The Fellow Traveller

We’re looking at the Fiat 124 at 50. Or are we?

Fiat 124 Berlina - You call that snow. You should see what they have in Russia.
Fiat 124 Berlina as lifestyle transport – You call that snow? Wait until you see what they have in Russia.

For many eyes, the car above is, irredeemably, depending on their country, a VAZ or a Lada or a Zhiguli, a vehicle that citizens of the former Soviet Bloc view with a frustrating mixture of contempt and affection. To me it is (and in this example, correctly) a Fiat 124, the first car that I had free, unaccompanied access to the open roads in, with all that allowed, so anything that follows might have to be filtered by the reader to allow for the rosy glow of nostalgia, although actually it’s a frustrating mixture of contempt and affection.

In the mid Sixties, Fiat was in its minimalist phase, even its model naming system had been pared down to simple project numbers. Project 123 was the front wheel drive mid size saloon that was to become the Autobianchi A111, but was likely deemed too costly or too big a risk to market as a Fiat. Project 125 was to be a slightly larger saloon that would use the outgoing 1500 as a base. And Project 124 was going to be the big seller, a conventionally engineered three box, 5 seater saloon.

Fiat 124 Saloon - image : johnnywheels.com
Fiat 124 Saloon – image : johnnywheels.com

1964 saw the Russian town of Stavropol-on-Volga being renamed Tolyatti, after Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Italian Communist Party, who had died that year. In Italy his was by no means the insignificant position it would have been in most other Western countries. With 25% of the national vote, the party was a real force and trade with comrades in the Soviet Union was encouraged. Togliatti had been involved in the first phase of a long period of negotiation between Fiat S.p.A. and the Soviet Union to build a car factory in Russia. The agreement was finally signed in 1966 and this is, inevitably, linked with the 124’s genesis and fate.

Image : autoevolution.com
This is a Fiat – image : autoevolution.com

Our white, family 124, made in 1968, bought second hand one year later, might or might not have been made from notorious ‘Russian Steel’, part of the Togliatti deal, but it rusted like there was no tomorrow, and there was probably very little tomorrow for TMV366F. When it was around three years old, the clutch pedal suddenly fell to the floor on me as the cable tore free of its corroded bulkhead hole. We finally got rid of it in 1972, at which point rust-fighting was becoming a rearguard action. Although still a good looking vehicle if you stood back, mostly thanks to my ongoing work with plastic-padding and touch-in paint, I’d be doubtful it saw the birth of punk, let alone Mrs Thatcher’s election.

Someone has spent a lot of effort restoring this green 124. Excellent. Though I don't remember the floormats being so flash - image : fiat124.xoom.it
Someone has spent a lot of effort restoring this green 124. Excellent. Though I don’t remember the floormats being so flash – image : fiat124.xoom.it

But, in other matters, I still hold it in high regard. Although actually the size of an Escort, a car viewed as a small saloon, the 124 always seemed a bit bigger, nearer to a Cortina, possibly because of better design, possibly because it was marketed as such and Italian cars in any category were often physically a bit smaller than their counterparts. Unveiled in 1966 and winner of the 1967 European Car Of The Year, it’s obvious that, in concept, it was intended to reflect some of the character of the Alfa Romeo Giulia, but at a Fiat price. Though Lampredi’s engine was only in 1.2 litre, 60 bhp, pushrod form for the basic 124, it was willing and had a fine gearbox. The rear, coil sprung axle was well-located with trailing arms and a Panhard rod, the all round disc brakes were effective and, in specification and in behaviour, it shamed any standard Escort or Cortina. I’d taken driving lessons in a coke bottle Vauxhall Viva HB and the Fiat showed it up for the slovenly thing it was. It came, as standard, on Pirelli Cinturatos, a fine looking tyre with an excellent reputation. Nevertheless after two scares, a lurid twitch on a wet road and a 180 degree spin in the snow, neither of which could possibly have been down to error on the part of the 17 year old driver, I resolved that a change of brand would be necessary when wear dictated. So Goodyear G800s were fitted in due course and the, by then, 19 year old driver seemed to detect an improvement – or just maybe he’d improved his driving.

