By on October 25, 2021

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, LH front view - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsWhile an ever-increasing number Americans in the second half of the 1970s felt comfortable buying sporty German and Japanese sedans, the idea of relying on an Italian sedan for everyday transportation made sense to a much more exclusive group. For those Americans who craved a commute packed with Italian passion and artistry but needed something with rear-wheel-drive (ruling out the 128 and the Lancia Beta sedan) and cheaper than the Alfa Romeo Sport Sedan, Fiat offered the 131 on these shores for the 1976 through 1981 model years (changing its name to the Brava starting in 1978). As you’d expect, these cars are about as tough to find in junkyards today as Mitsubishi Tredias or Rover 3500s, but I ran across this ’78 in a Denver yard last week.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, engine - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis car has the 2.0-liter version of Fiat’s screamin’ Twin Cam four-cylinder, rated at 86 horsepower. Since the ’78 Brava scaled in at just 2,455 pounds, it wouldn’t have been agonizingly slow by the standards of the time.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, gearshift - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsA five-speed manual transmission was serious stuff in the late 1970s, though a three-speed automatic was available in the Brava.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, instrument cluster - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe 120 mph speedometer seems optimistic. I might need to go back and buy that Quarzo clock for my hoard collection.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, glove box - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis vertical-loading glovebox and its sliding door demonstrates the sort of edgy Italian design your BMW and Audi drivers didn’t get in 1978.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, University of Northern Colorado parking sticker - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThe University of Northern Colorado parking sticker from 1993 indicates that this car was still on the road at the advanced age (for a Fiat in North America) of 15 years.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, body rust - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsIt’s a bit rusty, but it should have been possible to get this car back on the road. What happened? Usually, I can’t answer this question… but it happens that I know a bit about this car’s recent history.

A couple of years ago, the owner of a repair shop for Italian cars in Englewood, Colorado, passed away. Nearly 100 cars— mostly 1960s-1980s Fiats but also a sprinkling of Lancias and Alfa Romeos— accumulated in the shop’s storage yard went up for sale at bargain prices. I did my best to spread the word about all those Fiats in need of forever homes, but most of them ended up being hauled off for scrap value. In the photo above, you can see today’s Junkyard Find in the foreground.

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, Roger Maurie Fiat badge - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsTwo years later, we can assume that whoever obtained this Brava tried without success to find a buyer to pay a few hundred for it and then made a sad call to U-Pull-&-Pay. I wish it had ended up seeking Class C glory on a 24 Hours of Lemons race track, but the local racers are full up with silly projects and trying to make room for more. Anyway, a car that began its career in a Denver Fiat dealership will end it in a Denver crusher. Circle of automotive life and all that, no?

1978 Fiat 131 Brava in Colorado junkyard, wheel - ©2021 Murilee Martin - The Truth About CarsThis isn’t the first Aspen Motors auction car I’ve seen in a Denver-area boneyard lately, but it’s the first I’ve written about. Stay tuned for a future Junkyard Find, Junkyard Gem, or Junkyard Treasure featuring more sad Italian stories.

The Brava was priced very well for all its standard luxury features, with an MSRP of $4,995 (about $21,920 today) for the ’78 sedan with 2000 engine. A new BMW 320i cost nearly twice as much, at $9,315.

Fiat departed the United States in 1982, though Malcolm Bricklin continued to import 124 Sport Spiders and X1/9s with Pininfarina and Bertone badging fairly deep into the decade. Fiat returned to our shores nearly a decade ago, which means that once again it’s easy to find Italian subjects for this series.

For links to 2,100+ additional Junkyard Finds, visit the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™.

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20 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1979 Fiat Brava Sedan...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I have such weakness for Italian cars, so it’s a good thing I wasn’t aware of that collection. I would have wanted to give a 128 3P (or a 131 like this one) a good home.

    I’ve never seen a clock with only odd digits.

    The 131 was also a great rally car at the time – a bit more stout than its FWD brethren.

    Nice find!

  • avatar

    My middle school science teacher had one of these.
    Models with A/C had a little emblem on the back with a snowflake and the word “climatizzata”

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    My then-future BIL bought one of these new back in the day…it was definitely fun-driving but my God was it horribly unreliable. Drove him into the arms of Toyota, whose grasp he hasn’t left yet….

  • avatar

    I was a fan of these when they were new, but strangely, I never test drove one or visited a Fiat dealer (was an angle watching over me?). I bought a brand new ’78 Audi Fox, which was unreliable, so would I have been better off with a 131/Strada? Who knows? I don’t live in the rust belt, so rust probably wouldn’t have been an issue. I didn’t know how to drive a manual at the time (a retired neighbor would’ve taught me), and I would’ve probably have gotten the three-speed auto, like I did with the Fox (the Fox didn’t offer a five-speed manual, only a four-speed).

    And that shop in Denver that had 100 cars in their lot – HA! There’s a shop that’s 20 minutes away from me, in Nevada, Texas, that services Italian cars (Fiat, Alfa, Maserati, Ferrari, and Abarth) that advertises they have *over 200* parts cars in their “field of dreams”. I’ve only seen this place from the two-lane highway that runs by it, but it looks interesting. They have a Website that says they’ve been in business since 1981, and the guys that run it first met as next-door neighbors.

  • avatar

    I’m pretty sure my old man – who was otherwise a Volvo guy – drove one of these in the 70s. Got rid of it in ’76 for a Dodge Aspen wagon when I was born, picked up an AMC Pacer a few years after that for a second car, and traded that in for a Datsun 210 sedan.

    Got back to his Volvos in ’81 with a 240. The 70s were tough times.

