The Fiat 128

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A good small car

Last year I tried the then new Fiat 128 briefly in Turin. I have since driven a four-door model in this country, from which emerges the impression that it is an excellent little car. Fiat must be very pleased with it, for it is a great improvement over the long-lived 1100 it replaces, although in my opinion not justifying the hysterical outburst its introduction caused in certain quarters.

The Fiat engineers have made good use of the transverse engine/ front-drive concept which they may have pioneered by a gnat’s whisker from BMC, although Sir Alec Issigonis was the designer who proved that it would work. Issigonis dispensed with a conventional self-contained gearbox, bravely relegating the transmission cogs to the engine sump, at the risk of their contamination by metal chippings and of inflicting on them thin lubricating oil, the additional gears required causing extra cacophony. He also obviated complication in the cooling-fan department by placing the radiator at the side of the car, in the n/s front-wheel arch, claiming this to be an area of low pressure which assisted in drawing out warm air. This enabled the fan to be driven normally but it had to run fast to be effective, with a further increase in noise level.

Peugeot followed this layout for their 204, even to a sumpful of gears. But they kept the radiator in the conventional place, which involved them in a tortuous extended belt, over a multiplicity of pulleys, to get the drive from the end of the engine to the fan at the front of the car.

It has to be admitted that when Fiat followed Issigonis (in the production sense, anyway) they contrived matters rather better. Using a cautious approach, via the Autobianchi Primula, they retained a normal clutch and gearbox, in line with their transverse engine, taking the drive through a single pair of step-down gears to the differential. Their method obviated any qualms anyone might harbour about the east/west engine location especially as it eliminates the additional noise otherwise inherited. The problem of the cooling fan was also neatly overcome, Fiat putting it and the radiator at the nose of the 128 but operating the fan electrically (and also thermostatically) so that no mechanical drive is involved.

Whereas BMC waited until the Maxi to have an overhead-camshaft engine, and the Simca 1100 which follows the Autobianchi/Fiat layout, also has push-rod valve gear, Peugeot and Fiat use o.h.c. power units, the Fiat 128 with a cogged-belt camshaft drive to further reduce the noise level.

Apart from the clever application of the Issigonis-system to the Tipo 128, Fiat have incorporated some refined engineering in its detail arrangements. The overall impression of this little car, whose 80 x 55.5-mm. (1,162 c.c.) engine delivers 55 (net) b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m., is one of willingness, spaciousness and excellent road-clinging qualities. The performance impresses as very good, from the viewpoint of acceleration, both in top gear and through-the-box. This is confirmed by figures, which show the Fiat 128 to be quicker from rest to 50 or 60 m.p.h. than all its rivals, even those of 1,300 c.c. The British Leyland 1100s, Maxi and 1300s are slower and it takes their 1300 GT to outrun this lively small car from Turin, and the Fiat isn’t much slower, while it costs £134 less. The Fiat 128 genuinely exceeds 85 m.p.h. and will show a satisfying 70 m.p.h.-plus in 3rd gear. It certainly more than keeps up with the traffic!

Thus, on performance alone, the 128 is a significant small car. It is also spacious without the context of an 8 ft. 4 in. wheelbase, entry and egress easy via its four doors, which possess sill internal locks and neat little pull-out handles. It is plainly but quality-trimmed and there are various amenities such as rubber-tipped bumpers, roof grabs, coat hooks, an interior lamp on each side, dual vizors, a good anti-dazzle mirror, etc. The luggage boot is wider than it is deep but a lot of luggage can be humped into it, the location of the spare wheel in the engine compartment contributing to its capacity. The front seats possess fully-reclining squabs set either by sweep or precision action from a somewhat stiff front-facing knob. I found the cushion of the driving seat rather hard on long acquaintance.

Fiat do not provide an oddments’ cubby-hole but there is an under-facia shelf on both sides, the driver’s area obstructed by an accessible fuse-box, to which I raise no objection, for the circuit fusing is extremely efficient. There is the usual back shelf, well lipped, and tight pockets in the front doors. Arm-rests and good pull-out ash-trays are provided.

