Reader Submissions: This Convertible was Love at First Drive

This Convertible was Love at First Drive

Petrolicious Productions By Petrolicious Productions
April 2, 2014
14 comments

Owner and photographer: Lee Putman

Year, Make, and Model: 1972 Fiat 124

Location: Twentynine Palms, California

Once upon a time, in California…

I was a 19 year old Marine stationed in Twentynine Palms, California in 1986 and went with a buddy to visit his aunt and uncle over a holiday weekend. During breakfast the following morning, looking out the window, I could see the rear end of something orange sticking out from under a large bush. When I asked about it, my buddy’s aunt said it was the car that her father had gotten her for graduating college. Living in the Nevada desert farmland up above Bishop, California, the roads were mostly dirt and very rough, so she rarely drove the car. On a whim she pushed the car out from under the bush, washed it off, and jump started it. It was a bright orange Fiat Spider (which I’d never heard of), and it had a perfect black interior with a black canvas top, which she carefully lowered. When she asked me if I’d like to drive it, I was genuinely surprised and thrilled.

As I took off down a country road lined on both sides by tall poplar trees, the exhaust note captivated me. What the heck WAS this thing? I’d never heard of a Fiat, but I quickly fell in love with the wood dash, the big steering wheel and the gauges in Italian (the Benzina gauge was my favorite!). The shifter felt very precise, and the little car just begged to have the gas pedal mashed. I was in love! The odometer showed 19,000 miles, and it drove like it was brand new. Of course, they hadn’t really thought about selling it and needed to “think about it,” so I went back to Twentynine Palms feeling dejected.

A week later they called, said they’d researched prices of similar cars down in Los Angeles (the nearest city that actually had any for sale), and offered it to me at a steal. The next week I had a buddy drive me up to Bishop where I’d meet them. When we got there, I was a bit taken aback that they had removed the license plate, but I was really looking forward to my drive back to base. I borrowed the front license plate off my buddy’s car, and I was off!

Having a car, especially a convertible, made me VERY popular in the barracks. The rule was that passengers paid for gas, and rarely did we leave base on weekends with fewer than four of us crammed in that tiny car. We drove that little thing to Las Vegas, Lake Havasu, Santa Barbara, even Ensenada, Mexico! I learned how to maintain my little Italian beauty with a twenty-dollar set of tools from K-Mart and a book I checked out from the base library.

We had many great trips in that car, but the one that stands out in my memory was my very first drive in the car. I drove down the spine of California on Highway 395, through the high desert, in summer. The heater and vent controls had hieroglyphics that I found to be incomprehensible, most of the switches had no labels, and the gauges were in Italian, but I figured most things out. Mostly, I was entranced by the engine sounds! Being a kid from the east Coast, the central California desert was amazing. One scene I’ll never forget (I’m not sure where) came into view as I drove through some amazing red rock canyons where I came upon a dusty old Mercedes gullwing parked with one door up and the owner relaxing next to it, in a lawn chair, reading a book and enjoying the view out in the middle of nowhere. Entranced by the scenery, I drove all the way down to Riverside, California where I picked up a buddy before we made the drive back to Twentynine Palms.

A few days after getting back with my ‘new’ car, I was reading the owner’s manual, and I discovered I’d driven across the Mojave desert in summer with the heater on full blast!

I must have washed and waxed that car within an inch of its life. I performed all the maintenance on it–including a headgasket replacement–all in the sand next to our barracks! Gosh, I cringe now, looking at the open engine with all that sand around! I loved everything about that car, from the chrome gauges with the Italian markings, the real wood dash, the precise feel of the shifter, and those wonderful exhaust notes from that Lampredi twin cam! It was simply a gorgeous car, in later years I learned it was penned by Tom Tjaarda while he was at Pininfarina, and you can see hints of other Pinin designs in this car’s lines.

I got transferred to Hawaii (tough duty for a young Marine!), but as soon as the car was delivered, it began rusting. Desert life had preserved it wonderfully but dried it out and in Hawaii the rust grew and spread amazingly. It got rear ended in Waikiki one Friday night, and foolishly I traded it for a ’79 Alfa Romeo, which may have been one of the most wonderful, foolish and frustrating cars I ever owned.

