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It seemed no Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the ’70s was complete without a trip to the ‘accessory shop’ to buy some tat to upgrade the family saloon.
Fiat’s idea with its 1971 128 Rally was that the manufacturer would save you the bother: with its sill stripes and badging it looked like all that was missing was the fake spray-on mud splattered up the side.
The iodine driving lamps (mounted on nifty half bumpers), matt black front grille and four circular tail-lights all pandered to the then-current fashion for customising and personalising your car. Inside, its chunky, two-spoke steering wheel, tachometer and sports seats were unique to the Rally specification.
The first of the sporty 128s, it was powered by a 1290cc engine with a twin-choke Weber carb. With its higher compression it was good for 67bhp and 93mph; all this for a not unreasonable £200 price premium over the standard 128 two-door saloon.
The Fiat 128 Rally was only available with the two-door body and had exclusive features like an alternator and intermittent wipe, useful upgrades that later featured on more ordinary 128s.
To be honest I would be quite happy with a basic 128, but try finding one. To modern eyes it is a shoebox of a car, austerely minimalist and comically dinky in relation to almost anything you see on the road today.
When I first drove one in the early ’80s it was already a much less common vehicle than it had been five years earlier.
I had been sent out on a chippy run by the dragon of a secretary at the Subaru/Hyundai dealership I worked for as a car cleaner. The 128 in question was not a Rally but a scabby white two-door; very much the sort of sub-£100 trade-in that tended to proliferate at a dealership where the poshest new car sold was a Hyundai Stellar.
I hadn't long passed my test and took the opportunity to thrash the nuts off this poor little car but, at the same time, was half worried that somebody I knew might spot me in something which, circa 1983, was a deeply uncool thing to be driving.
I made it back with the chips just as the brakes disappeared: I had to use the wooden fence of the garage forecourt to bring the 128 to a halt. Nobody noticed, but I made a mental note not to drive it again.
To test market acceptance Fiat used its less commercially sensitive Autobianchi brand to launch its front-drive technology, improving on the BMC concept by giving the gearbox its own oil and using a space-saving clutch-release mechanism.
Power was to come from a new Lampredi-designed engine with a toothed-belt-driven overhead camshaft. At 55bhp it was giving the same power Fiat was extracting from a 1900cc engine 17 years earlier.
With an 8ft wheelbase and a wheel at each corner, the 128 was a packaging masterclass, where 80 per cent of the space was given over to people, even to the extent that the spare wheel was mounted under the bonnet, atop the engine.
Launched in two- and four-door form in March 1969, its shape was created internally as a deceptively simple three-box saloon which, unlike earlier 1100cc Fiats, made no attempt to make itself look like a small version of a larger car but simply looked honestly what it was: a metal box for moving four people around.
It had big windows, slim bumpers and very little superfluous trim of any kind, and was designed to be easily adaptable into an estate body with the minimum of different press tooling.
The light and nimble 128 offered 1300cc performance from an 1100cc car that rode well yet was nifty, tenacious and fun to drive.
It was a well-deserved Car of the Year for 1970 and was instantly successful, selling to the tune of 700,000 examples after less than two full seasons.
The three-door station-wagon model was launched at the Turin show in 1970, a compromise to placate Fiat dealers who were nervous of the idea of a hatchback version of the saloon. In that form it ended up being built as the Zastava in the former Yugoslavia.
Total Fiat 128 production was three million, but I’m not sure if that figure includes the examples assembled in Africa, South America, Spain and Yugoslavia, where the last Zastava 128s and 101s were sold as recently as 2008.
For me it represents everything a Fiat is and should still be, much more so than the 500.
In other words not a retro car or a fashion statement, but an honest, rational and creatively engineered Italian saloon that is fun to drive, cheap to run and built on a human scale.
Images: FCA Press