Dante’s Peak (Part Three)

Concluding the story of the Fiat 128 and its derivatives.

Image: serbiancarfans.wordpress.com

Italian production of the Fiat 128 came to an end in 1985, but the car lived on in modified form well into the 21st Century. The best known derivative was built in the former Yugoslavia by a division of Zastava, the state-owned armaments manufacturer. Zastava’s relationship with Fiat dated back to 1954, when an agreement was signed to manufacture the Italian company’s vehicles under licence at Zastava’s automobile plant in the city of Kragujevac(1). The most commercially significant of these was the Zastava 750 which, engine displacement apart, was largely identical to the Fiat 600. The 750 remained in production for thirty years until 1985.

By the late 1960s Zastava began looking for a more modern car to offer its customers and an agreement was reached with Fiat to produce a version of the new 128 model, initially to be called the Zastava 101(2). Uniquely, this featured a modified rear-end with a tailgate and would be offered in three and five-door versions. Intriguingly, the redesigned tail bore more than a passing resemblance to the 1967 Simca 1100(3). Both designs shared a similar change in profile in the hatchback, adding a ‘bustle’ to the rear end.

The Zastava 101 used the inner structure, doors and front-end body panels from the 128, apart from the front valance. On the Fiat, this featured a raised centre section to accommodate a shallower front grille. On the Zastava, the top edge of the valance was straight, so the grille was correspondingly deeper. Mechanically, the 101 was identical to the 128 and was powered by Fiat’s 1,116cc engine. It was launched in October 1971, just two years after its progenitor.

The 101 was exported to European, North African and Middle-Eastern countries and eventually made its way to the UK in RHD form in late 1981. Its arrival on those shores was low-key, to the extent that it never featured in Car Magazine’s ‘Newcomers’ pages. Now badged Zastava 1100, its first mention is in the March 1982 issue’s GBU(4) listings under the heading ‘Boring Saloons’ where it was described as follows: “For: Space, Versatility. Against: Very basic, quite noisy, low on desirability. Sum-up: Not bad for an Iron Curtain effort.”

Image: virtuagarage.com

The car’s major selling point was, of course, its low price, which started from just £2,699 for the three-door hatchback. By way of comparison, the cheapest Ford Escort and Vauxhall Astra were listed at £4,085 and £4,203 respectively. A rather closer comparison was on offer in the Fiat 128, which remained on sale in a basic specification two-door form alongside its putative replacement, the Strada(5). It was listed at £3,140 in the ‘Interesting Saloons’ category and described as follows: For: Outstanding handling, fine roadholding, good ride. Against: A bit noisy. Sum-up: Still impressive despite great age.” One has to wonder if the 128 really had lost so much in translation from Italy to Yugoslavia, or was Car Magazine simply guilty of an irrational bias against the “Iron Curtain effort”?

In December 1981, Autocar magazine tested the five-door model in range-topping 1300 ZLE-E specificaton. This version was distinguished externally by rather gaudy stick-on stripes and plastic multi-spoke wheel trims that looked like they were sourced at a local high street motor accessory shop. Inside, it was embellished with a digital clock and radio / cassette player. At £3,262, it was priced uncomfortably close to more mainstream offerings, in particular the Fiat Strada 65CL five-door at £3,591. Autocar rated its performance as “in line with the Strada”, its economy “acceptable”, road behaviour “adequate” and its interior “dated”. Regarding its quality of finish, the Zastava was criticised as “trying hard to move the Lada out of bottom place”. As to alternatives, the Citroën Visa Super E was cited as “a much better car all round” but one that cost nearly £200 more than the Zastava.

In any event, the Zastava (under its various names) continued to sell steadily in modest numbers to those of limited means whose desire to own a new car outweighed any snobbery about the brand. Zastava also manufactured its own version of the four-door Fiat 128 saloon, badged Zastava 128. The company also offered a van, which was simply the three-door hatchback with the rear seat removed and metal panels replacing the rear side windows, and a pick-up(6) version of the car, called the ‘Poly’.

Image: drives.today

Various cosmetic alterations of dubious merit were made over the course of a twenty-year production run, including those inflicted on its Fiat sibling in the 1976 facelift. One interesting Zastava variation on the facelifted Fiat’s hard and scratchy plastic dashboard was the addition of a large padded roll over the passenger side, supposedly to improve occupant safety in the event of a crash.

By 1991, over 1.3 million(7) cars had been manufactured. The Zastava 1100 was also produced in Poland by FSO and assembled from CKD(8) kits in Egypt, where it was sold as the Nasr 128.

