Many of you will know this car better as the infamous Lada, that bastion of Red Menace repression and Communist fearmongering that so gripped America during the years of Malaise and swamp rabbits. A product of the working-class proletariat, it is still a punchline for everything that went wrong with the Soviet way of life—a blight upon the Eastern Europe landscape, with all the luxury of solitary confinement; an ugly, squat little crapbox that hadn’t been improved or redesigned since Khrushchev aired out his shoes on a nearby desk. It served as a reminder of everything that wasn’t American: let your guard down, Strategic Air Command, and we’ll be driving these instead of our Gran Furys when the paratroopers descend upon Calumet!
Which is a damn shame. Because its forebear, the Fiat 124, was a gem of a car.
Like your grandfather, the Fiat 124 was once young, trendy, and exciting. It was launched, literally, from the back of a plane during its unveiling. (There was a parachute involved; no striking Turinese workers were injured.) It won European Car of the Year in its first year of production, 1966—which, given past honorees, seems more and more dubious every year. Chief engineer Oscar Montabone was given free reign from brass to start from scratch: the only thing he kept from other Fiats was the synchromesh gearbox. How advanced was the 124? It featured four-wheel disc brakes, a coil-spring rear suspension, enough room inside to make out to Italian Spiderman, and lightweight construction. This potent combination was enough to make stunt driver extraordinaire Remy Julienne claim: “it’s my favorite work car.” Hint: if you need an inconspicuous getaway car, spring for the wagon.
Don’t blame AvtoVAZ and the ghost of perestroika (by the way, this would make a great name for a noise-punk band) for the 124’s reputation: the Italian wundercar was built in countries as far away as India, Spain, Bulgaria, Egypt, Turkey, and especially Korea, as evidenced below:
So while the Lada connection may be obvious, the charming little Fiat wasn’t always a cheap-steeled symbol of Iron Curtain necessity and Borscht Belt wisecracking: it also spawned two of my favorite cars: the elegant, rally-winning Coupe, and the achingly beautiful Spider. Not bad for a car that’s survived 40 years and 15 million examples—including this one, sighted on Via Cavour, right across from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Your grandfather would appreciate that.