1979 Fiat Spider Restoration

Article by Mark Trotta

Starting with the 1979 model year, the Fiat 124 roadster was re-named 'Spider 2000'. A minor redesign included new front grille and hood, flush-mounted door handles, taller and wider tail-lamps, and larger 14-inch wheels. Engine displacement increased from 1800cc to 1995cc (advertised as 2000cc).

classic Fiat Spider restoration

The body was designed and built by Pininfarina, the same Italian coach-builder that gave us the Ferrari 250 GT, Alfa-Romeo Giulietta Spider, Nash-Healey, and other great classics.

Four-wheel disc-brakes were standard equipment. No power steering was offered, nor was it needed. Also standard was a five-speed manual transmission.

The Purchase

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.

classic Fiat Spider restoration

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.

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

1979 Fiat Spider restoration

Twin-Cam Engine

The heart of every sports car lies underneath the hood, and Fiat's dual-cam engine is a good one. The iron-block, aluminum-head engine was designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who had worked for Ferrari during their successes in the early fifties. With a three-decades long production run (1966 through 1985), the Fiat twin-cam engine is of the longest-produced automotive engines to date.

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North American Emissions

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 or not 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.

Fiat Spider 2000 engine repair

The 1974-1979 carbureted models with emissions systems had the lowest performance, and subsequently are the most affordable.

Fiat Spider Engine Upgrades

An aftermarket carburetor like a Weber is an fairly 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. Replacement carbs with an electric choke will make installation easier.

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Intake Manifold Upgrade

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.

best Fiat Spider intake manifold

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Timing Belt Replacement

Timing belts on the 2.0L Spider motor are only rated for 20 to 25k miles. If a timing belt breaks, a 2.0L engine will free-wheel (no damage). On earlier 1800cc engines, broken timing belts will damage engine parts.

Timing Belt Replacement on the 2.0L Fiat Spider can be 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.

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Electric vs Mechanical Fuel Pump

When we first bought the car, a previous owner had disconnected then blocked off the original mechanical fuel pump (without removing it) and then rigged a universal electric fuel pump inside the trunk. I understand why this was done--replacing the mechanical pump requires a lot of labor.

classic Fiat Spider restoration

The carburetor was not getting enough fuel, which I traced to the electric fuel pump. The path of least resistance was to replace this fuel pump with another electric fuel pump, which I did. But several months later, I was having fuel issues again.

Replace Fuel Pump

After ordering a replacement O.E. type fuel 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.

classic Fiat Spider restoration

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 added an inline fuel filter.

After installing, the new fuel pump has to be timed with the cams.

Once the O.E. style fuel pump was installed, the Spider ran much better (no longer starved for fuel).

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Exhaust Manifold Oil Leak

Turns out that a few of the exhaust manifold studs on the car had been previously replaced with bolts, which did not seal as well and allowed oil to seep onto the exhaust manifold. This prompted me to go over the exhaust system from front to back.

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Fiat Spider Electrical Issues

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.

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.

Electrical issues on old Fiats are often traced to a bad ground.

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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.

Notes and Misc

In fair-to-good shape, Fiat Spiders sell between $6,000 to $9,000, making them affordable classic cars. Aftermarket parts and supplies are limited, but on the plus side, there's plenty of enthusiast sites on the web.

Wheel options are limited because of the 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.

Fiat Spider restoration

It's a fun car to drive!

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Fiat 2.0L Timing Belt Replacement

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