Fiat 124 Familiare
This is a Fiat 124 Familiare

The 124 spun off a load of variants. SEAT in Spain produced their own version which differed slightly, then a bit more after 1974 when Giugiaro gave it a facelift – at least it was more deserving of his talents than the Marina. The 124 Special saw a bigger engine and the 124 Special T saw a 5 speed box and the Lampredi twin-cam to give even more of that Alfa Giulia feeling. There was also an estate and, of course, the cars most readily associated with the 124 name these days, the fine-handling twin-cam Coupe and the long-running Spider. These last two are both very desirable cars but, for me, it will always be the saloon.

Disregarding build quality, for its time it was a fine example of conventional design. I drove it like an arse on occasions, yet it kept me and the rest of the world in one piece, teaching me a degree of circumspection at the same time. I’m very grateful to it. Had I sole access to it, and the money, I’d doubtless have modified the exhaust, to increase the willing Italian-ness of its sound, fitted wider wheels, a smaller, leather-rimmed steering wheel, a rev counter, and maybe a bucket driver’s seat, all in the cliched boy-racer style of the time. Fortunately I didn’t.

Meanwhile, the 124 was starting a parallel existence. Although still anxious to present themselves at the technological cutting edge, with the race to the Moon by no means decided, the USSR obviously wanted a conventional car. Car imports were forbidden and, between the large Volga (GAZ) for the Nomenklatura and the small rear-engined Zaporozhets (ZAZ), in a later form as once owned by Vladimir Putin (the car, not the factory), there was only the Moskvitch. Production of that was nowhere near to satisfying a growing demand, and even a population with no choice wanted some choice. So a simple, rugged 4 door saloon fitted the bill. Fiat certainly would have borne this in mind when developing Project 124, which would have been one more reason why the front-driven 123 was sidelined. Nevertheless, the final VAZ differed significantly under the near identical skin, resulting in a car that was more rugged, durable and practical, and in particular one that would survive a Russian Winter in a way that few Western offerings could, even down to having a starting handle on early versions. With a larger OHC engine and thicker steel, it was a better specification that the 124 I knew, though it sacrificed a fair amount of that car’s nimbleness.

And this is a Lada
And this is a Lada

Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet leader from 1964 to 1982. A great car enthusiast, and a notoriously dangerous driver, he had a fine collection of vehicles often given to him as gifts from Western leaders.  He was an astute man, in that he survived in office for 18 years but, like many Russian leaders, he wasn’t the leader they deserved, seeing the USSR enter a period of economic stagnation.  Look at the Russian space effort and some of the bold examples of Soviet architecture and you seem to see a nation looking to the future.  Look at much of their industrial design and you don’t. Back then, I remember wondering why, unfettered by Western marketing foibles, Soviet Russia wasn’t making a forward-looking people’s car that was more like a Citroen GS than a very conventional Fiat, a car that was in the latter part of its life before VAZ production even started. Today I guess I know why.

An Alternative Lada? And it even takes a Wankel.
An Alternative Lada? And it even takes a Wankel.

The new VAZ factory in Tolyatti started production in 1970 and, by the end of 1973, a million VAZ-2101s had been built. The next year, with the Fiat 124 by now replaced by the 131 Mirafiori, exports to the West started, and a bunch of lazy British comics had a new butt for their lame jokes. Reviews did not conjure the willing and nimble Fiat of my memory; possibly things had moved on a few years but, also, VAZ’s engineers didn’t have boy-racers like me high up on their list of priorities when they specified their higher-riding version. Obviously the exports were intended to bring in Western currency to the USSR, since home demand was certainly not being satisfied with waiting lists of several years. And, for quite a while, that export money did come in, provided by people looking for a simple, spacious, cheap car for basic transport.

VAZ at Home - image : 1ZOOM.net
VAZ at Home – image : 1ZOOM.net

Typical of the car’s slow evolution, yet the engineers’ aspirations, is that a small run of Wankel-engined Ladas were produced in 1980, no-one seeming to have acknowledged that the engine’s time had probably passed. Nevertheless, they found use with the police and security services and a 120hp, twin-rotor engined, unmarked KGB special is something to crave for my notional Museum of Arcane Automobiles.

Wankel Engined VAZ - image : autonews.de
Wankel Engined VAZ – take my word. I’m taking theirs – image : autonews.de

Today, although Tolyatti city has its troubles, AutoVaz remains a huge enterprise, producing various models, totalling almost 1 million cars each year. The original 2101 lasted until 1982, and was followed by a series of updates retaining the original shape. The general consensus seems to be that build quality dropped appreciably over the years and the Lada Riva, as it was by then marketed in the UK, was withdrawn in 1997, having become irretrievably outdated even to its loyal client base. But, in Russia, despite their having produced other, more advanced models over the years, the final VAZ-2107 only ceased production in 2012, having given Project 124 a 46 year run. In its time Russia had seen radical change whilst the original Lada had remained, essentially, more or less the same. Its heritage had become that of a living fossil.

