1979 Fiat Spider Restoration
Article by Mark Trotta
Produced from 1966 to 1985, Fiat Spiders came standard 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 Nash-Healey, Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Spider, Ferrari 250 GT, and other great classics.
Starting in 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. 1979 was the highest production year of the 1966-1985 Spiders.
We 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 our house, which was 200 miles away. Not only did this save the hassle of having it towed, it showed it was a reliable running car.
Before buying this car, we looked at several classic British and European 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.
Restore or Ignore?
In fair-to-good shape, Fiat Spiders sell between $3,500 to $6,000, making them affordable classic cars. 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
An aftermarket carburetor like a Weber is an easy bolt-on upgrade. It will add more power to a stock engine, but will be more effective with other modifications, such as aftermarket cams and headers. Most carburetors you see offered will have an electric choke, which makes installation easier.
One of the best intake manifolds to upgrade to is the original factory piece on 1975-1978 1800cc Spiders, casting number 4264350. It is a single-plane intake manifold and will accept downdraft carbs with up to 34mm bores without modification. These can be hard to find, but they did come on other Fiat models as well as Spiders.
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: Timing Belt Replacement
Electric vs Mechanical Fuel Pump
When I first bought the car, a previous owner had disconnected and blocked off the mechanical fuel pump (without removing it) and rigged an electric fuel pump inside the trunk. I understand why this was done; replacing the mechanical pump would require an hour or two of labor just to put your hand on it.
I had fuel issues right away, which I traced to the universal electric fuel pump. The path of least resistance was clear--replace the fuel pump with another universal electric fuel pump, which I did. Several months later, I was having fuel issues again.
After finding a replacement mechanical pump online, I spent several hours removing hoses and wires to get to the original one, which is under the cylinder head and buried pretty deep. The fuel pump has to be timed with the cams.
While I was replacing the fuel pump, I also replaced the metal fuel line that runs from the trunk of the car to the engine compartment, and installed an inline fuel filter. Once the O.E. style fuel pump was installed, the Spider ran better than ever.
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. I went over the Fiat Spider exhaust system from front to back.
Read: Fiat Spider Exhaust
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.
Many old car electrical problems are as simple as loose and corroded connections, a blown fuse, or a melted fusible link. If several electrical components aren't working, that may indicate a fuse or ground connection.
Many Fiat Spider electrical problems can be cured by removing the fuses and cleaning the terminals with Emory cloth. Sometimes simply turning (rotating) the fuses in their holders will help get a better connection. If you still have electrical issues, consider replacing the original fuse boxes with a modern-style fuse box and fuses.
Value vs Driveability
Any year Fiat Spider is a good classic car driver, as they are not so valuable that you would worry too much about it every time you drove out. And it is a fun car to drive.
Read: Fiat Spider Brakes
Minor Notes on 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.
- Most 1970's cars are unfairly treated because of mandatory emissions devices installed on them.
Read: Fiat Spider History
Many people have tackled an old car project and saw it through to completion. There's one thing they all have in common - the proper mind set.
My e-book "Finish Your Project Car" was written from my personal experience of over 30 years of starting and finishing projects. Topics include planning, ordering parts, overcoming obstacles, and staying motivated.