One of the cars of my formative years: a 1979 Fiat 128 Custom sedan
This is the first in what will be a series of posts about cars I knew when I was young, cars my parents or extended family owned, cars that neighbors or friends had, all of which had an impact on my eclectic (but fairly specific) tastes in cars today. And it only seems fitting that I start with my favorite out of all my dad's cars: the 1979 Fiat 128 Custom sedan.
Dad bought this car brand-new off the lot sometime during the very cold and snowy winter of 1978-79. Chicagoland looked like Antarctica that year. I remember walking to the bus stop though a canyon of snow carved out of the sidewalk, the sides taller than my six-year-old head. At the time, my dad had a well-worn '69 VW Beetle, and Mom drove a 1976 Dodge Aspen sedan, only three years old bu already rusty and falling apart. Dad needed a new car to get to work, but he wanted to spend as little as possible, so he test-drove all the cheapest cars he could find.
Well, almost all the cheapest. Japanese cars were almost entirely excluded from our car searches in those days. The triangle formed by the towns of Oswego, Montgomery, and the southern half of Aurora, Illinois, were practically a company town in those days, and the company was Caterpillar. The "Great Yellow Father" (as my mom jokingly referred to the factory) employed thousands of people in the area, including my dad and over half our neighbors. Cat was facing stiff competition from Mitsubishi and Komatsu and other Japanese equipment makers, and the factory floor was a Union shop. No one bought Japanese cars. (In fact, a lot of people in town just bought Pontiacs from Detzler or Chevys from Westphall, and barely acknowledged that other car dealers existed.)
But European cars were grudgingly accepted, even admired, though there was a faint air of "what, a Pontiac isn't good enough for ya?". VWs were not that uncommon, and a smattering of other European economy cars could be seen around town. So we looked at Rabbits, and Ford Fiestas, and Renault (pronounced "Ruh-NALT") LeCars, and I think Dad did actually test-drove a Datsun F10 just to see. But it was the Fiat that won out. Mom wanted navy blue, but that one was buried in a snowbank, so we bought a yellow one. It might have been the car in the showroom, come to think of it.
It was just about the cheapest new car you could buy in '79, and it showed. There were no amenities, not even a radio. The top 3 inches of the interior door panels were yellow steel; the rest of the inside was covered in cheap slippery brown vinyl. The dealership had put pinstripes on it to jazz it up a little: red, then orange, then yellow. A couple years later, Dad added wide stripes to the lower doors in the same colors, in reverse order. (I think it was to cover rust bubbles.) He added a radio/8-track player from Crutchfield that took up all the space on the right-hand side of the dash, and I still can hear the call sign of WLS ("Eighty-nine, double-you ell ess, Chi-ca-go!") coming out of the little speakers he put in the doors.
He drove that car for five years and change, from the time I was 6 until I was 11. And I absolutely loved it. I liked the color, I liked the simple boxy styling, I liked hte sound it made (Italian cars have the best-sounding engines; this is not opinion but irrefutable fact), and when I was little, I especially loved that I could see out the windows because the back seat sat high enough, something I couldn't do in mom's Aspen. To this day I prefer cars with a large greenhouse and a nice low beltline, and I think the Fiat 128 might be part of the reason for it.
I even "drove" it once. We were at my grandparents' hosue in Montgomery, and Mom and Dad were inside while my brother and I were playing in the car. I was sitting in the driver's seat pretending to drive, making engine noises and the whole bit, and I reached down and pulled the gearshift lever from first into neutral. I knew what the lever did; Dad sometimes let me reach over and shift from first to second for him, but I was not familiar with the concept of neutral. The Fiat rolled forward about eight feet and bumped into the car in front of it (I think it was my aunt Karyn's Dodge Omni, but I'm not sure). No one was hurt, and neither car was damaged; say what you want about the esthetics of 5-mph bumpers - they worked. I was never allowed to play in the car after that, and Dad always set the parking brake.
We took it on a family road trip in the summer of 1979. Caterpillar shut down for retooling during two weeks in July, and so everyone in town took vacations at the same time. My mom loved the mountains, so more often than not we headed west for Colorado. But that meant two days of driving across the prairies of western Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, eating at truck stops, stopping for the night somewhere around Ogallala, and cheering when we saw the first foothills on the horizon. And that two-day slog, in a little Fiat with no air conditioning, in July, during the second gas crunch, at 55 mph, was miserable.
It also broke down in the mountains. Ethanol-added gasoline wasn't a common thing back then, and most foreign cars weren't able to use it. But several stations in the plains offered it, and it was slightly cheaper. Something about the incompatibility of the seals or something. The fuel pump conked out in Manitou Springs, and we all took a ride in a tow truck in the pouring rain to the Fiat dealership in Colorado Springs. They installed a new fuel pump and we continued on our way, and Dad never put "gasohol" in it again.
By 1985, the little yellow Fiat was showing its age, and my dad started to worry about its reliability. He sold it to one of his friends as a cheap first car for his daughter, and she surprised everyone by taking it to college and driving it for a number of years after that. I guess the little car still had some life in it after all...
And since then, when I see a FIat 128 in the wild, an event which has gotten far less frequent as time goes on, I get all misty and nostalgic. I think I'd like to have one of my own, someday, before the few remaining ones rust away. It's just about the only car I would give up my beloved MGB GT for, if I had to, but I'm not ready to do that. I'd rather add a 128 to the fleet and keep the MG, if possible, but that's not feasible right now either. But maybe someday.
It's strange; all the beautiful classic cars in the world, and the one I dream about owning the most is a little square mass-produced Italian economy car from the '70s.
That little Fiat set the template for my favorite type of car: simple, basic, mechanical, low on power but big on dynamics. I've had several cars in the same spirit over the years: a Dodge Colt, a Mazda Protege, a Plymouth Neon, and my current runabout, a threadbare old Toyota Corolla. (I don't shun Japanese cars anymore, clearly.) It's sad that it's a type and class of vehicle that is disappearing, at least in the US. You can still get a cheap Mitsubishi Mirage or Chevy Spark, but even those are laden down with power windows and power steering and other junk that just adds weight and complexity and takes away from the fun of driving a simple lightweight car. We'll never see the likes of the humble Fiat 128 again, and that's a real shame.