1975 Fiat 124S
1975 Fiat 124S. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

One of the prettiest sports cars to arrive on our shores in a long time was the Fiat 124 Sport from Italy. This is not surprising since the Spider (convertible) version was styled by Italy’s famed Pininfarina. But it was more than just a handsome body; it was a sweet handling, fun-to-drive little machine.

The 124 Sport came in two-passenger Spider and 2+2 Coupe models. It was introduced at the 1966 Turin Motor Show, and reached North America about two years later. Like many other sports cars, it was based on family car components, in this case the sturdy Fiat 124 which arrived in 1964, and was also adopted as the Soviet Lada.

The 124 sedan/wagon was a conventional front-engine, rear drive car with an 1,197-cc, overhead valve, 65-horsepower inline four driving through a four-speed manual transmission. These components proved sturdy enough for the more rigorous life of a sports car. The 124 S’s wheelbase was kept at the 124’s 2,421 mm (95.3 in.) for the Coupe, but shortened to 2,281 (89.8) for the Spider.

The suspension, independent with coil springs in front, and a solid axle with coils at the rear, along with the driveline, were lifted pretty well intact from the sedan, with some modifications to fit them for sportier use. These included stiffer springs and anti-roll bar, a wider track, and a rear axle ratio raised from 4.3:1 to 4.1:1 for quieter cruising.

Optional on the coupe and standard on the Spider was the five-speed overdrive transmission from the Fiat 1600S sports car that the 124S replaced. The four-wheel power assisted disc brakes of the 124 were also used.

The main changes took place in the engine. While using the same basic internal parts, upping the cylinder bore from 73 to 80 mm for the Sport enlarged it to 1,438 cc. The biggest departure was fitting it with an aluminum cylinder head and double overhead cams driven by a cogged belt, one of the earliest such applications, and claimed to be the first belt used in a double cam engine; Fiat recommended belt replacement every 58,000 km (36,000 mi.). A two-barrel Weber carburetor was fitted, as well. These modifications increased horsepower from the 124’s 65 at 5,600 rpm, to 96 at 6,500. Torque also jumped from 70 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm to 82.5 at 4,000.

These mechanicals were wrapped in a unit construction body, which provided excellent visibility in all directions. The Spider’s folding top was particularly well designed, being an easy one-handed operation to erect, compared with the awkward affairs traditionally found on English sports cars.

The performance of the 124 Sport was quite competitive. Road & Track (7/’68) tested a Coupe and Spider together and found that the 957 kg (2,110 lb) Coupe would accelerate from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 11.3 seconds.

The 948 kg (2,090 lb) Spider, due to its slightly higher gear ratios, took a little longer at 11.9. Top speed of the coupe was 167 km/h (104 mph), and of the Spider, 171 (106).

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