Under the Knife: Fiat 124 and 128 Coupés

Fiat has had a patchy history with facelifts. Here we have one hit, one miss and one meh.

1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé. Image: barons-auctions.com

Half a century ago, the European automotive landscape was considerably enriched by the presence of a variety of coupés from different mainstream manufacturers, all offering their own take on this style-led format with varying degrees of success from a design perspective. The best of these offered, for a relatively modest premium over the price of the saloon on which they were based, the opportunity to sacrifice a degree of practicality in exchange for something that was considerably more attractive, both to look at and to be seen in. It is a moot point as to whether the presence of such coupés enhanced sales of their more workaday siblings, but they certainly made the showroom environment more interesting and inviting for potential customers.

The Italian manufacturers were notably successful in imbuing their coupés with style and desirability, none more so than Fiat. The 1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé was based on the resolutely boxy saloon with which it shared its numerical designation, but was a delightfully pretty thing, so much so that it could easily have been penned by Carrozzeria Pininfarina. It was, however, the work of a team under Felice Mario Boano(1) at Centro Stile Fiat.

Wisely, the Sport Coupé shared no external body panels with its saloon sibling. Instead, it had a low waistline with smoothly curved unadorned flanks and a glassy DLO with slim pillars(2), decorated with just the right amount of brightwork. The front end, with its single round headlamps perched above the low-set bonnet and slim grille, might have dated the car a little, but it did not compromise its good looks at all.

1969 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé. Image: bonhams.com

After two years, Fiat decided to update the Sport Coupé’s appearance, which was now beginning to look just a little passé. The revised bodywork ahead of the A-pillars was all-new, with a raised bonnet now flush with the tops of the front wings and a full-width rectangular grille containing twin round headlamps with chrome bezels. At the rear, the slim tail lights were replaced by larger rectangular units(3).

The 1969 facelift was remarkably accomplished in that it successfully updated the Sport Coupé’s appearance, lending it a more assertively sporting demeanour, while still blending perfectly with the car’s unaltered mid-section. That restyling could easily have seen the car through to the end of its production run in 1975 but, inexplicably, Fiat felt the need to tinker with it again in 1972.

This time there was no alteration to the front-end bodywork, other than to the valance behind the bumper. The grille opening in the centre was made much deeper and filled by a rectangular plastic frame, while the headlamps were now surrounded by separate nacelles. The enlarged front grille necessitated a step in the new three-piece deeper section front bumper, covered by new vertical over-riders.

1972 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé. Image: classicitaliancarsforsale.com

At the tail, the previously recessed rear panel was replaced by a boot lid opening extended down to bumper level. The tail lights were again changed, this time to vertical units that looked very similar (but were not identical) to those on the contemporary Mk1 Lancia Beta Berlina. A large triangular air vent was inserted into the lower corner of the C-pillar, to improve interior ventilation, while a poorly placed side rubbing strip disfigured the formerly sheer flanks.

Other than the practicality of the lower boot lip, the changes, especially at the front, were most unwelcome. The disjointed nose and clumsy bumper really spoilt the car’s previously elegant styling. This was very much a case of change for change’s sake and did nothing to arrest the slow decline in sales. A total of 113,000 of the first series cars were sold between 1967 and 1969, followed by 98,000 of the second series between 1969 and 1972 and 75,000 of the third series between 1972 and 1975.

Fiat also offered a second, smaller coupé in its range, based on the FWD 128 saloon. Launched in November 1971, the 128 Sport was a two-door four-seater coupé that, like its larger sibling, shared no external body panels with its saloon stablemate. It was a pretty and pert fastback design with an upswept rear side window and sharply truncated tail, giving it something of the fashionable coke-bottle look in profile. It looked ideally suited to a hatchback format, but instead had a separate boot opening down to bumper level, which limited its practicality somewhat.

Fiat 128 Sport. Image: classiccargarage.com

After four years, Fiat revised the car and gave it all-new bodywork aft of the B-pillar, including the increasingly popular liftback rear hatch. The upswept rear side window was replaced with a longer item which introduced a straight waistline. The new car, called the 128 3P(4), was perfectly pleasant, if perhaps slightly plain for a coupé, with its wide triangular C-pillars and fussy rear lights, comprising three separate hexagonal-shaped lenses set into the rear panel either side of the number plate.

Fiat 128 3P. Image: reezocar.com

The 128 3P was certainly a more practical proposition than its predecessor but, to my eyes at least, was somewhat lacking in the style that is an essential ingredient of all coupés. Volkswagen’s 1974 Scirocco and Alfa Romeo’s 1976 Alfasud Sprint, both styled by Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, were rather more convincing expressions of the same theme. Even if the Alfasud Sprint lacked the expected folding rear seat, it sold on its great looks and superb driving experience.

The 128 3P remained on the market for three years until 1978. At least both it and the 124 Sport Coupé avoided the ignominy of being caught up in Fiat’s truly lamentable late 1970’s fixation with plastic cladding.

 

(1) Boano’s previous work for Centro Stile Fiat under Dante Giacosa included the Fiat 600 and the design that would be used for the Simca 1000. The 124 Sport Coupé was his final work before retirement.

(2) The B-pillars were slim enough to give the impression at first glance that it was a pillarless design, but it was not. Instead it had rear side windows that popped out on an over-centre catch to improve ventilation.

(3) The 124 Sport Coupé’s tail lights found other, more exotic applications:  the original lights were used on the 1968 Lamborghini Espada, the first facelift units on the 1970 Lamborghini Jarama.

(4) For Tre Porte, or three-door, a rather practical and unglamourous name for a coupé, which might give a clue to the thinking behind the revised model?

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

45 thoughts on “Under the Knife: Fiat 124 and 128 Coupés”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. I like the original 124 coupe, but it’s almost too cute. The first facelift fixes that, but I don’t think that it looks better than the original. I will not spend any words on the last facelift.

    The 128 has never done anything for me.

    1. Good morning Freerk. For me, the first facelift version is the most coherent, as the original front end is almost too delicate for the rest of the car. I think it was meant to create a family resemblance with the 124 Sport Spider, which had completely different bodywork to the Sport:

      Here’s a first facelift sport in a great colour:

      Wasn’t it a great time when one could buy such pretty cars from mainstream automakers? What’s left now, but the MX-5?

  2. The 128 3p might have escaped the dreaded plastic cladding, but it did gain (if that’s the right word) blacked out chome and bumpers, and stripes,in its last years, which is how I remember it. By that point a pretty car it was not, although it did seem more contemporary than it really was. I would probably have forgotten it completely save for having seen an attractive lady arrive somewhere in one just as I was on the cusp of adolescence…
    I can’t recall ever seeing a 124 coupé in my childhood, despite the large number of 124 saloons that were still around (we lived on the side of a hill where the rorty exhaust made itself heard when the drivers dropped to third!). Maybe the Irish market wasn’t big/rich enough to support coupé sales at the time, but I certainly remember early Capri survivors being around. Shame – except in its final form, such a pretty car!

    1. Good morning Michael. I had forgotten about that abomination:

      Maybe Fiat realised it was a bit plain and decided that this was the way to make it more ‘sporty’. Yuk! 😝

  3. It’s a shame we don’t have small, cheap sport’s cars in today’s world. On the other hand… if market would want it, they would produce it. Coupe SUV’s are modern equivalent probably, more practical, but much worse looking…

    The only one of those that is not that bad is Audi Q8 in my opinion, at least from the overall profile shape. Other ones look a bit like squatting dogs… I don’t now how people can like those 😉

  4. Another strange change between the 1969 version and the final 1972 car is that the rear side windows are smaller, due to the insertion of a triangular black piece at the base of the C pillar- perhaps to make the glassy greenhouse appear more substantial?
    The taillights of the last version are also interesting; they indeed look a lot like those of the early Lancia Beta, and I myself mistakenly believed for a while that they were early Citroën GS items but all three are in fact slightly different:

  5. Never mind my previous comment on the triangular trim piece at the C pillar- I now spotted that Daniel already mentioned it 🙂

    1. No worries, Bruno, and well done on finding those comparative photos of the tail lights. I love details like that!

    2. Italian car makers took astonishingly long to move to forced ventilation. For a long time they relied on front quarterlights that could be rotated and pop out or wind down rear windows for getting a stream of fresh air through their cars. Ventilation outlets at the sides of the dashboard or in the centre console appeared quite late. Maybe that’s because you can’t hang an elbow out of them or you can’t whistle at girls through them…

    3. That looks very much like a Tom Tjaarda design, very reminiscent of his Rondine concept car.

    4. Hello Dave, that’s an interesting point. I guess there may be several reasons; in hot countries, before air conditioning, you just got warm air blown at you. Secondly, there’s the expense of engineering the system. Thirdly, vents don’t mix very well with cigarettes. Lastly, Italians seem to have a thing for sunroofs, too (and putting the windows down).

      Ingvar, I hadn’t made the connection, but I think you’re right.

