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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

The Fiat That Conquered the World

The history of the automobile is full of exciting cars that broke new ground in terms of style or masterpieces of creative engineering that keep fascinating enthusiasts even decades down the line... Then there's the Fiat 124.

Yet, the impact this model has had on the motoring history of many different countries all over the world makes the humble "124" saloon into perhaps one of Fiat's most outstanding contributions to the industry.

The story of project number 124 started in Turin, Italy, in late 1963, when Fiat was the fifth largest automaker globally and was second only to Volkswagen in Europe. Its wide range of cars dominated the Italian motoring landscape, and the main problem the company faced was making enough cars to keep up with demand.

these were the cars bought by the Italian bourgeoisie, a target market more concerned with their neighbors' opinion than avant-garde design

The brief for the 124 was as straightforward as the car itself: its mission was to replace both the existing 1100 D with the 1.2 liters engine and the larger 1300 saloon, offering more space for people and luggage than the larger car while weighing 70 kg less and being cheaper to make. It's important to remember that these were the cars bought by the Italian bourgeoisie, a target market more concerned with their neighbors' opinion than avant-garde design.

Yet the 124's engineering, while conservative to a fault, did include such niceties as four-disc brakes, and its live rear axle was suspended by helicoidal rather than cart spings. Moreover, the 1.2 liters four cylinders engine was an all-new design made under the watch of former Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi.

The exterior design of the 124 can be described as an exercise in restraint

The cast-iron block, aluminum head 1197cc pushrod engine weighed 20 Kg less than the outgoing 1300 engine and, fed by a double-choke Solex carburetor, made 60 HP at 5600 Rpm, which was actually quite impressive at the time, as was the top speed of over 140 Km/h. The four-speed gearbox was a derivative of the 1300's unit, with a floor-mounted lever rather than the old-fashioned column shifter.

The exterior design of the 124 can be described as an exercise in restraint. Gone were the American influences of the older 1300, with its lashings of chrome. Instead, the Fiat 124 was modern and functional, but in an almost severe kind of way, much as you'd expect a doctor's waiting room to be, and just as exciting.

Mind you, it's far from ugly: it's very well proportioned, but it's so nondescript that it makes the proverbial Toyota Corolla look almost extravagant. So it doesn't surprise me the USSR's planners chose the 124 as a model, with its design almost entirely devoid of flourishes.

Mind you, it's great to ride in the 124 because it's roomy and airy in a way cars can't be anymore, as it was designed to offer just that, and the whole car weighs just 850 Kg dry. This 1960s family car truly is a throwback to a past that somehow feels even more distant than it already is: this 124 is such a delightfully simple device that makes me wanna hug it.

Providing ample luggage space was one of project 124's key requirements, and it shows: even the spare wheel and the fuel tank were placed vertically along the sides to get out of the way. Just avoid being rear-ended, as that steel tank placed in such an obviously vulnerable spot tells you more about the progress we've made in automobile design than a whole book could.

while you would struggle to tell apart a 1970 Lada from a Fiat at first glance, they actually are two different cars

Predictably, the Fiat 124 had no trouble finding buyers upon its introduction in 1966 and even gained the Turinese company its first "Car Of The Year" prize in 1967, which back then meant something.

But, of course, we must now tackle "the deal of the century," as it was called at the time. Signed on August 15, 1966, by Fiat and the Ministries of Automobile Industry and Foreign Trade of the USSR, it led to the construction of the AutoVAZ plant that began operation in September 1970.

The contract between Fiat and the Soviet government stipulated that the Turin company would provide a complete project for the factory, ceded to the Soviets the designs and industrial property rights of two car models derived from the 124, modified to suit the climatic and road conditions of the USSR.

The Soviets, meanwhile, would take care of the construction part and manage the supply of all the materials and machines that could be sourced from the Comecon area.

The economic scope and political significance of the deal have long been overblown, but nevertheless, its impact on Soviet car production has been radical: increasing from the 200,000 units of 1965 to 1,200,000 by 1972.

The story of the Lada stretched all the way to 2013 and would take a whole video for itself. Still, the critical thing to remember is that, while you would struggle to tell apart a 1970 Lada from a Fiat at first glance, they actually are two different cars.

In 2003, I actually met one of the development drivers that Fiat sent to the Soviet Union back in the 60s, and he told me that the local road and weather conditions were literally tearing the 124s apart: they broke everything.

The Lada was a tougher, more robust vehicle in every respect and had its own specific engine design, with a chain-driven overhead camshaft rather than the original's pushrod design.

Meanwhile, by 1968, Fiat 124 buyers could choose between the base car and the newly-introduced Special. It was easily recognizable by a new front-end with 4 headlights, recessed door handles, a new dashboard with circular instruments, and a generally better-finished interior.

The Special's engine displacement grew to 1438 cc and 70HP, and a brake booster was standard equipment.

one quite exciting addition to the range was the so-called Special T

The same year, at the Barcelona Motor Show, the Spanish automaker Seat presented its own version of the 124, manufactured locally but pretty much identical to the Italian one. The local equivalent of the "Special" was called Seat 1430 and took some design cues from the Fiat 125, like the square headlights.

The model was very successful, and 124 production in Spain lasted until 1980, with around 900.000 units made. The ones made from 1975 had a refreshed look with a new front grille and a rather nice new taillight arrangement. Once production ended, the tooling found its way to India, where local automaker PAL, using Nissan-sourced running gear, sold it as the Premier 118 NE from 1985 until as late as 2001.

Meanwhile, in Turin, the 124 saloons went through two light restylings, one in 1970 and the last in 1972. On both occasions, it was mostly a matter of improved interiors, tweaked light clusters, and grilles, but one quite exciting addition to the range was the so-called Special T.

Equipped with the twin-cam 1.4 liters engine from the Coupé and Spider, the 124 Special T was a cut-price sports saloon that, with its 80 HP

at 5800 rpm, could reach 165 Km/h and hang on with a few Giulias. Even more so by 1972, when the twin-cam engine was enlarged to 1.6 liters for 95 HP at 6000 Rpm, putting the 124 squarely into Alfa territory.

Thankfully, even the standard versions by then had adopted the brake booster and a double braking circuit.

The fun stopped in 1974 when the 124 range was discontinued and replaced by the 131, which wouldn't receive Fiat's lusty twin-cam engines until 1978.

But that's a story for another time...


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