Remember Fiat fiasco of the '70s?

Posted: April 02, 2009

For Italians, Fiat is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino. For many of us who owned Fiats during the automaker's last presence in this country, the acronym stood for Fix It Again, Tony.

I know, the company that Chrysler may team up with is now the largest vehicle manufacturer in Italy, and it builds good machinery. But that wasn't the case the last time around. While some American motorists may have had decent luck with the fragile Fiats, most of us didn't, and it was that poor quality that eventually pushed the company out of this market in 1984.

The 1974 Fiat 128 sedan I owned was a rather Dickensian reminder of Fiat Past. My father-in-law gave me the car after a Honda dealer refused to take it in trade. It had only 37,000 miles on it, so I figured I could use it as a second car for a while. Little did I realize what masochistic games the original throwaway automobile was going to play on me before it completely self-destructed 7,000 miles later.

The clutch slipped, for openers. And I quickly learned that, at 40 miles to the quart, the Fiat's oil mileage wasn't much better than its gas mileage.

Then there was its propensity for snapping clutch cables. The first time it happened, I drove clutchless from Washington to Philadelphia. (Paying a toll involved slowing down to a crawl through the tollbooth, like a Pony Express rider handing off a mailbag.)

Then there was the engine fire in The Inquirer parking lot. The event had an Apocalypse Now quality. (I love the smell of burning rubber in the morning.)

Interestingly enough, the 128 didn't die when Fiat stopped building it in 1985. I learned this when I went to the Philadelphia International Auto Show and realized that the "new" 1986 Yugo was a re-bodied Fiat 128.

Contact Al Haas at Alhaasauto@aol.com.

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