On the road this Fiat handles as well as it motors. There is little evidence that it is a front-drive car, except that cruising and cornering speeds nearly coincide. It has light, quick, 3-1/4-turns lock-to-lock rack-and-pinion steering which, however, transmitted an almost alarming degree of kick-back over certain road surfaces. There is some understeer in power-on cornering and the front wheels break away early in the wet, relying on f.w.d. to pull the car straight. The brakes, disc at the front, are excellent. The central gear-lever is well placed and the changes go through quickly and smoothly, although the lever, spring-loaded to the o/s of the gate, has rather long movements. To spoil an otherwise nice gearbox, there was resistance to the selection of the 1st and 2nd gears, some pressure being needed before these went in with a “honk”, which became tiring in heavy traffic. The clutch was rather sticky on the test car, and inclined to be too sudden.

The Fiat 128 is no sluggard on difficult across-the-map journeys, when its ability to corner fast with a minimum of roll, yet at a speed which makes the 145-13 Pirelli Cinturato CN54s yelp (f.w.d. helps here), matches its good pick-up. I had occasion to drive it, heavily laden, from W. Chiltington to Nantmel, over a route which does not give much opportunity for overtaking slower vehicles, except on the excellent Andover ring road and on the run into Gloucester. The Fiat nevertheless averaged better than 43 m.p.h., inclusive of a stop to clean its screen, and driven thus, together with some cold-starts (instantaneous) and town commuting, gave 34.7 m.p.g. of the less expensive 4-star petrol. It outruns most other small cars and is superior on all counts to General Motors’ Opel Kadett XE, which I tested recently.

The instruments and controls consist of a 100-m.p.h. Veglia speedometer and matching dial before the driver, the latter incorporating oil-pressure and generator-charge warning lights and casually-calibrated fuel and heat gauges. There is only a total mileage recorder, sans decimals, but a low-level fuel warning light is provided. Between these dials are more warning lights, for turn-indicators, lamps-on and full-beam. Night driving was tiring because these two latter warning lamps, one green, one blue, not only shone directly in my eyes but also reflected in the windscreen—it is astonishing that, no matter how many proving grounds there are, these irritating and unnecessary items which any experienced tester should stop immediately, continue to be encountered. Here I may add that the beam from the Carello headlamps was concentrated but unduly short and the dipped beam all too “Continental”.

Fiat use their complex lamps’ control method, a big rocker-switch on the facia (with an adjacent one for panel lighting) putting the lights on, but the ignition-key dousing them if it is in a certain position. Control of side, dipped or full beam is by a long l.h. steering-column stalk, rather light in its action, so that impulsive fingers can plunge the car on to sidelamps when dipping was intended. A shorter l.h. stalk works the turn-indicators, a long r.h. one the wipers, either all the time or in intermittent wipes. The screen washers’ rubber button is on the left side of the facia. The facia centre contains the two vertical heater quadrant levers, switch for the two-speed fan, and knobs for (unusually) a hand-throttle and choke. The horn is sounded by a depressible segment in the middle of the steering-wheel spoke— not altogether convenient. There is a conventional hand-brake between the seats. The adjustable heater/fresh-air outlets are found both on the windscreen sill and at the facia extremities. The heater is of the old-fashioned variety with a drop-lid to distribute hot air. The fuel filler is beneath a flap on the n/s of the body; it has a screw cap. The tank holds 8-1/3 gallons.

The self-propping, front-hinged bonnet opens to reveal scattered machinery, a Weber 32 ICEV carburetter, an Exide Supreme battery, a fairly accessible wire dip-stick which showed approximately one pint of oil to have been consumed in 1,400 miles, and a very unreachable No. I plug.

There are front quarter-lights with tricky catches and rubber overriders on the bumpers. The ride is a bit choppy, the suspension, which has the now despised (by Ford) MacPherson coil-spring struts in conjunction with lower links at the front and i.r.s. with a transverse leaf-spring, being firm enough to rattle the windows over rough roads. The test-car was in a startlingly bright shade of blue (see picture), with black interior trim. Naturally, as a small car, the Fiat engine zizzes a bit and the gears whine somewhat as it covers the ground with commendable agility.

At £861 in fourdoor form (£818 as a two-door saloon) the Fiat 128 should boost its maker’s sales appreciably the world over.—W. B.

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