Designing the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider

Gary S. Vasilash

When your task is to create a car for the 21st century that had its legendary debut during the “Swinging Sixties” of the last century, you keep the flair and add the contemporary.

In addition to having the same number in their names, the Fiat 500, the Fiat 500L and the Fiat 500X have something in common. It’s Virgilio Fernandez, chief designer, Interior, Centro Stile. But when we talk with him it is for an entirely different kind of Fiat and one with an entirely different numeric designation: the Fiat 124 Spider.

Just as the 500s all share a familial resemblance, both inside and out, as a means to maintain a brand cohesion within showrooms, the kin of the Fiat 124 is historic, not contemporaneous.

The 124 nomenclature goes back to a Fiat that the company introduced in 1966 at the Turin Auto Show (the hometown show for Fiat), a car that Fernandez describes as “One of the most beautiful cars in history.”

The Fiat 124 Spider had a run that essentially lasted until 1985. In 1975 the car was produced for the U.S. only. In 1979 it was renamed the Spider 2000. Sales resumed in Europe in 1981 and Pininfarina picked up production, which resulted, for a period in 1982, of the same car being named the Fiat 2000, the Pininfarina Spider Azzurra (in the U.S. market) and the Pininfarina Spidereuropa (in Europe). Production came to a close in 1985. One interesting aspect of the approximately 200,000 that had been manufactured is that about 75 percent of them were sold in the U.S. market.

So here it is, 50 years after the original Fiat 124 Spider and there is a new one, a 2017 model. Given the iconic nature of the first, this Fiat obviously had to have more than a passing nod to its predecessor.
Fernandez says that the first car was developed with a passion characteristic of Italian life at its best—la bella vita. The original car “represented optimism, fun and happiness.” And other aspects that they worked to imbue the 2017 with are “viaggiare,” or the “art of traveling” and “sapersi fermare,” the ability to “enjoy the trip.”

The objective wasn’t to slavishly copy the first 124 but not to lose what made the car as appealing as it was.

Fernandez points to the exterior of the original. Strongly horizontal body with undercuts in both the front and rear. A nose slightly aggressive. A character line running from the front, encompassing the door handle, and running all the way to the back. The rear with horizontal lights and a shape, “trendy at the time,” called a “swallow’s tail.”

Variants of these elements are used for the 2017 car, though in this setup there is proportionately a much longer hood, a snug decklid and the cabin fitted in between. And they’ve taken advantage of things like LED lamps both fore and aft to provide expression. (Fernandez says that as you work on the design of a vehicle, it takes on a human personality, and for the Fiat 124 Spider, as expressed by the front end, the individual is “Friendly but a bit sharp.”)

Inside, the area of his concentration, he says they worked as though they were specialists in an Italian atelier, or workshop, where people take their goods to be personalized. Obviously, a mass-market car isn’t going to be bespoke, but he cites the stitched leather that is used in the Lusso (“luxury”) model as the sort of thing that calls the craftsmanship to mind.

Fernandez says that they also worked to acknowledge the genetic bonds with other models, with the shape of the instrument panel above the gauge cluster glossing the 500X and the horizontal painted bezel the 500.

The Lusso features standard 17-inch alloy wheels, a silver-painted A-pillar header and roll-bar cover (remember: this is a convertible). There is also the Classica trim, which rides on standard 16s and has a body-color header and black roll bar.

But there is a third variant of the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, the Abarth version. This model also harkens back to heritage, in this case the 124s that brought Fiat its first European Rally Championship victories (1972 and 1975).

Fernandez points out that those early cars had some characteristics that couldn’t be carried over to the 2017 production cars for the simple reason that for the sake of performance back then, everything that would add weight was excised from the cars. For example, the front bumper went because crashworthiness wasn’t a crucial consideration. But the new car does have to meet regulations, so there is still the fascia that can fulfill the requirements, although for the Abarth, the front fascia is different than that found on the Classica or Lusso, designed for better airflow management. Back in the day,

Fernandez says, the hoods of the Abrath racers were painted black, for purposes of both thermal management and the reduction of reflections. That is maintained for the new models, which are available in five exterior colors that carry names that certainly speak to where the Fiat 124 Spider hails from in spirit, if not reality (the car is built in Hiroshima, Japan—because it shares a platform with the Mazda MX-5 Miata): Bianco Gelato, Rosso Passione, Nero Cinema, Grigio Argento and Bianco Perla.

Because the Abarth is meant to be driven hard, they made some functional modifications to the interior, such as designing and engineering a smaller steering wheel and providing aluminum-accented pedals and a model-specific gearshift knob (for the versions with the six-speed manual; there is also a six-speed automatic). There is red stitching throughout the cabin. Alcantara Recaro seats are available.

Let’s put this all in some context. In 1966, the first year of the Fiat 124 Spider, the Star Trek television show premiered. In 2016, the first year of the 2017 Fiat 124 Spider, Star Trek Beyond, the 13th movie in the franchise, premiered.

And Fernandez wraps up what the folks at Centro Stile did with this heir to the original as he says: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”