COAL: 1974 Fiat 128 — Finally Behind the Wheel

Full disclosure, this COAL is going to feature pictures of a lot of cars that were not my specific cars. The reason has something to do with the fact that my photography efforts during much of the 1970s were directed at something other than automobiles. Or something else period. I don’t know…it was the 70s. I’m not the only one who doesn’t remember a lot of things about the 1970s.

That yellow 2-door 128 in the above picture wasn’t my car. Rather, it was my car’s parking-lot mate on those rare occasions when I was allowed to drive my family’s Fiat 128 to school. That’s my high school lot from circa 1979. More on that in a bit.

In fact, the only picture I’ve been able to dig up of my family’s car is this. I’m not sure what I was (literally) aiming for in this picture’s composition. What I did capture was the Town and Country from last week’s chapter – Big Car – alongside the Little Car that is today’s subject. You can just make it out through the window in its customary parking spot. Since this photo was taken sometime in late 1977, that means that possibly I – a newly-minted driver — parked it there that day.

My birthday falls right at the end of the school year, so I took Driver’s Ed in Spring semester 1977. Just about every kid in high school took it at some point during their sophomore year so that by junior year (11th grade) they had their full license. Maryland did not have a “graduated” licensing system at the time (that came in 1978, after I was already fully licensed). Thus the prevailing practice was to spend part of your 16th birthday at the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) taking your driving test and going to sleep on your birthday night with a fully operational driver’s license.

Needless to say, there was a lot of demand for Driver’s Ed class. My school had two full-time Driver’s Ed teachers. Mr. Freeman and Mr. Papini — full time Driver’s Ed during the day, football coaches by afternoon. Funny how I have forgotten 90% of all my high school teachers’ names…but not theirs.


Note both the floor shift and the auto selector. Amazing technology for the day! 😉

Much of the time spent in Driver’s Ed class was sitting behind the wheel of one of these. We called them the “stimulators” (because we were 15 and that seemed clever). For some reason I never understood, the stimulators in our classroom were not actually connected to the control panel that could enable an actual simulated driving experience. I’m guessing that maintaining the giant mess of wiring that connected the room of these things was a chore, and electronics wasn’t in Mr. Freeman or Mr. Papini’s wheelhouse…or fieldhouse in their case.

They showed us some movies (mostly we were spared the gory films that are the thing of high school driver’s ed lore), gave some chalkboard lectures, and pretty much unenthusiastically ushered us through the classroom portion of the course. In that regard, pretty much the same as what the rest of our teachers did. But in fact, Freeman and Papini knew that they held the key (so to speak) to another kind of learning. About 30 years ahead of their time as educators (whether they knew it or not), they were facilitators of hands-on learning. They fully knew that the only part of the course that would capture our attention was the part that had us actually doing something with our hands and minds interconnected. That would happen on “the range” and then through actual street driving. The result was that Driver’s Ed was one of a precious few high school courses that actually produced something that had impact on a student’s day to day life. It figures that Driver’s Ed is no longer part of most high school curricula.

The range was my favorite part. For those who haven’t gone through a classic American driver’s ed program, “range driving” is basically driving around a parking lot. In my high school, a parking lot dedicated to Driver’s Ed and hence one where no one parked. Inside the range was the fleet of school-leased Driver’s Ed cars, and on range days the class would pile into the cars – three or four kids per car – and proceed to drive around in circles while the teacher stood in the middle of the circle shouting directions. At least that’s how it happened in my school.

Mr. Freeman, having a flair for both drama and football, liked to wear a helmet (Go Vikings!) while on the range and used a bull horn to amplify his instructions. But he was at his most memorable when he would ride shotgun – still wearing his helmet – and shout at you as you struggled to look cool to your fellow students in the back seat and not plow into the car in front of you. 40 years later, I still regularly hear the man’s voice telling me “Sun! Get your heel OFF THE FUCKING FLOOR!!!”

To this day I still don’t quite know what he was talking about, but I remember it.

What we drove on the range, and later on the actual road, were 1977 and 1978 Cutlases. There was a mix of both years, but more of the new for 1978 “Aeroback” models. Most were green like the one above, but 4 door “salon” models rather than the nicer Brougham above. Given the lack of consumer popularity of those first year Aerobacks, the school district probably got a good deal on that lease.

It seems that Olds offered a manual transmission on those cars. That was standard on the V6 cars and optional on the small V8; but it would appear that by 1977, driver’s education in Montgomery County schools was taught exclusively on automatic transmission cars. I’m guessing that Mr. Freeman was fine with that. Less strain on his voice yelling about the 3rd pedal. I, on the other hand, wasn’t wild about it since that meant I would have to rely upon my dad to teach me how to drive a standard. Since driving the Chrysler (Big Car) was off limits for me, if I wanted to drive I would have to drive the Fiat.

