new ground pods, bringing the electrics into the modern era.

Tim: What year do you like best and why?

VAS: A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a morning with Tom Tjaarda, the designer of the Spider. Mr. Tjaarda expressed a preference for the early Spiders with the smaller bumpers.

Personally, I like different things about the various model years. But, if you pushed me to choose one, I’d take a 1972 model with small bumpers, lightweight unibody, and the 1608cc engine, which I consider the best engine of the lot for its well-designed combustion chambers and quick, high revving nature.

Tim: What most often goes wrong with these cars?

VAS: Apart from the routing of the electrical system (mentioned above), the most common headaches for owners are all fairly easy to remedy: timing belt failure, flex disk failure, and cooling system issues.

The first two problems have a simple solution: regular maintenance. Many American owners who are accustomed to domestic vehicles don’t even realize that the timing belt and flex disk (the round rubber isolator which connects the output shaft of the transmission to the driveshaft) require occasional replacement! These are both easy tasks, with plenty of clear Fiat original literature reproductions available to help with swapping them out.

The cooling system issues are a tad more complex, but just as easy to remedy. The trouble arises due to the fact that the radiator is lower than other points in the coolant path. When, for whatever reason, work is done that involves the cooling system, the water jacket must be “burped” to ensure proper coolant flow through the radiator.

Burping is a simple procedure, but is a little known and oft overlooked task leading to overheated engines, rigged cooling fan operation, and the search for a low temperature thermostat. In this case, the addition of a $12.99 Flush Tee installed in a heater hose and a quick read of the reproduction factory shop manual resolves this issue.

Tim: What three things would you do to modify or improve this car?

VAS: Tim, I could write all day about this. In fact, I practically do!

GO FASTER: Job number one is fuel delivery. And the best fuel delivery system out there is our VAS Programmable Fuel Injection. VAS PFI is the only modernized, scalable fuel injection kit (with direct spark control!) for the Fiat Spider in the world. In fact, we ship it worldwide.

PFI allows the do-it-yourselfer to maximize any and all enhancements made to his engine, whether high compression pistons, forced induction, ported/polished head, radical cams, header or free flow exhaust. A carb (or two) will only go so far. For maximum horsepower, there is no substitute for PFI.  In only its 3rd year on the market, our PFI kit outsells our dual carburetor sales 4-to-1.

Between the PFI conversion, and our pistons, head, cams, and exhaust, we have dyno results showing a 70% increase in power above stock.

STOP SOONER: Second, I’d install either VAS Improvement Brakes or our new Prima brake kit. Not to be confused with other kits, our brake kits are the only direct-fit vented rotor brakes for 124.  Enthusiasts who have driven Spiders equipped with our vented brakes consistently comment on the quick the stopping and the rock solid feel of the brake pedal. Folks are amazed at how much steering wobble original brakes can exhibit

KEEP IT GOING: Because I live in Texas where it’s VERY hot, my third pick would be our dual row, cross-flow aluminum Performance radiator.  The cross flow design improves cooling and the bright aluminum looks fabulous under the hood.

Tim: What is the best accessory to add to this car?

VAS: Bar none, the best accessory investment for a Fiat Spider is a set of 15” alloy wheels. New 15” XXR wheels are available for as little as $440 a set, and the benefits of this investment are well worth it.

For starters, the 13” and 14” tire is going the way of the buffalo. These tires may be available in low profiles for modern “econo-boxes”, but in the very tall profile required by the Spider, they are becoming extremely scarce.

Enter the 15” rim. Slightly lower profile and wider contact surface improves handling and response drastically, while opening up a world of available and inexpensive tire sizes. We recommend 205/50R15 size tires for Spiders. The /50 profile is not too low or high, but looks just right in the well of a 124. Better driving, better looking, better tire selection: Win!

Tim: Any other comments or thoughts on these cars?

VAS: Let’s get this straight: That “Fix It Again, Tony” snicker-ism is absolute nonsense. These cars are well built! In the early years they were inexpensive, so they sold to college age people without the money to keep them in good repair. Usually, they sat outside, which is never a good thing for convertibles…

With the 45-year anniversary behind us, Spiders soldier on. It is a testament to the car’s durability that there are this many on the road.

For any model to be desirable, it needs new and exciting parts.  For example, an MGB, a British classic, and contemporary of the Fiat 124 Spider, has benefited from innovative suppliers who have devised suspension upgrades, cross flow heads, aluminum radiators, etc.

The turn of the century brought staleness to the Fiat parts industry. Sadly, sheepskin seat covers and Chinese made LED lights were the most exciting new parts on the market. Then things began to look up in January, 2009. Vick Autosports, under new ownership, adopted the mission to develop new and exciting products to enhance the hobby for vintage Fiat enthusiasts.  You can see the impressive results in our printed parts catalog (available for free at, and the best is yet to come!

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