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|1978 Fiat 124 Spider at Silver Sands Beach, Milford CT
|My 30-year dream came true in February, 2004. I bought a Spider, a Fiat 124 Spider. It’s a little Italian sports car, a convertible, as red as an Italian tomato.
Ultimately, the Feds made Fiat buy my sometimes won-derful 1974 coupe back from me because the engine was in danger of falling out — probably a first in American automotive history.
I wanted to buy one back in 1974, but needed a back seat for packages, relatives and potential children, so I bought the slightly stodgier Sport Coupe version instead.
My 74-year-old Grandma Del, who was often in that back seat, thought I’d never be a success until I owned a Cadillac. However, she did feel the Fiat magic and acknowledged that the car seemed “geared to the road.”
I removed most of the emissions controls from the ‘74, gave it an Ansa exhaust, Serra air cleaner, Bilstein shocks, Heathkit electronic ignition, racing steering wheel, super-powerful lighting, BWA alloy wheels with fat Michelin tires, and lots of TLC — including oil changes before and after driving in all-night rallies. I bought Armor-All shine-up fluid by the gallon, and washed the coupe several times each week.
The engine was clean enough to fry an egg on.
My Italian mechanic Ugo said “Anybody else come in, I fixa the engine, then I washa my hands. When you come in, I washa my hands before I fixa the engine.”
At that time I was an advertising copywriter. My automotive clients included Castrol oil and Volvo cars, and I proudly wore my big Fiat belt buckle in meetings with the boring Volvo people.
Whenever it was parked, my beautiful “Fiata” drew crowds of curious and adoring people. It could go over 130 MPH, as steady as a train on a track, beat Detroit 400HP heavy metal muscle cars on twisty roads, and could go through snow where FWDs had trouble.
On the other hand, the rear window leaked when it rained, the air conditioner couldn’t be used on hot days, the oil pump failed during a rally ($1,500 repair), and I had to disconnect the battery to keep it from discharging when I parked at the train station.
That car was an absolutely gorgeous, fast-running, great-handling, piece of junk. I loved it, but it often seemed to hate me.
It’s often said that the letters in FIAT stand for Fix It Again, Tony or Fix It Alla Time. It was also said that Fiats could have been wonderful cars if they were designed in Italy, and then someone carried the plans through Switzerland or Austria so the cars could be assembled in Germany.
Fiats are a lot of fun, but they are more like toys than transportation.
They should never be the only vehicle in your garage and should never be depended on to get you to school or work in the morning. Turning the ignition key is like rolling the dice or playing Russian roulette — you never know what will happen.
I had already bravely bought a Fiat Brava for my wife, and I then replaced the coupe with a Fiat Strada for myself. (They were both great-handling pieces of junk.)
Since then, I’d had a number of boring cars from Ford and Chrysler, but I always dreamed of getting a Fiat Spider. I even saved my stock of Fram PH7 oil filters, Marelli ignit-ion pieces, and NGK spark plugs. I still had my tune-up test equipment, manuals and ancient parts catalogs. I even had a bright red Fiat driving suit, which I’ll probably never fit into again.
In February of 2004, I spotted an absolutely gorgeous low-mi ‘78 Spider at a nearby dealer.
It had been a cold, gray winter here in Connecticut, but on 2/27/04 the weather was glorious — a perfect top-down Spider day. I went out to lunch with my brother Marshall while the car was prepped for my test drive.
The restaurant was nearly empty, but three guys were at the table across from ours. We overheard them and coincidentally they were talking about cars.
One of those guys, sitting a few feet away from me and talking about cars on this perfect top-down Spider day, was actor, philanthropist, food developer, car dealer and car racer Paul Newman. We spoke a little. He was very friendly.
It was a good omen. The car is great.
(UPDATE: Paul died shortly before this was published. I’m glad I got to meet him.)