Italian Projects & Cars
This is the old "oldebottles.com" page. I am relocating all the information from the old site here.
First of all I should start of by saying thanks for visiting. This page is about affordable special interest Italian cars from the 50's through the 80's. I don't know much about newer Italian cars since there are so few in the United States. I also know very little about the exotic cars from Italy like Ferrari, Lamborghini and so on, that means this page will be mostly about Alfa Romeos and Fiats. I will be updating from time to time so check back. If you have any questions feel free to ask, technical or otherwise. If I know the answer I will tell you.
Why buy an Italian special interest car vs. say a 57 Chevy? Well put simply there is a lot more you can do with a 69 Fiat 124. You can go to an autocross one weekend, a racetrack another, and a car show or club sponsored rally the next. One Fiat 124 can participate in all of these events and be competitive, enjoyable, and economical in all of them. You can also drive it to work or the mall and not worry about someone stealing your rims or intake manifold while it's in the parking lot. With a 57 Chevy you are really limited to shows and cruises. I suppose you could make it into a competitive dragster but to do that you would have to destroy the originality and roadablility of the car.
Italian cars are among the most exciting special interest automobiles to own. All Italian cars offer a driving experience that is unlike other vehicles. This is largely due to the Italian method of taxing vehicles in their home country. Italians pay very high taxes on cars. Their tax on cars is based not on the car's value but on its engine displacement. Historically this has forced the Italian auto manufactures to design a superior product. They need to get the same amount of power out of their engines as their British, German, French and other European competitors but they have needed to do it with smaller engines. This is why as far back as the 60s even inexpensive Italian sedans frequently have small four cylinder engines featuring hemispherical combustion chambers, twin cams, five main bearings and so on. Most Italian 1600s put out more power then other countries' 2000cc motors. As an example, an early 70's 1438cc Fiat Spider will easily outrun a 1900cc German Opel GT of the same era. Open the hood on both cars and you will quickly see why. The Fiat has a twin cam cross flow head with good manifolding. The Opel engine is very primitive by comparison.
This need for superior design does not end with engines. Roads in Italy require a car to corner and brake well. When you are driving a 633cc Fiat 600 you don't want to slow down much for a corner since it will take a long time to regain your speed, so even the most humble Italian cars can really corner! It's true that other countries have cars that corner well too but there are significant differences. First of all just about all Italian cars corner well, even the least expensive ones. Second and more important is the fact that the Italian cars corner well due to superior suspension design. Many British cars corner well not because of superior design but because the manufacturer has sacrificed ride quality by using very stiff springs and or very little suspension travel. The Triumph TR6 is a perfect example. Those things corner well on a smooth road but they only have a tiny bit of travel in their rear suspension. As a suspension moves up and down the angle at which the tire contacts the road tends to change, Triumph and many other manufactures solved this by simply not letting the suspension travel very far, this works great on a smooth road and race track but not so well on real roads. Most Italian cars use fairly sophisticated suspensions with softer springs. The result is a decent if not luxurious ride and excellent handling.
There are two commonly available Brands of low cost Italian cars. They are Fiat and Alfa Romeo. Fiat now owns Alfa, but the cars discussed on this page were designed and built when the two companies were separate. A third Italian manufacturer Lancia built some wonderful cars until they were purchased by Fiat. I have never owned any Lancias, although I would really like to have a Lancia Fulvia, so I won't be writing much about them.
Of the two brands Fiat is the less expensive one. Fiats have a bad reputation which is largely undeserved. All cars built in the 60's and early 70's were prone to rusting, but Fiats were really prone to rusting. Fiat's lack of rust protection was partially justified when viewed in light of the car's low price. A new Fiat 850 Spider was only $2109 in 1968, a Datsun 1600 sports was $2766 and rusted just as badly. When shopping for a Fiat it is best to find one as rust free as possible and there are plenty of rust free examples for sale. There are many modern products which will ward off rust so it's no more difficult to protect your Fiat from rust then any other special interest car of this era. Fiat was also the first production engine to use a timing belt. This is a common practice among manufactures today but being the first in this area greatly hurt Fiat's reputation since many owners simply never realized they needed to change the belt at regular intervals. Fiat engines also tend to burn a little oil even when fairly new if not broken in properly. This is no big deal especially today because a Fiat engine rebuilt with modern valve guides and piston rings will burn little or no oil. However put these factors together and you can see how Fiat's bad reputation started. Some guy would buy a car, it would burn a little oil when new, next it would start to show some rust here and there and one day while cruising down the highway in his now three year old car with 50,000 miles on it the timing belt which has never been changed would break requiring an engine overhaul. Change the timing belt, change the oil, protect the car from rust and Fiats actually last a really long time. I just sold my Fiat X/19 I drove for many years with nearly 250,000 miles on it and it was still doing well.