  6. Farina’s proposal for the 124 Sport, with the large, wraparound rear window is very attractive, but no doubt too costly for production:


    1. No worries, Charles. I’ve added images of the car to your post above. 🙂

    2. They made a car that was very similar to this. It was called 124 sport spider and came with a hardtop

      In case of the 124 spider Abarth the hardtop was even non-removablehttps://www.biposto.gmbh/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/FIAT-ABARTH-124-RALLY-4-600×296.jpg

    3. Thanks, Daniel. I must say that many of these cars – Italian coupés – are exquisite. Some are like small Ferraris.

  7. The original front design had some similarities with other popular coupes of the time like SImca

    or Fiat’s own 850 sport coupe

    not to mention all kinds of Abarths like the 2400 by Alemanno

    The first facelift brought it somewhat in line with the Dino coupe

    The Dino coupe Mk2 also had large black triangular ventilation outlets similar to those of the 124 coupe Mk3.

    The 124 coupe’s success convinced Alfa that their successor to the Giulia sprint GT should have four seats and above all a large boot – the result being the Alfetta GT.

    Italian cars in general and Alfas and fast Fiats in particular were quite popular in southern Germany in the late Sixties/early Seventies and there were plenty of these Fiats around. Fiats were cheaper than the quite expensive Alfas and above all maintenance was far easier thanks to the Lampredi invention for setting the valves.
    The original 1,400cc versions were perfect for Italy but a bit small for most export markets but this was fixed with the first facelift and the then new 1,600cc engine. The 1,800 had a completely different character with the focus on torque rather than effortless revs which in case of the 1,400 meant up to 8,000 without damaging the engine.

    1. The Dino coupé is another beautiful looking Fiat:

      Thanks for reminding me of it, Dave.

    2. Here’s a Dino 2400/Mk2 with ventilation outlets in the C posts.
      Its rear end looks remarkably similar to the early 124s

    3. Those cars were a reflection of automotive design thinking at the time. Stunningly beautiful, thanks for posting these and reminding me of them, especially the 850 coupé! Apart from the occasional , Alfa(Sud) Sprint, Duetto/Alfa Spider and the Fiat 124 Spider, these cars were rare where I lived, so they remain quite exotic as well as simply beautiful.

      For reference, here are the rears of the 124 coupé iterations in order:

      A rather like the arrow shape of the original’s indicators.

  8. Not to be a party pooper, but I think it’s the other way around; two generations of Fiat Coupe tail lights ending up on two different Lamborghini cars, the Espada and the Jarama.

    1. Hi Ingvar. You’re right: the Lamborghinis each arrived a year after the Fiats. Brain fade on my part. 😨

      Footnote amended accordingly.

    2. No worries. When it comes to Italian exotics from the time period, nobody it seems could afford their own tail lights. On the other hand, there seemed to be no end of the supply from major car makers. Think Maserati and those ubiquitous Alfa Romeo tail lights…

  9. Finally, my first car appears on DTW… bought in 1984 after looking at plenty of rusty Chevettes, Vivas I found my red 128-3P just like the one in your photo. Except of course the tin worm had eaten away the metal surrounding the rear lights and the bottom of the doors and the check seat fabric was pretty worn.
    Otherwise it was solid, and reliable and, with the large hatchback, ideal for hauling a student’s gear around. Unlike my colleagues’ Marinas and Vivas its engine revved to 5000rpm with ease, though the four speed gearbox meant 70mph corresponded to 4000rpm, a right pain on the motorway. Most of its memorable journeys were however spent on the passes between Sheffield and Manchester until one winter when we slipped on black ice at the top of the Woodhead and bounced from one curb to the other a few times. Fortunately there was no other traffic and we made it back to Sheffield with very bent control arms.
    It was a rare beast even in those days, but quite cool I thought (four headlamps!). The original coupe’s may have been a touch more stylish but had all been rusted away by the 1980’s.

    As to the 124 coupe… what he said… smart, smarter , duuuhh.
    Looking forward to more on Fiats!
    Andrew
    As far as I recall the 128 coupe / 3P had the same 1.3l engine as the 128 Rally… that was also fitted to the X1/9… 75Hp @ 6600rpm!

    1. In the 128 rally the engine had 67 PS.
      Both 1.1 and 1.3 had a piston srroke of a mere 55mm, no wonder they were willing and able to rev and were bomb proof at the same time.
      In those days enjoying your car was considered an innocent pastime and nobody delivered more fun than Italian car makers.

    2. I too had a 128 3p. It was my second car, aged 18 in 1982.
      My first car was its predecessor the coupe. Imagine rocking up to sixth form with a 1300cc twin choke weber, red vinyl interior with bucket seats and cowled dials. It may not have floated others boats, but my goodness it sure impressed 17 year old students way back then.
      It even survived a dukes of hazard style jump when uncertain of my location, I flew over a bridge I hadn’t spotted !

      Thanks for the great article .

    3. Hello Vincenzo. Thank you for your kind words and welcome to Driven To Write!

    4. Excellent reminiscing, Andrew. I’m amazed you didn’t end up down in a peat bog crossing that road in the atrocious weather. The Woodhead and Snake passes remain liberally dotted with gaps in walls, bent Armco and shattered remains of motor vehicles. Great to hear you and the car survived.

      Same goes to Konstantinos and Vincenzo. The power of the delightful Italian coupé “

  10. The Fiat 128 3p was rather popular here in Greece; more than the Coupé. When I was a kid, I liked the 3p much more than I did the Coupé, although the latter eventually grew on me after I saw the Bangle-designed Coupé (a rather magnificent car in itself, really) and joined the dots.

    As for the 124 Coupé… A white S1 was owned by someone who lived on Iroon Polytechneiou “Avenue” in Chania when I was an undergraduate student at the Technical University of Crete, way back in 1994-1999. I always found its angular glasshouse to be somewhat at odds with the rest of the bodywork, and thought the facelifted versions worked better. I can’t remember seeing any examples of the first facelift, though – and of the second facelift, I’ve only seen five cars.

    Mind you, way back in 1994-1998, there were a few interesting European cars in Chania: besides the white 124 Coupé, there was a red Maserati 2.24v (whose owner eventually gave it some horrible, ricer aftermarket wheels with idiotically low-profile tires), a red Fiat 850 Spider, a red Fiat Dino Coupé (I never got close enough to it to see which engine it sported), several Giuliettas, and a tatty white, post-1976, Matra Bagheera, which, sometime in 1997, was given a heavy bodykit and a yellow paintjob only a few months before it got hidden under a tarpaulin and left to rot… As of 2015, only the Maserati was still there, with its interior in shocking condition and those ghastly rice-burner wheels.

  11. The 124 coupé not only looked good from outside it also had a simple but attractive dashboard

  12. The 124 Sport Coupe certainly could have done without the 2nd facelift.

    As for the 128 coupes, like the 128 in general it could have at least benefited from the 1.5 and 5-speed gearbox in its last few years in production (as on the X1\9). Despite the appeal of the smaller engines in the 128 [more so after the 73 fuel crisis), the 1.5 must have initially been in the pipeline at one time for the 128 before other events caused Fiat to defer it to what became the Ritmo.

    Concede to being wrong in this instance – just that Fiat were said to be having a hard time then, a number of projects were either cancelled or delayed that seem to mark the start of its slow decline over the next few decades.

  13. “At least both it and the 124 Sport Coupé avoided the ignominy of being caught up in Fiat’s truly lamentable late 1970’s fixation with plastic cladding.” Oh go on, Daniel, don’t tell me you wouldn’t fancy a bit of this? 😁

    1. What a dreadful waste of your expert Photoshopping skills, Tom. 😀

    2. Those Plastic Fantastic cars were around in my youth; since then, my tastes have improved somewhat, but I do have something of a soft spot for – say – a post-1975 Porsche 911.

      The plastified Alfa Sprint was also around when I grew up. I didn’t know any better and, if you don’t know the original, it’s still a handsome little car.

      On reflection, it doesn’t hold a candle to the original, though, it even looks big, next to a fiat 126…

    3. I can see the issue now, it really wasn’t any more of a coupe by that point than the 3-door Ritmo/Strada.

    4. I owned a Fiat 128 3p I loved it the twin choke Webber was great fun. I am in Dublin Ireland

    5. Good morning Gerry, and welcome to DTW. Good to hear you have happy memories of your 3P.

  14. Perceptive and brilliant. Just because the Italians could do injection-moulded plastic cheaper than anyone else was no excuse to use it to stick panels of ‘something’ them all over previously decent looking cars.

    I am however perplexed at a Swiss 128 3P turning up in parallel-universe Avellino

  15. I remember a scene from a Luis de Funes film, where the actor is driving a red Fiat 124 coupe with two round headlamps. The film is titled L’homme orchestre and was released in 1970. The set is filmed in a beautiful seaside avenue. Which is this place?

    1. Here you go, Giorgos:

      Is that the Promenade des Anglais in Nice?

  16. Thanks Daniel, this is the film! The numberplates have the -06 code that signifies la region d’ Alpes-Maritimes – 06 with main cities Nice, Antibes, Cannes, I presume you are correct. I have never visited the region, only through films and documentaries.

  17. The third facelift of the 124 coupe hit the US market concurrently with the 5 MPH bumper requirement, 1974 model year. It was shortlived since the 131 2-door sedan effectively replaced it (as I also inferred about the 128 3P and Strada above).
    I’m surprised to learn that the Euro version was almost worse with its’ fussy, cobbled-together looking bumper.

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