Image: szafraninwestycje.pl

Production of Zastava automobiles was disrupted by the outbreak of the Balkan War in 1991. This vicious, decade-long struggle tore Yugoslavia apart when old ethnic and religious hatreds exploded following the disintegration of the Soviet Union during 1990 and 1991.

UN trade sanctions were imposed in 1992 in response to the atrocities committed in the war. This affected Zastava’s ability to import parts and export its cars. Further EU and US sanctions would follow later in the decade, and production limped along intermittently throughout the 1990’s. The factory complex was bombed by NATO forces in 1999 because a Zastava division was also manufacturing and supplying arms to the Serbian government.

Following the UN negotiated settlement in 1991 and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia into separate states, production at the Kragujevac plant in what was now Serbia resumed. This was mainly focused on the Koral supermini, a rebadged Yugo 45, and the Sana, a C-segment hatchback. In 2008, however, Zastava attempted to relaunch the 128-based model as the Skala 55. The effort was in vain, however, as Fiat had reached an agreement to purchase a 67% stake in the company from the Serbian government, ending the production of Zastava-branded cars.

Image: Eduardo Palma via Pinterest

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Fiat 128 was manufactured in Argentina under licence by Sevel Argentina S.A. This included one version unique to that country, a rather pleasant looking five-door estate called the ‘Rural’.

Unfortunately, Sevel attempted to modernise the 128 in 1983 with a misconceived facelift. The 128’s reverse-rake front end was disguised by a new forward-sloping grille featuring Fiat’s five-bar logo and large rectangular headlamps with outboard triangular indicator units. Aside from a slightly uncomfortable junction with the unaltered leading edge of the bonnet, this arrangement was tolerable. When the same trick was applied to the rear of the car however, by inverting the 128’s tail lights and adding new triangular indicator units surrounded by black plastic cladding, the result was gruesome. The revised model was called the ‘Super Europa’ and remained on the market until 1990.

So, there you have it, the long and complex life of one of Fiat’s most successful and influential cars. Its conservative saloon shape might have missed the zeitgeist of the 1970s onwards for hatchbacks, but it was a brilliantly engineered car that set the mechanical template for FWD cars that still prevails to the present day. It is also a reminder of the great days of its maker, now sadly long passed.

(1) Now the fourth largest city in modern-day Serbia.

(2) Later marketed as the Zastava 1100, 1300, 311, 313, 511, 513 and GTL, and the Yugo Skala.

(3) Simca had been founded by Fiat in 1935 and the Italian automaker retained a significant shareholding in the company when the 1100 was launched. Did Fiat ‘steal’ the design of the 1100’s rear-end for the Zastava?

(4) ‘Good, Bad and Ugly’

(5) The UK and US-market name for the Fiat Ritmo.

(6) Fiat also sold a similar pick-up version of the 128 in South Africa from 1978.

(7) Comprising 1.05 million three and five-door hatchbacks and 0.25 million four-door saloons.

(8) ‘Completely-Knocked Down’ meaning everything necessary to assemble the car shipped in containers. 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

40 thoughts on “Dante’s Peak (Part Three)”

    1. Good evening David. Yes, the five-door Rural really is rather pleasant, with more thsn a hint of the Austin Maxi in its proportions if not overall size. Here’s another image:

      The Austin Maxi comparison was explored by my DTW colleague, Robertas Parazitas, in a series which starts here:

      128 vs Maxi Part 1 : Last Tango of the Titans

  1. It’s amazing how often former Yugoslavia is seen as an Iron Curtain country when in reality it was non-aligned and neutral for all the time of its existence.

    1. Good morning Dave. I don’t think I said that Yugoslavia was an “Iron Curtain country”. It was indeed officially neutral and non-aligned, as you say, but the Soviet Union still exerted considerable influence over it via the League of Communists in Yugoslavia, the national ruling party.

      One of the factors that suppressed ethnic tensions in the country was the perceived threat of invasion from a Soviet ‘peacekeeping’ force in the event of a breakout of hostilities. It’s a moot point as to whether or when Yugoslavia would have disintegrated violently had the Soviet Union remained intact, but the timing of both events is hardly coincidental.

    2. I didn’t mean you, Daniel. I beg your pardon if I gave this impression.
      I just referred to the magazines quoted in this article.
      Does the Yugoslavian origin make the Zastava an example of Brutalism?

