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Mel Leiderman paid $6,200 for his Fiat Spider in 1975. (Brent Lewin/Brent Lewin)
Mel Leiderman paid $6,200 for his Fiat Spider in 1975. (Brent Lewin/Brent Lewin)

Classic Cars

A Fiat love story Add to ...

As rites of spring go, the downing of tools and picking up of golf clubs by the accounting profession every year on May 1 is an all-but universal anodyne for the anguish generated by an intensely taxing work load in the preceding couple of months.

But Toronto chartered accountant Mel Leiderman's post-tax season ritual for the past three decades or so has been a little different.

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The 1975 Fiat Spider he purchased new has been in hibernation for a six months or more by this time and both are anxious to get back on the road. "I get it out of storage. Call CAA for a battery boost and then drive it to my mechanic at Sammy's Service Centre on Yonge Street for a tune-up. It's an annual tradition," he says.

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After, of course, checking in the glove box to make sure the blue-furred rabbit's foot - given to him by his then 80-something grandmother after he took her for a ride in his smart new roadster 35 years ago - is still there to work its lucky charms.

This year, things were a bit different though, as the Spider had been treated to a paint job at Rick Impera's body shop over the winter. The $4,500 bill for which, incidentally, would have accounted for more than two-thirds of the original $6,200 Leiderman paid Downtown Motors on Avenue Road for the car in 1975.

When Leiderman cranked the engine for the first time this spring, the Spider, with just 54,000 miles on its odometer and now resplendent in its fresh coat of original hue red paint, was ready to resume the summertime role it's played in his life since replacing his first automotive love, a 1968 Mustang. A 289-cubic-inch V-8-engined example, dressed in red with black racing stripes, it was written off in a winter-weather crash in 1974, ending what Leiderman had envisioned as a lifelong relationship.

Shortly afterwards, while working for an accounting firm in London and continuing business and accounting studies at various schools, he went shopping for a replacement. "I'd always wanted a convertible," he says and looked at MGBs and Triumph's TR6. But the Fiat's lines, its "beautiful" wooden dashboard and the five-speed manual gearbox - he'd learned to enjoy shifting gears while driving one of his father's wholesale produce business trucks as a teen - won him over.

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He recalls his decision being confirmed by a contemporary Car & Driver magazine comparison piece that ranked the Fiat Spider the number one choice over more exotic topless rivals.

"One of life's rare finds," wrote auto journo Don Sherman of the Spider. "The best isn't the most expensive." His piece noted that the Spider won only one test category, but was close enough in every other that it "squeaked by the four-times-more-expensive Jensen-Interceptor" to win top pick honours.

The manually operated top, which can be raised or lowered in 15 seconds, won high praise - Sherman was impressed by the use of Velcro - as did its ability to squeeze in a pair of rear seat passengers, and the wood-trimmed interior. Power wasn't a strong point, but handling and its four-disc brakes were, along with the five-speed gearbox.

It's not surprising Leiderman liked the Spider's looks, as it was one of the more classic and timeless designs to emerge from Italy's Pininfarina studios when the car was launched for 1967. And 200,000 or so others apparently liked it enough to buy one too before Fiat ended production in 1982. Pininfarina, which had built all the bodies, then took over and built versions known as the Spider Azzura until 1985. Some 75 per cent of Spiders were sold in North America and many survive today in the hands of an enthusiastic owners group.

The Spider and the perhaps even more elegant 124 Coupe were both based on Fiat's good looking, front-engined rear drive 124 sedan (which later became the Russian Lada) that was produced from 1966-74.

The Spider was built on a shortened 124 platform, but employed most of the sedan's running gear and was designed by Pininfarina (the coupe was done in-house by Mario Boano).

It was originally powered by a 1.4-litre, double-overhead-cam, four-cylinder engine created by ex-Ferrari engine guru Aurilio Lampredi that made 89 hp. This was apparently the first volume production engine to employ toothed belts to drive the cams. It was coupled to an unusual-for-the-time five-speed gearbox (automatics were later available).

Front suspension was by unequal length A-arms with a live axle out back. Four-wheel disc brakes, also a rare feature in the '60s were also fitted, giving it a better than decent handling (under-steer was an issue) and solid braking performance.

The only major mechanical change in Leiderman's 1975 version is a bump in displacement to 1,756 cc and 116 hp.

Next May 1, Leiderman's spring ritual will change again. Finding a place to store the car for its winter sleeps has been an ongoing problem that's been solved by installing a hoist in his two-car garage that hooks the Fiat up in the air, allowing him to park his daily driver underneath.

Now managing partner of accounting firm Lipton, Wiseman, Altbaum & Partners LLP and a member of the board of Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd., Leiderman has remained faithful to his Fiat Spider for 35 years now. "It's part of my life. Part of me," he says.

But he never sets foot in it without being reminded of the Mustang that first captured his heart. "I still have the Mustang's floor mats in the car. A reminder of my first love."

globedrive@globeandmail.com

 

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