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
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.