US model Fiat literature from the 70’s seems to be very thin on the ground/Internet. The 4-door one in the 1974 brochure has the same interior color as the one we had, but its paint color was like the 2-door brochure car.

This was a very pleasing red/maroon color. More like BMW’s “Malaga” than the red of our Simca. I recall that there were quite a few around in this color. Other common and outstanding colors were the yellow of the car in the initial picture for this post, quite a few shades of green, and a beige color. I never saw a black one like the one in the brochure.

It turns out that the one Enzo drove was black.

Our 128 was purchased on a cold, rainy, day in December 1974. Papers indicate that my dad paid just over $2400 for it new. The Simca was traded – more like taken off his hands without charge – for the Fiat. There were no options offered on the 128. All of the cars were the same aside from exterior and interior color. Presumably dealers tried to sell add-ons such as rust-proofing, snazzy decals, different floor mats, or the dealer-installed sun roofs that I have seen a on number of these cars. It seems that if one wanted an automatic, the only Fiat solution would have been to upgrade to the larger 124. Larger car, smaller model number…I never understood that.

My parents were probably relieved that no air-conditioning was available.

Anyhow, to me the 128 was 157” by 63” of boxy goodness. Just a little bit larger than the Simca it replaced. Maybe 10 more HP…and front wheel drive. As you can imagine (by now), the front wheel drive thing gave my parents some amount of concern (these were the people who spent years worrying about the limited slip differential on the Chrysler wagon). But they warmed to the idea that putting the driving wheels under the engine (basically the same idea as the Simca, but with the engine in the Fiat being in its “proper” place) was good for traction.

I completely adored the 4 speed manual and learned to drive it without difficulty. I really didn’t give it much thought since if I wanted to drive anything, this would be what I learned to drive. The Fiat’s transmission was smooth-shifting — how could Enzo drive it otherwise? — with seemingly little chance for mixing up gears (a significant concern for me at the time). The clutch was light, at least compared to the other standard transmission cars I’ve owned since. The clutch cable did have a tendency to need constant adjustment as it stretched and ultimately broke. “Replacing the clutch cable” was a frequent repair. Our car also seemed to devour wheel bearings for some reason. But overall, the car was dependable and fun to drive. We constantly heard the “Fix it Again, Tony!” jokes, but really, quality control seemed to be having a good day when ours was produced.

OK, so we did experience some annoying knocking from the rear end for the first year or so. Several trips to the dealer under warranty failed to produce anything until one day when I was rooting around in the trunk and found:

A classic “clavetta bottle” wedged deep in one of the side wells. Cool! Clearly a car not assembled by robots.  Bottle removed, noise gone.

Therefore I was behind the wheel of the 128 on my birthday at the MVA. As far as I could tell, I was the only kid there in a standard shift car. The tension was heightened by the fact that one had to queue up on a slight hill to get into the testing area at the Rockville MVA. Stalling the car on your driver’s test would definitely not be good form, so I’d practiced extra to avoid that possibility. Passing the parallel parking test was also a bit more challenging than in an automatic. One more thing to think about…clutching…while trying not to hit cones. Then again, the Fiat was about 2/3 the size of the Olds on which I’d learned to do this. Piece of cake.

I passed.

Mind you, this didn’t mean that I would be driving every day. I was still sharing my dad’s car, which he needed for his daily commute. My mom — by now also working an out-of-the-house job — commuted daily in the Chrysler. Thus my use of the Fiat was mostly evenings and weekends or the rare occasion where I made a deal to drive one of my parents to work so that I could use the car during the day.

Point is, I was never lucky enough to be one of those daily-driving kids populating the high school parking lot.

I’ll leave it to the car-spotters here to have fun identifying things in my high school’s 1979 lot. Though I will say that the preponderance of VW models (there are 6 Beetles, 3 Buses, and a Karman Ghia in that picture) really reminds me of why nearly all small car ads back then targeted VW by name.

Fiat included. Nevertheless, VW-envy aside, they had a point about the interior room afforded by the small boxy shape. The same had been true with the Simca. To this day I miss that about cars. The Fiat was tiny compared to almost anything on today’s roads, and yet it carried a family of 4 rather comfortably; as long as you weren’t planning to take it on long road trips.

But actually, I was planning on taking it on a long road trip. Long, like about as far as one can drive from Maryland. We’ll see how that turned out, next week.