Tech Tips: Fiat Spider 124

Mechanically speaking, the steering is the biggest frustration. Nearly every 124-series car—in every variation—was equipped with traditional steering box/drag link setup, which makes for a lot of moving pieces and a lot of maintenance: six tie rod ends/ball joints, a steering box that requires lash adjustment to eliminate the midlife “inch of freeplay at center,” and an idler that likes to lose its fluid and stiffen up over time. Only the very tail end of the Pininfarina 124 Spider production, in late 1985, had a rack-and-pinion setup implemented. The difference in steering responsiveness and feel is immense.

The early chrome-bumper models are more aesthetically pleasing than the later cars, in my opinion. The early flat-hood cars with honeycomb grilles and smaller taillights have a nicer, more pleasing look.

The trade-off with later cars is that they have a lot more power with bigger displacement motors and even fuel injection. A lot of refurbished early cars receive later motors to get the best of both worlds.

Mechanically, the stock braking system is great, if properly maintained. It became the standard for all disc brakes on all other Fiat models (and their licensed variants) moving forward well into the late 1980s, so interchange and availability of parts is not a problem.

The biggest issue on these cars is always a lack of preventive maintenance. They don’t require as much as say a Ferrari, Porsche or Jag, but they absolutely require an annual afternoon examination, even if they seem to be running fine.

The attention that we’re talking about includes a seasonal look under the hood and under the car, particularly at the brakes, ensuring that the mounting hardware is clean and well lubricated. Also, do a quick check of wheel bearing freeplay, motor mounts, and exhaust. Every 10,000 to 15,000 miles should see a valve lash adjustment, and every three years or so, a quick removal of the fuel tank sending unit to inspect the inside of the fuel tank. Junked-up fuel systems and bad check valves will cause grief to a lot of Fiat owners.

More power is always a good thing, and these motors were traditionally “undertuned” as stock and they respond extremely well to traditional bolt-on improvements, including exhaust, camshaft and carburetion. Interestingly many great “hop-up” items for these cars are actually stock items, such as the 1967-’74 4-into-2 exhaust manifold, 1974-’78 large-bore carburetors, and later PLEX-style electronic ignitions to replace early points. I’m not much of an accessory guy, but the most functional is a skid plate to protect the oil pan. The pan sits quite low in the chassis, and I’ve never seen a single 124 come into our shop that didn’t have a dented—if not completely smashed—oil pan caused by raised driveways. A lot of 124 cars met their end because an owner crashed the oil pan, breaking the pickup foot of the oil pump and didn’t realize it.

Now, the one accessory not to add, in my opinion, is a luggage rack. A 124 Spider whose trunk lid doesn’t have four holes hacked into it to mount an aftermarket luggage rack is truly a rare thing.

The 124-series cars are extremely affordable and easily available for the first-time owner. They are continuing to rise in value, and some variations that weren’t much on the radar a few years ago—especially the 124 Coupe, and more recently the 124 Sedan—are starting to come into vogue. The Coupe went through three generations with some significant cosmetic body modifications. The first series, AC, and second series, BC, are really beautiful two-door, rear-drive cars.

One thing that sounds cliché but is absolutely true is that these cars love—and need—to be driven. Regularly. It has nothing to do with their make and everything to do with the technology. Carburetors evaporate fuel over long storage and plug up. Fuel tanks rust from condensation. Brakes stick. Ignition components foul. Seals go dry. It’s no fun chasing routine mechanical issues on a garage queen. We have had 100,000-mile daily drivers in our shop, which look like hell but function better in a lot of cases than a fully restored car that is taken out only a couple times a year.

I think the most important thing to mention to aspiring first-time Fiat owners is that you get what you pay for. In almost every case, unless a car has clear evidence of regular driving and service, you will be in for a lot of up-front work if you wish to have a reliable, dependable car.

This is not because it’s a Fiat, but because of lack of previous maintenance and the basic technology of the era you’re working with. Aunt Millie’s rust-free 1970 124 Spider that’s been sitting for 15 years won’t be back on the road for a couple hundred dollars and a weekend’s worth of effort. It will require refurbishment of the main systems, such as cooling, fuel, braking, steering, suspension, along with some basic engine maintenance, like the timing belt, tensioner, ignition, valve lash, etc., before it will be fun.

Focus on the basic mechanicals first—before running out to buy a new steering wheel or shifter knob. Fortunately, almost all of this work can be accomplished in your garage, with easily available parts and the help of enthusiastic online forums. At the end of the project, you’ll be the proud owner of a desirable, head-turning, true Italian sports car.

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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.

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 solution 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 DIYer can install relay kits and a few new ground pods, bringing the electrics into the modern era.

Apart from the routing of the electrical system, 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. 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 DIYer 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 third year on the market, our PFI kit outsells our dual carburetor sales four to one.

Between the PFI conversion and our pistons, head, cams and exhaust, we have dyno results showing a 70-percent 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 the 124. Enthusiasts who have driven Spiders equipped with our vented brakes consistently comment on the quick 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.

Bar none, the best accessory investment for a Fiat Spider is a set of 15-inch alloy wheels. New 15x7-inch 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 “econoboxes,” but in the very tall profile required by the Spider, they are becoming extremely scarce. Enter the 15-inch 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!

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rj_marks
rj_marks None
7/9/14 7:28 p.m.

Just received Vicks radiator. Looking forward to install and cooler running. - RJ Marks

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