The Fiat 124 Twin-Cam Sport Coupe

An Appreciation

My dictionary says “appraisal” is putting a price on or fixing the value of something, a valuation by authority. So I suppose I appraise the cars I road-test. But in the case of the Fiat 124 Sport coupé I not only appraised it, I appreciated it (a rise in value) after very short acquaintance.

This Fiat personifies the Italian scene—it is fun, it is smart, it is sporting, modern and beautifully made. It provides quick transport for two or four persons, being more spacious than some so-called 2+2s, and it is competitive in price.

The Fiat 124S coupé does not make-do with the 1,100 push-rod engine from the 124 saloon, excellent as this is. Under the bonnet there is a purposeful Tipo 124AC twin-overhead-camshaft, 80 x 71½-mm. (1,438 c.c.) power unit with Weber 34DFH4 carburetter, which gives 96 b.h.p. on an 8.9-to-1 c.r.—not that this means much, as it is an S.A.E. rating. A toothed belt provides a quiet inexpensive drive for the camshafts and it is interesting that it also drives the distributor. I still find it hard not to think of belts as things which stretch, and while a slight change in valve timing may not be of much importance (Fiat quote theirs as inlet-opens, exhaust-closes at 26°; inlet-closes, exhaust-opens at 66°, with 0.018 in./0.020 in. clearances), ignition setting is more sensitive, surely? However, tensioned belts are obviously satisfactory if replaced at between 24,000 and 36,000-mile intervals; I note that the sprocket for the skew-gear-driven distributor/oil-pump shaft has 15 teeth in full contact with the belt. This is a sophisticated engine, with shim tappet-adjustment that does not involve removing the camshafts, pump cooling incorporating a thermostatic electromagnetic fan, full-flow and by-pass oil filters, and recirculatory crankcase emission control.

The car I tried had the five-speed gearbox, delightful to use and with a fifth speed which can be held down to quite modest road speeds, say 35 to 40 m.p.h. It provides 70-limit cruising at under 4,000 r.p.m. from an engine safe up to 6,600 r.p.m., where there is a clear yellow line on the tachometer—just as well, as this impressive crankshaft speed is attained very readily. Somewhat noisy in an eager sort of way, this engine gives a top speed of over 100 m.p.h. (Fiat claim 106 in 4th, 99 m.p.h. in 5th gear) and acceleration which isn’t breathtaking but is more than a match for the smaller, least-expensive Alfa Romeo and Lancia Fulvia and Flavia models. Indeed, the Fiat 124 Sport coupé is a gentlemanly car. The interior is extremely tasteful, with unpolished veneer for facia and gear-lever surround (a useful tray) and black trim elsewhere, with notably high-grade fittings.

The front seats have hard shallow cushions but are shaped for full support and the reclining backs adjust up or down under fine knob control and return to the desired position after being released, for rear-seat access, by little levers on the inside edges of the cushions.

All controls, including central gear-lever and handbrake, are well placed, except that the washers’ rubber button is divorced from the wipers’ switch and the levers for the facia fresh-air vents are rather far forward. The Fiat 120-m.p.h. speedometer and matching electronic tachometer have clear calibrations and steady-reading needles. To the left of them are three small Veglia Borletti dials, oil gauge, fuel gauge (each with its warning light incorporated) and thermometer, calibrated in different colours for Continental and British readings—what could be neater? Oil pressure varied from approximately 20 to 40 lb./sq. in.; water heat was normally just over 90°C. The heater controls (cold and hot air levers and another which works an effective demister) are between the seats, with the tiny tumbler-switch for the two-speed heater fan behind the central parcels’ tray. Thus if changes of speed or climate call for alteration of these controls it is only necessary to drop the left hand. Other refinements include knobs for varying screen-wiper speed over a considerable range and for dimming facia lighting and intensity of the turn-indicators’ warning light. There are the usual Fiat twin stalk controls, and multi-switching for the lamps which the ignition key, as well as a switch, douses. A map-lamp shines above the parcels’ tray, under courtesy action or its own neat switch, and there is a cigarette lighter beside it.

The steering wheel has a thin wood rim and two drilled spokes, with centre horn push, the facia is not broken by a cubby-hole, a drop-tray (not lockable) under it being substituted, with stowage wells on the facia walls, and there is an anti-dazzle mirror. The test car had Britax safety-belts.

The interior and layout of this Fiat coupé are really extremely neat. There are big quarter-lights, vent-type side windows, back shelf, coat-hooks, sill interior locks, steering lock, big door grabs, an unobstructed boot with a properly guttered lid, a screw-on fuel filler cap under a non-lockable flap on the n/s of the body, Carello single but effective head-lamps, and two-tone air-horns. Twin roof lamps, with switches, are provided for the rear compartment and the doors have good locks.

I certainly enjoyed driving this egg-yolk Italian motor car. It holds the road splendidly on 165 x 13 Pirelli Cinturatos and responds well to firm but not heavy steering, sensibly geared at just under three turns, lock-to-lock, with gentle castor return and no lost motion or kick-back. There could hardly be more neutral cornering characteristics under normal conditions and, whereas Fiat saloons leave a good deal to be desired so far as a level ride is concerned, I was most impressed with the non-pitch ride of the 124 coupé, which has conventional coil-springs but good location of a rigid back axle, that made its presence felt mildly very occasionally on rough roads. I have seen the ride described as harsh low down. A little body shake is promoted—but this is unimportant, as is the noise from the engine, for a car of such sporting demeanour. There is adequate ground clearance and exceptional all-round visibility, except that the o/s of the screen is not fully swept by the wipers.

No car is perfect but the faults in this Fiat are few, and minor. There is a faint reflection in the flat, inclined screen from the top of the polished-wood steering-wheel rim, the driver’s or front passenger’s coats can obstruct the otherwise well-placed heater controls, and coat-tails get trapped under the handbrake, and the front badge soon flew off and tumbled against the screen.

Otherwise, this is a great little car. The gear change is lighter, I think, than that of Alfa Romeo’s five-speed box and reverse is easily found by lifting the lever back and down behind the fifth-speed location; the gears are quiet. The all-disc, self-adjusting, compensated, servo brakes function extremely well. There are maxima in the lower gears, if you give the willing, responsive engine its head, of 28, 50, 78 and over 100 m.p.h. Without occupants, but ready to go, with a gallon of fuel, the weight was 18 cwt. 1 qtr. The Fiat is good looking without being flamboyant. It is genuinely good fun to drive.

It is nice that Turin has refrained from calling this twin-cam coupé a GT car, although this they might well do, for it is quite a miniature GT in many ways and as it give around 26 to 28 m.p.g. of premium petrol and has a 9.8-gallon tank, the range is not too far short of this category. (I recorded nearly 27½ m.p.g. on a fast run over deserted Welsh roads and a very little less in London, an overall consumption of 27.3 m.p.g. There was a drop of about a pint in the level of the sump oil, presumably Fiat’s own brand, after 700 miles).

I have seen this captivating Fiat described by another critic as “An attractive, entertaining blend of sports car and saloon for the small family”. Personally, I do not consider this nearly appreciative enough. It is a car which should cause many discerning drivers with £1,478 to spend to crumple up their short-list and throw it away.—W. B.