Around 1997 my grandmother was not able to get her license renewed and my dad bought her one-owner, low mileage Fiat 127 for me (and my sister, but she would not have her license for another couple of years). Due to these and other southern European cars’ proclivity to rust, this car was almost already a collector’s item despite these being very, very popular in Denmark when new (it was Car of the Year in both Europe and Denmark in 1972 and was as a result the best selling car in Denmark for a couple of years in the seventies), so it was something to look after.
This is the story of its demise.
In 1997 I was 18 years old and all these things were lost on me. My goals for a car were: go fast, be loud. I knew nothing about engines at the time, so that was not my immediate concern. What I did know about was car audio, so I went down that route with my pristine not-even-prepared-for-a-radio 127.
If you know anything about 127s, you will know that it would be loud with a 15” woofer in the back, a 10” woofer in each door and horn tweeters under the dashboard all fed by 250 real Phoenix Gold watts. And indeed it was: 134dB to be exact. I know this because I took it to a car audio show and got a measurement.
But I did not stop there, I installed an illuminated gear knob, painted parts of the engine half body color, half bright yellow. I used a magic marker to paint the parking lights green (color coded door handles? Pffff, give me color coded lights, baby!). The amber lenses on the rear were painted red to give the car more of a retro look, which I apparently thought went well with the fluorescent interior light and the massive stereo system.
What really killed the car, though, was probably my use of it. I ran it hard all the time – got it up to 90+ mph on the speedometer on several occasions. Once were nine people in it at one time – driving in it, that is.
When I took it for a (fast) beach run and didn’t notice a row of small dunes, the car got structural damage and required new axles and a new used gearbox to run again, but from then on there was always something wrong. It was in the shop when my dad died in 2002 and I must admit I don’t really know what happened to it. It was probably scrapped since you got around 1,000 USD for scrapping your car at the time in a government effort to get rid of some of the dangerously unsafe cars on the roads. At the time that was a good price for one of these in the condition I had left it.
This car was really special, and it is downright embarrassing that I didn’t take care of it. It could have been a collector’s item today. I am not the type of person who thinks cars should necessarily be kept stock. As long as you are passionate about it, do what you want. I can appreciate the silliest modification trends, because I share with all these owners a love of cars. So it is not likely, I would have ever kept it original, but it could have been modified tastefully with a 1.1 liter engine and a bigger carburetor and some suspension upgrades. That would have made it a hoot to drive as these cars are already fun to drive in stock condition – a small, willing four-pot and a a light, nimble car makes for a decent amount of fun even with its stock 45 bhp.
But it was not to be. This is the one that got away.
At this point, I had bought my first car with my own money. It was the obvious choice for me given my budget and preferences at the time.
Friends of mine had a couple of Fiats back in the ’80s. One was an early ’70s 124 Spyder in red. The other was an ’80 (??) Brava 4-door in light metallic blue.
Both were pretty good cars in spite of being purchased cheaply and being subjected to hard use.
134dB! Hope your ears survived, so far.
LOL…this is so true. Back in the 90’s my cousin had a huge speaker box with 16 inch speakers taking up the back seat of his Firebird. That was over 20 years ago and my ears are still ringing!
A hay mullet! Did it start a new trend?
I really enjoyed this escape into juvenile immaturity. Thanks for sharing!
When I lived in Heidelberg a friend of mine owned a white FIAT 127 and permanently damaged his reputation with the insurance company because, you know, “a small, willing four-pot and a a light, nimble car makes for a decent amount of fun even with its stock 45 bhp.” He employed a digital driving style: either wide open throttle or full force brake.
Digital driving style – like some taxis I’ve ridden in!
“Digital driving style” – I like that expression. It pretty much sums up the way I drove this thing.
This car continued its triumphal existence in Brazil and Argentina since 1976 or so with the name Fiat 147 , its production run ‘ til 1990 and labeled after many liftings as the Fiat Spazio, Fiat Vivace, Fiat Brio, Fiat Panorama Wagon 2 doors only, plus the odd shaped Fiat Oggi, just another 127 in notchback enormous trunk with only 2 doors . Despite these mobile basic appliances were always criticized for many issues ( horrendous gearbox hard maneuverability, hineous suspension, difficult steering, high rumour dB, proned to rust ) the thing is that millions of them were sold, still 1/3 of ‘ em are cornering around, so no exotica sight over the rough surfaces of Southern America, no one can explain how a so hatred stonemobile was such a success, it even outsold those venerable VW bugs Beetle, the main featuring of every Fiat 127 – 147 is its peppy acceleration, infact their owners are always the speedster after semaphores switch the green light . For CC maniacs, search in adition Fiat Fura and Fiat 127 “4Puertas” , the Spanish version of another Fiat 127 saloon with incredibly four opening doors.
