The 1970s ushered in the econobox, and of all the cars that fit that descriptor, one was the true pioneer of the small cars we drive today: the Fiat 128. Although the Mini was the first popular transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive car, its gearbox was located in the engine’s sump, a less-than-ideal arrangement that has not been used since. The Fiat 128 was the Italian automaker’s first mainstream front-wheel-drive car, and its mechanical layout proved enduring, with the east-west-mounted engine driving the transmission off the driver’s side.
Dante Giacosa (the father of the original 1936 Topolino) was Fiat’s chief engineer at the time and a longtime advocate of front-wheel drive. His 128 also featured such modern components as rack-and-pinion steering, front disc brakes, an independent rear suspension (with a transverse leaf spring), and a strut-type front suspension with an integral antiroll bar. The all-new engine, designed by Aurelio Lampredi, had an iron block, an aluminum head, and a belt-driven single overhead camshaft. It displaced 1.1 liters and produced 49 hp — not a lot, but the car weighed only about 1800 pounds.
The 128 made its debut in 1969. It was showered with awards and immediately became a best seller in Europe. The car came to the United States late in the 1971 model year as a two-door sedan, a four-door sedan, and a two-door wagon; it would stay through the end of the decade.
Thanks in large part to the 128, Fiat’s U.S. sales topped 100,000 cars in 1975. Despite the 128’s popularity, casual build quality and sheetmetal that rusted voraciously mean that few 128s survive today. That makes this bright yellow ’75 two-door, owned by Automobile Magazine’s Jamie Kitman, a true ’70s flashback. This particular 128 has virtually rolled right out of the Me Decade and into today, having traveled fewer than 7200 miles since new. Originally purchased in California’s Bay Area, it was driven for two years and then garaged upon the passing of its owner. Recently resurrected from its long slumber, it’s a pitch-perfect example of Fiat’s influential subcompact.
“Form follows function” was the obvious edict with the 128’s design. Two-doors and four-doors share the same 96.4-inch wheelbase and have the same-size greenhouse, which leads to the stretched look of this two-door. (A more traditionally proportioned coupe, the quite handsome 128SL, joined the lineup in 1973.) The disproportionately large cabin is capped at the front by a stubby engine compartment and at the rear by a stubby trunk. The latter is deceptively roomy, however, because the spare tire is actually located under the hood.
The man-maximum, machine-minimum layout creates a surprisingly roomy interior for such a small car; Fiat boasted that while the 128 was smaller outside than a Volkswagen Beetle, it was larger inside than an Oldsmobile Cutlass. Climb in, click the tinny door closed, and you’ll find substantial, reclining front bucket seats that are quite comfortable. The large, thin-rimmed steering wheel is at a typical Fiat angle, tilted up toward the ceiling. Instrumentation is sparse, as this was a bargain-priced car that sold for less than $2000 when it was first introduced. The extreme upright greenhouse and tall, flat windows make it feel as if you’re driving a glass cube.
The tiny, four-cylinder engine had grown to 1.3 liters in 1974, and output stood at 62 hp for the ’75 model year. As you might guess, acceleration is a leisurely affair. Once up to speed, however, the little Fiat has no trouble running with 70-mph highway traffic. As in most Italian cars, the engine seems happy to rev. Without a tachometer, of course, your ears are your guide with regard to upshifts, and although the clutch is easy to modulate, the four-speed gearbox is vague.
There’s definitely a toylike, Euro-car vibe to the 128. We drove it in New York’s Rockland County, but it could have been Umbria or Tuscany. The unassisted steering requires some muscle during low-speed maneuvering but is delightfully communicative once you’re rolling. The suspension is fairly sophisticated for a subcompact of that era, and that, combined with the Fiat’s diminutive size, makes the car fun to toss around. Contemporary advertisements for the 128 boasted that Enzo Ferrari drove one for his personal use. What other small car could say that?
1.1L SOHC I-4, 49 hp, 50-58 lb-ft
1.3L SOHC I-4, 62-66 hp, 67-68 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Strut-type, leaf spring
BRAKES F/R Discs/drums
WEIGHT 1950 lb
YEARS sold in U.S. 1971-79
NUMBER PRODUCED More than 2.5 million total worldwide
ORIGINAL PRICE $2741 (two-door sedan, 1975)
VALUE TODAY $2500-$7500
Well, it helps to be an Italian-car fetishist. And perhaps you have a very small garage. That said, a 128 is a lot more usable than a Cinquecento, although admittedly, most people find it less cute. Watch out for rust! This is a Fiat, after all. Also, know that clutch cables don’t last long. And the engine’s camshaft belt should be replaced every 36,000 miles or so.