Curbside Classic: 1982 Fiat (Zastava) 128

A few days ago I found myself in a small town I rarely visited before. In Israel, these are the kind of places CCs are often found nowadays, on back streets where traffic is scarce and classic cars are less prone to be damaged or vandalized. And this town did not disappoint either, rewarding with my childhood’s very familiar shape of a Fiat 128.

But once I saw the license plate, which placed this car as a 1982 vintage, I was reminded of the small controversy it caused back in the day which even led to an MOT regulation. Read on.

First, here’s what I saw while driving- a quite nicely preserved Fiat 128, sporting the mandatory Italian red paint and really, not bad at all for a 35-year old Fiat:

A bit dark, I know, but this was towards the end of daylight.

But hold on: the 128 was replaced by the Ritmo, or Strada (as called in the US), and that was in 1978, four years after the birth of the Fiat captured in my dash-cam.

This Strada ad is from 1979.

Of course, we know that assembly of the 128 continued in several places (Egypt, South America, etc.) under different names right up until 1985. But it was marketed in Israel as a true-blue Fiat, produced in Italy, no less.

The simple truth was that in 1981, the Israeli Fiat representatives started importing the “Zastava 128” from the Zastava factory in Yugoslavia. Later versions were called Skala, 101 and… Yugo. Yes, the 128 was a forerunner of the car we all know and love (its official name was Zastava Koral). Thing was, the importers dubbed the 128 as Fiat and denied any knowledge of its Yugoslavian origins from the customers, who were purchasing an appallingly produced car with horrible build quality and shoddy workmanship. At the time, one automotive reporter, Benny Barak, specifically asked the Fiat representatives whether the 128 was arriving to Israel from Yugoslavia. He was given an answer that it was arriving from Italy, where else?

But Mr. Barak decided to verify the matter further. In 1982, while visiting the Turin auto show, he approached Fiat after “noticing” there was no 128 on display. “I asked the Fiat representatives about this and was replayed that it is no longer in production, but it’s being assembled in Yugoslavia. I was curious because few weeks earlier a 128 owner called me and asked why on so many parts of his car a “made in Yugoslavia” is marked… I checked with the Israeli importer, which assured me that the 128 was Italian”. Barak ends his testimony somewhat comically, when he says: “At the Turin show, I asked one of Fiat’s people should a friend of mine buy one of these Yugoslavian 128s, to which he replied my friend would be best served elsewhere…”.

On April 4th 1982, Barak published his findings in an article and predictably caused quite a stir, especially after writing that “Fiat of Italy informed me of certain quality issues with the Yugoslavian assembled cars”. Not only 128 buyers were upset with the Israeli importers, but Fiat did not take kindly to one of their old, already replaced cars, being marketed as new and Italian made. The importers claimed they only meant the cars were leaving to Israel from the Trieste port and not that they were produced there… Yes, really. Eventually the Israeli MOT stepped in and decreed that the country of production must appear on the car’s license, and this has been so ever since.

So, what we have here is really a Zastava 128 and not a Fiat, but since it was marketed in Israel as such I’ll leave it at that. But let’s end on an Italian note. Here are two examples of older, bona-fide Fiat 128s: