Fiat 124 at 50: The story be­hind the sales suc­cess of Fiat's big hit

The Fiat 124 was launched 50 years ago and spawned many vari­ants, not all of them Ital­ian

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - Richard He­sel­tine Stu­art Collins & Magic Car Pics

It was a launch like no other. Scroll back 50 years, and Fiat de­cided against a tra­di­tional un­veil­ing for its new 124 sa­loon. In­stead, it dropped one out of an aero­plane. The sight of a car de­scend­ing to earth by para­chute cer­tainly re­sulted in a blaze of pub­lic­ity. And this lit­eral ren­di­tion of three-box sa­loon re­ceived even more col­umn inches af­ter it was voted Euro­pean Car of the Year in 1967.

For all its out­ward or­tho­doxy, the 124 fea­tured disc brakes all-round and a live axle prop­erly lo­cated by four links and a Pan­hard rod. Ini­tially equipped with a mod­est 1.2-litre four-cylin­der, larger en­gines fol­lowed over time – in­clud­ing twin-cam units. In­trigu­ingly, it was Lon­don’s Rad­bourne Rac­ing that was first to insert such an en­gine into a 124 hull, al­though whether this in­flu­enced the of­fi­cial Spe­cial T vari­ant re­mains un­recorded. Pro­duc­tion of the 124 sa­loon ended in 1974, while the es­tate ver­sion stayed on the books for an­other year. Tour­ing of Mi­lan also took the tin­snips to a sa­loon to cre­ate a two-door con­vert­ible but it wasn’t adopted as a pro­duc­tion model af­ter the coach­builder folded in 1966.

If any­thing, the body shape is now more widely as­so­ci­ated with the Lada BA3-2101 that was made by Au­toVaz, al­though there were sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween the Ital­ian and Rus­sian-made cars. Vari­a­tions on the theme were also pro­duced by SEAT in Spain and Premier Au­to­mo­biles in In­dia. Other coun­tries to make per­mu­ta­tions in­cluded Turkey (To­fas), South Korea (Asia Mo­tors) and Egypt (Lada-Egypt).

The Fiat also spawned al­to­gether more sport­ing fare. The start­ing point for the pretty Pin­in­fari­nastyled Sports Spi­der was a 124 sa­loon plat­form short­ened by 140mm, with run­ning gear and suspension be­ing bor­rowed al­most whole­sale. The out­line was penned by Tom Tjaarda, whose gilded CV also in­cludes the de To­maso Pan­tera and first-gen­er­a­tion Ford Fiesta. He was tasked with re-in­ter­pret­ing styling cues from his ear­lier Chevro­let Ron­dine con­cept car for the Sports Spi­der, which was no easy task due to the ma­jor dif­fer­ences in their re­spec­tive sizes.

Launched at the Novem­ber 1966 Turin Mo­tor Show, nine months af­ter the Alfa Romeo Spi­der was un­veiled in Geneva, Fiat’s pretty rag­top was sim­i­larly aimed squarely at the State­side mar­ket. En­gine dis­place­ment rose from 1438cc to 1608cc in ’71 to counter crit­i­cism that it lacked torque. It was sub­se­quently en­larged to 1592cc, 1756cc and fi­nally 1995cc (in 1978). Bosch L-Jetronic fol­lowed on in 1980, a year be­fore ‘f’ badges usurped Fiat ones: Pin­in­fa­rina had taken over li­cens­ing rights, nam­ing the car Spi­dereu­ropa (Spi­der Az­zura for the US). A last-gasp 135bhp su­per­charged edi­tion saw out man­u­fac­ture: in 1985, the model was dropped as the Turin car­rozze­ria needed the space to build its ItaloAmer­i­can calamity, the Cadil­lac Al­lante.

Of the 198,000 Spi­ders made dur­ing its 19-year pro­duc­tion run, about 170,000 went to the US. It be­came some­thing of a cos­mopoli­tan hit over here only af­ter pro­duc­tion ended, with sev­eral be­ing im­ported and con­verted to right-hand drive by the likes of DTR Sports Cars. The 124 Coupé came on-line in 1967 and ini­tially re­sem­bled the Spi­der, al­though the styling was the work of Cen­tro Stile Fiat rather than Pin­in­fa­rina. An al­to­gether box­ier out­line ar­rived two years later, while third-gen­er­a­tion cars (1972-75) were more an­gu­lar still. They sold in rea­son­able num­bers in the UK, but sur­vivors are scarce nowa­days.

While the 124 sa­loon is now widely for­got­ten here, the Sports Spi­der is a pop­u­lar clas­sic. So much so, Fiat has since ‘re-imag­ined’ its out­line for the new Mazda MX-5-rooted 124 Spi­der.

LEFT The Sports Spi­der was de­rived from Tjaarda’s one-off Chevro­let Ron­dine con­cept car that had wowed the Fiat board.

RIGHT Tom Tjaarda styled the Fiat 124 Sports Spi­der. Here he is pic­tured with his own car, which was re­cently re­stored.

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