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I have eyes much bigger than my stomach and a soft spot for small cars – when I found what seemed to be the cheapest clean-title Fiat 500 Abarth on Earth ($1,500) I didn’t waste much time looking it over before buying it. Now it’s time to tear into it and see just how much trouble I actually bought myself.

I’m going to let y’all know off the bat – I don’t know shit about Fiats. Most of my flip cars have been Japanese or American, with the occasional VW product in there (one of which I got infamously burned on). I bought this 500 under the assumption that it would need a replacement engine, or at the very least a cylinder head. With that in mind, I did a very loose back-of-napkin, fuzzy math calculation of what a replacement engine would cost, and hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.

As the previous owner explained to me: “Oh yeah, I was driving one day, and I lost all power, and then the car started running like shit. I’m pretty sure I blew up the engine, so I took it to a [Firestone Complete Auto Care] and they said that cylinder four was full of oil and I blew up the motor.” When I went to pick the car up, it was missing at idle and the check engine light was on. I gingerly drove the car across town, careful not to drive too hard, lest I ruin something else on the engine.

When I returned home, I hooked it up to the all-knowing Autel scanner. This scanner is nifty, not only can it scan and clear CEL codes, it can also access proprietary make-specific codes. Like, say, an engine misfire code would be able to read by most any code reader. But nearly all cars have other issues and codes that are specific to a particular brand. After scanning, true to the PO’s word, the car did have a misfire code for cylinder four. There were no other codes, though, which was frustrating. No Fiat-specific codes, no other codes pending.

Well, I figured, maybe I should drive it harder and see what happens. I’ve already budgeted for an engine replacement, so if it blows up, then, well, it blows up.

I showed the Abarth no mercy with redline shifts and 100 percent throttle. It rewarded me… by turning its check engine light off. The idle smoothed out. The misfire at lower RPMs had mostly disappeared, and it was completely gone from the upper rev range.

Now, normally, most people would call that a win – but I wanted to know what was actually wrong with the car! And I know some swear by that “Italian tune-up” but I knew there were still lurking issues. If anything I wanted more problems, not fewer, to make diagnosis easier.

Stumped, I gave a fellow car-flipping friend a ring. He’s had about five Fiat 500s, one as a personal car, one he gave to his mom, and the others he’s made a good profit on ’em.

“Sometimes these things have MultiAir brick problems, which causes them to run weird and maybe pool oil in the cylinders,” he said. I had to look up what the hell a MultiAir Brick was. Turns out, the intake valves in these cars work by a hydraulic system and sometimes in higher mile vehicles, it’ll act a bit weird. Replacing it looked pretty straightforward but the part itself was somewhat expensive. His explanation sounded plausible, but I wasn’t sure that was the issue here with my misfiring Abarth. I kept his info in the back of my mind, but I thought I needed to keep it simple and start with the basics.

Hm. The Abarth didn’t misfire at upper RPMs which told me that it was likely a spark issue, and less of a fuel or compression problem. Something, somewhere, is not getting power. It could be from a plug(s) caked up with burnt oil…

I took the plastic air intake cover off, and looked at the engine. My roommate and I noticed valve cover gasket was leaking, and the spark plug seal was leaking at cylinder four, nothing too out of the ordinary for a car with 125,000 miles. I pulled the coils out – 1, 2 and 4 looked fine, but 3 was coated with soot. Not a great sign, but again, I wasn’t nervous if I had to replace the engine. I mean come on, it’s a $1,500 Abarth.

The spark plug seal for cylinder four is clearly leaking, but that’s an easy fix. Image: Kevin Williams

Like I said earlier, always prepare for the worst, but I hope for the best. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I pulled off the coils to check the spark plugs though – none of the spark plugs were tightened correctly! The plug on cylinder three was not even finger tight and coated in soot. It’s likely that combustion gasses were sneaking out between the threads of the spark plug. It was also missing its electrode completely! Did a preschooler change the spark plugs last?

That ceramic piece is long gone. There’s no sign of internal engine damage. The ceramic has likely been pulverized and burnt, escaping out of the exhaust valve.

A Firestone Complete Auto Care shop had said that there was “oil in cylinder four” but aside from cylinder three, the plugs in 1,2 and 4 looked clean. I mean, they were old but good. If this car had a problem with “oil pooling in cylinder four” the plugs would be wet with oil (leaking into the cylinder), or coated with black gunk (oil burning in the combustion chamber). These were neither. Even the plug with the missing electrode looked fine, save for the missing electrode.

Just to be safe, I compression tested the engine. Compression was fine, all cylinders were showing healthy and even numbers. Did I get an Abarth 500 that just needed a deep cleaning and spark plugs? 

I had to test my hypothesis, so I threw on a set of spark plugs. The OEM spark plugs were a bit expensive, but my local Advance Auto had some in stock.

Like magic, the misfire at idle disappeared. I should buy a lottery ticket, but I think I’ve already hit the jackpot. 

I am feeling confident that the new OEM spark plugs have fixed the “blown engine.” Still, I’ll keep an eye on the vehicle, if it fouls plugs up with oil or starts misfiring again I’ll know something is up, and the issue is more complex. As it stands, I can’t see why it would do it again. The missing electrode on the spark plug for cylinder three you’d think would translate to a misfire on cylinder three, not cylinder four, but who knows, maybe it’s some sort of weird Fiat quirk. I don’t know that much about these cars, and neither does my roommate so we’re both learning together.

It seems like the engine will be OK, but that doesn’t mean that everything is all peachy-keen with the Abarth. My initial drive revealed a hard vibration under anything more than half-throttle. The shifter is too stiff, and won’t return to the center as it should. The TPMS doesn’t work. The trunk struts are noisy and have a hard time holding up the trunk lid. The Valve cover is leaking, and I’m sure other stuff will reveal itself the more I get to work on the car. All pretty minor stuff, I think.

You can’t beat buying an Abarth for the price of a stimmy check. Wish me luck, y’all!

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