The car that shaped the automotive industry without anyone noticing

This often overlooked Italian family car revolutionised the automotive industry for years to come

N C posted in Carticles
5w ago
14.9K

If you were asked to name what you believe to be the best front wheel drive car of all time, you'd probably say BMC Mini, or maybe a Honda Civic. And I couldn't knock you for those answers, they are both excellent cars. But I doubt many would say Fiat 128. And I don't think that's right.

The 128 went on sale in 1969 and production ceased in 1985. Over this time more than three million were produced and along the way it won the European Car of the Year award in 1970. But that is hardly what makes it so special.

The Mini is often credited with bringing front wheel drive to the masses. It did so and did so very well. But that front wheel drive isn't really the one that we use today. Yes, the Mini utilised a front wheel drive setup like the VW Golfs and Honda Civics of the past, present and future, but unlike the rest of the car, it wasn't particularly well designed in this respect. Alec Issigonis's iconic design had both the transmission and engine sharing an oil sump. This was an issue because the two components had differing lubrication requirements. Furthermore, the radiator could be found on the side of the Mini's engine, which is away from the flow of fresh air so drew heated rather than cool air onto the engine. This layout also commonly required the engine to be removed to access and service the clutch.

The 128 provided stiff competition to cars such as the Morris 1300

The 128 provided stiff competition to cars such as the Morris 1300

So when Dante Giacosa set to designing an inexpensive family friendly FWD car, he aimed to eliminate most of, if not all of these design flaws. What he came up with was nothing short of ingenious. A transversely mounted engine with unequal length driveshafts along with an innovative new clutch release system (previously trialled by Fiat's Autobianichi sub-brand with their Primula 5 years before) allowed the spritely 1.1l SOHC engine and gearbox to be mounted side by side without sharing lubricating fluid. Also despite having a side mounted raciator, an electrically controlled cooling fan was positioned toward fresh air flow. Using the Primula as a means to try out these new ideas, Fiat were successful in their journeys to limit torque steer, uneven tyre wear and uneven side-to-side power transmission in the FWD layout we have all come to know and love. In terms of modern day FWD, this was a true pioneer.

The 128 was a sales hit, being not only a joy to drive but also one to live with. It could outrun many of its competitors in a straight line, was comfortable and well equipped, and was priced relatively well too. Fan favourite variants such as the 128 Coupe 3P and 128 Rally were spawned off of it, and it was incredibly versatile being available as either a 2-door saloon, 4-door saloon, 3-door estate, 5-door estate, 2-door pickup, 2-door coupé and a 3-door coupé. It also formed the basis for cars such as the Fiat X1-9, Moretti 128 and Sears XDH-1. In fact, Volkswagen completely dismantled a 128 in 1970 to gain a further understanding of the perfect FWD formula for their forthcoming Golf.

The Fiat 128 Coupe 3P

The Fiat 128 Coupe 3P

So then, I think it's safe to say that the 128 was pretty cool. It revolutionised FWD and its system was the industry benchmark, and quite frankly, it still is.

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Comments (35)

  • When the Japanese set out to become a car exporter after WWII, they realized their domestic industry would need protection from imports, in order to get their own industry going. So they negotiated import quotas with the country they felt was the biggest threat to their budding domestic industry. Not England, not Germany, not the US. Italy. To this day that is why you see so few Japanese cars on Italian roads.

    Nice article.

      1 month ago
    • Interesting. Thank you as well.

        1 month ago
    • As far as I know France and Spain had similar quotes, all anyway cancelled in the middle Eighties, when UE common regulations started to get effective: am I wrong?

      Indeed that avoided the "japanese invasion" that started in the second half...

      Read more
        30 days ago
  • Motorized our nation(s). We grew up in those. After my father's Yugo, I think it was the second car that I drove, maybe being around 12.

    Still remember the distinctive Lampredi 1116cc pur. Wonderful cars.

      1 month ago
    • Sounds like it was excellent! Massive shame they are so rare now.

        1 month ago
    • Last oned rolled of the production lines in 2008. In tears.

        1 month ago
  • That may be giving the 128 a bit too much credit, but it was a very good design. I drove a friend's 128 in NY. It was nice, nimble, quick, but not fast. I also owned an early VW Rabbit. It was a bit bigger, but I think the Fiat was better made and handled better.

    Not to hijack this, but few people mention the longitudinal, front mid-engined Renault 5, which solved the FWD problem in a typically French way. I took one for a long test drive and almost bought one.

    It was interesting times. There were all sorts of compact car configurations.

      1 month ago
    • You're right, there were many various FWD solutions being produced at this time, all of which deserve credit. I personally think this was the most pivotal though.

        29 days ago
    • For subcompact cars, yes. Renault's solution was clever with the 5. It minimized the front weight bias. The Fiat design was tested on an earlier car, in the Autobianchi Primula.

        29 days ago
  • One of my all-time favorite cars. My dad had one. In fact, it was the subject of one of my first articles on this site...

    drivetribe.com/p/dads-fiat-b9dNpZgTSheiSdh8RQwFDg?iid=IsrtjC1KTQGOzLVq_wJKxQ

      1 month ago
    • The article was a nice story, and I am extremely jealous you got to "drive" one!

        1 month ago
  • If the Italians could only do reliability, they would have taken over the world.

      1 month ago
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