Fix It Again Tony is a Myth

Fix It Again Tony is a Myth

This is a guest post by one of our own readers, James T. Baker.

Well, I have stayed alive long enough to see Fiat’s return to the USA! I started buying these little gems in 1980 and since then have owned at least a dozen 124s, 128s, 131s and X1/9s. I worked as a wrench at a Fiat dealership in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When word came of their departure from the U.S. market, I responded by buying a brand new 131 Brava from the dealer’s lot for $5,200. It was fast, comfortable, and had a spider F.I. engine (no air, oil filter on the bottom). I was in love; and in mourning. But I knew, I just knew: one day they would be back.

Fiat Myth Number 1: Unreliable

Let me clear up a few Fiat myths for those who believe in conventional wisdom. First, the Fiat line of the late 60s and the decade of the 70s was stylish, innovative, affordable, and even, yes, RELIABLE. These little cars were built with an eye for simplicity and sensibility, both in design and functionality. They were easy to repair, with shared parts and an integrated design that represented Italian engineering genius. They were solid, trusty, every-day mounts. So why did they become such such a black eye for Fiat in the US? Two reasons:

  1. Americans don’t believe in preventive maintenance.
  2. Fiat introduced the rubber timing belt to the world.

The Myth of Poor Quality started from the very beginning. Small cars in the late 60s were an oddity on American Roads, with only a few Beetles and MGs puttering about. The average American didn’t know the difference between a Ferrari and a firetruck.

Imagine a small town mechanic’s amusement when a new Fiat 128 came rolling into his gas station. Lifting the hood to check the oil on this UFO and seeing a transverse engine with a rubber cam-belt. The Ford Fan would have yelled out, “Hey, Leroy, c’mere and lookit this thing willya! It’s got a sideways engine”! As the two gazed into a future they could not comprehend, they had a good laugh at the mechanical oddity. The name Fiat would be laughed at for a long time by the Good Old Boys who touted simple, American reliability. So Americans came to bemoan their quality and in 1983, Fiat pulled out of the American market.

Fiat Myth Number 2: Disgraced

Another myth is that Fiat left the U.S. in disgrace, with it’s tail between its legs. According to many people, Fiat had been humiliated by the U.S. government’s unyielding attention to the cars’ rust problems. Yes, it is true, the Fiats did rust when exposed to the recurrent salt showers of east coast winters. But so did Chevy trucks and Ford muscle cars. Only Fiat gained the rusty reputation because it was an “outsider”, which could be easily scorned by the patriotic public.

In anger, and with considerable Italian pride, Fiat offered to buy back all of its cars, rusty or not. In 1981, every Fiat dealer wrote checks to people who turned in their cars, and then sent the cars to the crusher.

With their return to the US car market, Fiat certainly has a lot to prove to the general public. But for anyone who actually owned a Fiat and appreciated them for their quality design and engineering, they already know what a great car they can be.


  • R.M.H.

    And lets not forget or, perhaps inform the “average American”, that FIAT owns Ferrari.

    I highly doubt Ferrari would not have won over 30 world championships in Forumula One Racing if they built low quality, Fix It Again Tony’s.

    I laugh every time I drive my ’81 FIAT Spider with the the top down and people ask me what year my Ferrari is. ;o)

  • simpixelated

    That’s awesome! I’m really glad Fiat is returning to the US, so those of us who can’t afford a Ferrari or Lambo can finally sample a new Italian car.

  • Maxine

    Well written, Fiat rocks!

  • Janet

    I owned a used FIAT X1/9 in 1986. I made up reasons to run errands just so I could drive that spunky little wedge around. Since 2004 I’ve acquired a 1970 124 Spider, a 1980 X1/9, and my husband and I just bought the new 2012 FIAT 500. Each FIAT is saturated with some kind of Italian spirit that I’ve never experienced in the other makes of cars. The antique ones are simple enough to restore. Each FIAT version has its own charms and handling characteristics. Welcome back FIAT!

  • Martin

    I grew up around FIATs, specifically 500s-600s, my Father loved them and we often had several in the driveway that he was fixing up, adding ABARTH gear to and then selling to anxious customers. My sister went to San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” in a FIAT 1500 spider and a FIAT 128 coupe (with Crommadora wheels) got me through college.
    My heart skipped a beat when I saw the new 500 for the first time…

  • Dom

    In 1977 i had a gm car, the passenger floor rusted out, i had to get a steel plate welded on to fix it, all cars used to rust not only fiats in those days, a spokesmen for the established brands said that car will last for 5 only years, its dishonest to single out only fiats.

  • Tom

    Had 3 Fiats, A 71 and 72 124 special and 72 124 coupe. All daily drivers. and virtually no problems spanned 4 years of ownership. Great to see someone recognizes the myth.

  • Stan

    I bought my first car, a brand new 1963 1100D, and threw it away in 1964. It was worst car I’ve ever owned. If you tried shifting the 4 on the tree in anything but stop motion, a linkage bolt would shear off. The seats bent (I was a svelte 170lbs then). The differential blew, as did the alternator and regulator. The car was washed every week and waxed every month and it STILL started to rust – the last straw. The only positives were it’s ability to run away and hide from the VW’s and SAAB’s of the era, despite the slow motion shifting. It handled better than a VW Bug (what didn’t?) but not as well as a SAAB. Snow was out of the question.
    If the 500 Abarth manages to be just a bit more reliable than the current Land Rover or CTS, I’ll have buy one anyway.!!

  • Emandaub2004

    My sister had a fiat strada back in the late 80s, that was originally purchased used, by my older brother and then re sold to her. She loved that little car! It was reliable and and inexpensive to keep on the road. It had a few electrical issues I can remember, but never life threatening. We had more fun in that car and put an absolute ton on miles on it. I didn’t have a car yet and would often take her to work and then use it. I remember it exactly how you describe it functional! It was also amaxingly QUIET, much like that of a larger much more expensive luxury casr and unlike most little economy cars in its class. She is looking into buying a fiat 500?? Too bad the Abarth is not in the US yet!

  • Khalil Williams

    Great article!

    Socially speaking, given how America was an overly patriotic nation back in those times (to me, it is still an overly patriotic nation now) as well as taking what the article conveyed into consideration, how would Americans react to the piss-poor quality of our own products of the time, especially cars such as the Ford Pinto, which had a fuel tank that ruptured and caught fire in a rear collision?

    Also, how can one have preventive maintenance be performedon their cars? I would personally love to know everything about the 500 so that I can take care of a good portion of the parts myself, as well as to avoid having virtually any troubles with my car! Grazie!

  • