By on November 19, 2010

As a newcomer to Denver, I had my worries that the junkyards here would be wall-to-wall Sables and Sephias. Would my junkyard trips be a slog through a miasma of late-model boredom? As J. Frank Parnell said about the hazards of lobotomies: Not at all!

There’s a special place in my heart for the Fiat 128; Fiat’s quasi-revolutionary little front-driver helped put my early-childhood wheels on the road leading to my current state of car-freakdom. You see, my parents bought a pair of ’73 128s when I was seven years old— the 128 being just about the cheapest car you could buy in California that year, even cheaper than the Beetle— and the sound of those Fiat SOHCs yowling through the gears was just about the best thing I’d ever heard in my life. Of course, the multiple shift levers of my dad’s ’67 Ford Custom with 289, three-on-the-floor, and an overdrive unit also had a profound effect on my impressionable young mind, but the 128 really made me a car guy! Seeing a rusty-but-mostly-complete Fiat 128 at a Denver self-service wrecking yard… well, sort of a bittersweet experience for me. Yes, it’s even the not-all-that-sought-after Rally model, with 62 mighty Italian horses a-buckin’ and a-snortin’ under the hood!

Did I say a Fiat 128? This yard boasts two of them! In addition to the ’78 Rally, there’s this ’76 wearing a straight-outta-Malaise-Era-Central-Casting aqua paint job. Sharp-eyed readers might note the Peugeot 505 and Subaru XT lurking in the background in some of the shots, in addition to the air-cooled Beetles; Denver turns out to be a great junkyard town!

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36 Comments on “The Crusher Hungers For Italian Food!...”

  • avatar

    Italian food for the crusher! I’m happy to see you’re posting again!

    My grandfather used to have a ’67 ford Custom but it was an automatic. He stopped buying cars with manual transmissions when my grandmother learned how to drive and burned the clutch on another Ford a few years before!

    My neighbor (who is the mother of my two best friends) bought a white Subaru XT DL in 1988. It was the base model with plastic wheelcovers and no rear seat! It was supposed to be a rare car here in Canada (she told me that the Subaru dealer told her there were just a few XT DL base models sold here in 1988 but I don’t know if it’s true! ). As it got older, she gave it to her boyfriend who was working for an ink company. The car’s trunk and the area behind the seats was always full of printing equipment and papers. I thought this was a modern buisness coupe! This car had a few weird things like the door handles, the manual transmission shifter, the switches around the steering wheel and the steering wheel itself which was asymetrical! If I remember well, the instrument cluster also moved with the tilt steering. And the 4cyl engine made a strange sound even when new! A few years after they sold the car, I saw it while getting doors from a ’65 Buick in a small junkyard that has mostly old car 70 miles away from home. I looked at the interior and noticed the aftermarket Sherwood radio that was installed when the car was new and the remains of a cheap plastic thermometer that was glued to the dash so I knew it was the same car!
    I had to repair quite a few things on it, including the wiper mechanism…

  • avatar

    Murilee, oh Murilee, how we have missed you and your junkyard safaris.
    I drove a Fiat 128 wagon for about 10 minutes once when I was seventeen, test driving it for a friend’s father.  No car I have ever driven, before or since, conveyed such enthusiasm for its lot in life.  It was like it was screaming “I LOVE being a car! DRIVE ME!”
    And all with 62 horsepower.

  • avatar

    Congrats on the new gig, Murilee! My weekends just weren’t the same without you!
    And, to the powers that be here at TTAC:  Thank you.  I’ve occasionally read Paul Niedermeyer’s excellent Curbside Classics, but I’ve rarely spent much time on this site.  That is, until now.  You’ve just shot to the top of my list of bookmarks.

  • avatar

    I owned two 128s years ago.  Lousy ergonomics, rare parts, tiny gas tanks, unexceptional mileage, noisy…
    But they were cheap to run (the parts that you could get were always reasonably priced), easy to fix, marvelously space-efficient, reliable when properly sorted, and *fun* to drive.
    Those big bumpers were heavy, but they were very effective.
    Many fond memories.  :-)

  • avatar

    I sometimes wonder what junkyards are going to be like when I “grow up”. Will I see all the mistresses of my youth congregating together at their end of days? Time will tell.

  • avatar

    Ahhhh, the 128. I learned to drive on its russian cousin, the almighty Lada. You haven’t been driven until you use an Italian marvel like this as interpreted by the Russians. Couldn’t beat the thing to death tho. Wasn’t for lack of trying. *sigh*

    • 0 avatar

      The Lada was the Russian interpretation of the Fiat 124 (rear drive and bigger than the front drive 128)  Though you couldn’t beat a Lada to death, they arrived with all the joy of life already beaten out of them.

  • avatar

    Man, last time I saw one of those was circa 1994 in the back 40 of a hunting lodge just outside of Ludington Michigan. There were 2 of them and they were literally sinking into the earth from sitting so long!(as was a 57 Bel Air and an unknown vintage Harvester Ambulance)
    My god it’s good to see this feature back!

  • avatar

    Murillee on TTAC!!!!! YESS!!!!!  YESSS!!!!!!

  • avatar

    In the mid-1980’s I owned a yellow 1976 128 two-door sedan. This was my first experience with a European car. It was underpowered, but rode and handled well. There was some rust in the front sub-frame, but the body was tight. The doors closed with a solid clunk. For such a small car it was surprisingly spacious inside. By the time I got this car it was worn out and spent as much time in the shop as it did on the road. Something was always breaking or not working properly.

    I haven’t seen a 128 in 20 years or so. These really are neat little cars. It would be great to find a decent 128, if there are any left, and fit it with a modern engine and transaxle.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I want the “Fiat Rally” decals to stick on a new 500.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      Both of those designs would set off the new 500 very well; I can’t decide between the Rally script or the intersecting blocks as both have their own unique appeal.

  • avatar

    Denver is truly incredible when it comes to cars. I was looking for Subie parts in a junkyard off of I-76 when I spotted a car I had never seen before. It looked like a smash between a glassback ‘Cuda and an ugly british saloon. It was the first and probably last time I’ll ever see a 1969 Sunbeam Arrow.

  • avatar

    I had a ’74 Fiat 128. It was amazingly unreliable. I once found an Italian beer bottle cap in the trunk. When it ran, it was the most fun car I’d ever had until my current BMW.
    At one point we had parked it for a few weeks because of total electrical failure. It had to be dragged out of the garage because the the brakes had rusted ‘on’.
    Once in a traffic jam the clutch cable broke.
    At 5 yrs and 30k miles, it was leaking a mixture of water and oil from the engine. I traded it for a ’80 Accord. The  car payments for the Honda were less than the average monthly repair charges for the Fiat.
    They gave me $300 for it– mostly because it had new good tires.

  • avatar

    OMG! such finds! I’ve always had such a soft spot for Fiat and am sorry they had to pull out due to frustrations that were of their own making, rust, unreliable and poor dealer service. A former priest I once knew had one, a red 128 Familiare with the black vinyl interior back in the early 70’s and if I were to restore a vintage Fiat, it’d be one of those. That and a family friend for a brief period had a 73 Fiat 850 Spider in that bright blue that the Yugo once came in, called Adriatic Blue and the current Mustang has a similar shade of that same blue. If Fiat were to offer that blue on the 500, I might just have to choose it instead.
    But I’m glad they are back in the US, this time with what looks like a fantastic product and want to check out this little 500. I bet it will be as fun or more fun than my old 83 Civic hatchback was. Owned that little beast from 1992-1998, put some 70K on the little bugger and had more fun driving it too.
    Glad to see you made it to TTAC. I first heard of you via Jalapmik and your DOTSO series, which inspired me to do my own, back in March of 2009, I did a post on what vintage cars I saw on my way to the store from my apartment here in Seattle and found about a half dozen from 1992 and earlier, most dating from the 80’s within 3 blocks of my building. Some like an early Nissan Sentra wagon, a pretty beat purple Dodge Dynasty, several Civics, mid 80’s and at least one from 1988 or so (3 door hatch), an ’86 Bronco II, an ’88 Accord (with rusted rear wheel wells natch), a pair of VW Foxes, one, an 88 or so 3 door wagon, the other a Wolfsburg edition 4 door sedan, and finally a well weathered early CRX even.
    Was well received and I might do another one come spring when the weather is decent.
    Seattle is a great place for seeing what’s parked on the street that ISN’T 3-5 Y. O. :-)

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    I forget which automobile magazine writer characterized FIATs as excellent racing trainers, as their engines would output surprisingly good power when wrung out, but that power would often be accompanied by a screech, a thump, and then silence from the engine bay. You had to learn how to balance getting power versus longevity out of the mills in a delicate dance which would make Colin Chapman proud.

    Waitaminute; is that a 4x98mm bolt pattern? Could those be – dare I hope for it – 12″ diameter wheels? I can find the 13″ variety all over the place, but I’d love to get my Haflinger shod with decent off road rubber and the better ATV offerings don’t go larger than 12″ bead diameters.

    Which yard is that? I may just drive north tomorrow to grab those sets if the size is right. At first guess I’d say Arapahoe Salvage west of Santa Fe but I could be mistaken.

  • avatar

    Somewhere around the 1975 time frame a neighbor had a yellow 128 rally. For some reason I just loved the 3 box design of that car and thought it was the coolest thing. Every once in a while i look them up on ebay to see if anyone in my area is selling one.

  • avatar

    I love Fiats.  In the 70’s I had a dark blue 128.  Great car once you got the kinks worked out.  My wife at the time left ours running in the driveway one morning with the choke pulled all the way out and it burned up.  very sad.

  • avatar

    Awesome write up Murilee! Hope you have a great time with TTAC.  :D

  • avatar
    Augie the Argie

    I was born in a family where everybody had a Fiat, the family had 5 or 6 128s at some point in the 70-80s.  Not that there weren’t other brands around but my mother was an employee for Fiat Concord (the then affiliate in Argentina producing the 600, 133, 128 and 125 models) so everybody enjoyed employee discount.  Correct me if I am wrong but I never heard of this huge reliability problems there or in Italy’s Fiats, as I had family there driving them as well, compared to the US’ experience?  Is it that they were converted here to qualify to some local standards? People outside of this country look surprised when told about the Fix It Again Tony motto, not that they never broke overseas but how come all these imports were so full of problems in this country I ponder?     Going back the 128 I have some many fond memories, I remember we had a white, green, orange and the later Europa model in red which we sold in 1985.  I have the certainty that a 600 will be in my garage pretty soon…. 

    • 0 avatar

      Augie the Argie,
      You raise an excellent question and I’ll explain quickly, The US, and Canada for that matter have much different driving situations than found in most of the rest of the world, thanks in part due to the sheer size of the land mass under one government overlooking 48 contiguous states, each with their own government for local laws and rules, but they ALL have to abide by the constitution established by our founding fathers in Washington DC and so we have the luxury of being able to drive long distances on the interstate system at speeds of 65-70, sometimes more, which puts a different kind of challenge on cars for they must be able to run at these sustained speeds sometimes for several days and over a 1000 miles on a single road trip and that’s just for starters.
      A lot of European cars simply weren’t built for that kind of cruising and thus appeared to be fragile things as they often required one to stay on top of the maintenance or they DID break down – plus, I think we got the cars from Italy directly and they were known on the continent as well as here as being overly rust prone, unreliable and built rather poorly, or rather, the quality was very much hit and miss for many years and if you got a good one, they WERE reliable, but if you didn’t, well, good luck…
      True, most cars rusted out like crazy in the rust belt back then, even Fiat, but they were I think more prone to than many cars back in the day.
      So for a make to be successful here, they have to be beefed up where it counts to better able to handle the driving conditions found here and add to that, a single version of a car may live in a state with extreme cold winters, another one may live where it’s 120 degrees in the summer months, but both cars have the same technical specifications, geared for the US and our weather extremes and driving conditions.
      That said, in the past, we also had dealer issues to go along with the rusting and reliability issues so in frustration, Fiat pulled out of the US market in the early 80’s.
      Now Fiat is back, soon to begin series production of the now iconic 500 next month, with the first cars rolling off the assembly line in January for dealers to have at least one by opening day at the end of February.

  • avatar

    Still miss the first car that I chose as a wage earning prole. It was a used 1968 124 Sport Coupe, one of the last years before they went to the blunt nose and rubber coated lawn timber bumpers. Twin cam engine, disks at all corners and a 5 speed.  When you did the brake pads, you also did the disks. The pads cost a little more than the disks – about $20 for each set per axle. The disks were some sort of chrome plated rust. The car handled dead neutral, no understeer or oversteer, at least at the speeds my level of competence allowed. I liked it well enough to get a 1974 124 Spider. That was in every sense except one a dreadful mistake. You could forgive a lot when, staying belted in your seat, you could get the top down at a stop light before it went green and then enjoy the fresh air.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s oh so true! Just earlier tonight I was telling a buddy about my old ’66 Fiat 1500 Cabriolet. Not bad for a first car, especially in furrin-car-averse Tennessee. For only $750, it had a whole five speeds (two more than Mom’s Mustang), a proper red hue and the best convertible top you’d ever want. I could raise it in five seconds with one pull over my shoulder, and it locked down tight, never leaking.
      I spotted one of these rare ‘cabs for sale in Hemmings two years ago, asking $15,000. Ambitiously, the seller claimed its Pininfarina design… similar to the Ferrari 250 GT Cabriolet Pininfarina.” Well, maybe… but you wouldn’t mistake the performance for any Ferrari.

  • avatar

    About the reliability of old FIATs…
    I have a unique view on this, as I did virtually all my own work when I had FIATs here in the U.S.  And I had plenty of problems with them, but most of them could be traced to the unfamiliarity of the breed.  For example, replacing a front-wheel bearing in a 128 isn’t terribly difficult, unless you’ve never done it before, and then it’s awful.  The bearing is an interference fit in the knuckle, so if you pound it in, the inner races will jump (due to inertia), bruising the seals, and the new bearing will fail in a few months.  Ask me how I know…
    FIAT never sold enough cars in the U.S. for us dumb Americans ;-) to develop any familiarity or competence with them.  For a counter-example, consider the air-cooled VW.  Compared to its contemporaries, the VW was a very different, strange beast.  Yet VW sold so many in the U.S. that even us dumb Americans figured them out.  Bottom line: you could get parts and competent service for an air-cooled VW anywhere in the U.S.  Alas, not with the FIATs.
    All my FIATs were used, and the first few years of ownership were a dreary succession of something-broke-oh-wait-it-was-put-together-wrong.  And many of these problems were exacerbated by neglect, e.g. coolant wasn’t changed, and the water-heated choke corroded shut.  But if I kept fixing stuff, eventually the cars became reliable. But my relatively good experiences weren’t typical, and it’s much more expensive to hire somebody else to learn-by-doing when fixing your FIAT, thus the sad tales in this thread.
    The 128 driveline was almost unique in the 70s (only the Mini was similar), and I think that was off-putting to American mechanics.  Today, it’s ordinary.  This doesn’t prove that the imminent FIAT 500 will be reliable, but I’ll bet that it won’t be routinely botched by American mechanics like my 128s were before I got them.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Your comments reflect an important truth. Unfamiliarity, and the myths and legends they spawn, often develop a rep for a car grossly out of proportion to its reality. The truth is, most cars will become fairly reliable in the hands of a experienced owner or mechanic.
      In the old VW days, especially in the midwest where they weren’t as common, one had to be careful who to entrust one’s VW. There were plenty of mechanics experience in only American iron who were clueless about them.

    • 0 avatar

      Loved reading about 128’s, and I owned a pristine 128SL coupe in the late 70’s that I loved driving.  Great design, amazing interior space for it’s size, very confidence-building to drive, even with it’s mighty 155SR-13 Pirelli’s.  I believe these were SOHC 1300’s, and could rev like nobody’s business.  I dreamed of Abarth parts from Europe, settled for a wrinkle-finish sport exhaust from some Italian maker.

      *Very* interesting to read your front-wheel-bearing comment; I paid to have one or the other of mine replaced every 7-8k miles or so, and I couldn’t imagine that the design was so poor.  When failing/failed, the noise and torque steer was impressive!  That was the only real issue I had, other than below about 25F, it would not start, no matter what.  Never diagnosed that completely, a warm(ish) garage was my remedy.  I kept after it with the local car wash during winter warm spells and managed to keep the tinworm away while I owned it.