The final VAZ-2107 - image : roadsmile.com
The final VAZ-2107 – image : roadsmile.com

24 thoughts on “The Fellow Traveller”

  1. It’d be interesting to know how much commonality there was between first Fiat and last Russian car.
    Would it be true that galvanisation would have been all that was needed to save the 124?

    1. Galvanisation would certainly have made my memory of that particular 124 universally positive. But galvanisation was pretty rare back then, so all you’d realistically have hoped for was better quality steel and/or welding. It was taken for granted that cars would rust sooner or later, but in the Fiat’s case it was just a bit too soon.

      Mobile.de has 7 x 124 saloons for sale and 10 x Ford Escort Mk 1s. So it seems some of them survived.

  2. This is the car my Dad drove when we were kids before buying a golf in 1981. TIO 898 was the reg and it was a burnt orange estate. My still strong memories of this car include a complete unwillingness to start if there was any moisture in the air. Rust. Vinyl seats that your legs stuck to in hot weather. More rust and those little fly windows that pivoted open. My Dad nursed it as long as possible(not having any real interest in cars) but he eventually gave up when you could see the ground through a hole in the floor.

    1. Mick. Apart from the fact that rust was everywhere in the 60s and 70s, the sensation of getting into a car that had been baking in the sun and having the semi-liquid upholstery mould itself around your body is a treat that today’s younger generations are missing.

    1. I believe that Simon Kearne is presently negotiating the leasehold on an unspecified premises in Piccadilly, from which we will be selling a select range of DTW merchandise, including posters such as the above as well as Richard’s advent calendar featuring a different ashtray for every day in December. In the meantime I might be able to upload you a copy in hyper-res, suitable for up to A4 printing.

    1. Thanks for that link Konikov. A really thorough comparison and great photos and layout with two near-identically (and rather nice) coloured versions. The comparison agrees that the Fiat is the more lively, nimble car, but not by that much. It also identifies a lot of detail differences.

      It concludes that the Lada’s rear drum set-up is better which doesn’t surprise too much. At the time I was impressed by the Fiat boasting all-round discs but unless they get lots of use (as in frequent hard braking from juvenile drivers like me) rear discs often seemed to end up with creaky calipers, so VAZ were wise to choose drums. Also, since the handbrake worked on the rear brakes, I imagine rear discs were more likely to freeze in extreme conditions than drums.

      If ‘my’ Fiat 124 didn’t last that long in the UK, I find it hard to believe it would have lasted 2 years in Russia.

  3. Incidentally, the Total Car article points out the Russian’s choice of an OHC engine for the VAZ. OHC engines in cars at that level were still pretty rare then, though the Moskvich 412’s 1500cc engine was an OHC unit too. That car was sold in the UK at the end of the 60s and, I seem to remember, it got praise for its willing engine and its very comprehensive toolkit, but little else.

    1. The heaters always came in for praise for some reason.

      My biggest regret was in pre camera phone days not having my camera with me to take a shot of a 2105 towing an E class Mercedes up a hill in Wellington.

      There were sold here in NZ, with some even being later sold back second hand to Russian fishermen.

    2. The story about the Russian fishermen underlines the VAZ’s better rust resistance. I can’t see there would have been much left of a used Fiat 124 that travelled all the way back from NZ to Russia on the deck of a boat.

    1. That is odd. I certainly don’t remember ours being as crude as that. I just found a picture of a 124 Special bonnet which has a pressing like the Lada so either it is something Fiat did early on in production or it is a repair made by a resourceful restorer who had an outer skin but no inner skin.

      The difficulty with old cars is that you are never sure exactly what is original after 40 or 50 years of ongoing maintenance.

  4. What a wonderful article Sean. The Fiat 124 was the first car that I had an influence in its choice. My father was a fan of Triumph Heralds and I passed my test in one in 1965. Influenced by Car and Car and Driver I formed the opinion that the Fiat was a truly sophisticated, modern car and in 1968 he was persuaded to trade the Herald for a 1967 124. He would have preferred a 125 but I felt this lacked the “all new” design of the 124. Driving it was a revelation although my father was disappointed in the rubber mats after the walnut dash and carpets of the Triumph. Swapping the Pirelli crossplies for Michelin ZX tyres and adding a pair of Lucas driving lights made it perfect.

