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August 22nd, 2007

Scott Scheferman know what he likes about the 124 Spider.
Photo by Jerry Lee Phillips.

The Fiat 124 Spider has been around so long we almost forget it is there. Introduced in 1969, it went through many phases until the last “Pininfarina 2000” came to these shores in the mid 1980s. There are lot still around, and a growing number of increasing hard core Fiat enthusiasts are making sure the now grand old lady isn’t taken for granted.

This year, Jerry Lee Phillips, who helps organize the growing ItalianCarFest at Grapevine, Texas, has established a Best Spider Challenge, a competition only open to Fiat’s 124 Spider. It’s a homage to the 124, a car some think has been left behind in the rapidly escalating world of Italian cars. Said Phillips, “The goal of the Best Spider Challenge is to heighten visibility and increase desirability of these cars”.

Gary Poage's 1969 Fiat 124 Spider. Club: Fiats of South California, nominated for ItalianCarFest Best Spider Challenge.

The Market

The 124 Spider has been stuck in second gear price wise for a number of years. This doesn’t seem to bother 124 owners. Maria Buchette, a long time owner who fell in love with the car when her first date arrived in a 1969 Spider, thinks that the 124 will eventually “be appreciated for what they are..” and selling one will be easier and more lucrative. “There’s money in the 124 for parts vendors” said Michael Rutenberg, a purchasing manager for a steel distributor. Ron Conlon, whose first car was a Fiat 850 Sedan, said “Shhhh…very soon the cost of restoration will be recouped… It is interesting to watch the Fiat Spiders come of age.”

Phillips, though, has his pulse on the market and says that the 124s really have appreciated. “Cars that were $5,000 a year ago, are $10,000 today. Low mileage, late model 2000 Spiders will bring from $8000 to $13000, and probably more.” Phillips noted that unlike many classics, the last of the breed--the Spider 2000s from the mid-1980s, still command the highest prices. “This has only now begun to enhance the value of early, pre- 1974 cars.” Jeff Scheferman, President and CEO of HAS Development Corp. has owned a wide variety of German and Japanese cars, agrees with Phillips. “I think the value can only increase, given the enduring style and underlying value in the design (twincam motors, 5 speeds, four wheel disc brakes, fully instrumented, great top design, etc.). It was truly an advanced auto for its day and that value will eventually be recognized in the market.”

1972 Fiat 124 Sport Spider, owned by Denise Burchette. Club: Fiat-Lancia Unlimited, nominated for Best Spider Challenge.

A two sided sword

Although there is little doubt that prices are rising, that many owners are simply not concerned about future, or present prices, says something about both the 124 and its owners. They don’t seem to be the type to watch auction prices and study the Sports Car Market Letter. For them, there are more important things than the current market value. They love being able to drive their cars on a daily basis, an exercise that usually decreases as the market value increases. It’s a two sided sword. The 124 “is an inexpensive way to enjoy traveling in a fun convertible.” said Van Sharp, who found a 124 for $350 then restored it.

Current owners can drive their Spiders and not worry about filing bankruptcy if an accident should occur. “Spider owners are enthusiasts and love to drive,“ said Rutenberg. “There are very few trailer queens.” In addition, the Fiat 124 Spider is one of the classic drivers of all time. Italian to the core, the Spider makes driving fun, in a way that other makes, no matter how hard they try, fall short. “The Spiders offer a fabulous driving experience, a uniquely Italian driving feel,” said Scheferman.

Since the 124 first hit the market in 1969, owners have almost 38 years of accumulated experience with the car and the once common reliability problems. Most owners still site electrical gremlins but at the same time, know the pitfalls and the cars, if in good shape, have been pretty well sorted out. Conlon had just completed another trip with his Spider. “I just returned from Pontiac, Michigan 2500 miles trouble free,” he said. Many use their Spiders as daily drivers, confident that they will make their appointed rounds without a hitch.

Dan Rian's 1982 Fiat 124 Spider 2000. Club: Fiat Enthusiasts Northwest. Nominee for Best Spider Challenge.

The Main Attraction

Style: The 124 Spider is about Style. “The second best shape in Italy“, as the Fiat ads of the era claimed, in an era before it was politically incorrect to do so. The coachwork was by Pininfarina, and similar in style to the 1964 Ferrari 275 GTS, with crisp, tight lines, open headlights, and a long horizontal grille. Both designs were a hallmark of the swinging sixties, but the 124 Spider was a fraction of the cost of the Ferrari. Niels Uni, an RN, fell for the lines the moment he saw one. “First time I saw a 124 Spider I was hooked.” he said. “The Spider has unmatched styling along with a wonderfully easy convertible top.” Many other owners noted the timeless, classic lines, very much part of the long lasting allure of the Spider.

Memories are made of this

Along with an appreciation of the styling, many Spider owners have in common being smitten by the car at a relatively early age. Gary Poage, now a mechanical engineer, remembered when his father was looking for a sports car with a back seat. Taking little Gary to the LA Auto Expo in 1969, he saw the new Fiat 124 Spider. “My Father lifted me up and put me in the back seat. I fit. He called my Mother and told her he had found a car for the family.” Gary’s daily driver, 38 years later, is a 1969 Spider. One of Csaba Vandor’s high school teachers owned one, and today, years later, Vandor does too. Jerry Phillips was in his 20s when the mother of two girls he knew drove up in a Spider. “It was a new, white convertible with red interior. I even remember it has red pinstripes, extra side moulding, and fake wire wheels. I loved it!” Bit early bit hard seems to be the norm for Spider lovers, and the beat goes on. Scott Scheferman, drives a VW GTI, but uses the family 124 and has liked Spiders since his family cared for an orange colored Spider when he was still in second grade. Today, he figures the best feature of the Fiat “is the way girls like to hop in the back seat upon the slightest invitation.”

Neils Uni's 1981 Fist Spider 2000. Club: Fiat America. Nominee for Best Spider Challenge.

Club Fiat

To keep all those old Fiats out trouble, the clubs throughout the nation provide a valuable service. Every individual we contacted had high praise for the Fiat community. Most simply couldn’t do without the fraternity of Fiat owners. They are spread out through the U.S. yet band together to keep the 124 alive and kicking. “With the Best Spider Challenge,” said Phillips, “we invited the four major Fiat clubs to join our club in working together on this project.” Gary Poage needs the clubs so he can “meet other Fiat geeks like myself.” Csaba Vandor enjoys the camaraderie, others enjoy sharing knowledge, book, and finding parts. For being spread so widely, the Fiat club members are surprisingly happy and cohesive.

Fiat in America?

When and if Fiat will re-enter the U.S. market is anyone’s guess. It will probably be up to the next generations on both sides of the Atlantic. The oldtimers remember the many problems Fiat had in the sixties and seventies. But a new generation is more optimistic. Scott Scheferman: “I have four friends, all Gen-X 30s, who say they will sell whatever car they are driving the very instant Fiat re-enters the market. The very INSTANT. Can you tell me one affordable Italian car manufacturer whose cars I can buy in the USA right now? This is not rocket science, and the market is riper than ever for sexy compact cars.”

Time will tell. Right now, we have the 124 Spider. Enjoy.

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