1979 Fiat Spider Restoration

Produced from 1966 to 1985, all Fiat Spiders came from the factory with a twin-cam four-cylinder motor, five-speed manual transmission, and four-wheel disc brakes. The body was designed and built by Pininfarina, the same Italian coach-builder that gave us the original Nash-Healey, the Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Spider, Ferrari 250 GT, and many other classics.

1979 Fiat Spider restoration by Mark Trotta

For 1979, Fiat changed the name of the 124 Spider to Spider 2000. A minor redesign included new front grille and hood, flush-mounted door handles, and larger 14-inch wheels. Engine displacement increased from 1800cc to 1995cc (2.0 litre), and the points-style distributor was replaced by electronic ignition. This was also the largest production year, making 1979 Spiders more commonly found.

The Purchase

I found this car for sale in the parking lot of a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, SC. The body was straight, the convertible top and tires were new, but the car needed mechanical attention. During the price negotiation, the owner offered to drive it to my house, which was 200 miles away. Not only did this save me the hassle of having it towed, it showed it was a reliable car.

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Before buying this Fiat Spider, I looked at several classic British sports cars, including a 1974 Triumph TR-6 (the seller would not negotiate) and a 1973 MGB (the seller changed his mind and kept the car). There was also a Porsche 911 that was priced well under market value - turned out car's drivetrain was not original.

Fiat Spider restoration by Mark Trotta

Restore or Ignore?

In fair-to-good shape, Fiat Spiders sell between $3,000 to $5,000, making them affordable restoration projects. Aftermarket parts and supplies are not very good, but there's plenty of enthusiast sites on the web.

Fiat Spider Engine

Although the Fiat Spider engine was of an efficient design, cars sold in the U.S. were required to have pollution devices, regardless of whether they were really needed. In order to continue selling to its largest market, Fiat complied by adding on smog equipment, which burdened the motor, choked performance, and caused driveability issues. The 1974-1979 carbureted models with emissions systems had the lowest performance, and subsequently are the most affordable. The last of the carburetor Spiders were 1979 and early 1980 models. These are the worst performers in stock form, but can be retrofitted with an earlier intake manifold and carburetor.

Fiat Spider Engine Upgrades

One of the best intake manifolds to upgrade to came on 1975-1978 1800cc Spiders, and can also be found on several other Fiat models. It is a single-plane intake manifold and will accept downdraft carbs with up to 34mm bores without modification. Casting number is 4264350.

Fiat Spider intake manifold

Timing Belt Replacement

Timing belts on the 2.0 Spider motor are only rated for 20 to 25k miles. If you're not sure when it was last done, replace it before you start driving the car. If a timing belt breaks, the 2.0 engine will free-wheel. On earlier 1800cc engines, broken timing belts will damage engine parts.

Timing Belt Replacement on the Spider is time-consuming and frustrating. The crank pulley, auxiliary shaft sprocket, intake cam sprocket, and exhaust cam sprocket must be perfectly lined up as the belt is installed or the car won't run it's best.

read Fiat Spider Brakes

Fiat Spider Electrical Issues

Electrical issues on old Fiats can usually traced a bad ground. Spider models have fuse panels under the dash just below the steering wheel to the left. The fuses are the older European style, like early VW Beetles. These fuses are made of aluminum and sometimes copper. First check to see if they are loose or blown or corroded.

read Old Car Electrical Problems

Sometimes simply turning (rotating) the fuses in their holders will help get a better connection. Many Fiat Spider electrical problems can be cured by replacing the original fuse boxes with a modern-style fuse box and fuses.

Exhaust Manifold Oil Leak

Turns out that a few of the exhaust manifold studs on the car had been previously replaced with bolts, which was allowing oil to leak on the exhaust manifold. The Fiat Spider exhaust system was gone over from the engine back.

read Fiat Spider Exhaust

Minor Notes on the Fiat Spider Restoration

  • Wheel options are limited because Fiat used an odd 4x98mm bolt pattern.
  • Steel brake lines are an uncommon "bubble-flare" metric size.
  • Unfortunately, Autopart International is no longer in business. Internet parts suppliers for Fiats are flaky at best.
  • Buying a factory shop manual will quickly pay for itself.

Factory Manual

Knowledge is the best tool you can have, and having a shop manual that covers your year and model is invaluable. You'll end up referring to it over and over again.

1979 Fiat Spider restoration

read Fiat Spider History