Curbside Classic: 1972 Fiat 125 – A Brief Stop By The House Of Fiat

It was close to midnight as I drove under a tropical drizzle on my way to drop off a fellow coworker. The famous ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ almost fit, with me making slow progress in narrow residential streets I never frequent. San Salvador’s poorly lit streets didn’t help, with shadowy trees looming around us, and large potholes disguised as rain ponds causing loud ‘crashes’ in my car’s suspension as we advanced in the confusing street grid. Good thing for GPS, or I would certainly get lost on my way back. Not a good prospect.

The drive extended beyond my liking, and I felt almost overwhelmed by the whole situation just when I noticed a ghostly boxy dark silhouette against a driveway. Obviously an old car, but which? Better make a mental map, for I would definitely be returning in the following days.

Regardless of it being a fleeting glance, I knew the boxy silhouette could only belong to a Fiat or Lada, which in essence are basically the same thing. In spite of possessing a basic ‘3 box shape’ any 5 year old could emulate, that brief sighting whetted my appetite, as I had been in a Fiat mood all year after watching Jean Paul Belmondo’s 1971 flick ‘Le Casse,’ which contains lots of Fiat action. A visit was certainly warranted, as neither brand is common anymore in these lands.

A couple of weeks later—sunshine hitting hard—it was time to go curbside hunting around the ‘ghostly’ Fiat’s surroundings. After driving aimlessly for a short while, I found the inert vehicle sitting quietly on the same spot I had seen it that first night, although not looking quite so menacing. Unlike what I expected, it wasn’t a low-end model, but rather the better appointed, more luxurious and less common 125. And unlike other curbside hunting occasions, the residential area was fairly tranquil with no annoying security guards nearby. Time to snap freely away.

First, the curious ‘two-tone’ treatment, result of mixed panels from at least two 125s. How did this owner manage to find more than one sample in this nation? Either he got real lucky or is a Fiat nut. Meanwhile the car’s interior was protected under faded pizza boxes surrounding the greenhouse. I would like to say ‘how Italian…’ but I’ve a feeling real Italians aren’t fond of takeout. Evidence was now pointing to a ‘Fiat nut,’ as the boxes showed effort was being placed in keeping the interior from cracking and baking under the tropical sun.

The 125 is no stranger to CC’s pages, with a guest appearance some time ago by the model’s evil doppelganger, the 125p. Sorry; meant to say socialist doppelganger; as it was the more commonly built Polish version. Not that they were exactly identical, as the 125p was decontented in perfect eastern bloc fashion.

From the distance, one could forgive anyone for thinking the 125 is just a tarted up 124, as Fiat’s body assembly of the period, re-utilizing body bits and design cues across the line, must have been looked upon with awe by K-Car period Chrysler. However, as the 125p post explains, a lot of seesawing took place to put the larger 125 together.

Outside the US, where no Sloan ladder existed, it was common for most makes to offer an ‘upscale’ model. A business model that made more sense in a past where local production was protected by heavy taxes on foreign goods. Fiat was quite the provider in Europe by the mid 60’s, with models covering all market brackets, from mini-size 500, to family haulers like the 1300/1500. And while imports were being kept at bay, internal competition was fierce in what was a quickly changing market (a common occurrence in postwar economies).

Idleness not an option, Fiat placed significant efforts on the soon to be launched -and to be well received- 124, while work on the compact FWD 128 gobbled further resources. Meanwhile the intended replacement for the ‘large’ 1300/1500, the 132, was lagging behind in development due to a ‘too ambitious’ design brief. Finding themselves in a Mediterranean pickle, management gave engineer Dante Giacosa a scant 18 months to develop an interim model, the 125.

Good thing Fiat counted with multiple models, for Giacosa had lots of bits to play with to assemble the 125. The chassis and floor pan of the 1300/1500 were carried over with some mods, while the 124’s bodywork was adopted for the cabin. Meanwhile, power was to be delivered by the twin overhead cam engine found on Fiat’s Sport Spider, with a modest increase in displacement. No plaster models were created, instead the 125’s lines were penned directly over the 124’s original design sheets. Undercutting some the rigid deadlines, the model was launched in 1967.

To those that find pleasure in efficient packaging adorned with subtle styling, Fiat’s of this period result attractive in their modern understated elegance. The 125 is formal, refined and clean, with nice subdued bright work showing this was no lowly Fiat. Meanwhile, to those who lust after GM’s Bill Mitchell’s creations, the whole thing may seem a bit plain and drab. Me? I can somehow work around the cognitive dissonance of finding both traditions attractive.

Not that those styling themes were anything new at Fiat, as some of those shapes had been anticipated in previous models, including some from their Simca related offerings (Above Simca 1300, from the Cohort by Benoit).

