Separated at Birth: The Fiat Dino and 124 Sport Spider

By Rich Taylor • Photography by Jean Constantine

In November of 1966, Fiat unveiled two new sports cars at Salone dell’automobile di Torino. Virtually identical in size and superficial specifications, both machines were designed and built by Pininfarina—and they couldn’t be more different. 

The 124 Sport Spider is an entry-level two-seater based on mechanical bits from the boxy little 124 Sedan and aimed at the MGB. The Dino Spider, the other release, is a limited-production exotic aimed at Porsche’s 911 and powered by a landmark DOHC V6 shared with Ferrari’s mid-engined Dino, which was introduced at the same 1966 Turin Auto Show.

Prices and production tell the story. The Fiat 124 Spider was made from 1966 through 1985 in nine slightly different models. Nearly 200,000 were built, and in 1973—when the car in our photos was purchased—the price was an economical $3259. 

The Fiat Dino Spider was produced from 1966 through 1973 in two versions. Only 1587 were built, and when the car in our photos was purchased in 1972, the price was a steep $7830. Just for the sake of comparison, from 1971 to 1973, Ferrari sold 1274 mid-engined 246 GT Spyders—priced $2000 more than a Fiat Dino Spider powered by the same engine.

Thanks to an unprecedented rise in Ferrari values, today’s 246 GTS prices range from $125,000 for a beater to $500,000 for a concours winner with “chairs and flares”—that’s slang for the optional sport seats and rear fender add-ons. Fiat Dino Spiders are much rarer, though prices range from around $50,000 to $200,000. 

Fiat 124 Spiders, on the other hand, are everywhere. The cheapest one currently available online is listed for $800, and you can snap up a concours winner for $15,000.

Conveniently, on the 2012 Mountain Mille, Malcolm Barksdale brought his perfectly restored Fiat Dino 2400 from San Diego, and Bernard Seneway drove his equally clean Fiat 124 Sport Spider from Highland, Maryland. Both cars completed the 1000-mile event in Virginia and West Virginia with no troubles. Even better, the Mountain Mille tour group spent one afternoon at Virginia International Raceway, where we were able to test drive and photograph both cars on track. Talk about a lucky break.

Sporting a Spider

Look closely at a 124 Spider—especially around the “swallow-tail” rear fenders, taillights and sweeping side fender line—and you can recognize styling motifs borrowed from the Corvette Rondine concept shown by Pininfarina at the 1963 Paris Auto Show. The following year at the Paris show, Pininfarina showed the Ferrari 275 GTS, and you can see its influence on the 124 Spider in the overall proportion, shape of the bumpers, flare of the wheel openings, and the way the headlights cut into the fenders. Sergio Pininfarina claimed credit for designing the 124 Spider himself, and you have to admit, it still looks good today.

Pininfarina chopped 5.5 inches off the Fiat 124 sedan platform, then reinforced the chassis to compensate for losing the roof. The suspension received stiffer coil springs in the front and rear, four-wheel disc brakes and lightweight 13x5-inch Cromodora alloy wheels, while the gearbox was upgraded to a five-speed.

Legendary engineer Aurelio Lampredi created the Fiat engine family used to power the 124. Lampredi left Ferrari for Fiat in 1955 and was responsible for Fiat engines still being manufactured four decades later. The 124 sedan’s little 1197cc four-cylinder engine was enlarged to 1438cc and given a double-overhead cam head. The cams were driven by a toothed rubber belt—a concept pioneered by car builder Bill Devin in 1956. Lampredi’s DOHC Fiat was one of the first mass-production engines to adapt what has now become the standard way to drive overhead cams.

The 124 Spider had to be built down to a price, but the cost-cutting isn’t obvious. Its twin-cam engine, five-speed gearbox and four-wheel disc brakes were already above and beyond the Fiat’s contemporary competition, but it also featured full instrumentation and a well-designed convertible top. Inexpensive vinyl upholstery, thin carpets, easily corroded electrical connections and a lack of chassis rustproofing reveal its bargain-basement origins, however.

The 124 Spider engine was enlarged to 1608cc in 1970, 1756cc in 1974, and 1995cc in 1979. The Weber carburetor was replaced by Bosch fuel injection in 1980, and there were limited-production turbocharged and supercharged models in the ’80s. Pininfarina, which had taken over sales and marketing in 1982, finally killed production in 1985 in order to free up factory space to build the Cadillac Allanté.

Like most sports cars from this era, the 124 Spider received ugly “impact bumpers” starting in 1974. From an aesthetic point of view, 1973-and-earlier cars are preferable. The later 2.0-liter cars were strangled with emissions gear but can also be easily retrofitted with a carburetor, intake and exhaust manifold from 1975-’79 models. If a numbers-matching restoration isn’t a priority, the ultimate 124 Spider is probably a 1973 with a carbureted 2.0-liter engine.

The result is an inexpensive, easy-to-repair, fun-to-drive sports car with deeply ingrained Italian panache. There’s more interior room than in an MGB, a rear seat that functions as a padded package shelf, and a large trunk. 

The five-speed shifter is a joy, steering is light and precise, there’s more than enough braking, and the Spider handles like a Ferrari on the track. It even returns 30 mpg on the highway. There wasn’t enough horsepower even for the 1966 consumer, so by today’s standards, acceleration is decidedly leisurely. But thanks to the aftermarket, that can be cured, too. Find a good example of the 124 Sport Spider—although “rust-free Fiat” is admittedly an oxymoron—and you’ll be taking advantage of one of the best secret buys on the market.

