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Fiat 128

Published: 18th Jul 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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It may have looked like a box on wheels but this Fiat gave the typical family motorist a new deal for the 70s

Once the 128 was sold off and re-used, it lost all of its fl air

ou had to be a special kind of motorist to buy a Fiat 128, against the usual run-of-the-mill stuff like Ford’s Escort, BMC’s 1100/1300 or Vauxhall’s Viva. Opting for the more advanced Fiat, back in the 1970s, certainly set you apart from the conservative British herd. There again, the average UK driver simply couldn’t see why anybody would want this plain-looking box on wheels, imported from a place they went for their package holidays. Launched in 1969, and on sale in the UK a year later, you’d never think that this unremarkable looking family saloon was one of the most radical cars of its era, boasting the sort of spec that took Ford and Vauxhall a decade to emulate. With overhead camshaft engines, front-wheel drive and independent suspension, Fiat laid down the rules for today’s family car with the 128, at the same time similar spec and layout Minis were raiding the Fiat factory in that other Italian Job.

The neighbours may have wondered why you or your parents bought a foreign car (very against the grain back then, you know) but any mundane motorist with a hint of fl air would have marvelled how great this frumpy-looking Fiat was to drive, thanks to its rev-happy 1116cc engine and truly brilliant handling, which was world’s away from the usual fare back in the early 1970s. When Motor pitched the car against the new fangled Allegro and the established Escort back in 1973, the Fiat “showed little sign of its age” was the verdict. Two years later, Car went further and reckoned it was still one of the cars to beat in its class.

Indeed, a decade after its introduction, the 128 still resided in Car’s ‘Interesting’ section of its famous ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ranking system. “Still a winner” it reckoned. By then the range had grown to include lustier 1.3-litre engines, a highly practical and arguably better looking estate, boy racer Rally and the simply beautiful Coupe (pictured), which made our home grown Capri look and feel utterly stone age by comparison. Not that the 128 was perfection on wheels. The driving position was typically Italian Ape like, some switchgear defi ed conventional logic and the brakes locked-up all too easily in the wet. Oh, and the hub caps had an annoying tendency to pop off. But the biggest worry was, you guessed it, rust! Italian cars never liked our damper climate and Fiat (using cheaper steel from the USSR it was claimed) was going through a tough time in particular. So big was the problem that the company produced a TV advert showing a 128 saloon left on a cliff top, with the waves pounding on it, to highlight the company’s new found rust-proofi ng methods.

Dissolving on the driveway

Of course, us Brits weren’t convinced at all by this rather wet looking stunt and, given the Lancia Beta debacle that was to follow at the decade’s end, this was justifi ably so. Owning a car that would dissolve on contact with water was something that owners of the 128 had to put up with, along with Alfasud owners – another breed of motorist who still knew they were on to a good thing, nevertheless. Owning a continental car was quite an adventurous undertaking back in the 1970s, and certainly you paid for it in infl ated price tags on the showroom fl oor, thanks to import duties, and stiffer depreciation when you came to sell the thing – if anybody actually wanted it! Also, spare part prices were at a level that would make a typical Escort owner question whether the bloke behind the counter was indeed Dick Turpin, unmasked. But, such was the completeness of the 128’s design that it remained in production until the mid 80s, although by then the car had lost its shine and front-wheel drive advantage to the likes of Ford’s sparkling new Escort MK III and Vauxhall’s even better Astra. Perhaps Fiat had also run out of cash, or was saving up for some robots to build the new Ritmo/ Strada range, because the tap was turned off long before the car’s demise; only the tartest of tart ups was tacked on to keep the car alive. The first car to be built by robots, Strada was introduced in 1978 and used much of the 128’s still capable running gear. Even when the 128 was dropped, Fiat wrung the very last drop of cash out of it by fl ogging the design to the likes of Lada and Zastava (Yugo), to make classics for Comrades, although by then the lack of Latin fl air seriously showed up the car’s now all too apparent defi ciencies.

Even so, Zastava’s Yugo versions were sold with budget price tags in the UK, well into the 1980s. The company’s hatchback version of the 128 was sold as the 3 Series and the 5 Series, with the number relating to the number of doors! The range consisted of the 311 and 511 (with the 1100cc engine) and the 313/513 (with the 1300cc engine). The early 1980s Yugo sales brochure boasted, ‘Inside it’s comfort and luxury all the way, with fabric upholstered seats, wallto- wall carpeting and reclining front seats…’ How easily pleased we were in those days! Y

When The Car Was The Star

How many readers admit to have seen ‘The House of Whipcord” in 1975? Of course those who did only went to their local ABC to see the 128 driven by Ray Brooks. Obvously director Pete Walker liked his FWD Fiats as he also used an early four-door in “Frightmare” but the best 128 sightings were in Italian rather than British B-fi lms – “Vai Gorilla”, “Naipoli Volonte” and, naturally, the amazing “Squadra Volonte”. Best fi lm role – the Series 3a taxi in the Italian segment of “Night on Earth” in a scene that cannot be easily described for a family readership…

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