You know that one friend who, after imbibing enough of one substance or another, becomes a completely different person? It’s a more common phenomenon than you might think. My personal version of it is called “Adventure Mike” and I won’t mince words: Adventure Mike is a hoot and a half. He’s a really great time. The life of the party. He’s also, incidentally, going to put me in prison one day. Adventure Mike once ended the night with thirteen more dollars than he started with and a new leather jacket. Normal Mike (who I like to call Mike Classic) has no idea where the money or the jacket came from. You see where this is going: that was a metaphor, and this is a 1979 Fiat 124 Spider 2000.
The term “Italian convertible” is one of those rare word pairings that always promise good times ahead, much like “open bar” or “Mark Wahlberg.” This particular slab of al-fresco goodness is the 124 Spider, and that last word is important. That’s because if you were to walk up to any given stranger and say simply “Fiat 124” they’d huddle their children closer and avoid making eye contact with you. And I think I know why: the normal Fiat 124 is actually a sedan. An exceptionally long-lived sedan, and one very influential to the history of Fiat, but not what you’d call the most exciting of designs. So the company decided to show it a good time, and in 1966, its drunk alter-ego emerged. The Spider used all the same engines as the sedan, but the platform was 5.5 inches shorter, which made it more maneuverable and nimble in the corners. Plus it was draped in that stunning, Pininfarina-designed bodywork.
The design is worth discussing, and that really comes down to one man: the late Thomas Tjaarda van Starkenburg- Tom to his friends. Tom was the son of car-design guru John Tjaarda, who was responsible for the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Tom, meanwhile, was finishing up his architecture degree at the University of Michigan, and decided to reward himself with something called a “fun elective course.” His professor turned down Tjaarda’s initial plan to design a sports car, instead tasking him with drawing something more practical. I can’t find any pictures of the “family sportswagon” that Tjaarda came up with, but it was impressive enough to get him a job at the Italian design studio Ghia, and apparently he kept the model on his desk for his entire tenure in Italy. Tjaarda moved to Pininfarina (then called Carrozzeria Farina) after a couple of years, where he penned the frankly stunning Rondine. The Rondine was a rebodied 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, and while General Motors had no interest in the design, Fiat thought there might be something to it, so they commissioned Tjaarda to design their upcoming sports car: the 124 Spider.
Tjaarda actually left Pininfarina before the full protoype for the 124 Spider was completed, but he went on to a long and prosperous career designing everything from Ford Fiestas to LaForzas. He died this past June. It is kind of incredible how some average midwestern dude ended up drawing some of the most iconic cars of the 20th century (he also worked on the DeTomaso Pantera and the Ferrari 365 California). And while the Spider may not have been the most glamorous of his designs- that, in my book, goes to the Rondine– it is, I think, the best encapsulation of his talents. The 124 Spider was, to quote John Davis of Motorweek, “the best Italian-American combination since pizza and beer.” That’s because not only was it designed by an American, but it was also specially marketed to American buyers, and about three quarters of all sales were made stateside.
The Spider made use of the Fiat Twin Cam engine, which in this Spider 2000 model displaced 1,995ccs and made about 82 horsepower. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it isn’t. 1979 was actually one of the less impressive years for the Spider, because it existed after the government mandated power-robbing emissions controls but before Fiat was clever enough to do anything about it (namely turbocharging, and later, supercharging). That power was routed through a five-speed manual transmission, as featured in this particular example, or a General Motors-sourced three-speed automatic. Disk brakes were also standard, which was something of a novelty at the time. The roof could be raised and lowered while sitting in the driver’s seat with just one dexterous hand. So it was never a downright fast car, but it was fun, which is the whole point of a small, affordable convertible.
Adventure Mike may set off car alarms and steal stuff that isn’t his. He’s a reliably good time, but to me personally, he’s a very unreliable narrator. Which is why he only comes out once in awhile. The 124 Spider is much the same. Fiats were never big on reliability, and this was no exception. Rust claimed its fair share of Spiders. But like most Italian cars- most sports cars from this era, actually- its temperamental nature became one of its charms. So on those rare occasions when it did work and the sun was shining, you could enjoy those 93-million miles of headroom all the more. It’s just about as good as pizza and beer. Happy summer everyone.
- Those two bulges on the hood not only look good, but are functional too. They’re there to accommodate the engine’s two camshafts (hence the name “Twin Cam”).
- One of the more desirable versions of the Spider is the Abarth 124 Rally, which was made so that Fiat could take the car rallying. That version was a little lighter, featured independent rear suspension, and received some engine upgrades.
- John Tjaarda was also known for a less well known project called the Starkenburg Series that many say influenced the original VW Beetle.
- If I haven’t managed to talk you to death about Tom Tjaarda, he wrote a fascinating perspective in 2004 about growing up as the son of a designer and his experience drawing the Spider.
- There’s a new version of the 124 Spider, but it’s more of a Italian-Japanese mashup this time around (which in my book is a Very Good Thing). And yes, there’s a rally version, and yes, I want one more than my next breath.