    Of course there were drawbacks like rampant rust, the handbrake operating directly on the rear discs was mediocre and a pain to adjust and some parts, like door winding mechanisms and wiper linkages seemed rather delicate. The clutch cable coming through the bulkhead taught me to make clutchless gear changes or not get home. I wrote to Fiat in Turin outlining the problem of stress concentrated in too small an area and how I repaired it with a mild steel plate. I got a nice thank you letter and 10 pounds, equivalent to about 150 today. You don’t get customer service like that anymore.

    I have very fond memories of the 124 and it lead to my own purchases of a 1964 500 and then a 128 and 128 coupe and finally a Panda for my daughter. I can’t really see another Fiat in my life except perhaps a Panda 4×4.

    1. The last car Fiat made that I would consider owning is a Multipla. Fiat´s range has atrophied terribly. Even taking into account the fact that small saloons are not exactly the in thing, none of their cars are equivalent of the 124. I am scraping my brain to think of the car they´ve just launched. All I can see is a metallic grey press photo, vague like a dream is vague as you wake up.

    2. Barry. Thank you. So the clutch problem was common then? We used a piece of thicker alloy to repair ours. But I missed out on the £10. So yours came on crossplies? Maybe the Cinturatos were only standard in our market, or were an option. They seemed a bit of an indulgence. Although the car came secondhand, I’m sure they were the car’s original tyres. Neither of us mentioned the windscreen washers, not that effective since it worked by direct pressure from a floppy rubber button on the dashboard. I seem to remember ours leaking

  5. Panda, Doblo, or possibly Qubo for me (We have a Tipo 169 Panda as the family hack, and I don’t think any current sub-B car surpasses it). Everything else with a Fiat badge (500 excepted, but that’s a girly car) has competitors which do the same job far better.

    On larger matters, I’ll mischievously contend that the 124 (or VAZ2101) begat the Dacia Logan, the 124 of the 21st century. I could paraphrase the story, but it’s told much better here:

    http://jugaadinnovation.com/3-lessons-in-corporate-frugality-from-the-developing-world/

    1. I sometimes imagine that you live in New York, Robertas, such is the lateness of your comments.
      The Doblo, question mark. The Renault offerings are more pleasing to the eye. The Kangoo van?
      The Qubo is a Bipper and a Nemo. I once drove a Bipper from Tubingen to somewhere not from Basel. It was three or four horrible hours of winding roads. No, no and no.

  6. You learn something new every day. I never twigged that the 125 was anything more than a slightly longer, posher 124. The 125S was my dad’s dream ‘realistic’ car, back in the day. The tariff-inflated price in Oz meant his Morris 1100 was instead replaced with a Mk3 Cortina. Such is the tragic gap between aspirations and reality.

    1. The 125 was always a bit confusing. I too was very taken with the 125S but the word at the time seemed to be that its handling wasn’t as crisp as the 124, since it was based on the old Fiat 1500, leaf sprung platform. Why that was, I don’t really know. The centre bit was obviously taken from a 124, and the overall length was only 19 cm longer than a 124, most of which seemed taken by extra boot and bonnet space. Of course, all Italian made 125s had twin cams, which was the main attraction for me. So, really, I’d conclude that the 125 was a bitsa, cobbled up on the cheap, showing the cynical side of Fiat – though that didn’t make it a bad car, just a compromised one.

  7. It’s remarkable how many 124 reminiscences have popped up. There were some in Ireland in the 80s followed by the Lada versions. Yet it’s a car I imagine with brambles sprouting from the body and rust gnawing at the edges. I’d be happy to see a real one – unlikely in Denmark. If the US had their own bad habits of car building, this car epitomises the European ones. For the cost involved the fragility was totally unacceptable. I can imagine the Seamus and Kate O’Names or Gerry and Laura Surnames being sick with grief as rust began showing towards the end of the first winter yet they’d only paid six out of 48 monthly instalments.

    1. Indeed. I come from a family who aren’t averse to complaining, so it’s hard to reconcile that, back in the 60s, you looked at brown spots appearing on your car and, unless your feet actually fell through the floor, the feeling was that was what cars did – “c’est la rouille”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s