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Hagerty
Hagerty Employee

Find It Again, Tony: Regretting passing on a 1970 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe

Just after Thanksgiving 2021, when I still thought I had both the space and the mental bandwidth to take on a 14th car as a winter project-and right before I got wrapped up looking at those two local basket-case Lotuses -I saw an intriguing ad on Facebook Marketplace for a 1970 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, located near Londonderry, New Hampshire, less than an hour from me.
https://www.hagerty.com/media/opinion/the-hack-mechanic/find-it-again-tony-regretting-passing-on-a-1...
25 REPLIES 25
gpsuya
Advanced Driver

Wow, you're not kidding on that type CC Nose. It's awful.
OptimusPrime
Detailer

The ever-rising cost of labor has made projects like this non-starters to me.

There's not a lot of room between this car at $5k plus $165/hr body work/mechanic bills and the $15k car that's structurally sound, pretty and ready to drive. If you can do all the work yourself and have nothing else to do nights and weekends, it's a different story, but I'd still rather buy the finished car these days.

Perhaps you could fix the rusty suspension mount and be content to drive the car as-is, knowing that even restoring the dashboard at a place like Just Dashes is a $3k job. And no, you're not likely to find a good replacement 124 Coupe dash these days -- all of the soft trim on these cars disintegrated in the same way years ago.

Sad but true, it's time to start letting some of these cars return to the earth (salvaging the good bits first).
thehackmechanic
Advanced Driver

Yeah, it's a tough call. I made it one way and now I regret it. Of course, had I bought it, I'd probably have the "what the hell did I just do" kind of regret.
CitationMan
Gearhead

I recently passed on a car, kind of regretted it, but then decided while it might have been a mistake, it was a mistake with no consequences.
XJ6
Intermediate Driver

I loved the line about calling "automotive social services"
Pilott
Intermediate Driver

Rob, your story sucked me right in ... I DO have automotive history with a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe (AC). I didn't own the car but I did part-time work for a wonderful elf-wizard of a man who owned one and encouraged me to drive it. This was at that time in the late 1960's when many of us NOF's (now old farts) were just learning the driving nature of small, nimble European cars with radial tires and supple suspension ... compared to American sedans with wide oval bias plies & leaf springs. At the time, my personal "car" was a 1966 Chevy van ... the true antithesis of the Euro-sedan handling vibe.
That Fiat experience changed my lifetime car preference and affected my life in ways would never imagine. When I graduated from college my first job was with a small Industrial Design office where the owner drove a Porsche Targa and the other staff designer drove a TVR. I soon purchased a used SAAB 96V4 for my commute to work. That SAAB was soon followed by several others needing various levels of repair. I currently own a couple of Porsches, some VW's & SAAB's. I am also not a car collector but I seem to have 12 at last count.
Only 3 of those are unregistered and only 2 are currently projects under construction.
How did that happen ... oh yeah, the Fiat 124 Sport Coupe.
Gary_Bechtold
Specialist

An interesting car but it gives me "Danger Will Robinson" vibes with all the rust, etc.

GC
Intermediate Driver

Those Fiat 124's were great little cars -- as long as you bought them new. I bought a brand new 1971 Spider, loved it, and still wish I had it. When I bought it, the dealer (in Charleston, SC) informed me that mine was the first one imported to the U.S. with the 1608 cc engine., so I knew immediately that the 1970 model you looked at could not have had that engine if it was original to the car.

In the 2 years I owned it, I was already having rust issues -- the trunk lid developed a pin-hole rust through at the rear. I traded it in on a brand new 240Z. Still have the Z nearly 50 years later, but will always have fond memories of that Fiat 124 Spider.
EHaaa
Pit Crew

I had a 1972 124 Coupe in the late 70's, when I lived in Tucson. It provided endless personal adventures, and oddly enough, high reliability. I keep trying to find a nice rust free example that hasn't been owned by idiots. No luck the past 10 years. Several "almost" good ones on BAT the past few years, but not quite there. Having owned several 124 sedans, in salted-road climes, I can relate to the rust scare here. It would be hard to justify saving that one without personal metalworking skills. That said, some cars are so endearing that the cost/value ratio should be ignored. The 124 Coupe is one of those imho.
WAKman
Intermediate Driver

You made the right choice, Mike. But they are wonderful cars.