There are four Fiats I will mention here. They are the 600, 850, 124 and X/19. All are affordable and available and are a lot of fun. The 124 is probably the best Fiat for someone new to Italian cars.
The Fiat 600 is the first car I will mention. I own a 600, details and photos of which can be seen below. The 600 was introduced in 1955 as a very inexpensive and very small car. It was direct competitor to the V.W. Beetle and the British Mini. The 600 is a unit body two door sedan with four wheel independent suspension and a rear mounted engine. There was a minivan version called the Multipla which was arguably the world's first minivan as well as some sporty aerodynamic versions built by Abarth all of which are quite rare today. The 600 is powered by a liquid cooled 633cc engine which was enlarged to 767ccs in later versions. Most 600s in the U.S. are later versions which arrived with the 767cc motor. This engine design was enlarged a few times and used in other vehicles as well just like the small block Chevy V8 which grew from 265 cubic inches to 400. The 600 is a very slow car by most standards but with the 767 motor it could outrun a 1200cc V.W which was its primary competitor, and there were no cars with engines its size which could outrun it. The 600 corners reasonably well and was considered the best handling rear engine sedan by at least one major automotive magazine of the day. Although the 600s performance is definatly the worst of all the cars on this page it is perhaps the most fun to drive. Its lack of size gives you the sensation you are always moving really fast and the car draws a lot of attention everywhere you go. The 600 can be made more powerful and bigger engines can be installed but it's a lot of work and if ultimate performance is your goal then this is the wrong car for you. If you want a fun attention getting car the 600 is great.
MY 1966 FIAT 600D at Hallett Raceway in Oklahoma.
The Fiat 850 was the successor to the 600. The 850 arrived in 1968 and in most every way was superior to the 600, however I feel it lacks some of the earlier car's charm. There are three body styles, the Spider, Coupe, and Sedan. As with the 600, there is a minivan version and various Abarth versions all of which are very very rare. A real Abarth 600 or 850 is ultra rare and very expensive and thus beyond the scope of this page. The 850 Spiders and Coupes are available and fairly inexpensive although the early Spiders command a premium due to their more beautiful headlight design. The 850 family is powered by the same basic engine as the 600 but enlarged. Most are 843cc, the later ones have 903s and some have an 817cc motor which was designed for California since it was under 50 cubic inches and thus smog exempt. The 850s are perhaps the most rustprone Fiats but there are plenty of nice ones out there. Like the 600 the 850's performance is nothing to get too excited about but in its class it's pretty good. I know of no 850cc cars that were faster, and by rear engine standards they handle pretty well especially for a low cost car. In the magazines of its day the 850's were praised for their handling. It should also be noted that the 850 like all Fiats can be improved dramatically. In one road test in 1971 an 850 modified by for racing was evaluated. This car had $400 dollars worth of modifications including wider tires and it achieved 1.0g of lateral acceleration. That is as good as just about any new car today and I suspect nearly as good as Formula 1 cars of the day. With modern tires it could of course do better. The 850 can also be made more powerful but like the 600 I don't think it's too practical. A stock 903cc car can go over 90mph which seems really fast in these cars.
The successor to the 850 Spider was the X1/9 which arrived in 1974. The X1/9 is a completely different car. It uses a mid engine 1300cc motor or a 1500 in later cars. It is a wedge shaped unit body car with McPherson strut suspension at all four corners. The X1/9 is not terribly fast but it does corner really well. It also has 4 wheel disk brakes and a very rugged body. It is probably the safest sports car of its era despite its small size. It is superior to the 850 in just about every way. It does have a few small problems however. The most annoying one is that the car corners so well that if you have good quality tires on in and the car is aligned properly you can actually cause the engine to lose oil pressure in a hard right hand turn. To solve this it is absolutely essential to install a oil ban baffle which is available from Vick Autosports. The other problem is that people over 6 feet tall just don't fit in them very well. The X/19 motor can be souped up easily and can put out over 100 horsepower with some mild work, a feat very difficult to accomplish with an 850. In most respects and especially in safety and cornering the X1/9 is far superior to the 850 and 600, however as these cars get better they don't necessarily get more fun. For fun zooming around I like the 600 and 850 better. If you really intend to use the car a lot, like for driving to work everyday or driving at the racetrack or autocrossing the X1/9 is the way to go.