    3. Ah, understood, Dave, thank you for clarifying. As to Yugoslavian Brutalist architecture, happily, it had no influence on the still Italianate Zastava 101 although the later Yugo Sana was distinctly modernist:

    4. The Yugo Sana somehow reminds me of slightly distorted Citroen ZX.

    5. Yugoslavia was aligned with the Soviets until 1948 and the Tito-Stalin split, after that it pioneered the Non-Aligned Movement, which was actually founded in Belgrade.

      BTW, the Sana was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro. Regarding Yugoslavia, I believe he also designed the Tomos Colibri moped.

  2. You’re right Dave – and no doubt it would qualify as ‘bland’. But so much more soothing than yesterday’s Hyundai Tuscon – I fear that abominable image will haunt me for a long time yet.

  3. There was an opportunity for the 101/Skala (and by extension the Koral) to receive the larger Florida’s 1.4-1.6 engines.

    As the Strada/Ritmo was in a number of ways a development of the 128/101/Skala and the smaller related Koral, was there anymore room for the latter two could have been enhanced by the Strada/Ritmo’s improvements (not to mention something like the redesigned mk1 Ibiza’s gearbox, Ritmo & Koral-like 3-speed automatic, etc) to further bolster their competitiveness slightly on the market?

    1. Hi Bob. I imagine you’re right, but I suppose Fiat had little incentive to help improve a car that significantly undercut its own offerings.

    2. That may have been a factor even though Fiat did allow SEAT to develop more potent versions including the Ritmo and Ronda (even with the dispute), although suspect lack of money at Zastava is more likely. For all the 128/Skala’s innovation, it is surprising how quickly it fell behind the opposition before it was replaced by the Strada and even the 85 hp 1500 engine at minimum would have sufficed.

      The closest would have to be a Yugo Koral GTi concept that made use of the Florida’s 98 hp 1.6 PSA TU engine, allowing it to go from 0-100 km/h in under 10 seconds.

      The Koral itself is interesting in the sense it technically started out as a 127 replacement capable of using the 128 engines, gifted to Zastava after not being viewed by Fiat as advanced enough over the existing 127. Yet somewhere along the line, whether through cost-cutting or to avoid overlap the end result was a shortened 3-door car compared to the 5-door hatchback prototypes (not quite clear which Project 143 study Zastava used to create the Koral).

  4. Thank you Daniel for such an interesting series on one of the most important post-war Fiat cars. As for the Zastava, I hadn’t noticed the slightly different front end. We even enjoyed a bit of history in the comment section too!

    By the way, the Strada name was also used in place of Ritmo in the US. Curiously, the Marchione era Fiat Bravo was called the Ritmo in Australia.

    Finally, the less said (and in particular, illustrated) on the Super Europa the better. That’s 1980s Plastic Fiat Restyling at its epic worst!

    1. Hi Cesar. Thanks for the clarification on the use of the alternative ‘Strada’ name also in the US. Text amended accordingly. The US market car was blighted by the awkward imposition of the 5mph bumpers:

      As to the Super Europa, I think a larger photo of the rear end is required to show its true awfulness:

      Sorry! 😁

    2. Arrrghh, my eyes!! The Super Europa rear is truly awful, haha. The Strada, on the other hand, actually looks quite handsome, even if the bumper could have been profiled better. Maybe it’s the nice copper colour or the pretty scenery, but the Strada in the pic somehow works for me.

  5. I can recall taking a look under a Zastava Poly – the pick-up – in Crete to see what it used for rear suspension. The answer was the same very clever transverse leaf design as the saloons. I’d been expecting a beam axle on longitudinal leaf springs, as was customary for car derived LCVs.

    Also, only of peripheral interest, but most Argentinian 127/147 derivatives used the 128 OHC engine. Amazing that it fitted, as it must be longer than the 100 and FIASA engines.

  6. Fun story.
    During my fifteen month long proud ownership period of a beta spider the door catch in the driver’s door snapped. The catch is made from an omega-shaped thick wire spring attached to the A post and a plastic disc in the door sitting in the closed part of the omega.
    This disc broke and then you had to be very careful when opening the door.
    My Fiat/Lancia dealer looked for the original Lancia part which was not available and would have cost nearly one hundred currency units. When I showed the part to him he burst out in laughter because the part was identical to the one of the Fiat 128, readily available and mine for so little money that he gave it to me for free.

    1. It’s fun to learn about humble components being shared with higher level cars, especially with exotics. Ferrari was especially proficient at that.

      Some examples off the top of my head:

      1. Focus Mk1 side markers on the Lamborghini Murcielago (I saw it on a a youtube video).

      2. Ferrari Daytona halfshafts also used on the Porsche 930 Turbo. Of course, in this case, it’s not much help as they’re both equally expensive!