My first car was a 1970 124 Spider, and I soon acquired a non-mobile 1969 Sport Coupe just for the engine, as the one in my car had a bad cylinder. I forget why it didn't run, but it cost me $50. Also had a friend with a 1971 SC that he rallied. It had dual Webers on the side of that cool gem of an engine.
TG
Technician

When I saw the teaser photo for your article, it reminded me of one of mine that got away... a 1977 Celica GT

Well mine didn't exactly get away - I had one in my early driving days when it was just an old car providing basic transportation. I probably had it for better than 10 years though... through three engines and two transmissions. By the time I parted ways with it, oil pressure for engine #3 was topping out at 10 psi, it didn't have a panel on it that didn't have a rust hole, and the strut towers had rust holes in them the size of a fist.

I still look them up from time to time, but when I find one, I remember that although it looked like a Mustang, it didn't exactly perform like one, parts were hard to find in the 90s, and it attracted rust like you-know-what attracts flies. Sometimes our guts do better thinking than our brains

Tinkerah
Engineer

Without a title add that issue to the headaches this car would've brought.
Sal
New Driver

@robsiegel
The Fiat 124 Spider went through 1982, not 81. I happen to have a mint Turbo model that I've owned (2nd owner) for over 25 years. I agree that it is a wonderful, fun sports car to drive. Especially if it's maintained properly by a knowledgeable Fiat/Alfa trained mechanic.
thehackmechanic
Advanced Driver

I was going by the statement on the Wikipedia page that says "The car was manufactured by Fiat (with a Pininfarina body) in Turin until October 1981, when Pininfarina took over manufacture in their San Giorgio Canavese plant." If it is in error, my apologies.
Rick_C
New Driver

Respect the tighter tolerances.  Keep it full of oil and coolant, remember its a high strung powerplant.  And get around to changing the timing belt every five years or so.  You'll be fine and have a reliable car.  I used mine all over southern California when I was a field service engineer. My region was 250 miles by 120 miles.  It never me left stranded.  She's now a weekender and not a daily driver.

Iso_Grifo
Instructor

Silly for the seller who didn't replace the water pump before trying to sell it. I remember the 124 spider I had in the early 2000's and I had to replace the one in mine. I think it was $30 at a big chain auto parts store. And then almost no time at all to replace it on the parking pad. Everything on that car was so cheap and easy. Except the rust.
Klharper124
New Driver

Geez I have been called brilliant, as I am a fan of both Fiat's and Corvairs. I have had my fill of really expensive cars, and while I still own a couple it it the lower buck cars that I enjoy.

This car is not a 5k car, maybe a 1500 dollar car, but not 5k, and you definitively do not buy one of these with the intent of having someone else do the body work, it is financial suicide. You buy one of these because you are a bit of a loon but you have skills. I do love mine, it is very tossable and the twin cam is very tuneable. Twin webers will mount with that distributor, but they are usually IDF's and not DCOE's. The real problem with mounting DCOE's is interference with the brake booster. The car is light enough that getting rid of the booster is not a bad idea, and the DCOE's do produce more power. Also on a BC or CC you can run the later model distributor that mounts on the cam box, I am not certain on the AC, but the AC definitely has less room under the hood.

The rust on these cars is a killer, and unfortunately there is no aftermarket for body or trim so you really have to scour the internet at times. You do have to know your way around a welder and the cars will improve sheet metal fabrication skills.

Having said that I love mine, I also have a couple of 105 Alfa GT (Junior & GTV) and I have owned several 2002's in the past, and while they are all great cars, I really prefer the 124 to them.

Good luck but they are hard to find anymore.
K-

Jnick
Detailer

Thank you again Rob for writing “an ode to a lost cause”! For me car collecting is all about finding something long forgotten and unique pouring a ridiculous amount of time and energy into with the only promise that someday it might make it a mile to the grocery store, (and back). Sajeev wrote about falling in love with a Camry, I couldn’t believe it and still can’t, especially in a universe full of “broken toys” crying for attention!!!
mpflorio
New Driver

In 1970 I was in the Navy and stationed in Rota, Spain. I bought a brand new BC Fiat 124 Coupe (1438cc, 5-speed) for $1600 US. US and California certified and tagged. For the next two years my wife and I drove that car all over Europe. It was great, handled well, but it also introduced me to paper-thin body sheet metal, and really cheap and flimsy interior materials.

Transferred back to California the car came with me, shipped to Norfolk, VA, and driven cross-country. It served as a (somewhat reliable) commuter for the next five years and 140,000 miles. Two transmission rebuilds (2nd gear synchro), three blown head gaskets, and countless hours bent over the driver's side fender setting the points in that low-mounted distributor.

