Tuesday January 29, 2019
Of the many automotive anniversaries celebrated this year, the Fiat 128 has to be one of the rarest on British roads. They all seemed to vanish circa 1985, but if you encounter one of the handful of survivors at a classic car show, it is an opportunity to appreciate one of the most important small cars in post-war motoring history.
In 1961 Fiat commenced work on a front wheel drive project, code-named 109, and a few years later Dante Giacosa, the firm’s director of engineering, recognised the potential of the British Motor Corporation’s Mini and ADO16.
The great engineer had devised a similar layout as early as 1947, but even after receiving approval to develop the new car, there were considerable challenges when considering a FWD transverse engine replacement for the 1100D. Since 1953 the “Millecento”had established itself as definitive transport for the respectable Italian patriarch who might not accept any change from RWD tradition.
Front wheel drive cars were not unknown in Italy at that time; Alfa Romeo assembled the Renault R4, Innocenti built the Mini and the Morris 1100 under licence, and there were, of course, the Lancias Flavia and Fulvia but these all occupied different sectors of the car market from the 1100D. The solution was to trial Giacosa’s ideals in the Primula, which was built by Fiat’s subsidiary company Autobianchi. This meant any potential damage to the parent marque’s image would be minimised.
The Autobinchia Primula debuted at the 1964 Turin Motor Show, and it combined the platform and engine from the 1100D with the template for the modern supermini – front wheel drive, east-west power plant and, eventually, a tailgate. It became the runner up for Car of The Year 1965 to the Austin 1800 and one notable technical detail was that unlike BMC’s products, where the transmission was mounted in the sump, the Primula sported unequal drive shafts.
By 1965 development for the 128 was underway, and Giacosa’s set of criteria for the new model were:
weight approximately 700 kg, cab (cabin) comparable in dimensions to the 1100 but more comfortable, front-wheel drive with a transverse engine, independent suspension all round, front suspension on the MacPherson system, a four-cylinder engine with capacity of about 1,000cc.
The great engineer Aurelio Lampredi created a new belt-driven SOHC 1.1-litre power plant with an aluminium head while the coachwork was neat without being austere. When the first ever FWD car to bear the Fiat name debuted on 29th March 1969, it was greeted with vast enthusiasm from the motoring press.
The steered-strut independent rear suspension made for well-bred road manners; the engine was remarkably refined for an inexpensive saloon while the body was sufficiently low-key as to appeal to a respectable accountant in Rome or a Milanese lawyer. The 128 became COTY 1970, and in 1971 Car magazine thought that in its class the Fiat ‘laid down a new set of standards that other manufacturers have yet to equal at the price’.
When Italian production of the 128 ceased in 1985, they had spawned generations of FWD Fiat cars, from the 127 to the Strada and the Uno. Giacosa reflected that ‘The arrangement of the engine and transmission, previously used on the Autobianchi Primula, started a trend that has become widespread owing to its extreme simplicity’. In 2002 L J K Setright wrote in his indispensable book Drive On!: A Social History of the Motor Car that the 128 was ‘the most important and influential car since Ford first furnished motoring for the masses’. Five decades ago, that innocuous-looking small saloon was to change our perceptions of the popular car.