Classic Sports Car
A FAMILY AFFAIR
How the dedication of a passionate enthusiast has turned an everyday saloon from Turin into a family treasure
Meeting a son who has inherited his father’s passion for the humble Fiat 128
Simon Hucknall is a worried man. And with good reason. The snowstorms that blighted the fortnight before our arrival have stopped, and the roads are largely dry, but the salt still lies across the Tarmac like little corrosion cluster-bombs, ready to catch out the unwary (or the un-undersealed). When you’re driving a 1970s Fiat, this is a very real consideration – particularly when it’s a 1970s Fiat whose Pippin Red coachwork has never felt the touch of a welding torch or a paint gun.
The Hucknalls have seen what those cursed crystals can do before, because this isn’t the family’s first Fiat 128. “My dad, Ted, bought one new for £850 from Kilby Bridge Motors in 1970, when I was five, just after the 128 had been awarded European Car of the Year,” recalls Simon.“he traded in a 1961 Riley One-pointfive that he had also bought new – it must have been like getting into a spaceship after that.” Unfortunately, however, the Italian machine didn’t have quite the same longevity: “He absolutely loved the 128 but it rusted like hell. I remember Dad bodging it, but after seven years it was pretty bad so he bought another.”
Some 44 years later it’s still in the family, and shows just 4143 miles on the odometer: no wonder Hucknall is feeling protective. But why would anyone go to such lengths to preserve a 128? “Dad was an engineer and an enthusiastic driver, so first-class dynamics and technical innovation were always prioritised over mere form,” explains Hucknall. “He had a real dislike for period Fords and the like because they were overstyled – he saw them as archaic, and you can see now he was right. This is clearly a car of the ’70s, but the design has aged far less than, say, a Cortina MKIII or an HB Viva.”
In truth, it was a design of the late ’60s, launched to replace the ageing 1100 in March 1969 as a two- and four-door saloon and the tiny Panorama estate. And while its styling was conservative to say the least, the engineering was anything but, with independent suspension all round and a transverse engine with frontwheel drive, a Fiat first – though it had been trialled in sister brand Autobianchi’s Primula. And that motor was a gem: a belt-driven overhead-cam ‘four’ designed by Aurelio Lampredi and in 1290cc form, as in Hucknall’s car, also used to power the mid-engined X1/9.
But far more than even the legendary Lampredi, the man responsible for the 128’s brilliance was Fiat stalwart Dante Giacosa.
Hucknall is a former road tester who has recently formed his own public relations consultancy, Classic Prose, and like his father a lifelong enthusiast with an appreciation for fine engineering. “This was Giacosa’s parting shot,” he explains. “He’d been at Fiat since 1926 and was involved in everything, and this was his final project. Giacosa wanted to maximise the passenger area; the idea was that 80% of the car had to be for passengers and luggage – hence the spare wheel being in the engine bay, which results in a massive boot. There wasn’t anything particularly revolutionary about the design, but it brought together everything that was new at the time and put it all into one package.
“It was the first car to use this undersquare overhead-cam engine, for example, which revved for Italy. Road testers were taking it to 7000rpm – ‘without any valve bounce’, they said. I do think Fiat missed
a trick with the gearing, though; the indirect gears are quite long, but there’s a relatively short fourth so it really sings along.”
Today there are only thought to be four 128s left on UK roads, the model’s rarity now masking its success in period: factor in the coupés and more than three million were built over a 16-year production run. Then there were the Nasr 128s in Egypt, the Seat 128s in Spain, and the Zastavas in Yugoslavia where the basic outline continued in production until 2003.
With Hucknall Jnr also having owned a 128 Special, a facelifted Series 1, more than their fair share of that production run ended up at the family’s Leicestershire home. But it was SFP 863R, ordered on 9 April 1977 via Trinity Motors in Leicester (today a Subaru dealer), that endured. “The original Positano Yellow 128 Dad used for everything, it was our only car,” says Hucknall, “but when he got this he wanted to have a car he could keep nice and use only for high days and holidays – such as our weekend trips to Silverstone for VSCC meetings.”
SFP is a ‘Nuova 128’, the second-generation model launched May 1976 and featuring a new grille, larger square headlamps, plastic bumpers and a revised interior. It’s a punchier 1300 CL (Comfort Luxe) with a heady 60bhp – although the 12-year-old Hucknall had his sights set rather higher than that: “There was a 124 Sport Coupé 1800 in the showroom for £2400 and I was desperate for Dad to buy it, but he saved himself £400 and we ended up with this. I don’t think he seriously considered any other cars at the time, though I do remember going out with him on a test drive in an Alfasud beforehand.
“The car was always garaged, and cleaned after every outing. He then began to buy runarounds for £2-300, Fiat 850s and Mini vans, to use every day and protect the 128. He was determined to keep this one nice; it became a bit of an obsession.” Ted later bought a Fiat Amigo camper, which overtook the 128 for recreational use, so the little saloon was sidelined in the grandparents’ garage, seeing daylight sparingly until the late ’80s before eventually falling silent.