A 1976 1300cc four speed Fiat X1/9
The best Fiat and probably the best inexpensive car of its era is the Fiat 124. Arriving in the U.S in 1967 the 124 came in four body styles the Spider, Coupe, 4 door Sedan and Station Wagon. The two sporting versions, the Spider and Coupe had some amazing features, most of which were shared by the Sedan and Wagon. They featured Fiat's fantastic Twin cam engine with hemispherical combustion chambers backed by a five speed transmission (except early coupes which had a 4 speed like the sedans and wagons) twin A frame suspensions up front with a well located four link live axle in the back. Four wheel disk brakes which were very rare in those days brought these cars to a halt. The engines increased in size from 1438cc to 2000cc although tighter smog regulations prevented them from getting much faster. A good 1438cc Spider is very nearly as quick as a late model 2000cc car. These cars can reach 110 mph or more very easily and can be modified to have all the performance anyone could want. In stock form they do a fine job of keeping up with modern traffic and are great fun to drive. The engines are very rugged and can be souped up a lot without fear. Fiat twin cam engines are about 90 hp. stock but can be brought up to 120 very easily and 150hp is not uncommon. I know of one Fiat Spider race car which has been dynoed at 186 horsepower. In a Road and Track comparison test of various sports cars the Fiat 124 won by an "overwhelming margin" which is not surprising to people who own these cars. If you want serious performance from a vintage four cylinder car and you can't afford an Alfa Romeo the Fiat 124 is the way to go.
Here is my friend Csaba's Fiat 124 at Hallett. This 124 is fully streetable and VERY FAST!
All of these Fiats are fun. Of course fun is highly subjective. I think the most fun car is the 600 followed by the 850. The X/19s are very inexpensive and are really pretty good deals especially if safety is a concern, and you are not too tall.. If you just have to outperform all the other vintage four cylinder cars the 124 is the logical choice because of its superior engine and twin A frame suspension. There are other models of Fiats but some are very rare, and others like the 128 should be avoided primarily because the front suspension can't handle any power increases.
My 1966 Fiat 600D with my daughter. This car has a 903cc engine souped up to about 70 horsepower, that's over triple the power of the original 600's 633cc motor. I have more information about my 600 on the GTV6 Fiat 600 page.
This is a Fiat 600 Factory Team Rally car from the game Rally Trophy. This game is a lot like the Italian cars it features, it's a superior product but suffered from really really bad marketing in the U.S. If you want a great driving game, this is the best one on the market.
The next brand of Italian cars worthy of mentioning is Lancia. Lancia's from the 50's are fabulous cars, they were very advanced and were comparable with many of the more famous exotics of the day. They would not outrun a contemporary Ferrari or Aston Martin in a straight line but they were comparable in all other areas. The most famous 50's Lancia was the Aurelia B24 Spider. This was a very advanced car featuring the first ever production V6. The clutch and gearbox were housed at the rear to give near perfect weight distribution, and the car even had a De Dion suspension and inboard rear brakes. This combination of features would be seen again in the 80's with the Alfa Romeo GTV6.
In the 60's Lancia became very serious about rally racing and entered these competions with their very fine Fulvia. The Fulvia and it's higher performance twin the Fulvia HF were arguably the first good front wheel drive cars, they were certainly the first front drive cars to compete successfully on the world stage in racing. Most Fulvias are powered by a beautiful four cyl engine that is in a unusual configuration. It's sort of a very narrow V4 with one really wide cylinder head. It features hemispherical combustion chambers and twin cams. The Fulvia is defiantly the finest vintage front wheel drive car.
I don't know anyone who owns a Fulvia so this video game screen shot is all I can come up with. This game is very realistic and features many historic rally cars from Italy, Germany, Sweden, England and France.
Another shot of the Mighty Fulvia HF in action during a rally in Switzerland, okay, "in simulated Switzerland".
Lancia was purchased by Fiat in the 70s which led to some very turbulent times for for Lanica. Fiat forced Lancia to kill of the Fulvia and build new cars using Fiat engines and chassis.
These new cars were the Beta, Scorpion, and Zagato. Fiat forced Lancia to build these cars on the 128 chassis, the cheapest one in Fiat's lineup. This may sound grim, but the reality is that the Lancia engineers performed a near miracle and actually turned the 128 chassis into a good front wheel drive performance platform.
They built the Beta and Zagato by using a Fulvia style front subframe to greatly stiffen the chassis and provide strong mounting points for the suspension. Next they pulled the best engine out of Fiat's parts bin, the 4 cylinder twin cam. This motor was as good or better than any other 4 cylinder engine at the time. They dumped the 128's rear suspension and adapted what looks like an improved Fiat X1/9 suspension at the rear. Like all cars in the late 70's and early 80's these cars were slow by modern standards, but compared to cars of its era they were pretty fast. A Beta was faster then its nearest German competitor the BMW 320i and much faster then most 4 cylinders from Japan like the Honda Prelude. They looked great and had traditional excellent Italian handling.
