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The Carchive: The Fiat 126

Chris Haining March 9, 2018 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 14 Comments

The snow has finally thawed, so we can finally don the wellington boots of curiosity, squelch across the muddy lawn of time and look inside the shed of obscurity in search of something intriguing. Welcome back to The Carchive.

Last time, we blew the dust off the Citroen ID 19 and noticed that its French maker offers nothing of its kind today. Today we’re taking a look at the Fiat 126—a car whose maker offers nothing of its kind today.

Click the pics to make ’em big.

“You simply have to ask yourself, is there a more economical, more convenient, more fun was of getting up to four people around-particularly in town? The answer must be a resounding no.”

Yes, there were smaller, less complex vehicles available, but they tended to be made from fruit crates, with pram wheels and a bit of string for steering. The Fiat 126 really was one step up from walking. The most complicated mechanisms on the entire thing were its door handles.

The 126 was the third of Fiat’s really small car series, which began with the 500 Topolino and continued with the Nuovo 500 in 1957. The 126 (whose name was nothing more interesting than its project number) came in 1972, marrying much of its predecessor’s oily bits with a bit of the fresh flavour of 1971’s bigger 127 hatchback.

By common consent, the 126 had barely fractions of the personality of its forebears.

“While nobody would claim that the 126 can beat big car comfort on long journeys, its all-round independent suspension gives it a surprisingly smooth ride”

‘Surprisingly’ is relative. In a car that weighs from 580kg (a figure that I can approach myself after a substantial meal), with transverse leaf springs at the front and coil-sprung semi-trailing arms at the back, a featherbed ride-quality couldn’t really be expected—but the 126 emphatically wasn’t a comfortable car. It didn’t ride dramatically worse than a Mini, but that was no Jaguar, either.

It didn’t really handle, either—not as such, anyway. It didn’t really roll too badly, but the behaviour of each corner wasn’t always entirely predictable, and the weight was obviously rather rear-biased thanks to being mounted over the back wheels. Despite its light weight and Lotus-humbling simplicity, the 126 wasn’t a car in which to go apex hunting. Possessing just 24bhp didn’t make it nippy, either: to allow a passenger on board had definite consequences.

“With four people aboard, there is still room for shopping or hand luggage, including a parcel shelf and extra room beneath the bonnet where you will also find the spare wheel stowed”

The 126 became a popular sight on Europe’s roads, but not nearly to the same extent as the 500 before—and part of the reason is that the 500 already existed. The 126, aside from its newness, didn’t offer a colossal step forwards, so there was no huge rush to trade the old model in. Its extremely low price still gave it an advantage over pretty much every other car you could buy, though—particularly in Poland, where it was built from ’73 onwards.

Here, it was welcomed by working class families, and it’s not hard to imagine a dark, rainswept Gdansk street with processions of these pop-pop-popping their way along, windows obscured by the steamy breath of an entire family and its daily shopping. I make no apologies for such stereotyping.

“The De Ville’s neat interior is wrapped in carpet that goes all the way up the door panels. The well padded cloth covered seats (reclining in the front) add a further touch of comfort”

The De Ville was approximately 1% as opulent as its Cadillac namesake, but that’s probably not a surprise considering you could easily lose one in the seat-tufting of the GM battleship. It was still the Luxe 126, with fabric seats instead of ‘leathercloth’ (plastic), chunky bumpers and rubbing strips that gave it a faint chance of shrugging off urban dings, and a roll-back canvas roof.

So, what of the 126 legacy? Well, it was ‘replaced’ by the rather more conventional, front-engined Cincequento (er, 500) in 1991, but the 126 soldered on to 2000 as real no-frills transport. And that’s something that used to be a Fiat speciality. Today, well, it seems that the market for that kind of thing doesn’t really exist. There are so many cheap, second hand real cars that a car as compromised as the 126 would have little appeal. Even the Dacia Logan, the cheapest car in Europe, is a thoroughly modern, comfortable car that doesn’t particularly pigeonhole you as a skinflint. The current 500, meanwhile, is a status symbol. You can buy an entry-level model, but you’re more likely to choose it on the basis of fashion than budget or practicality.

And although I said earlier that the 126 isn’t exactly a driver’s car, it kind of is. It feels like nothing else on earth. Memorable is better than good.

(Images are of original manufacturer publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of FCA. Who could have seen that happening?)

 

  • ptschett

    re: the snow has thawed; erstwhile in Fargo, most of the year this gap between garages is 3 parking spots, but not now…
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3042d91e075870c411fef6e66febdae8b5219138f92041c93304443facbde0bd.jpg

    • Van_Sarockin

      It’s good to have a place to put the snow.

  • mseoul

    Drove one from Lublin to Gdansk, Poland, in 1980 with 2 passengers. I am 190 cm. tall and it had very adequate leg and arm room with no one sitting behind me. It would make 100 kph on slight downhills but never lulled you to sleep with comfort and passing maneuvers had to be well planned. But a great car for the times that leaves many nostalgic today..

  • That opening paragraph sounds like something Richard Hammond would say, but ending with “It’s time for conversation street.” Nicely done.

    BTW, what year is this brochure from? I’m guessing by the rather simple layout and graphic design early 80s.

    • Gavin

      Close. It’s from ‘79 I believe

    • Yeah, I reckon the Hamster stole my idea, actually.

      It’s from April ’81.So am I!

  • Fuhrman16

    Still, they look like fun little cars to hoon.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdBuwzRAEAw

    • mseoul

      Wow, the one near the beginning where he crawls out the ditch is truly awesome. There is no liftoff in a Maluch anyway.

  • tonyola

    All the cramped slowness of the original Fiat 500 without the charm.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Quite a Coupe de Ville, and one I’d generally prefer to the inflated variety. But I’ll still stick to my preference for the 127. Even though, in the front three quarters view it looks like a half scale Renault 5.

    • mseoul

      127 was a sports car!

  • Alff

    Let us acknowledge that no mainstream automaker offers anything resembling their products from 40 years ago. Most would says that’s a good thing but something has been lost along the way.

  • Rover 1

    If the current Fiat 500 is a caricature of the old nuova 500, will it’s replacement be a retro version of one of these?

    If it was, of course, it would have to be bigger.
    https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c4/d6/93/c4d6938024d8afa63744034ec1dc9d57.jpg

  • Vairship

    “I make no apologies for such stereotyping.” You type with *both* hands?