“He began to buy cheap runarounds, such as Fiat 850s and Mini vans, to use every day so he could protect the 128”
Ted Hucknall worked at Whittles on jet-engine testbeds, and it was this dangerous work that took him too soon, in 1999, from mesothelioma. “He’d paint asbestos on the engines to trap the heat, then they would get up to temperature and the asbestos would flake off and fly around,” says his understandably aggrieved son. “After Dad died, I went to look at the car and the engine was seized solid. I took it to a local garage and they stripped it and found the pistons rusted in, so it had to be rebored and fitted with new, oversized pistons. I got it Mot’d and it ran okay for a few weeks before it developed awful timing problems. The cambelt had clearly jumped, so it was put away again.”
Fast-forward to last year, and mother Sylvia’s move into a care home prompted Simon to open the garage door once again: “I was tasked with selling the house and I was furloughed for three months, so it seemed the perfect time to address the problem.” Initially Hucknall planned to do the work himself, but he soon called in the experts at Middle Barton Garage in Oxfordshire. “After 30 years it still looked pristine, but lurking beneath were all sorts of problems,” he explains. “The engine had seized again, the brakes were locked solid, and fluid from the dampers had seeped out over the inside of the wheel rims. I managed to free the engine and the brakes, but getting her to fire up proved difficult.
“The Middle Barton guys were brilliant. We replaced the bits that we had to, but tried to leave the rest untouched. The emphasis was to keep it absolutely original.” A slipped timing belt had indeed stopped the car from running, but in the process the valves had been bent so replacements were fitted along with a new cam pulley, water pump and reconditioned alternator.
Although the car had been in a dry, warm garage that had protected the bodywork, aided by the plastic wheelarch liners fitted to these later 128s, there was still plenty of decay to tackle: “A completely new exhaust system was needed, from manifold to tailpipe, after the old one spat out its innards when the engine was started for the first time. The corroded brake discs were replaced, along with front calipers, a regulator, rear brake cylinders, a full set of hoses and all the suspension bushes.” The front Macpherson struts were also renewed along with the rear dampers, all of which had started to leak fluid, and the steel wheel rims were refurbished and fitted with new Pirelli Cinturatos. “The original Michelin Xs weren’t available in the right size,” rues Hucknall, “and I still need to do something to dull down the wheels – they look a bit too shiny.”
After five months of recommissioning, the 128 returned from Middle Barton in November 2020. Tragically, however, Sylvia passed away at the age of 92 just a week before getting her longpromised ride in late husband Ted’s beloved Fiat. Quite apart from the excitement of seeing a car completely as its maker intended, more than four decades on, there are poignant moments to be found throughout the 128, such as a note Simon took of mileages before and after one of their rare weekend trips. “Dad wasn’t a smoker, but he did have the occasional cigar,” says Hucknall. “I noticed the other day that there is still cigar ash in the ashtray so I haven’t cleaned it. When I first drove the car I shed a tear: it felt as fresh as it did in 1977 when I had my first outing in it. Dad preserved it for so long and never really drove it, yet he loved it so much.”
Even without the family connection, getting behind the wheel of such an untouched machine is always going to feel special. Still wearing its PDI stickers, the 128 features a wonderfully ’70s combination of brown dash and blue trim in its airy, spacious cabin. The soft, wide seats offer a Mini-like driving position behind the rather ugly two-spoke wheel, but fire up and the urgent exhaust rasp could only come from an Italian car.
On the move the engine lives up to that early promise: smooth, free-revving and peppy, it quickly gets the 128 up to a comfortable 60mph cruise, aided by a four-speed ’box with a long throw but a narrow gate and remarkably precise action. The steering, though heavy at low speeds, soon lightens and retains bags of feel, without the burden of the torquesteer that affects so many front-drive cars, and the wheelat-each corner stance results in a chassis that loves to dive into corners. The whole package just feels so tight and solid – as it should do because this is to all intents and purposes a new car, with that impression only challenged by the slightly musty aroma generated by decades tucked away in a garage.
Bombing along Leicestershire back-roads, it’s not difficult to imagine what a revelation the little Fiat must have been to the European Car of the Year jurors in 1969, with a modernity and a sportiness at odds with its prosaic, boxy styling. In his search for design rationality Giacosa was Italy’s answer to Mini creator Alec Issigonis, which makes it doubly disappointing that to the wider world his fun-size masterpiece has become little more than a footnote in Fiat history, while the BMC baby has gone on to achieve icon status. Luckily, however, thanks to the efforts of a father-and-son team, this particular unsung hero still hits all the right notes.
“When I first drove the car I shed a tear. Dad preserved it for so long and never really drove it, yet he loved it so much”