A well set up Beta or Zagato could outperform just about any other front wheel drive car of its day. They eventually evolved that chassis into something sensational with the Lancia Delta S4 and, Hyena but these two cars were never available in the U.S. Still one can only wonder if Lancia built the world Rally dominating Delta S4 with the Fiat 128 chassis what could they have done with something better? Lancia did have one rear drive car available in the U.S. in the 70's which was the Scorpion. The Scorpion is essentially a big Fiat X1/9, and although it's under powered it can be modified easily and its potential performance is awesome.
In summary if you want a really flashy and exotic 50's sports car and can't afford or justify the price of Ferraris, or Aston Martins get an Aurelia Spider. It's a beautiful and entirely usable true classic. They are not cheap but they are a far better deal then their contemporaries.The Fulvia from the 60's is fabulous but it's hard to justify buying one since it's arch enemies from Alfa Romeo are every bit as good and a whole lot easier to get parts for. The Scorpion is the only post Fiat buy out Lancia sold in the U.S. that has a strong enthusiast interest. It's good but really no better than a Fiat X1/9, although if you are tall and want a mid engine Italian car the Scorpion is your best option. The Betas and Zagatos look great and can be purchased for peanuts. If you are really on a budget they might be the way to go, beautiful styling inexpensive Fiat parts and that awesome Fiat twin cam motor.
This is a Lancia Aurelia Coupe. The nice fellow who owns it and the Spider below sent me these pics but I have forgotten his name. I hope he doesn't mind my using his pictures but they are the nicest Lancia photos I have.
Here is the rare and expensive Lancia Aurelia Spider. This car is a fabulous alternative to a 50's Ferrari, Aston Martin, Jaguar, or Corvette.
Here is a Lancia Stratos charging through Russia. The Stratos is a rare car, in fact I have never seen a real one. At least two companies produce accurate replicas. The replicas use either Alfa Romeo or Fiat engines which provide plenty of power and closely simulate the engines offered in the original car.
Last but certainly not least is Alfa Romeo. This is by far my favorite brand of Italian cars. A famous Alfa enthusiast, the late Pat Braden just about sums it all up in the two following quotes "If there ever was an affordable exotic, Alfa it is" and "If you have never driven an Alfa Romeo, you may be stunned to discover a pleasure that is simply unavailable in many passenger cars." Anyone considering buying or who already owns an Alfa should buy Pat Braden's book called Alfa Romeo Owner's Bible.
There are just so many models of Alfa Romeos out there that are worth mentioning I can't even begin to touch on all of them so I will limit myself to two basic types. The first is the 105 series built in the late 60's and early through 94'. These include the Spider, GTV, and Sedan, all of which are basically the same cars but with different bodies. The other is the 116 series built from the mid 70's until 1989.
Here is a very nice original condition 72' Alfa Romeo GTV.
The 105 series includes the most common of all Alfas in the U.S. which is the Alfa Spider. This car was sold from 1966 until Alfa pulled out of the U.S market in 1994. Their engines are all the same design but range in size from 1300cc up to 2000cc. The same chassis was used in the two door coupe called the GTV as well as in a four door sedan, the ultra rare station wagon and even in some exotic configurations such as the V8 powered Alfa Montreal. Alfa used the GTV body style very successfully in Competition and today the GTVs are the most expensive of this group. It is quite unusual for a hard top version of a car to be worth more than an equivalent convertible but due to the GTAs racing history and low production numbers it is more expensive then the Spider. Only a handful of classic cars are more expensive in hard top form then convertible, the only others I can think of are the Gull Wing Mercedes and Shelby Cobra Daytona.
The Spider and GTV are quite similar to the Fiat 124 Spider and Coupe. In fact on paper they are so similar it's amazing. However in most areas the Alfa is slightly superior and I recommend buying the Alfa.
Here is a 1966 Alfa Romeo GTV in action! Those who own these cars rarely drive them in snow.
Both use four cyl. engines but the Alfa's block design is better and features removable cylinder liners which makes overhauling a whole lot easier. Both have hemispherical combustion chambers but the Alfa's are true hemis and the Fiat's are not. Fiat's combustion chambers are close but it was probably too expensive to make it a true hemi so they got it as close as costs would allow. The Alfa engine uses a timing chain which lasts a lot longer then the Fiat's timing belt, and the Alfa uses sodium filled exhaust valves, the Fiat uses normal valves.
