Curbside Classic: 1969 – 1985 Fiat 128 – The Fiat We Must Remember

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Fiat’s present day existence presents a rather inconsistent picture. On one hand, we see a multinational with the savvy to buy a gigantic presence in the all-important US car market inter alia Chrysler. We see a product portfolio with the profitable and virtuosic Grand Cherokee and full-size Ram trucks, as well as the evergreen and ever-satifying Charger/300 (which I love, whether or not they’re moving off dealer lots). On the other hand, we have a parent brand with an already marginal reputation; that Fiat as it exists today is a basket case is a poorly kept secret.

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What reputation does Fiat have outside of its stretched-thin 500 sub-brand?  How sustainable is Alfa’s comeback, how important is it and how much will it cost?  Perhaps most importantly, what of Fiat’s bread and butter cars themselves?  It’s not a pretty picture, so let’s turn back the page and remember a shining example of what Fiat used to stand for.

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First off, let’s thank NickyD for uploading the pictures of this iconic 128 wagon.  If he’d not found it, we’d have no reason to delve into what once made Fiat so unique and so important, but luckily it stood out immediately.  The shape of this three-door Familiare wagon distinguishes itself even without bright yellow paint and those nerdy (and strangely appealing) four-spoke wheels.

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These were never exactly “roaches of the road,” and despite being produced in large numbers over a sixteen year period, they’re incredibly rare to find.   The Yugo’s horrible reputation likely has just as much to do with the way Fiat developed the related 127 as it does with Zastava’s workforce or engineers.  That’s all I really need to say about quality, then: we already have a clear picture of Fiat’s primary shortcoming of the era.

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My focus on is this particular example is rather more positive.  Where many like to make quips about Italian cars being impractical, or designed with passion before practicality, the 128 presents an elegant counterpoint.  It was the product of a fully modern industrial outfit, was state-of-the-art for its era, is remembered as satisfying in operation and there were no intentions of making anything cute or gorgeous in its creation.  And really, that makes it an exemplar of Fiat as a brand as well as a company; it’s the Fiat I grew up knowing.

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Before VW began selling water-cooled cars, and before GM and Ford began selling products which chased after them, Fiat had a very important place in the European car market.  While Ford of UK and Germany and Opel were selling tiny clones of American sedans, and VW was beating the air-cooled horse to death, Fiat had earned a reputation for honest, practical cars with a keenness for vigorous motoring.  And while the company rarely tread the revolutionary path followed by Citroen or BMC’s Mini, its product was hardly ever hoary.

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The 128 was special not only for its mechanical layout, but also for the way it drove.  Debuting before the Golf, before the Alfasud, before the Fiesta, the 128 was, like the Mini which came before it, an inexpensive car which thrived on momentum and held its composure in fast cornering.  Unlike BMC’s later efforts, however, the 128 was able to bring these qualities to a larger size class along with commercial significance and a much smoother and more sophisticated powertrain.  Just as the 124 before it proved to be more than mere practical transport, the 128 made a name for itself among consumers who appreciated the joy inherent in cornering, accelerating and stopping.

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For all the credit the 128 gets for popularizing the “end-on” gearbox/transverse front-drive layout, Fiat had already put a car so-designed into production in 1964 for domestic consumption, under the name Autobianchi Primula (as most of our readers likely know).  Why the company waited so long to translate the technology onto a big nameplate with big sales potential isn’t known for certain, but the popular understanding is that marketing the design on a small scale allowed for what we now call beta testing on an unsuspecting public without damaging the parent brand’s reputation.  During that period, of course, Simca introduced the 1100, making it the first significantly-sized brand to sell a transverse layout with an end-on gearbox.

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Front-wheel drive was cutting edge back then, and Fiat didn’t want to make a huge gamble.  Judging by the differing approaches taken by various manufacturers, and sheer aversion by the likes of Toyota along with Chrysler’s and Ford’s domestic operations, a lot of effort was undertaken in perfecting the technology we take for granted today.  Audi favored a longitudinally mounted engine slung way ahead of the front wheels and differential, creating a significant moment of inertia and gigantic overhang.  Even the company’s best designs couldn’t hide it until the gearbox was reconfigured with the B8-series of cars, and such a layout would take up too much space in a car the 128’s size regardless.

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Renault and Citroen’s DS favored a similar design, only turned backward, intruding on passenger space as the cab-rearward proportions of this 1988 R4 shows nicely.  Citroen’s GS, Subaru and the forthcoming Alfasud favored a design like Audi’s but relied on a flat-four to shrink the length and height of the package, being forced to use two cylinder heads in the process (when building a cheap car, that presents a significant increase in cost).

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BMC’s front-drivers were able to make transverse engine technology simple, by placing the transmission in the sump.  Saab followed a similar path by building the 99’s gearbox under the engine, but was smart enough to separate the oil supply; if you’ve ever driven a classic Saab 900, with its attendant chain-drive whine (you can hear the power loss), you have an idea of the compromise involved in making a compact, front-drive power unit before the end-on gearbox.