      3. Rover SD1 rear lights on the Mk2 Lotus Esprit.

      4. Scirocco Mk2 rear lights on the Aston Martin Virage.

      Lots of other examples, of course.

    2. Hi Cesar. I used to love that sort of ‘parts bin spotting’ of components sourced from mainstream models for more specialist cars, where the production volumes would make the cost of tooling up for bespoke parts would have been prohibitive. One notable example is Bristol, which sourced a series of different taillights for its cars, most of which did not integrate happily into the designs.

    3. Moto Guzzi 850 V2 motorcycles used Fiat 128 starter motor, contact breaker and rectangular headlight where fitted.

    4. Fiat door catch
      How do they justify the price for the Lancia version?

  7. This is what Giacosa and Boano wanted, before Guadenzio Bono imposed his Solomonic wisdom:

    1. And some pictures of the Yugoslavia-bound X1/1 prototypes from 40YODWF:

      The caption is a reminder that even many years later Dante Giacosa was REALLY bitter about not getting his hatchback.

    2. Hi Robertas. Thanks for posting those images. The alternative hatchback design, without the kink in the tailgate, is very clean, but is it a bit too bland? Not sure.

    3. When I look at the front of this car, I start to see what the Austin Allegro probably should have looked like before they crammed the tall e-series into it. That car was literally bulging from the inside.

    4. The 3 door hatch proposal is very 127-like, and looks fine, if undramatic, in side elevation.

      The back end in three quarter view just doesn’t look right. The rear window is too shallow, and the point where the tailgate changes from vertical to raked should be higher; this would also increase boot space.

      The 127 isn’t really any better in this matter. The 3-door hatch always looked better to me – probably all down to that deeper rear window.

    5. I can see what they were trying to do with the front end, with the round headlights and the lines in the grille extending to the indicators and maybe it’s just the grainy picture, but it doesn’t quite work for me.

      The three door does look a bit bland, I agree. It could do with a bit of finessing (maybe some curvature in a slightly wider c-pillar or in the lower end of the DLO, like the 127?). Thanks for the pictures, Robertas.

      Overall, though, the main impression I get from these articles is what you end with, Daniel: what a shame that Fiat has all but disappeared. We’ve lost that sense of relatively affordable fun and pizzazz, I think.

      By the way: were the Escort and Astra considered expensive, or the Fiat considered cheap? It’s quite a price difference you mention.

  8. Excellent series Daniel thanks again. That 5 door hatchback is especially nice looking, and as per my usual topic of choice, I can instantly see the car the 1100 should have turned into in its design.

    1. The Simca 1100 changed the shape of its rear during its production life.
      Early examples had a clear kink in the hatch and a strip of metal between the screen’s lower edge and the kink

      Later examples had a hatch with a more convex curvature and without that pronounced kink that gave it a smoother lateral view.

    2. Well spotted, Dave. That had passed me by.

      The 1100’s original slim tail lights look very like those on the Mk1 Austin 1800 (but aren’t the same):

    3. The smoothed out tail is even more clearly visible in this picture

    4. The Simca 1100 estate’s vertical-style rear lights bear some resemblance to the Wolseley 18/85’s, too.

    5. I know that Fiat kept a minority shareholding in Simca into the 1970s, but I didn’t realise that entitled Simca to commission a restyle from Fiat’s renowned facelift team.

  9. CAR may well have been guilty of irrational bias, but I bet the hatchback Zastava, especially the five-door, was a lot less rigid than the saloon 128. So I can imagine that the Yugoslav car might have lacked the combination of good ride, handling and roadholding that CAR picked out for praise in the Italian.

  10. As we spaniards had a special fondness for small saloons, it´s strange that SEAT didnt build the 128. It would had been a genuine rival of the Renault Siete (now I come to think of it, the Siete, unlike the R5, wasn´t a great sales success).

    The 124 was still selling very well and it was a “proper” car with RWD, and the 127 was a success straight from the box, so perhaps a SEAT 128 saloon would had confused SEAT buyers instead of attract new ones. But they didn´t hesitate in building the 128 3p and SEAT´s own 1200 Sport “Bocanegra”, similar small sport coupés that competed with each other.

  11. If you put a hatchback on a Fiat 127 you get better access to the luggage space. But the luggage space is still small, and the hatch will make the car more expensive, heavier, less rigid, and more rattly, and more likely to leak water ( if you live in Ireland ).

    1. My first car was a 127, absolutely loved it, which acquired plenty of additional drain holes in the bottom over the years to let water out… 🙂

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