YES. THAT FIAT SPIDER IS IN NEW JERSEY. NO. NEITHER OF THE GUYS WITH BEERS ARE ME. ONE IS MY BROTHER. THIS IS HIS CAR. SO, WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE?
First, a bit of backstory. This car didn’t always bear a New Jersey license plate. It was actually my dad’s cousin’s car. He bought it new in 1980 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The decision to buy this car will go down as one of the dumbest choices ever made.
In 1979, my dad’s cousin was driving a Series 2 Jaguar E-Type as his daily driver. And, as he so perfectly put it, every time he turned the key, it cost him money. Anyone familiar with older Jaguars know that the word “reliability” wasn’t exactly in their corporate lexicon. So, what’s a guy to do?
A few decades years later, my dad’s cousin moved to Germany, leaving the car behind in his mother’s garage. There it sat until 2009 when two things happened. My brother graduated from university and my great-aunt passed away. The 1980 FIAT had nowhere to go.
Amazingly enough, the little 45,000-mile, white FIAT was still in great condition. No rust. No spiderwebbing on the wood trim. Nothing. So, my brother, having similar decision-making prowess to my dad’s cousin, asked for it as a college graduation gift. My dad spent a few hours getting the car back into running order, and off to New Jersey it went.
It’s in the Garden State where I got behind the wheel of a 1980 FIAT 2000 Spider. What’s it like? In a word… Italian.
There’s something to be said for a car that only measures 156.25 inches (3,969 mm) long, 63.5 inches (1,613 mm) wide and 49.25 inches (1,251 mm) tall. When you find yourself behind the wheel, you feel that you’re more wearing the car than sitting in it. Drop the cloth convertible top and you’re more at one with the road than you might expect.
Much of that sensation comes from the fact that everything on the FIAT 2000 Spider is manual. From the 5-speed transmission to the unassisted steering. Everthing’s analog, too. A nice change of pace from today’s all digital cars. Even the warning chime is a little brass (I’m guessing) bell.
Turn the key and the 2-liter, 104 hp, carbureted, inline four-cylinder might come to life. I stress the “might”. This particular FIAT Spider suffers from the usual reliability quirks common to late-70s and early-80s Italian sports cars. In this case, the quirk comes in the form of constantly clogging fuel filters. My best guess is over the years of sitting, quite a bit of silt settled into the gas tank, which makes its way through the lines.
Anyhoo. Once you coax the FIAT to start, you depress the very, very stiff clutch pedal and shift into gear. Off you go. This car isn’t exactly quick. It takes about 12-seconds to hit sixty. But, that doesn’t really matter.
Once you’re actually going, driving an old FIAT is more pleasant than you might think. Between your butt and the road is a suspension set-up of unequal length wishbones, front coil over dampers and a live rear axle that makes a not-too-bad ride. They turned this chassis into a race car, so it can’t be all bad.
Parking… Parking this car sucks. A monumentally large turning radius and no power-steering makes you reconsider whether or not you really need to stop at the store or if you can just keep driving (which is much more fun).
Driving a 1980 FIAT 2000 Spider isn’t about speed. It’s not about performance. It’s not about luxury. It’s about simplicity. Because there isn’t any power steering, you feel every detail in the road. You also really need to pay attention to where you’re going. You can’t just yank the wheel in the direction of a turn. You need to plan, brake and turn the wheel gradually. It takes thought and it takes care. It’s not hard, but in the days of mindless driving and autopilots, having to actually drive a car is a wonderful change of pace.
I don’t think I’d want to drive a 1980 FIAT 2000 Spider as my daily driver. But, I can see the draw and understand why my brother loves it so much. This thing even has an 8-track tape player.
What’s it like to drive a 1980 FIAT 2000 Spider? Simple. Fun. Uncomplicated.