Jewelry stores use a method called "The 3 Cs" to grade diamonds. The "Cs" are Cut, Color and Clarity. When I shop for a Fiat, I use my own grading system I call the "4 Cs". They are Completeness, Correctness, Condition and Cost. There is even a "K" thrown in that is called Karma. The best and most desirable cars are going to have top scores in each area. Let's take a look at each of these in turn.
Fiat Spiders are old enough now that they may have passed through many owners hands, and each owner is going to have a different idea of what the "Perfect" 124 Spider is like. Some go for custom wheels or powerful stereos. Others have aerodynamic body parts added or special paint. The first aspect of any car I look at is Completeness. Is the car all there?
Let's assume you've answered a rather vague ad for a Fiat Spider and over the phone you only got directions to where the car is located. Now you have arrived and are seeing the vehicle for the first time. Is the top missing? Is the car up on blocks? What about some more subtle items. Are all the door handles present? The battery hooked up? Check to see that the car has all the mechanical parts intact. (We can judge their condition later.) Many cars are offered that are really "parts cars". They look complete, but someone has removed the starter or the radiator, etc. For whatever reason, you are unable to start the engine. A Complete car is going to have all the trim and badges as well. You would be surprised at what replacement hardware can cost. To save money down the road, make sure it is all there.
If you have done your homework, you will also have an idea what Correct for the car. Some things are dead giveaways: A Mazda rotary engine installed is obviously an aftermarket arrangement. An automatic transmission in a pre-1979 car is also wrong. There is some flexibility when scouting out this stuff, but you should have a good idea about what the cars were equipped with in various years. Engine size changed over the years as well as interior and exterior trim and materials. A lot of it depends on what your intentions are for the car. If you are planning on have the absolute best, Museum Quality, Show Award Winning, Trailer Queen Fiat Spider, you will do much better spending a little more money upfront for one that is already at or near that shape, than buying a low buck "restoration project" and trying to bring it there yourself. You will save a lot of money, time and aggravation by buying a low mileage, single owner car with great provenance. If, however, you are looking for something as a project that may stretch over a couple of seasons or years before completion, the $100 "u-tow-it-out" Fiat may be just the ticket. Most cars you come across will be somewhere in between.
As long as you establish beforehand what you are seeking, you can get a good idea of the weight you should put on each criteria. (Personally, I like cars I can drive on a daily basis. I would take a good running, straight Spider that had a few discrepancies over an absolutely correct car that has been run into the ground.) Condition is perhaps one of the most subjective areas in selecting the car. Some things are easy: broken items are demerits right off. On Fiats, you often find that it is not whether something electrical works well, it is whether it works at all. Spiders came with intermittent wipers. Sometimes they have intermittent headlights, brake lights and ignition too. The shape of the electrical system is of paramount importance. You want to have a look under the hood and under the dash. Watch out for too many "twist-n-tape" connections. I have never come across a Fiat that didn't have some sort of electrical problems. The trick is, you want to be sure the previous owner dealt with them in a workmanlike fashion. Ask questions about the electrical system, and try all the accessories to make sure they work (wipers, turn signals, heater fan, backup lights, horn. Not just the stereo!) Often the connectors from the factory were somewhat sub-standard and broke off or corroded beyond repair. Ideally, the previous owner has replaced these with good quality soldered connectors that are either covered in shrink tubing or neatly wrapped in electrical tape.
Beware also the "Wire or Hose To Nowhere". The factory had something on either end of that wire/hose, and you should too. Over the years, lots of people removed various pollution control devices to get some power back. Unfortunately, as the model years went by, these components became more and more integral to the function of the engine. Suddenly, folks began to find that, without the exhaust pump, coupled with the decline of lead in gasoline their exhaust valves burned & broke. Surprise! The valve design had come to depend on a pulse of (relatively) cooler air across the valve seat to keep it from melting. Lead in gasoline acted as a lubricant on valves seats, and as leaded gas became less available, valve jobs became more prevalent. Be sure to ask "Why" a particular component has been removed, and try to at least get them to throw it in the trunk for you to reuse if you so desire.
The absolute most important part of Condition is RUST. Yes, rust, that four-letter-word to all Fiat enthusiasts. If a Fiat ever got exposed to moisture, it is going to develop rust. I have never seen an early '70s Fiat that wasn't rusty. It may have had new body panels welded in, or gobs of Bondo troweled on, but somewhere, the nasty little tinworm was putting on his bib and chowing down on that delicious Italian steel. (Here is a little Economic Tid-Bit: The steel in the '70s Fiats was mostly Russian metal. That's right. Fiat (and also Renault in France) got Super Bargain-Basement prices on steel imported from Russia. They bought gobs of it. It was so much cheaper, nobody bothered to ask what its origin had been. Well, most of it was recycled metal. And one of the problems with recycled metal is that it is often a mixed bag of different grades all melted together. So, if you were lucky, it might be a whole batch of recovered armor plating from abandoned Panzerwagen left in WW2 outside of Stalingrad. Or it might be gathered up bits of shell casings from the same event. Most likely it was a combination of both, with some modern tin toys and food cans stirred in.)