  • avatar

    These are related to the Fiat 124 which was the basis of the Russian beloved Lada, so I suspect our favorite Russians should be weighing in soon as to how wonderful these were and they sure don’t build them like that anymore

    • 0 avatar

      It was branded Zhiguli in Russia. Lada (Samara/Sputnik) was much more modern (in 1984 when it debuted) FWD car which had nothing to do with FIAT. I never drove Zhiguli because it felt so archaic at the time when I got driving license in early 90s. But in 1970x when it was just introduced in USSR it was like revelation for Soviet people who used to ride in clumsy Soviet cars: smooth, good handling, small outside and roomy inside and well styled, well painted and so on. Difference between FIAT-124 and Soviet cars was like a day and night. And it was car you can actually buy because it was the first car in USSR which was actually mass produced.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The vertical-loading glovebox along with its sliding door was influenced by the modern European designs of the era. You can also see these themes on other Fiats like the Ritmo, Strada here in the states and Lancias.
    Just look at some of the furniture from the time which has similar themes and has aged very well over the years.

  • avatar

    Talk about a blast from the past – my friend had a 1980 Brava in brown. Originally the grille had the FIAT in block letters but a minor accident saw the grille replaced with the round logo seen here. A great handling car, at least compared to the typical cars we all had. However, reliability was a disaster. The seat split just like what you see here in the photos. The window regulator broke several times. The fuel guage would flick back and forth between 1/4 tank and empty. Power was horrid with the A/C on. Popping through the air cleaner was common. Ultimately by the time the car hit 60K he got rid of it. It had left him stranded too many times. A shame because it was a fun ride and was pretty good on gas. A lot of good memories in that car…

  • avatar

    Are we sure this isn’t a diesel? Note the “DEF” indicator in the eighth picture (in the gallery).

  • avatar

    Oh boy, I remember these. One of my best friends in high school had some money to burn so bought a Brava sedan. He thought he was being progressive and edgy but what a POS this was. The car was brand new but the seat split and the defrost was so weak it couldn’t keep the windows cleared for our Midwestern winters. I am sure he took a financial beating on it. I would be shocked if this one went 142,000 miles.

  • avatar

    Italian cars of this era looked so good compared to the competition, but they were so terrible. Everyone I know who bought any Italian car of this period (including folks in European markets) regretted it.

  • avatar

    Back in 1983, I came to the US and was looking for a car to travel the west coast, I bought a Fiat 131 just like this one ($600) but the 2 door version, apparently, the only thing I had to fix is the battery, I drove this car for almost 3000K miles with only one problem, one bad wheel bearing, I was stuck in Carmel CA since most car shops would not even look at the car (they would joke, ‘F’ix ‘I’t ‘A’gain ‘T’ony) until I found a Polish mechanic that took care of the problem, I had to wait 3 days for the part.
    It drove so much better than any american car on the market at that time.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    My older brother bought a new Fiat 124 sedan in 1978 and it was a great handling car and not too bad maintenance wise. With a manual transmission it was not too bad. He later traded it for a Moto Guzzi motorcycle.

  • avatar

    I fell in love with these when I visited Ankara and Istanbul and went for a lot of harrowing cab rides in them.

  • avatar

    I need to grab those doors for my Sbarro Windhound!

  • avatar

    I had the 1980 version, with Bosch FI; ISTR FIAT claimed 100HP for it.

    The car was definitely fun to drive. But it seemed like driving it for a few weeks made the driver more impatient in traffic (“…Would all these slow morons ahead of me just *GET OUT OF MY WAY*!!!”). As my wife and I swapped cars over the years, whoever was driving the Brava was invariably more impatient.

    I owned several few FIATs over the years, and they were all mistreated by American mechanics. Every FIAT I bought used had several items mis-assembled (clutch cable linkage, thermostat, radiator supports, botched fan wiring…). After resolving those, plus a few old-age failures in the FI, my Brava became reliable, easy to start, as well as fun to drive. But it was always a challenge to find, diagnose, and fix the numerous botch-jobs scattered around the car.

    FIATs were infamous for their timing belts. Fortunately, the 2.0L engine in this car is a “non-interference” engine.

    The transmission was generally great. The pattern put Reverse below 5th gear, so an over-eager driver might select R when reaching for a (non-existent) 6th. FIAT fitted a clever gadget to the gearshift that locked out R when you were pulling the stick out of 5th. Very thoughtful.

    The 2.0L engine was a refinement of the venerable FIAT twincam, and had a relatively long stroke (“undersquare”). This improved low-speed torque, slightly, but the engine didn’t rev very happily, and the sounds it made were more “moaning” than “exciting.” FWIW, the twincams were legitimate “hemi-heads,” although nobody seems to notice.

    These cars had super-heavy-duty bumpers, making them almost invulnerable in low-speed mishaps. Of course, those massive bumpers at each end of the car made it heavy, and reluctant to turn during spirited driving. The rear bumper of the Brava was *lower* than the front, for styling, and too low for US bumper standards; accordingly FIAT fitted taller rear springs, giving the car an unfortunate “nose-down” attitude.

    Rust was an issue for every FIAT of the 1970s-80s, but if you lived in a salt-free place (e.g. SF Bay Area), the rust grew relatively slowly. More annoying were the windshield seals; every FIAT I owned had windshield leaks. And FIATs of this vintage had pretty feeble wipers; not a great car in a rainstorm.

    My Brava had some kind of weakness in the front frame; it seemed like the front shock towers were tilting toward one another, giving the front wheels some un-fixable negative camber.

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