      Had a 124 Spider in the garage at this time too…put 80,000 miles on it before it went to a new owner, just routine service, and a blast to drive.  Nice seats, others have commented on the easy soft-top, it made a pretty decent long-trip car too.  Nice Pininfarina styling, in the dark red I had it looked great, and the “back seat” area was great for stashing groceries or a briefcase.

    • 0 avatar

      1) FIAT referred to the 128 engine as a “1300,” but, pedantically, it was 1290cc. There were a few early ’72 models with 1100cc engines.

      2) The 128 front-wheel bearings were good for at *least* 60K miles, if installed properly. This depends on your driving; they wear out quicker if you’re climbing lots of hills. IIRC, I got at least 80K, once I figured out how to install them correctly.


  • avatar

    I remember my sister’s friend bringing her new ’77 128 4dr over and showing it off to us. She was a young hottie then. I saw her a few weeks ago all upper middle-aged and driving a new Highlander.

  • avatar

    My friend had a 1980 Brava which I am guessing is the successor to this car.  Interesting car to say the least.  Had cool features, but my friend bought it because he wanted a shift car.  The shifter kind of stuck out of the dash; it was not really on the floor.  It handled really well, at least compared to the large American iron most of us drove at the time.  Dynamically a winner, but a loser in the reliability department.  And sorry, lack of familiarity may have perplexed the technician, but it had nothing to do with the window regluators that repeatedly broke, the dancing gas guage, the seat seams splitting, the loose trim on the doors, the rust, etc.  It was built like crap, period.  The irony was that his dad suggested this because he felt domestics were built poorly.  How ironic.  But, a 10 on the fun meter.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a 1980 Brava (USA spec) too. The US-spec car had super-duper bumpers, and FIAT raised the tail of the car to meet US bumper-height specs. This gave the car a nose-down attitude, but didn’t completely destroy the handling.

      Mechanically, the RWD Brava had almost nothing in common with the FWD 128, but it had more power, and was absolutely a ball to drive.

      I was able to make my Brava reliable (I had the 2000cc with EFI), but yeah, the interior was lousy. And I never tried to fix the A/C. :-)

      It was fun to get it smogged; I always had to point out the charcoal canister. The technicians couldn’t figure that car out. It always passed.


  • avatar
    Augie the Argie

    Thank you ciddiguy and others for the thread created on my concern.  Your replies put me to consider about the issue of costs, I remember that since cars were and still are so pricey in South America, people would just repair them by knowledgeable mechanics “a la VW”(following stuart’s comments)  FIATs were cheap to fix and finding parts was not a problem.  I remember going close to the border with Bolivia from BA and also to Chile in the same 1977 green 128L, so the mileage explanation doesn’t really sum up to me, however, the temperature difference does make a huge different if we just compare those cars still running in the pacific coast to those of the rest of this country.  Oh and I meant to say 500, and not 600, as this is the number that comes up to me by default for FIAT’s most popular 2dr model version.

  • avatar

    I think you also have to factor in the fact most American mechanics wouldn’t even touch one (literally) and so a lot of your mechanics for them were ‘self-taught’ to put it politely and for the first several years they learned at your expense. By that time the tie was cast for Fiat. 

    Then there’s the fact that American cars were pretty maintenance free. Their engines weren’t stressed at all loafing along a 1500 rpm at highway speeds.   There was many an old V8 that ran just fine (or good enough) on 7, 6, or 5 cylinders. Valve adjustments? What’s that? We had self adjusting lifters…. No shims, no timing chains.  Drum brakes that would do almost as good a job without shoes in them.

    Finally there’s the small matter of the salt that was used on the roads here to melt the ice in the winter. The cheap Russian steel used in those Fiats never had a chance.  I don’t think you had anything like that in South America….  It corrodes other components too like poorly located electrical grounds.

  • avatar

    I’m so glad that Murilee is back! I own a ’74 128 SL that he profiled on Jalopnik. Since then I’ve added a ported, big valve head, faza cam, dual webers and an ansa exhaust. The thing just puts a smile on my face every time. I think I may even prefer it to my fuel injected 124 spider. Very reliable once all the kinks were worked out, even drove it to Oregon (from the bay area) last summer.

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