Fiats are fun

Some Thoughts Prompted by a Brief Test of the Latest 1,197-c.c. Tipo 124 Model

WlTH certain notable exceptions Fiat of Turin build bread-and-butter transport in extremely large quantities and a lot of people must regard this make as just a form of everyday transport. Yet it is a fact that almost every Fiat I have driven has been fun. Which reminds me that many years ago, reporting on Ernest Eldridge’s courageous run at Arpajon in the enormous airship-engined chain-drive F.I.A.T. “Mephistopheles,” a correspondent of this journal, no doubt unaware that the letters proudly blazoned on the car’s radiator were an abbreviation of Fabbrica Italiana d’Automobili Turin, suggested flippantly that they stood for “Fun In A Taxi”—although a little mature thought should have suggested to him that the fun depends on whom you share your taxi with, and whether it is a Fiat, Unic, Renault, Darracq, Beardmore, Charron, Citroen, Austin, Morris, W. & G., Belsize or whatever, is quite immaterial….

Personally, so far as fun in Fiats if not in taxis is concerned, I suppose it started with the little Topolino or Fiat 500, erroneously thought by many people to he a half-litre baby car on account of this numerical designation, but actually having a 570-c.c. sidevalve engine. I remember I dismissed it as a stupid toy on first encountering it at Olympia, with its radiator behind a power unit more modest than that of an Austin 7. Very soon it became apparent to me that its independent front suspension, small wheels and hydraulic brakes put it in a press-on, fast-cornering category the by now out-dated Longbridge product could never approach. I had my first accident in one (which is incidental and wasn’t the fault of the Fiat), was driven in a Brooklands High Speed Trial in one by none other than John Eason-Gibson, present Secretary of the B.R.D.C., went on a photographic sortee in another with a leggy model-girl and have carried five or six people in these unprotesting smallest-of-the-small on joyful occasions.

Then the pre-war Fiat Balilla sports model was geared high in steering and gearbox and was a very lively performer at a time when M.G.s and Singers and other British small cars were better adapted to mud trials, while the later 1,100-c.c. saloon Balilla, if not quite approaching the road-holding of a Lancia Aprilia or Type 45 B.M.W., was far nicer to handle than equivalent-priced saloons for British families, very willing, and had flush-fitting door handles and other worthwhile amenities.

Since the war there has been the astonishing Fiat 1100, rated not all that long ago as the best all-round small saloon, and recently given a new lease of life as the Fiat 1100R, and the very pleasing twin-cam sports 1500, and the 1500 saloon which had extremely good acceleration for a family conveyance, if it was a bit too tail happy on wet roads, at all events in its earliest form.

The little o.h.v. air-cooled rear-engined Fiat 500 needs no further praise from me; it is undoubtedly the finest economy package ever produced, essentially reliable, extremely sparing of the ever-more-expensive propulsion fluid, and the greatest possible fun into the bargain, and very safe withall, unless you are in an absurd hurry—although in town traffic it is still about the quickest mode of transport, and the easiest to park, that there is. In Giardiniera estate car form it is a remarkable little load-carrier, even if considerable exercise of the gear-lever arm is necessary to encourage it along.

The Fiat 600 offers an extension of the 500’s staunch personality, with more interior space. less noise, more urge, and the comparative sophistication of a 4-cylinder engine. water-cooled. The 850 even more so. . . .

The 2300S Coupe I like, as much as, if not more than, the Mercedes-Benz 230SL, which is indeed an admission—it is unquestionably a fast car of character. And you cannot deny that in their respective categories the compact multi-seat and the stylish Coupe and fresh-air Spider versions of the Fiat 850, are enormous fun.

It has been said that if the French Government owns Renault, Fiat virtually owns Italy, but, that political chestnut apart, I have great respect and admiration for the wide range of models they build at the Fiat factories in Turin.

This was enhanced the other day when Alfred Woolf, who nurtures Fiat Public Relations in this country, rang up to ask if I would care to try the newest of the breed, the 1,197-c.c. Tipo 124. I found it, an Italian-registered compact I.h.d. dark blue 4-door saloon in the typical square-rigged Fiat style, in size between an 1100 and a 1500, upholstered in a rather unhappily contrasting golden brown, on Italian-manufactured 155 x 13 Ceat DR 163 nylon tyres, waiting self-consciously at a Holborn parking meter.

This new model, which comes so closely between the 1100 and the 1300 Fiats, has been designed by Dott-Ing. Oscar Montabone as a family car—but what fun it is to drive! From feeling somewhat “under” the English weather, a good deal more than ” t1deg. under” in fact (I put this down to the effects of atomic fall-out, which doctors do not or will not admit to, with our frequent and heavy rainfall Nature’s indication that she is doing her best to combat man’s latest folly—but perhaps we had better return to matters motoring!), a few days at the wheel of the 124 made me feel fit, and younger than my years. It is that sort of automobile … one which conjures up visions of hot golden sun, blue seas, red vino and handsome men who do not conceal their appreciation of attractive girls. (But, as I said, let’s get back to motor cars!)

This Tipo 124 Fiat is only a family conveyance; it has been described as an Italian Cortina. Wrong, in my view! It has the life, the light controls, the handling precision of a sporting car and, greatly as I admire the Ford Cortina, enjoy driving it, and swear by not at, the GT version, I would not profess to compare this product of Dagenham with Fiat’s latest—which anyway is in the 1100-c.c., not 1 1/2-litre category. Whereas the Fiat makes me want to drive along the Autostrada del Sol to Florence and Naples, the Cortina 1200 I associate with seaside excursions to Southend in a drizzle. . . .