In any event, Fiat cars were made with such bad steel in the early '70s that they actually had a US Government Safety Recall on them for structural failures due to rust. Thousands of Fiat cars disappeared in 1978 and 79 as they were brought to dealers who paid you a bounty (around $400) to scrap your car. Cars from the South and California that had never seen winter snows or the attendant salt extravaganza put out by New England Highway Departments, lasted a lot longer. But if you bring one North, for even a few seasons, well.....(my theory is that Fred Flintstone's car was a Fiat that originally had a floor, but he brought it to New England one winter.)
If the car has been repainted, ask why. "Brand New Paint" in an ad always makes me wonder what was wrong with the old paint. Was the car in an accident? Was it so badly rusted that the bodywork now needed a complete respray? Look for subtle discrepancies. A car with 35,000 on the odometer and the rubber worn down to metal on the clutch and brake pedals is immediately suspect. Ditto if the pedal rubbers are brand-new looking. Check the door latch post in on the body. It is the small bolt head looking thing where the door latch meets the body. Is it worn or grooved on top? This may indicate that the body is sagging. Close the door, gently. Did you have to lift up on the handle to get the door to close? That is a sign of sagging too.
Pull the dipstick. Run your thumb and finger down the stick. Does the oil feel gritty? It shouldn't be if it has been changed regularly. The inner fender well under the hood should be rust free. This is a major structural area on the car. It is where the tops of the shock absorbers are mounted. Pull up on the parking brake slowly. It should hold the car with less than 7 clicks. Look at the tires. Are they bald? Worn heavily on one side or the other? Rear one been used for burn outs so many times you can see the air in them? Use your best judgment to get an overall feel of how the car has been looked after.
Cost plays a major factor in any car buying decision and is the final C. Remember: it is not what you pay, it is what you get for what you pay. A $900 Spider on eBay that ends up costing you $3500 more to even put it on the road is no bargain. Better to spend $2800 on one that is already inspected and you can drive right away. You can then work on making it just the way you want, while occasionally driving it on nice days.
I can't give you any tips on haggling, you know what your budget is. Shop around and develop a feel for what Fiats go for in various conditions. I have seen ads for early 1980s Fiat 2000s that were in the range of a 1978 or 79 Mercedes 450SL ($10,000). If you have that kind of loot for a beater convertible, buy the Benz. It is always going to be worth more than the Fiat. (I'll say it plainly: $10,000 for a Fiat 2000 or 124 is Too Much Money for a car you are going to actually drive every day. Museum pieces are another story, outside the range of this review. Other, better convertibles sell for less.) I feel that a car is either worth something or it is worth nothing. By looking at cars with the four Cs in mind, you should avoid the ones worth nothing.
The last thing is certainly not the least important. It is the K for Karma. Take a good look at the person selling the car. Why are they selling it? How have they treated it? If they claim it was "Always Garaged" and there isn't a garage in sight, ask them to elaborate. Ask to see receipts from any major services they claim. Even if they replaced the clutch themselves, or rebuilt the engine in their basement, there will be receipts for parts and machine shop work. I like buying cars from the original owners. They often have every receipt from Day One. They are often the owners that had every little fault corrected immediately, sometimes under warranty. Chances are when you buy a car that has multiple owners, at least one of them beat the beans out of it. (you know, revved the engine to redline constantly, slammed the tranny through the gears grinding the syncros, pushed it hard through every corner, which stresses the suspension, and just generally using up the car before its time.
The worst sellers I have come across are the ones that have had the car a very short period of time. They somehow got a bargain, maybe an Estate Sale or Distress Sale of some sort, and they expect to double their money off you. They know very little about the car, they are "Selling it for a friend", etc. They have no records or other history on the car. They may not even have a clear Title! But they will tell you what a great car it is and how fast it can go and how easy it is to pick up girls in it and "Hey! Check out the $600 stereo it comes with!", yadda, yadda, yadda. All of the emotional aspects of the car, instead of the facts: how often it was serviced, how it was used. (Daily commuting? Only on weekends? Autocrossing?) They can't tell you those things, and yet they want more than top book price. Get back in your car and leave. You will overpay for a mystery car that may never actually get back on pavement.
I have always said that half of car shopping is about the car and the other half is about people. Too many folks will try to "Slick Suit and Loud Tie" you. Don't waste your time going to look at a car they won't tell you the price of over the phone. Absolutely EVERY time I have done that the person wanted some outrageous amount for the car and figured if they could get me to invest my time to come out and look, their natural charm would overcome any rational thought on my part.