Fiat may be coming out with a tarted-up MX-5 in the near future, but the original Fiat 124 Spider set such a high bar for pure joy that it’ll be tough to live up to. There’s no single car I’ve driven that’s as much fun and as easy to drive as the old 124 Spider. Here’s why you, too, must track an old roadster.
Some experiences should just be required of an enthusiast. If you’re a foodie, you try the most authentic versions you can find of your favorites. Italian grandmas’ lasagna. Tacos from a truck where the employees barely hablan inglés. If you collect something, you look for real and original versions of the thing that you collect. Right now, I’d love to have more of the Fisher-Price prototypes for the Puffalump line of toys. Puffalumps 4evarz.
If you’re a track dork, you need to experience something that’s as analog as possible. No power steering. No fancy traction control systems. Not even ABS. Something with so little separating you from the true, authentic experience of a car that you, too, can walk away appropriately angry at any dingus who claims that a move to a number-feeling electric power steering system is “good enough” on a sportscar.
Before I ran off to test out the Mini John Cooper Works, I remembered that I hadn’t driven a manual in a while. My daily driver is an automatic, and my poor LeMons 944’s muffler was still rusted off, thus making it a rolling noise violation everywhere—especially at a noise-limited race track. I was loafing at Harris Hill Raceway and taking measurements for a new muffler when I remembered that there’s a 1974 Fiat 124 Spider that lives there. It looked like it wasn’t apart at the moment, but it had been sitting for a while.
Did someone need to run the Fiat? I could help with this.
Sure, the owner said—I could run the Fiat. They were still fine-tuning the engine for another ChumpCar outing, so it was a little short on power, but otherwise, it was fair game.
The Fiat doesn’t have a lot of power to begin with, but you know what? That’s okay. It doesn’t need it. The point of this car is fun, and part of that fun is pushing it to its very limits and knowing that it probably won’t kill you. Much of Harris Hill in the 124 is flat-out, even in places where you’d have to lift in a Miata. Even ten-tenths is mostly harmless. Eleven-tenths is catchable, and easy to bring back in line.
Here’s where the Fiat shines, especially to someone like me who hadn’t driven a stick in a while: it’s so forgiving. You still know when you screw up on a downshift or brake too early. It’s up to you to nail the business of driving it, or suffer the consequences of being slow—which you’ll probably just laugh off because you’re in a bright open can of whirrrrrrrr and you can’t help but to smile.
Tires will chirp on borked downshifts because there’s nothing to save you from your own failure. You will lock up the brakes if you try to pound on the brake pedal too late, but the 124 weighs so little that you’d practically have to completely zone out and leave the brakes locked to end up stuck in the grass.
You won’t get tired in this as quickly as you would in a more intense car, so go forth and practice, practice, practice. Nothing (besides daily-driving one, I guess?) makes you better at shifting a manual than spending an hour-plus out on track making multiple shifts per minute.
So, if you’re not out to set fast lap times and just want to have fun with something, the 124 Spider is just the right car. It’s perfect for a crash-course refresher in track driving.
As I turned some laps in this silly little open-topped car, I thought, “I could stay out here all day.” That’s the beauty of it. Even if you’re used to faster track cars, sometimes it’s great to take a step back and jump into a slower, more basic car. I had to nail the perfect line, and because it’s a slower car, I had more time to look at those lines and tinker with different ways around the track. What’s really faster in a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car? Take a few laps in this thing and experiment.
Best of all, you get the confidence to use the full track when a car is this forgiving. Oversteer is easy to catch, but most of the time, it’s a little, easy to maneuver peanut. Go deeper into turns. Apex later for that turn before a long straight. Get right up next to the edge of the surface. Try it all.
There are many small vintage roadsters that would be good for driving balls-out on a racetrack like this—Spitfires, 914s, Midgets, Sprites, Alpines, etc., etc.—but few have quite as nice a soundtrack as the revvy little 124 Spider. Some of the little cars of this era have a reworked tractor engine, and they’re just as fun to drive. Some of those distant relatives of John Deere can sound pretty good in their own right with the right exhaust, but I’m really partial to the little screaming Italian four-pot in the 124.
Drive one. Drive all of them. Pick a favorite. Go.
Because of that soundtrack, I think I love this open-top 124 ChumpCar as much as I hate convertibles anywhere else. I am not made for convertibles. I can put on all the SPF You Should Really Stay Inside sunblock that’s humanly possible and I’ll still burn to a medium-steak pink.
