(coopey shot this 1972 Seat 124D “Normal” in Spain)
From a US-centric point of view, it’s easy to dismiss the Fiat 124 as another disposable shit-box from Turin, or as the patron saint of almost 20 million Russian Ladas, that proverbial butt of jokes. But the Fiat 124 was a superb design, and won accolades when it appeared in 1966, including the European COTY. One could rightly say it was the last modern shot at the classic front-engine rear-wheel-drive formula for a compact sedan, before the big shift to FWD small cars. And Fiat did it very well indeed: a roomy body, well-designed all-coil suspension for unparalleled handling, lusty engines, slick gearboxes, and perhaps the real coup: four wheel disc brakes, in 1966 on an economy car! Why, that’s just begging for another unfair comparison to the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado.
Fiat’s 1100 series was the iconic compact sedan in Europe for decades, the most successful challenger to the VW Beetle during its long run. They were almost polar opposites: the Fiats had four doors, handled well, and its engines always were happy to rev. Not surprisingly, that typically meant a shorter engine life, typically. There’s a price to pay for fun.
The 1100/1200 was updated numerous times, but it was getting very long in tooth by the early sixties, and its narrow body made that all-too obvious. The 124’s body was surprisingly wide at the time, making it roomier than one might expect for such modest overall dimensions and RWD.
Despite being generous to the passengers, all 124s were ultimately driver’s cars, especially better-engined ones. The base mill was a 1.2L ohv four, but even it spanked the VW 1200 of the time (Update: the VW 1300 and 1500 too). There was also 1.5 L ohv four, and the 1.5, 1.6 and 1.8L versions of the DOHC four that powered the 124 Spider and Coupe.
Needless to say, the 124 suffered in the US at the hands of emission and 5 mph bumper regulations, as well as the salt on the roads and the very iffy dealer network. But even then, the fun still came through. I drove one once through hilly Western Pennsylvania, and my time behind its oddly-located steering wheel is etched in my memory as one of my more enjoyable drives ever.
The 124 story is mammoth; the Last Lada Riva 2107 came of the assembly line less than a year ago, and there is still a Lada variant being built in Egypt. Its starting to rival the VW Beetle’s record, although it won’t quite make it.
Here’s coopey’s comments about the Seat he shot:
Still far from the crusher and keeps its undaunted courage to cope with the daily urban stress. It’s not being restored to turn into a museum piece, but at least it looks tidier than other examples. The most visible issues are some bits of rust, an unmatching rim (on the other side), the missing chromed skirt trim and other hidden flaws.
This one is a second series base trim level. It lacks the additional side trim under the door handles, the reverse light and a rear defroster. Its dashboard was rectangular and simpler. And it had cloth upholstery.
I owned it’s Polish relative the FSO 125P.Miles ahead of the Vauxhall Viva/Ford Anglia and BMC cars in the same field
This model was quite rare here the later 125 was very popular, Funny how you mention the 1200cc Fiat could smoke a VW everything other than a Fiat 500 could outperform the VW by 1960.
Actually, the Fiat 124 1200 outran the 1300 and 1500 VWs too.
Yep Fiats went ok they didnt always go but when they did it was fun, metal termites got most of them and of course now I’ll see several, CC effect
The Fiat 124 was also built under licence in India as the Premier 118N http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premier_118N with a different front end and a Nissan engine under the hood until 2001.
“One could rightly say it was the last modern shot at the classic front-engine rear-wheel-drive formula for a compact sedan, before the big shift to FWD small cars.”
I get that it was an important car. I’ve owned a 124, and I like many things about them. I don’t understand why one could rightly say that it was the last modern shot at RWD compact sedan. FWD compact cars had been introduced before 1966, and some manufacturers would continue to shift to FWD into the ’80s, even now if you count the wreckage of BMW. Why doesn’t the Ford Escort of 1968 count as a later modern shot at the classic RWD compact sedan? The 1975 introduced Escort MK2? How about the E70 Toyota Corolla of 1979? I’m sure I’m skipping many more. What am I missing about the Fiat that makes it the last modern attempt at its type?
I should have written that a bit better, although I stand behind what I meant to say. Which is: the Fiat 124 redefined the modern compact RWD car in ways that no one could really better, or even match, at least for some time. Yes others gave it a shot, but they were not any more “modern”.
Ford Escort? rear leaf springs, and certainly not 4-wheel disc brakes standard. Also, the 124 had better space utilization.
And the other cars you mention weren’t really a significant advance over the 124 in terms of packaging, suspension, brakes, performance, etc. Certainly, later cars like the Corolla were more reliable, and had perhaps some modern amenities given their later intro date. But they really didn’t improve on the 124’s intrinsic design to any significant extent, if they even met it.
So let me re-phrase that: One could rightly say that the 124 was the last major step forward in the development of the small low-cost RWD sedan, in terms of its basic design and qualities.
It’s well acknowledged that the 124 was profoundly influential in Europe, and set the new standard for its class. And many failed to equal or improve on it, even though they came later.
Of course as many know, the Fiat 124 Coupe had heavy design influence on the Chevy Vega. The biggest problem that Fiat had (and many other makes) was the cars were so small and unreliable.
Chevy Vega. Small and unreliable in a nutshell.
That actually raises an interesting point. What determines “quality”?
The Fiats of the time (and Renaults as well) offered technologically-current sophisticated features and engineering…discs on all four wheels; independent suspension front and rear…later, engine over drive wheels. Compare that to the Pinto…leaf springs; Hotchkiss drive line, miniaturized SLA front suspension. Drum brakes; later, reluctantly, discs on front only.
Which held up better? The only thing that could kill the Pinto…was rust. (The Vega had other issues related to incomplete development). But the Fiats and Renaults…a shorter list would be would NOT be likely to break.
Which was the higher quality?
That and the fact that these cars looked like they came from third world countries…
The styling has the same themes as a 1966 Valiant, it is just that it ran so long that it became dated
I was waiting for a CC on one of these. My dad bought a 1974 new when we moved from the city to the suburbs and he wanted a small fuel efficient car. It’s the first car I have any memories of, other than my mother’s Buick, but I also remember how much the Fiat drove my parents crazy. It certainly made any trip an adventure because you never knew when it would overheat. Years later my dad told me that the dealer solved the issue by installing an extra switch connected directly to the fan, and my dad had to flip the switch on every time he started the car. It got close to 30 mpg but the gas tank was so small that he had to fill it up every three days anyway. My parents typically keep cars 10+ years, but the Fiat lasted three until he traded it for another Buick.
Interesting experience and I wonder if it encapsulates the reason that so many cars that were successful in Europe were flops in the USA. Drivability issues like overheating were probably related to emissions adaptation making it run lean and choking the exhaust with a cat. These types of last minute, poorly engineered Federalizing attempts were the death of many foreign cars here.
The gas tank brings up another interesting point. Unless it was downsized for Federal crash standards I wonder if our usage of a vehicle for long daily commutes from the suburbs is very different from the European use as a ‘city car’.
I grew up in Northern Michigan and 124s had a terrible reputation for unreliability, expensive repair and rust, rust, rust. The reliability and expense were due to poor adaptation and poor dealers–the rust must have been the italian’s lack of understanding WRT the environment of road salt that cars must survive in the north.
Before the Lada eclipsed (darkened??) the perception of the Fiat, I think it was perceived as modern and refined both visually and technically, similar to its larger contemporary the Volvo 144. I rode in a classmate’s Mom’s 124 frequently in high school and it was head and shoulders above another classmate’s Mom’s slant-front Corona. BTW, the Tintin image is great —- is it time for (or has there been) a “Cars of Herge” CC.
I agree for a CC about *Cars of Herge* and we could add others cars who featured in various Franco-Belgian comics like Gil Jourdan (who often drive a Renault 4CV in the earlier albums, switched to the R17 in the later years), Spirou, Michel Vaillant, Ric Hochet (who drived a Porsche, then briefly a Volvo P1800 before returning to Porsche), Les Casseurs (retitled later as “Al & Brock”, adventures featuring 2 policemen from San Francisco, Al Russell, a young rookie and son of a wealthy millionaire and Brock, a middle-age cop teaming together and crashed lots of cars, trucks, even bus and trains),etc…
And here one more link about Mercedes cars featured in comics.
Another Franco-Belgian comic then I forgotted to mention, Blake & Mortimer who’s set in the 1950s got some cars sightings of the era as it was shown in a page on this French site http://www.coinbd.com/series-bd/blake-et-mortimer-les-aventures-de/l-etrange-rendez-vous/
I thought you liked station wagons Stephane?
Yes, I also like them too don’t worry!:-) Oldcarbrochures posted recently this brochure pic of a 1979 Mercury Colony Park to cheer you up.
In Turkey this car was produced, and they called it the Murat. Another interesting thing about Turkey were the old American cars from the 50s that were often used as Taxis. Lots and lots of old Plymouths and Chevys. . We rode to school in a 57 Chevy, 6 cyl. 3 speed. The cars rode nice and smooth on those old cobble stone streets. This was during the late 60s early 70s. Now the old American cars are gone, and you see lots of mini buses and Murats used as taxis.
VAZ Lada (Russia) and SEAT (Spain) weren’t the only licenses of the Fiat 124, The Turkish Carmaker, Turk Otomobil Fabrikasi S.A. (TOFAS) and El Nasr of Eygpt licensed it as well.