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Simca’s brilliant 1100 was the first widely available car which took the Primula’s formula and applied it to an internationally available, mass market car.  This innovation was not merely about driving the front wheels; it was about creating a compact power unit that could be placed in the front of a small car.  If it weren’t for easy conversion into all-wheel drive, Subaru and Audi would’ve abandoned their longitudinal layouts long ago, so as we see it took a great deal of effort before carmakers arrived at the layout contemporary enthusiasts so often bemoan.

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Of course, the 128 wasn’t famous for its drivetrain layout alone; the rest of the engineering lived up to the promise of its ultra-contemporary nature.  It had an independent suspension all around, ditching the rear beam (of the Primula) and bulky wishbones upfront (common to both the Primula and 1100) for struts all around, enabling fully independent suspension without severely compromised geometry in the form of semi-trailing arms or swing axles.   Out back, another mechanical component was turned sideways: the leaf spring.  The 128’s cargo area was blessed with good capacity as the suspension turrets were small, courtesy of a transverse leaf spring and spare tire placement in the engine bay.

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Also unlike most small cars, it used an overhead cam engine which loved to rev.  Until the 128, Fiat’s standard issue economy cars used pushrods, as did most of the competition.  Designed by Aurelio Lampredi, who enjoyed stints at Vespa and Ferrari before coming to Fiat, the 128’s engine used a single overhead cam driven by a toothed, reinforced rubber belt (hate them all you like, but they’re only way to ensure proper valve timing over thousands of miles of operation and they run silently). It was a massively over-square design, facilitating large valves and cutting rotational forces.  This helped it make all the right noises and endowed it with a power curve which swelled as revolutions increased, the way a proper small displacement design should.

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If that wasn’t enough, the 128’s brakes used discs in front and a proportioning valve for the rear drums; stopping was as important as going for the 128’s creators.  To find all that engineering in a single model was already special; for the price, it was truly noteworthy.

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Where the Simca outwitted Fiat, however, was in terms of versatility and usability.  The 1100 was larger than the 128 and offered a fifth door; in terms of its ability to swallow four passengers and their luggage without forcing compromises in access, the French car offered Europeans what they really needed in a compact car.  That its Poissy engine was thrashy and its handling a little softer than the 128’s wasn’t terribly significant; it was a success on the continent and helped create the so-called “Golf class,” named for its coming and more commercially significant imitator.  Until then, if you wanted a small family car with a fizzy engine and sharper chassis like the 128’s, you could do much worse than to buy Fiat’s 124.

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So what went so wrong for Fiat, an automaker with a huge range of cars, access to up-to-date technology and a reputation for driving pleasure?  It’s hard to pinpoint a singular factor.  We’ve already mentioned the company’s dreadful approach to quality.  On the 128, the drivetrain couldn’t hold up to the spirited operation the short gearing and small displacement demanded.  While the Primula used a hydraulic clutch, the 128’s clutch cables snapped, and engines lost compression earlier than expected, to name some notable issues; and all this in a market where Fiat slowly divested itself of the manufacture of larger family cars in order to focus on cheaper, more popular options.  But PSA’s small front-drivers haven’t been paragons of quality themselves, nor have many small front-drive Opels distinguished themselves by either being sharp in corners or long-lived, so putting too fine a point on quality obscures the picture.

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Fiat spent much of the 128’s life building derivative body styles and updating the car; the 3-door “Familiare” wagon as featured showed up in 1970 and lasted until 1980.  Why Fiat of Italy didn’t adapt the four-door sedan body for the Familiare is unknown.  Proper five-door wagons and hatchbacks were made in Argentina and Yugoslavia, respectively.

The three-door Familiare was initially one’s only way into a proper tailgate, until 1975 when the very attractive 128 “sport coupe” was replaced by the 128 3P (presumably for three door) fast back.

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The sport coupe is best thought of as sort of a proto-CRX if one views the 128 as analogous to the Civic.  A fair amount of mechanical modification was made with a beefed-up chassis to accompany the usual twin-choke carbs and headers.  A widened front track, narrowed rear track, nine inches clipped out of the wheelbase and front control arm reinforcement via radius rods (replacing the now-deleted front stabilizer bar) all show that mitigating understeer and provoking tail-out antics was a deliberate goal.  Gotta love those priorities.

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Small displacement versions of 128 lasted in production in Italy until 1985 and the car remained an engaging proposition throughout its run, but it’s clear that the Ritmo failed as a replacement, despite adopting a bigger size and fifth door.

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The very attractive Uno was the 128’s real successor (too bad about that pesky 205), and Fiat has more often than not struggled in the C-segment since.  Much as was the case with BMC and the Mini, Fiat had a difficult time directly building on the 128’s success.  While it was soon joined by the very similar, even cheaper and smaller 127, Fiat’s competitors learned quickly and applied their formula to bigger, more substantial subcompacts.

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The Honda Civic came closest to simulating (note I did not say copy; it came out within three years of the 128 and was more thoroughly developed in the process) Fiat’s engaging formula, with eager engines and a very direct feel, while the Golf would further popularize it with a dose of solidity and greater space.  Similar entries from other automakers came hard and fast, and for all the success of the 128, Fiat has had more misses than hits among its successors.  The Uno, Tipo, Punto and Panda have all been critically praised, but Fiat today is waiting for its next small-car sensation.  When it finally happens, it’ll have been a long time coming.  The motoring world could use a small car with the spirit of the 128.

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