I rented one of these during a 6 month deployment to Sicily in 1972. I forget what speed that car topped out at, but 90 mph seems about right. I also couldn’t say what the fuel mileage was, I don’t think I drove it enough miles to completely empty the tank.
Most memorable experience? We (me and 3 Navy buddies) drove up to the top of Mt. Etna one afternoon. Aside from a derelict hotel, and of course the 127, it looked for all the world like we were standing on the surface of Mars. On the way back, the road was steep enough that I drove several miles with the engine shut off to save on gas.
Being a rental car, and in theft-prone Sicily, that 127 lacked any kind of radio. I can’t imagine 134db in a car about as big inside as a VW beetle.
And Mc Laughlin is correct, the shift linkage on these cars was awful. My 1974 Audi Fox had a better shifting action….but it would not quite match my friend’s late 70s Civic.
Yeah, despite being familiar with the car and gearbox, I would still be standing still at green lights arguing with the car to get it to go into first. Sometimes I had to take off in second.
My motto as an 18 year old was “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.” I’m always glad to see a fellow survivor – even if the car wasn’t quite a lucky.
And thanks to the intrepid author for this tale
Site tells us 133 is the equivalent of a gunshot and 140 is the threshold of pain irrespective of the chosen track. Chart also tells us there still some way to go, can’t wait for the following adventures…
Yeah, I was required to put on earmuffs. If you passed 140 dB you were not allowed in the car at the time of measurement. Back then people used CDs, so I imagine it may actually have been necessary anyway just to make sure the CD didn’t skip.
The thing is, if you don’t know, that for competition you have a CD (file today, I guess) with five seconds of each low frequency – five seconds of 20 Hz, 5 seconds of 21 hertz, and so on. Then you find out in advance at which frequency you have the most resonance and then you play that frequency for the measurement – so basically you spend tons of time building a big system, and then you figure out in which situation it sounds the worst and then that’s what you go with. Not really a rational type of competition.
Today, I’d be more interested in sound quality competitions as I do enjoy music being played on a nice system, but sound pressure competitions are something I have grown out of – besides, these days I need the trunk.
Hi Howard Kerr great post you did !
You exactly described what i wanted to mean .
I don’t know why, but Fiats I drove from the late 60s to early 70s (coincidentally either rear-engined, RWD or front-engined, FWD) ALWAYS had bad/rubbery shift action….yet the Fiats that were front-engined RWD cars were supposed to have great shift action.
Ford is thought to have used the 127 when “benchmarking” the very first Fiesta, right down to the 4 speed manual only transmission on the earliest cars.
Yes, i agree, there is a big gap with Fiat transmissions no matter if rear engined or front engined, they always brought quite hard gearbox to shift . Who knows if this is the Fiat’ s “character” their owners expect to have ( more or less the ideal car for self made mechanics who love to tune their creatures at their most ) . Infact 127s has a strong loyalty among hot wheeler aficionados, by the way if you wanted a decent ride you’ ve been right if decided a Ford Fiesta at last. Anyway this is my point: the 127 never lost its iconic aura . Other very copied competitors like e.g. Talbot Sunbeam 1.0 LS would stay unnoticed to the eyes for the current times.
FWD and rear engine RWD cars will inevitably have poorer gear change than a RWD front engined car. Long gear rods or even worse cables will see to that, especially if they’re getting on a bit and not kept well lubed. The fiat 124 coupe I owned had the best gear change of any car I’ve driven, like a hot knife through the proverbial butter, fast, accurate and not ‘snicky’ like an MX5.
Oh my, the things we do to our cars when we are young and foolish. I respected my first car enough that I didn’t do a bunch of mods to it. I did, however, thrash it like a rented mule in ways it certainly didn’t deserve. One good thing about 67 Fords with 390s – they could take what I dished out.
Loved the text and pictures equally – thanks for posting. Though I was sad for how things ended for the car, hindsight is 20/20… You were a teenager doing teenaged things to / with your car. No judgment here!
