Who could have imagined in 1967 that this 124 would still be being built almost 50 years later, as the Lada/VAZ-21xx. In a somewhat ironic and prescient statement, the last line of R&T’s review was “One thing is certain—the Russian standard of motoring will go up markedly when the 124s start rolling off the lines in the USSR”. Yes, for the first 15 years or so, but not in the 21st century.
The Fiat 124 is a car we tend to think of in terms of its later offspring, like the also near-immortal 124 Sport Spyder. It didn’t make much of an impact in the US in its first few years, at a time when Fiat was at a low ebb. These early versions were always fairly rare in the US, but sales picked up some after a few years, especially so once the larger DOHC four from the sport models made its appearance under its hood. These early ones came with a 1200cc pushrod four; a rather petite engine for American style driving by 1967, and that was not a exactly a brilliant decision. But nevertheless, the 124 was a fine performer, if one was willing to wring out the high-revving little mill. Its handling was even better; as good as it got at the time, and the packaging of its wide and boxy body was excellent too.
There were good reasons the 124 family lasted so long: it was born with good genes.
The 124 was a perfect example of a car which exceeded the sum of its parts. It may have been orthodox in its appearance and configuration, but it was very well thought out. And for those that were hoping or expecting something more ambitious with FWD, the somewhat smaller 128 followed it soon enough.
It was good enough to be crowned Europe’s Car Of The Year in 1966, despite stiff competition from BMW’s 1600 and Volvo 144. The 124 was of course aiming for a different segment of the market; it had the VW Beetle in its gun sight, and it played a pivotal role in taking it down in Europe, playing essentially the same role there as the Toyota Corona did in the US. Both were pragmatic RWD sedans, but they offered so much more than the VW, with spacious four door bodies, a good-sized trunk, as well as other amenities. The Fiat had it all over the Corona when it came to handling and braking; it set class standards in both those qualities, offering a truly enjoyable driving experience. In essence, the 124 was a poor-man’s Alfa, and once the larger DOHC four arrived, it essentially was an Alfa.
The interior accommodations, including the driving position, were deemed very good. Obviously the little four got buzzy on American freeway driving; a bigger engine and 5-speed eventually cured that. The transmission was slick and quick, and the four wheel disc brakes were excellent. Fiat’s decision to fir the 124 with four wheel discs at the time was ambitious, and clearly showed that the cost of doing so need not be exorbitant. Consider that the 124 came out the same year as the Olds Toronado, with its horrifyingly inadequate drum brakes, followed by the Eldorado in 1967. Shame!
Not many Americans appreciated what a fine little sedan (and wagon) the 124 was. Fiat’s rep was at a low point, due to selling out dated cars such as the rear engine 850 sedan and the 1100. And of course a sparse and iffy dealer network exacerbated their reputation for being unreliable, grossly beyond what they deserved. The 124 was fundamentally a robust car, but the same issues that plagued other imports in the US, meaning problems with emission systems, accessories such as a/c conspired against them. Fix It Again Tony. But that was not the rep these cars had in Europe, where Fiat dealers were common and very familiar with them. And it certainly wasn’t the rep the Russian LADA soon earned there, where it acquitted itself quite well in the harsh conditions of the time.