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Author: Stephen Williams

London pop-up spy room pays homage to ‘Goldfinger’ and Bond’s Aston DB5

For the majority of James Bond movie fans, “Goldfinger” still resides at or near the top of their list of favorites. Moreover, the movie introduced what has been called “the world’s most famous car,” the Aston Martin DB5 that would go on to appear in multiple films (not literally the same car, it should be said). Because of this, it landed “Goldfinger” at the top of our list of James Bond movies ranked only by their cars.

“Goldfinger” is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and to celebrate it along with Aston’s equally long association with the 007 franchise, the brand has created a so-called “House of Q” pop-up gathering place inside London’s historic Burlington Arcade, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly.

This glimpse into the world of Q, the head of top secret technology inventions and “creator” of the Aston, is open to the public now through August 4.

To access the “secret” spot, visitors enter through a door disguised as a magazine newsstand at House 12-13 in the fancy arcade. Once inside, they’ll find a speakeasy bar serving Champagne Bollinger that’s adorned with technical drawings and parts from the original DB5. The bar also features sketches and diagrams from Aston Martin and the EON Productions archives. There’s also a copy of the “Goldfinger” film script.

The DB5 — DB for David Brown, who owned Aston in the 1940s and ’50s — was launched at the Frankfurt motor show only a few months before the movie debuted. It was basically what we’d call now a mid-cycle refresh of the preceding DB4. It ran with a potent 4.0-liter engine and a top speed of more than 150 mph. Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera created the look, and there are indeed Superleggera badges on it.

It can’t be understated how much of a phenomena “Goldfinger” was in the 1960s, with the following film, “Thunderball,” being a comparably big deal. The DB5 was in both and was used for promotional purposes, traveling the world and leading to the unofficial “most famous car” title. It’s hard to think of something that would supplant it. 

Marco Mattiacci, Global Chief Brand and Commercial Officer of Aston Martin, said: “Aston Martin and James Bond are two British icons, forever linked. We are delighted to be celebrating this important 60th anniversary throughout 2024, marking the continuation of what is cinema’s longest running and most successful product placement.”

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Austin Pedal Car reemerges in new, bespoke form

Although the name “Austin Pedal Car” doesn’t resonate too loudly in this country, across the Pond the company attracts great affection for its detailed, classic pedal cars that appeal as much to adult collectors as they do to children with a yen for mobility.

This month the venerable British company has partnered with another veddy British firm, the nearly 200-year-old Savile Row tailor Holland & Sherry, to fashion an exclusive concours-worthy version of Austin’s classic J40 pedal car, called the J40 Continuation.

The model itself is undeniably gorgeous with its billet-aluminum construction, precision rack-and-pinion steering, cable-operated rear disc brake and a “perfectly balanced” pedaling system. No price was set, but a new Continuation model is about $32,000. Austin also sells restored versions of the original decades-old models at prices that start at about $7,500.

The “special” result of the collaboration features an interior finished in Holland & Sherry cloth, with a sumptuous, individually designed and tailored seat. The cloth was chosen to match the car’s stunning turquoise paintwork. The car is offered as “bespoke,” which allows customers to order from a choice of colors and a range of Holland & Sherry cloths.

The J40 pedal cars were all originally built between 1949 and 1971 — it’s rumored that Prince Charles (now King Charles) owned one as a boy. They were invented when the British government asked industrialists to make available jobs for disabled mine workers after World War II. The Austin Motors president had the idea to use scrap metal from his supply chain to make them, employing 250 former miners in Wales. The mini cars had opening hoods, working lights and Dunlop tires.

Mark Burnett, managing director of Austin Pedal Cars, said that “to collaborate with a bespoke Savile Row brand like Holland & Sherry is a real honor. The wonderful J40 Continuation we have created combines the best in British style and design, and is a car that would be the perfect addition to any automotive collection, or could even be displayed as a piece of automotive art.”

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2017-2020 Fiat 124 Spider: Future Classic

The 2017 Fiat 124 Spider held the promise of melding two automotive cultures: the romance of the Italians and the focused finesse of the Japanese.

In simple terms, the Fiata, as it came to be called by aficionados, was in fact part Fiat, part Mazda, and all character. Unfortunately, the Miata MX-5 ND ruled the roost in this limited market. Mainstream consumers by this time were already convinced that the future was the SUV; a little two-seater with a stick shift and a rumbling ride wasn’t on too many wish lists.

Of course, the Miata, constantly updated through the years, survives today. The Fiata closed up shop in 2020 after only four years. Fiat’s questionable reputation for reliability and build quality throughout the previous decades in America didn’t help to push the sporty Spider up the sales charts.

Why is the Fiat 124 Spider a future classic?

The affordable roadster (which is not to be confused with the original Fiat Spider that launched in the 1960s) landed on US shores in three trim levels: Classica, Lusso and the performance-oriented Abarth, with starting prices that ranged from $25,990 to $28,195.

It was built alongside the Miata at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant in Japan. Comparisons of the two cars were expected, and voluminous: The Fiat used the same chassis, many of the same interior parts and even the same key fob as the Mazda. But the Spider had different tuning for its steering and suspension, and a different engine under the hood. Of course, both were convertibles.

Weight was an issue. The Spider’s 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-four was good for 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, but that made it 130 pounds heavier than its Japanese near-twin.

Then there was turbo lag. One review said that the Fiata Classica’s best launch from 0 to 60 mph required 6.5 seconds, not as quick as the 5.8-second start recorded in a Miata Club.

Fiat engineers were able to tame the roll of the Miata, but in doing so robbed the 124 of one of its more enviable traits: its tossability. The Fiat’s manual tranny received high marks, the automatic not so much.