Whoever’s job it is to cure skin cancer, please, get on with it already. I love this car too much.
There’s not even a windshield on this 124, so you can hear exactly what’s going on in all its four-banger Italian glory as the air you’re cutting through at speed cools you off. I forget how bad the summer sun is here, but I barely even noticed that I was roasting in the car. I was sweaty, but comfortable with the air flowing through the interior of the car itself. Still, I was only out driving for around an hour, and I still managed to get an awkward glove-burn.
Driving gloves definitely make it look like you cosplayed as Dexter’s Mom all day at an outdoor comic festival.
Worth it? Worth it.
The other problem with convertibles is solved in a track car. I don’t have hair blown into my face when it’s all tucked into a helmet. I can actually tell how great my day has been by the number of bugs on my helmet.
(Insects were harmed in the writing of this article.)
Granted, it’s still a vintage car. There are carburetors involved, the steering is a heavy beast at low speeds (but has exceptional feel because of that), and not everything is perfect, shiny and new.
When I last went to drive the Fiat, it didn’t fire up immediately. After cleaning out every single cobweb I could see in the cabin, I brain-farted on the fact that it hadn’t run in a while and strapped in to the car before I tried to turn over the engine. I tried turning the key a few times, and got nothing but a couple weak sounding coughs. I was heartbroken.
Please be the battery. Please be the battery.
Luckily, it did seem like it was just sputtering from a low battery from sitting so long. I gave it one last try after a moment of sitting there dejected like I wouldn’t get any track time after all, and it fired right back up. Success!
I’ll admit—there were a couple little things that were less than ideal. It’s not a Porsche, so I missed my bottom-hinged throttle pedal more than anything. The little Fiat’s pedal floats in the air like a regular car, forcing you to be a little more precise with your footwork, particularly on any heel-toe downshifts. The seating position is also such that I felt like I was a little farther away from the steering wheel that I wanted to be. Did the designer of this car have unusually short legs? My legs were fine, but my arms were getting pooped.
Did any of this matter? Nope. I’d have stayed out longer if the track hadn’t been about to close. In fact, getting out of this car was pretty hard to do in its own right, as the driver’s door was kind of stubborn. Whatever, though. It’s an open car, so I could just climb over and out like the rollcage was a jungle gym.
The owner had also put in an aluminum racing seat, which does the job of holding your butt in the car okay, but didn’t quite hug me in place as much as I’d like with its side bolsters. The best parts of the track in this car are the corners. That meant that my marshmallow-based core had to hold me upright when the car was making sideways Gs. It’s a workout, and one that’s made even more intense when the seat is made for sharing with larger dudes. I should have found the short person seat insert again.
Oh, and there will be sideways G-forces. Lots of them. Back when I raced this car, I could annoy much faster cars in turns before they could nail down the throttle and power away. I’m sorry, you’re going to have to pass me in the straights here. This is a car for people who love to corner.
Tracking the Fiat reminds me a lot of the times I co-drove a Spitfire in autocross. Yes, we’re hitting an unheard-of third gear on course and posting slower times than most of the modern cars out there, but we’re also grinning ear-to-ear because we hit third gear on an autocross course and could run through everything like a couple of lunatics.
If a little, buzzy open-top roadster doesn’t make you smile, I don’t know what will. It’s one of the most joyous experiences you can have on a race track.
Best of all, the barriers to entry for a car like the Fiat 124 Spider are low. This isn’t a chunk of Italian unobtanium, doomed to a life spent parked in godforsaken fields where grown men don lilac pants and don’t even get a round of golf out of it. “I only have 22 miles on this Fiat” should never be a badge of honor. It’s a car built for driving. Not for showing off. Not for polishing. Driving.
Cars like this also won’t bite you like a lot of higher-powered vintage cars will. Sure, it’s even slower than a Miata, but the upside is that someone who’d be sent off-roading in a Miata would probably catch the little Fiat before it spins off track. It’s just ridiculously easy to drive. Anyone capable of fitting in a 124 Spider and reaching all the controls can and should drive one.
More importantly, you can routinely pick up old droptops for very little cash. This little Fiat 124 is in budget-conscious ChumpCar spec, and it’s only hard to find other examples because of age and relative rarity. All too often, folks sell out to the modern man and don’t want to deal with their classic car anymore, so well loved examples go up for sale on the cheap. If there’s a People’s Race Car out there, these are it.
There is no excuse for not driving an old roadster at least once in your life. Go. Find one. Now.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.