Eventually, the aluminum head developed a eroded crater between a center cylinder and the coolant passage. Sold it as-is for $1000, and replaced it with a then brand-new 1976 Honda Accord ($4295 with factory air, $3995 without).
mbr2000
Advanced Driver

I lusted after a Fiat 124 Coupe in 1971. The only things I didn't like were the very long reach to the steering wheel and short distance to the pedals. As I recall, Car & Driver said it must have been made for orangutans! I was also interested in an Alfa GTV, but at around $4K, it was out of my price range. Ended up getting a 1971 Opel 1900 coupe (later re-named "Manta"). Ride and handling were much improved after I replaced the pathetic little bias ply tires with radials, but it never was never any better than just OK. It certainly did not have the heart, soul, and sounds of the Fiat. Many years later I bought a used 128 sedan as go-to-work car. That little sucker was an awesome commuter, great for weaving in and out of traffic. 1100cc of dynamite!
SurlyTom
New Driver

I feel like I'm at an AA meeting:
Hello Rob. You did the right thing... My brother has owned (back in the day) three or four Fiats. Only one came in as a used car. They were ALL Fix It Agains. I've had an attraction to the 850 Sport Coupe ever since one (from high school/college days) came up from behind me and passed me like a runaway rocket- it was not stock, Abarth would have been proud of that car.

In the mid 70s, I did fail to buy the 289 Cobra at $12,500; I would have needed to take a 2nd mortgage on my house and just WOULD NOT do that... And then there was the GT350, abandoned and gathering dust and leaves in a little cul de sac in Los Angeles. And then there was the Ferrari 246GT, an unclaimed by the insurance company, recovered stolen, coming up for auction at the police impound lot (the insurance company claimed it one day before it became mine)

Hello Rob, my name is Tom and I'm sober for four years. (Did I mention my friends '72 911 T? He's owned it since new and can't drive it anymore... My wife just gives me "The Look"..)
02-orignal-ownr
Detailer

In January 1969 I was ready to buy a new car--my first new one after six years of used car ownership. After reading everything I could about sporty (and affordable) small European coupes/sedans, I was down to either a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe or a BMW 2002. I had already driven a friend's 2002 so was familiar with it. Now to drive the Fiat.

There was a Fiat dealer in our town (Rome NY--of course there would be) so we arranged for a test drive on a Saturday morning. It was +5 degrees, so we looked over the one on the showroom floor first. To check out the back seat, I pushed the driver's seat back forward to climb back there. The headrest hit the horn button and set off the car's standard Fiamm air horns, which are wired to be live regardless of ignition key position. Not a good design feature, and especially so since the salesman was standing in front of the car.

After he scraped himself off the showroom ceiling, we went outside to drive the demonstrator. It wouldn't start. I tried it; the salesman tried it; the service manager tried it. They finally ran the battery down. We left, and Monday ordered a new 2002 from a dealer in New York City, the closest one that actually had cars. I still have that one.
Mot
Intermediate Driver

Rust is kinda like an iceberg, it's what you can't see that really causes the damage.
This car showed rust at the surface that was way more than minor. California car? For maybe the first year of its life.
That being said, I probably couldn't have walked away without throwing out a lowball number. Like you said a little welding here ,a water pump there, maybe a clutch cable and a brake bleed you're good to go. Or not.
Rick_C
New Driver

In a world were people placed such vehicles as the BMW 2002, Datsun 510 and Afla GTV on pedestals, here is the one underdog that many forget existed.  Some of the others didn't look as nice on paper, sporting a SOHC engine, a 4-speed or drum brakes. Here we have it all.  The makings of a semi-exotic at blue collar, working mans prices...a five speed, four wheel disk brakes and a high revving engine designed by an ex-Ferrari engine over fifty years ago.  I'm biased of course.  I've had one in my collection for 30 years.

jcscott
New Driver

I owned a '68 or '69 124 Sport Coupe in 1970 or so. It was boxcar orange and I loved the look of it. When I drove it out of the dealer's lot I dropped a cigarette ash & burned a hole in the seat. Must have been a harbinger of things to come! The valves went first. The disc brakes squeaked so loudly that you could hear me coming from a block away. The little 4 banger was game, but at 60 MPH it was turning over at about 4,000 RPM. Loud enough to prevent any conversation. Finally drove it 1000 miles to the Bay Area and sold it to an (un)suspecting young lady. Still it looked great!