When is the last time you saw a real legend out on the street? When I encountered this little critter in Bangkok the other day, I immediately thought it was your Commie-or-garden Zhiguli, a.k.a the Lada 1200. Was it worth taking the time to document it? But no, as I approached, I saw this was the real thing – a genuine 124. Hold the borscht, have some minestrone.
Fiat probably never expected, back when they designed the 124 (and its fraternal twin, the 125), that it would become one of the world’s most ubiquitous shapes and be made for decades in a dozen countries. But the 124/125 succeeded where Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Axis Powers failed. This unassuming four-door conquered the whole of Eurasia, from Iceland to Indonesia. Even parts of Africa and the Americas were eventually under its spell.
And yes, the 124 and the 125 are somewhat different, at least in their Italian guise. They share a lot of sheetmetal, but underneath things are not quite the same. The 125’s rear suspension is different, its engine is bigger and more powerful, the rear legroom is better because the seat is further back. Just to smooth out the range, Fiat also created a half-way model, the 124 S, with a 1.4 litre and quad headlamps. In 1970, the 124 saloon was given a slight makeover, with a revised grille and flat door handles, only to be abandoned in 1974.
But this was just the beginning of the many foreign derivatives that Fiat had been sowing across the globe. These foreign 124/125s took parts from all three of these original Italian models over the next four decades, so that it’s pretty damned impossible to say whether the Polish Polski, the Indian Premier, the Soviet Lada or the Turkish Tofaş ought to be counted as 124 berlinas ameliorated with 125 bits or 125 clones masquerading as 124s. It’s an interesting semantic conundrum, but ultimately, it could be argued that the 124/125 is like the Citroën Traction Avant or the VW Beetle: folks who know these cars well can tell models apart, but for the rest of us, it looks like the same car with a few changes here and there.
Of course, most of the 20 million or so cars that used this classic three-box shape were made on the Volga and never wore a Fiat badge. In fact, I cannot remember seeing a Fiat 124 saloon in the wild ever – most were probably devoured by the tin worm long before my time. How this one is still out and about is something of a mystery to me, but it makes sense that it’s not a Lada. Thailand was not on the friendliest terms with the USSR back in the day, so I guess they were never sold here. I have certainly never seen any Soviet / Russian metal here, unlike in other Southeast Asian countries.
Like many old cars I’ve seen around the region, this one has had a few odd mods. For once, there was little to fault on the outside – except those horrid rear-view mirrors. But the dash seems like it came from a completely different car. I could not get a clear shot of it, but on the glove box lid there was a Suzuki script. I’m not too good on Suzuki dashboards, but maybe someone can identify it. The steering wheel looks somewhat early ‘80s Toyota to me…
Is there a Fiat 1.2 under that tired hood? I haven’t the foggiest. Could well be, as the motor was probably the most durable part of the whole car. The chassis and suspension are pretty tough too. A good old live axle with coil springs was just the ticket – simple, yet well designed. Just like the body, really, which has a sort of minimalist Italian zen feel to it. Nothing out of place. Round headlamps and simple grille, boxy greenhouse for maximum capacity, ditto the rear. No frills or quirks, zero Baroque ornaments and nothing to offend – nor endear. Result: European Car of the Year in 1967 and licensed production in over a dozen countries.
Well played, Fiat. Well played.
It wasn’t necessarily going to play out that way. By the mid-‘60s, Fiat were in a transitional phase, being one of the few automakers to manufacture the three main layouts (rear engine, RWD and FWD) simultaneously. The rear-engined cars were already beginning to look passé, but not yet completely hopeless. FWD was still viewed with some suspicion by Fiat’s decision-makers, who had launched the Autobianchi Primula with more prudence than enthusiasm. Out of this confusion, the tried and true RWD 124/125 emerged to give Fiat’s mid-range a modicum of clarity and stability. The success of the FWD 127 and 128 in the early ‘70s European market tipped the balance towards front-drive, but the global market was far more impressed with Fiat’s RWD and rear engine designs.
I didn’t even go into the myriad of derivatives that the 124 / 125 spawned – the evergreen PininFarina roadster, the ubiquitous “Kalinka” wagon and the long list of Italian coachbuilt specials that used the Fiat’s well-worn mechanicals, though the PF coupe and spider did crank it up to a DOHC with 1.6 and 1.8 litres. Quite the Stakhanovist, our little Fiat.
Going back to the original berlina – well, as original as this one is, anyway – is the best way to marvel at this most international of Italian creations. I’m not 100% sure that it’s completely out of production yet, as it seems a trickle were still being assembled, using Lada CKD kits, in Egypt as late as 2016.
So if we tot up the whole lot, Fiats, Seats, Ladas and Polskis and whatnots, how close are we to the VW Type 1’s alleged all-time production record of 21.5 million? Pretty damn close, I’d say. Here’s one road cockroach that’s never going away in our lifetimes. And judging by the amount of CC posts related to it (though mostly the two-door exotic versions), it’ll be back on these pages at some point in the 2020s as well.
The Fiat 124 Or How I Learned to Hate People, by Geraldo Solis
Cohort Sighting: Fiat 124 Coupes, by Perry Shoar
CC Vintage: 1977 Fiat 124 Spider: Soup It Up Tony, by Kevin Martin
Curbside Classic: 1979 FIAT Spider 2000 – La Macchina, by Joseph Dennis
Curbside Classic: 1974 Fiat 124 Sport Spider: My Dad’s Last Toy, by Longrooffan
eBay Find: 1988 Lada Signet: I Want a Fiat 124, Only Worse., by Geraldo Solis