Then again, there are only so many ways to style a comfortable 3 box sedan, and Fiat placed functionality and packaging over superfluous style, a tradition the brand has kept to this date.

Back to our 125. Ours is a plain model (if I’m correctly reading the ‘non badge’); no S version, no Automatic. Still, a satisfying find. Shots finished, time to part and leave before the rain comes… Ciao! Bella Macchina!

Well, NOT quite! Couple of weekends later, I took another drive in the unexplored area looking for further curbsides (a couple of derelict Cortinas), and behold! The hood was open! Time to be social!

The engine was running, showing the car wasn’t an idle lump of metal. The owner, a somewhat stern and straight-talking elderly man, was looking dutifully over the motor as he revved away with the throttle cable. In a land filled with wheezy Hyundais and Kias, one forgets a 4 cylinder can actually sound rather lusty. The motor ran strong and smoothly; most mechanical bits where there (the ever missing air filter is a Salvadorian staple), while a pizza box by the windshield appropriately stated ‘rapido’ (fast) and ‘caliente’ (hot).

Fiats of the period were commended for their handling and performance, and the 125 was no exception. So, what lurks behind that curiously filigreed grille?

The car was propelled by a rather exotic -for the times- DOHC engine, of Aurelio Lampredi origin (Fiat ownership is the closest most could get to something Ferrari-related). With 1600cc and 90HP propelling a scant 1 ton vehicle, the car was a sprightly performer; although differing from the Sport Spider’s version by providing a more ‘relaxed’ delivery, with peak power arriving at some 5,500 rpm. Torque was more linear, accordingly. Disc brakes were to be found on the vehicle’s four corners.

An S version debuted with 100HP in ’68. That same year a 5 speed manual became the model’s standard. One can only wonder how these bits of exotica managed to make it past Fiat’s bean counters, but maybe some were car enthusiasts as well. May have to do with all those Espressos gulped down during office hours.

Comfort was another attractive on the 125, with a rather ample interior, fake-wood accents, full instrumentation, purely hedonistic A/C, and wholly decadent two-speed wipers (a novelty at the time). A 3 speed automatic was optional, while the ignition was placed at the left of the steering column in full sporty flair.

Much of that glory is missing in our sample, as many trim bits are wholly absent. Dash and instruments are for the most part there though, while the aluminum gear lever, even if not original, is to my liking. In general, seems like it wouldn’t be too daunting a task to revive the car.

Talking about which, the owner was obviously selling. He didn’t push hard though, for he could certainly see the lust in my eyes. Good thing I’m not a millionaire, for I would quickly lose all my wealth in old shot cars. Would make for a peculiar biopic, though: “How did he lose all his fortune?” “I don’t know… he just came across too many Cortinas!”

As I shot and inquired away the owner kept praising the virtues and specs of the car. He noted the 4 wheel disc brakes, the DOHC engine, the thick gauge metal, etc. Finally, a clincher of sorts: “If you worry about spare parts… come in…”

He opened the garage door only to reveal a 124 in 70’s avocado green, almost buried under Fiat parts. Don’t worry CC readers, this 124 isn’t missing its front end. It’s just a peculiar build of the house, with the car’s engine bay hidden in what was to be a storage area.

“If you need anything on these cars… I probably have it!” A claim I didn’t refute. I looked around; bumpers, springs, wheel rims and seats seemed to be most of the lot. Had I just entered the house of Fiats?

“The car on the sidewalk is European spec, and this one is American,” he added. The clear and legible ‘Automatic’ badge and the big bumpers made sure I didn’t put his words in doubt.

My stay inside was brief, if a bit overwhelming. Didn’t quite manage to see if there was a Mrs., and didn’t ask any on that regard, but if there is, I’m sure she ‘loves’ the stain marks on the garage floor.

In Italy the 125 ceased production in ’72 with 600,000 units built. It would remain in production elsewhere; in Argentina until 1982, and in Poland all the way to 1991. Further assembly took place in Yugoslavia and Morocco. In those markets further variants were offered, most notably a station wagon and pickup version. As is the case with the 125p, samples built outside Europe had simpler mechanicals and lower trim.

Satisfied with the sighting of two Fiats during my visit, the time to graciously exit had arrived. I bid farewell and was escorted out to the street. The owner got back to his maintenance routine as I walked back to my car. “If fate wants it, it will be yours…” were the old man’s parting words.

That was few months ago, and I have yet to become a millionaire. However, I’m considering to start storing and stacking empty pizza boxes. Who knows, I may pay another visit. That interior seems to need a few more boxes to be ‘properly’ protected.

More on the 125p:

Cohort Classic: Polksi Fiat 125p Spotted In Chile – A Long Way From Home