The original Fiat 124 Spider was a quietly remarkable product. Elegantly styled by Pininfarina, it was on sale for 19 years with hardly any changes to the looks and only modest updates to the running gear.
Although sales were never rip-roaring - it averaged around 20,000 units per year over its life - it did much for the Fiat brand, especially in the US where upwards of three quarters of production was sold.
Indeed, while a recession and fuel crisis killed the car in Europe in 1973, it was re-engineered to meet the pollution and safety regulations demanded for 1975 model year cars in California and the wider US.
So robust was demand for the 124, that when the Fiat nameplate was withdrawn from the US in 1982, sales continued for another two years under the Pininfarina badge.
The 124 Spider also produced a genuine icon model in the form of the Fiat Abarth 124 Rally, which was successful in European competition before it was usurped by the classic Fiat 131.
No surprise, then, that Fiat wants to revive the roadster when the Fiat brand is again engaged in the super-competitive US market.
So, the new 124 will surely help Fiat’s image of being cool and funky and the roadster format is certainly more in tune with the US tastes than the tiny 500. Indeed, the larger 500X SUV became Fiat’s best selling model as soon as it was launched in the US.
The 124 will not substantially change Fiat’s fortunes in the US, but it is a gamble in the sense of being so obviously derived from the new Mazda MX-5.
The original 124 is one of Fiat’s solid-gold heritage models, but Fiat could be running a risk by selling a new model that is not as authentically Fiat as the current 500 family.
A short history of the Fiat 124 Spider
1966 The 124 Spider makes its debut at the Turin motor show. Designed by Pininfarina stylist Tom Tjaarda, who worked on the Ferrari 275, the car goes into production with a 1.4-litre twin-cam motor producing 89bhp. It reaches the US market in 1968.
1970 The first major upgrade to the Spider brings a 1.6-litre engine producing a heady 109bhp - pretty decent for a car that didn’t weigh much over 900kg.
1973 An Abarth-tuned, 1.8-litre motorsport version of the Spider (backed by a homologation-special production version) wins the Polish and Acropolis rallies as Fiat gears up the car for a full World Rally Championship campaign. It never quite fulfils its potential, though - and within three years it’s dropped in favour of the 131 Abarth.
1975 Fiat tweaks the Spider to comply with American crash regulations - and decides that it’s not worth making it similarly compatible with European rules, so a decade after launch, the car becomes a US-only model.
1979 The Spider’s transformation to an American model is complete; Fiat does a deal with GM to offer the firm’s three-speed automatic transmission. It also increases the engine size to 2.0 litres and changes the name to Spider 2000.
1980 Fiat switches the 2.0-litre engine over to Bosch fuel injection and introduces a catalytic converter. This set-up, with 102bhp, is designed for the Californian market but it’s offered as an option across the rest of the US.
1981 A turbocharged version of the Spider is sold as a joint development between Fiat USA and Legend Industries. It brings 120bhp and a 0-60mph time of under nine seconds, but many owners subsequently revert their cars back to normally aspirated specification after Fiat’s American dealer network is wound down in 1983.
1983 As part of its withdrawal from the American market, Fiat drops the Spider and hands production over to Pininfarina. The Italian design house brings the car back to Europe, as well as continuing to sell it in the US as the Spider Azzura.
1984/1985 The final couple of years of production at Pininfarina add just 4000-odd cars to the total number (taking it to nearly 200,000 units) but bring the most powerful edition of the Spider Azzura yet, with a supercharged version of the 2.0-litre engine producing 133bhp. The car’s engine would live on in other classic Italian cars, though; a further turbocharged development of the unit was used in the Lancia Delta Integrale.