Dino, the Spider

In 1965, the FIA decreed that for the 1967 season, engines for Formula 2 would be based on 1.6-liter production models, of which at least 500 examples had to be built. Enzo Ferrari had no hope of quickly producing and selling 500 small cars. Enter Fiat. 

Giovanni Agnelli of Fiat had been quietly underwriting Ferrari S.p.A. since the ’50s, and in 1965 he was allowed to buy five percent of the company. By 1969, Fiat owned 50 percent of Ferrari. The two companies shared technology, parts and even assembly lines.

Ferrari engineer Franco Rocchi had 18 months to create a new engine and get at least 500 copies built. For sentimental reasons, if nothing else, Enzo Ferrari wanted the new engine derived from the 1.5-liter V6 Dino engine that had powered championship-winning Ferrari Formula 1 cars in the early ’60s. 

Rocchi came up with an all-aluminum DOHC, 65-degree V6 with wet cylinder liners. It also had the first production electronic ignition system, supplied by Magneti Marelli. The production version used an 86mm bore by 57mm stroke to displace 1987cc, which could be sleeved down to 77mm by 57mm to make a 1593cc race engine.  

The original plan was that Ferrari would assemble these engines at Maranello and supply them not only for a new entry-level Ferrari sports car, but also for a less-expensive but presumably higher-volume Fiat model. As it turned out, Fiat took over engine production from the beginning because Ferrari simply didn’t have the capacity to produce engines by the thousands. 

Pininfarina was contracted to design both the Ferrari and Fiat cars, and experienced designer Aldo Brovarone was put in charge of both. His mid-engined Ferrari 206/246 is now considered a breakthrough, while the Fiat Dino Spider is just another pretty face. Originally, Pininfarina expected to produce both the Fiat Dino Spider and Fiat Dino Coupe, though the Coupe project was ultimately given to Bertone and designed by young Giorgetto Giugiaro. 

Drawings by Brovarone show a coupe that has a Ferrari 330 GTC-style greenhouse on a Dino Spider body and obvious design cues from the Ferrari 275 GTB coupe. The bulging fenders, cutoff Kamm tail and round taillights are all motifs shared with contemporary Ferrari models, while the quad headlights and full-width grille are more in line with big Fiat sedans. In hindsight, Brovarone’s never-built coupe design seems prettier than his Dino Spider and Giugiaro’s Dino Coupe.

Aside from the V6, all mechanical parts are sourced from various Fiat models. The front suspension is from the Fiat 1500 sedan, and the rear axle and five-speed gearbox is from the Fiat 2300. Wheels are 14x6.5-inch versions of the same Cromodora design on the 124 Spider. 

In 1969, Fiat made major improvements to the Dino. The V6 was bored and stroked to 92.5x60mm, displacing 2419cc, the engine block was switched from aluminum to cast iron, and the triple two-barrel Weber DCN carburetors were replaced with triple DCNFs. A stronger ZF five-speed replaced the Fiat transmission, and an independent rear suspension from the new Fiat 130 replaced the rigid axle.

These changes eliminated nearly all the complaints that had already besmirched the Fiat Dino reputation—creating a truly lovely machine—but the damage was done. Fiat was able to sell just 424 Dino 2400 Spiders in four years. Confusingly, the Dino 2400 models, though built of Fiat components, were assembled by Ferrari in the Maranello factory.

Driving a Dino 2400 is a joy. It has a typical arms-out, Italian driving position, light steering, pedals perfectly positioned for heel-and-toe downshifts, terrific brakes and balanced cornering that never loses its cool—even at racing speeds. The 65-degree V6 sounds like a miniature Ferrari V12 and whips the Dino to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Wonderful! Unlike the mid-engined Ferrari Dino, which bludgeons you with engine noise, the front-engine Fiat Dino keeps everything in proper balance.

Considering its rarity, the Dino 2400 is surprisingly easy to maintain. The ZF five-speed is also used in Aston Martin models, the Girling disc brakes are shared with the Lamborghini Miura and DeTomaso Pantera, and all the suspension parts and most hardware bits are from mass-production Fiats. 

Engine parts, of course, are shared with the Ferrari Dino 246 and priced accordingly. After decades of neglect, the Fiat Dino Spider has finally taken its rightful place as a unique and special sports car—more powerful and more fun than a Fiat 124 Sport Spider, but significantly rarer and in many ways more pleasant than the far more expensive Ferrari Dino. In other words, right where it was intended to fit from the beginning. 

Decisions, Decisions...

The right choice for most of us will be dictated by budget. Looking for an inexpensive, timeless roadster? The 124 makes a great companion. It’s light on its feet, enjoys plenty of aftermarket support today, and even has a roomy cockpit.

The Fiat Dino obviously offers much more exclusivity, performance and pedigree—but that comes with a major price premium. Here’s the kicker, though: In today’s scene, the Ferrari Dino is more of a bargain than nearly all the mid-engined supercars turned out by Italy.

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Coupefan Reader
9/7/19 9:47 a.m.

although “rust-free Fiat” is admittedly an oxymoron

Once.  Just once, it is possible for a journalist not to fall back on old cliches and half truths when writing an article on vintage Fiats?

wspohn Dork
9/7/19 3:39 p.m.

I found a Fiat Dino coupe that I wasn't interested in so passed on to a friend. Should probably have kept it given subsequent prices.  Sadly, quite a few engines were scavenged to replace the later Dino (not ever called Ferrari!) 246s, which IIRC had the cast iton block 2.4 version of the engines.

Tberg New Reader
9/25/19 10:31 p.m.

The 124 was a fun little car to drive around, I often drove my best friend's orange one back when it was new.  A bit of trivia, the Fiat 124 was designed by Tom Tjaarda who also penned the De Tomaso Pantera.

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