I’ve always missed that orange Fiat…

Since then, I’ve owned seven more Fiats, but none of them quite fill the niche in my heart that the orange one left.

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VegasDudeJason RossPeter KellyBrett MelanconRay Beltran Recent comment authors
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VegasDude
VegasDude

A roommate in the 80’s had a ’77 124 that I borrowed ALL THE TIME… LOVED IT… SO… when the new one was announced.. I immediately said.. THAT’s my new car… got one of the first Lusso’s on the west coast with a stick… Every factory Option…. Sold my Mustang GT.. got a ’68 Austin Healey Sprite to add to my Roadster fever.. . now want an old Spitfire or MGB GT also..

Jason Ross

Great story. I have owned a Fiat 124 AC coupe for 20 years since i was 24 years old. They really are a special machine. Mine was off the road for a year and finally got it all going last weekend with the help of a good friend. We went for the best blast in the hills I have had for many a year that both reminded me of how much fun these cars are and reinvigorated my friend to complete his own 124 restoration. Good times.

Brett67

Great story! It is cars like these that define moments in our lives. We experience something at a particular time in our life and look back on it with fondness that encourages us to build new memories in our cars. I have had numerous FIAT cars and more memories than I can remember. I once drove cross country on Route 66 in a FIAT Multipla with my 15 year old son and best friend Larry. That was something I will never forget and do my best to top. Go make some new memories in a car. (check out our blog… Read more »

Peter Kelly
Peter Kelly

Great story! The first time I saw a Spider I was 10 years old and getting driven to my hockey practices! I, too, was smitten…that glorious sounding exhaust, the wood dash, Italian on the gauges, red, a convertible!! That was in 1970….and the excitement never left me. I finally managed to buy my own- a ’78, in 1987 and still have it today. If I don’t drive it over 2 or 3 years, I think of selling it, but then once I get back behind the wheel…the reflections that play out over the fenders and the hood bulges, the induction… Read more »

Ray Beltran
Ray Beltran

Great story, beautiful pics… you were in love.

Ryan T Conaty
Ryan T Conaty

What a coincidence. I just woke up to a [url=”http://www.npr.org/2014/04/04/298988705/-desert-sun-team-probes-marine-deaths-on-highway-near-calif-base”]Morning Edition piece about the highway to 29 Palms[/url] today

Eddie Relvas
Eddie Relvas

Great story, and a great machine. I can totally relate as I’ve been in love with the 124 since my teen years, and I’ve had 7 Spiders so far. It’s one of the most delicious cars all-round. You can drive it, work on it, look at it, you name it, and it’s always great fun. Must do a write-up on mine someday.

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson

Love this story! Thanks for sharing!

Andreas Lavesson
Andreas Lavesson

That surely was a beautifully written piece about a beautiful car.

Nick Roumbas
Nick Roumbas

Damn it, I had a 1979 Fiat Spider that I got into a accident with it last year and since then I haven’t been able to forgive myself for getting into that bloody accident. I loved that car with every bone in my body, regardless of it’s second gear syncros. I really wish I still had that car, I really truly loved it, it was my first car and dear god do it miss it. I’m 20 and jesus does that car make me want another. I guess car guy’s first car will always hold a special place in his… Read more »

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia

Beautiful story, Lee! Great that you had nice photos of your road trips. Thanks for sharing.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle

I can totally relate to the love at first sight on one of these Fiat Spyder. One day i was heading over to my uncle’s house and as i was getting there a neighbor down the street had his garage door open and wouldnt you know he was backing out in a Fiat Spyder almost the same color as the one in the article. I just had to stop and chat with him about it. We must have talked for over a hour then wouldnt you know it his daughter came home in another Fiat Spyder. Now thats a family… Read more »

Craig Forrest
Craig Forrest

Having the heater on full blast probably helped the engine run a little cooler in the desert. Great car, great story. Thanks.

Jonathanwcmills
Jonathanwcmills

Great story. Nice to read about a car that earned it’s keep by making a time and place in life just a little bit better.