Wind noise with the Fiat’s soft top down was horrible, which was sad because the 124 was otherwise superb in highway driving. It had a more compliant suspension that the MX-5, and more sound-deadening padding. Nonetheless, tall/big people weren’t particularly happy in either car’s interiors; “cramped” was a polite way to describe head and shoulder room.

Speaking of highway driving, an Autoblog review raved about the sounds of the top trim level Abarth, calling it “the only 124 available with the special Record Monza exhaust, and it makes the Fiat growl and snarl like only Italian cars can.”

Standard safety features on the 2017 Fiat included antilock disc brakes, side airbags and stability and traction control. A rearview camera was available on all trims, while a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and rear parking sensors could be ordered on the Lusso and Abarth via the Safety and Comfort package.

The 124’s interior has a touch of baked-in Euro class, with soft-touch plastics, simple climate controls and a Mazda-sourced touchscreen. Fiat also claimed its model had a bigger trunk, but “bigger” in this case is something of an exaggeration: it measured 4.9 cubic feet compared to the Mazda’s 4.6.

What is the ideal example of the Fiat 124 Spider?

The 124 Abarth was billed by Fiat as the performance model. That boast was mitigated somewhat in 2019 when the Abarth’s 164-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four specs gave way to the Miata’s 181-hp 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine.

Nonetheless, the Abarth served up 184 pound-feet of torque compared to the Miata’s 151 lb-ft. More importantly, the Abarth made its power down low, feeling punchier in the lower rpms.

And the Abarth did add some real benefits on top of the lesser trims of the 124, including a rear limited-slip differential, upgraded shocks and sharper tuning for the steering and suspension (and the grittier exhaust note mentioned above).

At the end of the day, the not-too-steep $3,000 price bump above the Classica made a slightly more convincing argument for choosing the Abarth, plus consider the gunmetal matte hood and scorpion Abarth badges fore and aft.

Be sure to check out our used vehicle listings; they can be helpful for finding a good deal. You can narrow the options down by a radius around your ZIP code, and be sure to pay attention to the deal rating on each listing to see how a vehicle compares with others in a similar area.

Are there any good alternatives to the Fiat 124 Spider?

Used Spiders can be pricey. A white automatic one-owner Abarth from 2017 with 33,000 miles prices at $23,000 at the time this was written; other 124 Spiders are listed at about $20,000.

The alternatives were (and, in terms of the MX-5, still are) limited. The Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 come to mind as far as affordability, and they’re somewhat more refined in terms of ride and amenities.

The Audi TT and Mini Cooper Roadster make sense for those looking to match the fun quotients of the Fiata for a higher price, and both have German roots.

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At a New York school, Soap Box Derby racing is on the curriculum

One wouldn’t ordinarily consider the Bronx as part of the country’s racing heartland. But in the insular, yet passionate, universe that revolves around soapbox cars, these neighborhoods in the northeast part of the rugged borough have become a fulcrum for soapbox competition.

With the help of a recent New York Times story about the teens and pre-teens who build their own vehicles to compete — they hope — in July’s Soap Box Derby World Championship in Akron, Ohio, racing on four small wheels has become an ultimate quest.

Times reporter Bernard Mokam centered his piece in the parking lot of Public School 111 in the Baychester neighborhood, where one recent morning about 30 soapbox derby teams, competitive elementary and middle schoolers and their teachers, assembled to continue the chase for the championship. This year, more than 50 racers from 31 schools are competing.

The event this summer, officially known as the FirstEnergy All-American Soap Box Derby World Championship, attracts nearly 400 contestants from around the world. There are more than a hundred cities where drivers vie for the title of “local champion” and the opportunity to race in Akron on this track:

All of the local races and rallies are posted on the organization’s site here. “Race Week” in Akron runs from Sunday, July 14, to Saturday, July 20. Specific information about those days, the scheduled activities and tickets can be found here.

Racing by gravity — which is what soap boxes do — dates backs to kids tossing go-karts down hills in the 1930s. Myron Scott of the Dayton Daily News, who photographed a group of young men with their homemade rides, sensed a publicity opportunity back then and eventually convinced the Chevrolet brand to sponsor a nationwide competition.

The first All-American Soap Box Derby race was held on August 19, 1934, watched by a crowd estimated at 45,000; boys from 34 cities competed in the all-day affair. Robert Turner of Muncie, Indiana, piloting a car riding on bare metal wheels with no bearings, was crowned the first All-American Champion. In 1975, Karren Stead won the World Championship, the first of many girls who would go on to claim the title, although girls had been racing in the derby for decades.

This year marks the 86th running of the race, and kids and teens ages 7 to 20 are eligible to drive in one of three divisions, decided by age.

Back in the Bronx, racing wasn’t just about the sport, the Times said, but was also “a manifestation of the science curriculum in District 11 — one of a handful of New York City districts that have turned to soapbox to engage pupils and ultimately get them excited about going to, and being in, school.”

Expenses can be high. Each soapbox car costs $1,800, which includes basic parts and related race fees. The schools in the Bronx also contribute to help pay for the winners’ trips to the championship race.

Following the team during a race, the Times found fifth-grader Jayden Trapp of P.S. 68, who faced off at the top of the hill against Valentina Ross. “In last year’s race,” the story said, “she lost in the final heat, missing out on a chance to represent P.S. 83 in Akron, Ohio. She was determined not to let that happen again. ‘You have this guilt built inside of you,’ said Valentina, a 13-year-old from the Morris Park neighborhood.”

Alas, it was not to be. The lights went green. “It was close, but Jayden outpaced Valentina, who said she was disappointed but not angry. Jayden’s burgundy soapbox car went on to victory, and this July, he will get a chance to race for the championship in Akron.”

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