I have a big interest in cars like these too. Currently I’m trying to acquire a pristine original 78 128
Perhaps Fiat 127 wasn’ t king for anything but afforded to millionth owners of a low budget to have a decent transportation machine. What must not being overlooked? The 127 silhouette was a pioneer, for its 1970 debut no-other car maker offered such a simple new niche before. Infact the Fiat 127 became an early success, then immediately other Auto brands imitated their proven formula ( tiny boxy fastbacks below 12″ lenght ) =
Renault 5 , Volkswagen Golf in 1973, Ford Fiesta in 1976 and so on earlier or later the Fiat 127 was the all European and Japanese carmaker’s challenge to beat and match for its supremacy . Even Volkswagen doubled the bet with its first edition Polo 1975 , who was an ungraceful shrinked Golf but still so hard to disguise its Fiat 127’s xeroxcopy
In the 1960’s and 1970’s Fiats typically had two types of owners : those who loved them in spite of their foibles and those who really hated them .
Very few in between .
I liked this story .
I was one of the 70s Fiat lovers… absolutely loved my ’74 X1/9, first new car purchase… which I drove for 99k trouble-free miles before selling it in 1980 to buy a more “family friendly” car.
I remember people in the 1960’s who loved their Renaults and drove them hard every where in New England, knowing their foirbles and how to fix them helps a lot .
I encountered much VW hate everywhere back then, I learned how to properly maintain them and drove the raggedy assed things all over America, Canada and through Mexico to Guatemala sans issues on pennies so I imagine a Fiat lover would just love them as reliable rides .
I have such fond memories of that ’74 that I bought an ’81 from a friend back in 2006 that I still own.
So what one two seven design by Fiat ? Then i discover another resembling line that seems so alike : the 1972s two doors Peugeot 104 ( it looked so advanced for its time, althought it was an idea in loan from the nervous Italian engineering & design )
To those North Americans who never noticed before the existence of Fiat 127 in the whole Euro lands, you will get subdued by watching thru youtube its first continental TV commercial which added a lot to its unbeatable success even in the UK . The spot shows graceful 127′ s running faster than the train, so wisely backgrounded by the handsome singer of Middle of the Road band, the song that joined for the 127 was Tweedle dee , Tweedle down . Both the rock band and the smallish Fiat benefitted of an instant popularity across all countries of Europe, brilliant sinergies, good feedback the vehicle and the music helped strongly one to eachother for great release, top one spreading everywhere.
Hey first , lot of congratulations to this favorit web page Curbside Classic since i learn automobilia and English language being myself from Paraguay near Bolivia to speak as scarcely as i can , need to cite this little 127#Fiat has a record nobody mentioned, as i once was owner of the # 127 / 147 Diesel, yes Sir, Diesel who was capable to cover around 500 miles with a full tank transfering four adults and a child at an amazing cheap cost only a Kawasaki 650 could dare to be as gas-saving . Me guess the #127 Diesel imput was an idea performed by neighbors Argentinean Fiat Concord from Cordoba plant in Argentina. Truly sure #127-147 in Diesel form was tied as efficient and convenient as nowaday’ s 4×4 s but you never needed to be a nephew of Rockefeller if you wish to drive a vehicle by the wildest countrysides. Truly .
Ah, youth and immaturity. A friend in high school might have had you matched for a lot of sound in a small space–he had a similar setup, though I think with 2 x 12″ instead of 1 x 15″ and probably smaller front door speakers. He ran this in a Nissan Pulsar NX. It was voted “loudest car” in our high school by a wide margin, though I don’t know if he ever had it formally measured.
It would have been nice if the car had survived, but at least you had fun with it. Kind of a “better to burn out than to fade away” situation.
Some matters can’ t be taken for granted. Of course i also was influenced by prejudices, this car or that, foreign Zaz Lada Skoda and so on still in service at their remote lands. Coincidently yesterday i was amazed by watching a free tube available through easy googling and the film shot is enough to save me thousands words :
” incredible! See how a Fiat 147-127 rescues a stranded Toyota Hilux 4wd from the tough snowing in Mendoza, Argentina, near the cord ” .
By my side: no more cruel judgments to econoboxes, no matter country of origin neither the brand trade mark.
I bet you’d like to have that amp again, too. 😉
The amp came out and died later. It was, I believe, the first non-American built Phoenix Gold series. I have been thinking about upgrading the system in my current car and for that purpose I have bought two amps from the same period, though these are American built and much better quality: A Phoenix Gold M25 and a ditto M44. (I also have a Denon DCA-800 lying around, this gear from my youth can be found cheap these days)
Would love to hear Accadacca’s Shoot to Thrill in 134dB. From a distance.
Caught a white curbside 127 recently, but about four years ago I just missed the colour twin to yours. Nice read Mads.
Like many Americans, I take one look at a Fiat 127 and immediately think, “Yugo!”
I really like the design of the 127. It is probably my favourite small Italian of the 60s-70s era. A shame I never got to drive one.