COAL: The Brougham Antidote, Part 3 – Fiat 128 & VW Rabbit

The 1972 Fiat 128 near Lynchburg, VA. The lovely Natalie was inside the car smoking.

(first posted 9/23/2012)     As soon as I had the bucks, I traded in my ’62 Ford for a brand-new, Positano Yellow 1972 Fiat 128 two-door sedan. The Fiat set me back $2,000, but they gave me $100 for my Ford with the Italian Circus option. I financed $1,000, then paid off the car in one year at $98 bucks a month.

I truly loved the Fiat. Finally, I was able to outfit my car with all the goodies from Road & Track that one dreamed about. In Long Island City, and just a short subway ride away, was Fisher Products, purveyors of all things Abarth, including a 13-inch, leather-wrapped Momo-Abarth steering wheel (which I still have), and an Abarth exhaust system with salami-cut, chrome-tipped, dual outlets. Damn, I was stylin! Well, at least in my own mind.

With the 128 I learned how to adjust the clutch, change out front disc brake pads, remove and reinstall a distributor (a must for changing condensers) and other stuff, as my local Fiat dealer was totally incompetent. However, these skills prepared me for my next car, a VW Rabbit.

While far from perfect, the 128 was still much better than the coeval turd-like Triumphs and MGs. Sadly, an out-of-control Datsun 510 ran into my Fiat, on a snowy road in Kensington, MD, one winter’s eve. Total City. Actually, not all that bad: State Farm gave me $900 for a six-year old car infested with the dreaded tin worm and suffering from the Blue Exhaust Syndrome, a result of a couple of trips to Texas and New Mexico from Connecticut. (Seventy-five mph in an 1,100cc Fiat comes out to 4,300 rpm–and FOR HOURS ON END!)

Terminal wreck damage.

So now it was time for a new car. What would it be? My wife had bought a new ’74 Datsun B 210, one of the crappiest cars ever inflicted on the buying public. A real tumbrel. I also found Detroit’s current products truly offensive in every sense imaginable. As an industrial designer, my aesthetic sensibilities were offended six ways from Sunday by the bloated, Broughamesque excrescenses that Detroit still thought (or at least hoped) the buying public lusted after.

Thus did I buy a new 1978 VW Rabbit at a time when Olds Cutlasses with various flavors of vinyl roofs were the best-selling cars in the U.S. I splurged on two options, a sunroof and an all-vinyl interior; woo woo! And oh yes, orange paint that VW called Panama Brown. I’d considered the Scirocco, but my head grazed the roof and besides, the thing was a thousand bucks more than the Rabbit due only to its styling.

Speaking of which, the 128 was styled by Boano (an occasional designer of Ferraris), and the Rabbit by Giugiaro. Although I liked both, I was especially drawn to the subtle surface development of the 128.

On the road with my wife in South Dakota, on our way to the Black Hills in our new 1978 Rabbit.

I loved the low-end torque that Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection gave the motor. In spite of its mere 1,457 cc, the engine felt like a V8 compared with the 1,100 cc Fiat mill. Sure, these engines were diminutive, but the Fiat probably weighed just 1,600 lbs (725 kg) versus the Rabbit’s 1,750 (794 kg). It’s all about power-to-weight, baby. Still, everything else on the Vee Dub was clunky compared with the 128. All of the Fiat’s controls felt interconnected. Its steering, brakes and transmission all felt as though they’d been designed by a team that truly understood ergonomics and sensory perception. The Rabbit was Teutonically-clunky, but nonetheless able. My beloved Momo steering wheel made the transition from the Fiat to the “Rab”.

Wife at campsite with Rab and tent. This image was taken with a tripod-mounted Olympus OM-1 with an open shutter as I walked around firing a Vivitar 283 flash unit multiple times.

The Rabbit was a much better long-distance cruiser than the Fiat, and occasionally my wife and I would remove the back seat and pack the hold with camping equipment and a cooler. At the time, our vacations were centered around how far we could go and how many states or provinces we could visit in a three-week period. The Rab was an admirable cruiser when new. My wife and I would read to each other on the road–lots of first-printing Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, since they were ethnically insensitive and therefore amusing. I was also adept at on-the-fly ad-libbing. Did you know that Nancy Drew was quite the slut? Then we discovered the Longarm series of adult western novels. Wow! Ten times in one day! What a stud!

On the road again.

This one was on a cross-country run from Milwaukee, WI to San Francisco; this picture was taken in the Sand Hills area of Nebraska. Yes, those are genuine Cibie Super Oscars, guaranteed to blow any stock Rabbit alternator. Still got ‘em. Given the amount of distortion, my guess is that I shot this with my OM-1 and a 21-mm lens.

Who needs an SUV? The Rabbit hatch was very commodious.

With the rear seat removed there was plenty of room for camping gear. My wife and I fabricated a tarp to cover the storage area. Genuine Naugahyde, from the skins of baby Naugas. Too cool for school.

Same trip, Milwaukee-San Francisco. Camped in either Wyoming or Utah, at the Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

May 31st but cold as hell. No campfire cooking. In the morning, I packed up as quickly as I could and drove to the first café I could find. Gazelles, or unicorns, followed me as I drove back to the paved road, perhaps to make sure that I got out and didn’t return. Later on, it was snowing as I crested the Wasatch near Park City. My descent into the Salt Lake Valley was boring: 55 mph (88 kph) on I-80, the same road I now drive at 84 mph (135 kph). Made it to Carson City that night.