The Fiat’s driving position is most acceptable, set for arms-full-stretch, with a very easy-to-reach full horn-ring sounding dual Klaxon KM4 horns which give a high-note Italian warning. Visibility is good, with thin screen pillars; the steering free from lost motion and shock and sensibly geared at 2 1/4-turns, lock-to-lock, and with a reasonable turning circle. The clutch action is light and there is a fairly long rigid central gear-lever, somewhat far from the wheel and with fairly big movements, but controlling, a splendidly precise, if noticeably notchy, rather Lancia-like change, with unbeatable syncromesh on all four gears. Reverse is spring-guarded, beyond top.

Some Fiats have been notorious for a galaxy of flashing-lights on their facias. The 124 has lots of warning lamps, but they are small inch-long slots, to which I did not object, supplemented by the rather-difficult-to-read 160-k.p.h. Veglia speedometer with its fuel gauge and total distance recorder. Three “piano-key” buttons close together on the left look after lamps-on, instrument lighting and wipers, the rubber washers’ push being outboard of these, remote from the wipers’ button—very fumbly in the dark.

Two I.h. stalks, long for lamps, shorter one for turn-indicators, fit close under the wheel; the former works sensibly from sidelamps down through dipped to full-beam, which I found easier to memorise than that on the Triumph 1300, for example. But as the ignition key, set inconveniently close to the steering column it locks, has to be set to keep the lamps alight, unaccustomed British users can all too easily plunge their parked Fiat in darkness until they become acquainted with its triple lamps’ controls. The non-reflective finish of steering wheel centre and facia sill are invaluable in sunny climes.

Pedals and pull-up central hand-brake are well located; there is particularly generous window area. The separate p.v.c.-upholtiered front seats are remarkably comfortable, although without adjustable squabs. An anti-dazzle mirror, neat sill internal door locks, rubber floor matting, neat little pull-out internal door handles, and thief-proof quarter-light catches are provided, and the circular rotatable facia-sill vents de-mist the screen most effectively.

Simple heater quadrant controls, with heater button beside them, well-made if low-geared window winders, tight-fitting pockets in the front doors, a very roomy but unlockable cubby-hole, vanity mirror in one, pocket for sun-glasses in the other swivelling visor, very neat ash-trays ahead of the rear-door arm-rests. roof “grabs” incorporatiog coat-hooks and a useful back parcels-shelf are amongst the 124’s amenities, as well as rubber-capped bumpers and a deep 13.6 cu. ft. luggage boot with upright spare wheel and safety break-away fuel tank holding 8.6 gallons, its threaded filler under a flap on the o/s of the body. The Darman Ar-To wipers with Carello-Trico blades work rather fast and 2-speed control would be welcome.

This was not a full road-test and I did not even take fuel consumption figures. but the premium petrol I fed the 124 lasted well—I would expect 28-30 m.p.g. in ordinary use or even a good deal better. This from the Tipo 124A. 5-bearing 4-cylinder 73 x 71.5-mm. engine with alloy head having individual porting and excellent manifolding for the twin-choke Solex C32PHH6 carburetter, from which engineer Montabone has cleverly contrived to extract 60 (net) b.h.p. at 5,600 r.p.m. on an 8.8-to-1 cr., equal to the output of Fiat’s 1300.

As he has also kept the weight down to just over 16 cwt. without any vibration or sense of torsional non-rigidity being discernible by the occupants, performance is excellent—those who have timed it speak of 0-50 m.p.h. in 11.6 sec., 0-60 m.p.h. in 18.0 sec., a s.s. 1/4-mile in 20.4 sec., with-a top speed of over 90 m.p.h. Even the rather low 2nd gear (ratios : 16.1, 9.8, 6.4 and 4.3 to 1) showed me a speedometer 50 m.p.h. (Compare with 0-50 in 12.7 sec., 0-60 in 22.2 sec., s.s. 1/4-mile 22.5 sec., and 77.2 m.p.h. from the Ford Cortina 1200, or 0-50 in 14.6 sec., 0-60 in 20.1 sec., s.s. 1/4-mile in 22.0 sec., and 90 m.p.h. from the M.G. 1100. Even the 1 1/2-litre Ford Cortina Super is licked by the Fiat 124, with 0-50 in 12.7 sec., 0-60 in 19.5 sec., s.s. 1/4-mile in 20.7 sec., and 83.5 m.p.h.)

Although a normal back axle is used it is sprung on coil-springs and located by a torque tube, trailing radius arms and Panhard rod, and I experienced none of the uncertain wet-surface roadholding that marred the Fiat 1500, although I suspect that the Tipo 124 was designed primarily for Pirelli Sempione tyres whereas I was “ceated” differently, if you will excuse the pun. Indeed, the responsive steering, lack of roll, and understeer cornering with practically no rear-end adhesion-loss makes this a very sporting-sort of family saloon, especially as the responsive engine has a quite fruity Italian exhaust note. There is no back-axle tramp when accelerating hard and the wheels are well damped, the ride a bit choppy only over poor road surfaces. The all-disc Fiat-Bendix 8.95-in, non-servo brakes. with rear pressure adjustment according to weight on the wheels, are good, with low pedal pressures. No chassis greasing is needed and very infrequent servicing. Equipment Includes Fiam 4677 headlamps, Marelli electrics and ignition, a Titane battery and Britax safety-belts. The doors shut tinnily and tend to iump back on their catches. The car is notably free from badgery and slogans on its exterior and interior. 

I regard the Tipo 124 Fiat as likely to become one of the great touring cars of the nineteen-sixties. A price will not be announced until the Motor Show.