Both cars use four wheel disk brakes and were among the first production cars to do so. However the Fiat's brake disks don't last long and when they get thin they warp very easily, the Alfa's are better.
The cars also share a similar suspension design, twin A arms up front and a live axle in the rear. However the Alfa uses a lot of forged suspension pieces and beautiful aluminum castings to increase strength and reduce unsprung weight.
When these cars were new it would have been hard for me to justify buying an Alfa Spider over a Fiat Spider because these differences are not major and the Alfa cost about twice as much as the Fiat. In other words the Fiat is about 90% as good but at half the price. However today a good Alfa Spider can be purchased quite reasonably. Since the Fiats were so much less money people did not take care of them as well, making a nice older Fiat Spider fairly rare and thus more expensive. Many Alfas were well cared for and as a result a nice Alfa Spider is now more common then a nice Fiat Spider. The prices are so close now that you might as well buy the Alfa. Also with the Alfa it's possible to find a nice low mileage 90's model.
The Alfa had excellent performance in the 60's and into the early 70's. These early cars easily outperformed most of their competitors from Europe and Japan. As time wore on the other cars caught up, however the charm of the original models was never lost, a 94' Alfa spider may not quite keep up with a Miata, but it's darn close and the Alfa has a character all its own. Speaking of performance a modified Alfa GTV or Spider is very hard to beat. People were getting 200-220 horsepower out of the 2 liters in the 70's with no turbo, supercharging, or nitrous, and only 2 valves per cylinder! Today with modern fuel injection and turbos the Alfa 4 cyl can attain horsepower levels no other 4 cyl engines of its era can reach. there are numerous street driven turbocharged Alfa 4 cyls with 300hp and more. Beninca, an Alfa racing specialist in Australia has built a 700hp Alfa 4 cyl! The Alfa's handling is still competitive with any modern sporting cars and can be improved if you really want to.
Here is an official Alfa photo of their 1985 Spider. The 80's Spiders are nice because they retain all of the charm of the older cars and most use Bosch fuel injection and electrical components so they can be serviced by any decent foreign car mechanic.
Here is a shot of the Alfa Romeo GTV in action against its arch rival the Lancia Fulvia.
My favorite Alfa is the 116 chassis which includes the Alfetta, GTV6, and Milano, as well as some other European market only cars. If you want something semi exotic and really fun to drive get a GTV6. They are great and are probably the best buy in Italian cars. I will detail the features of the GTV6 on page 2, and I will have tech articles on the GTV6 on page 3. The Milano is essentially a four door GTV6. They look a little odd, however with larger wheels, say 16" or even 17" they gain an aggressive look that sort of grows on you. The Milanos came in four versions, Silver, Gold, Platnum, and Verde. The first three all have the GTV6's 2.5 liter motor but the Verde has a 3.0 liter engine and is very powerfull. The Milano Gold is probably the best buy. Near perfect ones sell for around $3000 and there are many nice ones around for $2000. The Verdes are a lot more expensive, even really bad ones sell for $2500, any decent one is worth at least $4000 and a good one sells for $6000-$7000!
This 1983 GTV6 was owned by my father and now my son owns it. It was purchased as a total basket case and restored into a nice daily driver with a few minor performance enhancements. You can read more about GTV6s on my GTV6 Fiat 600 page.
This 1989 Alfa Romeo Milano was my wife's daily driver and our family car until we sold it in 2002. The Milano is essentially a GTV6 with 4 doors. It is the first body style Alfa Romeo designed in house. They may look strange but they are practical, good cars avaliable for very little money.
Here is a facinating project. A Harley Davidson with an Alfa Romeo 2.5 liter V6!
This thing is awsome. The fellow building it says he decided to use an Alfa motor because he didn't want the expense of a custom Harley type motor and all the chrome. That was not the reason I was expecting but it does make sense. Alfa 2.5s are cheap, you can buy a decent one for $300 and it can be overhauled for about $1000. For someone willing to do a lot of custom work it could cost less then a traditional custom bike. The Alfa V6 fits inside the dimensions of the stock Harley frame! This fellow is using a four speed transmission (a Harley transmission?) and a KICK START!
This the completed project. Although knowing how these projects go I hesitate to use the term completed.
Wow! This is definatly the coolest chopper style bike I have ever seen. It's unique and the quality and amount of fabrication is remarkable. It must be awfully quick, I am glad to see it has big brakes.
Check out the intake system. The suction of those pipes under full throttle is probably tremendous. I guess you can't wear a tie while riding this bike.
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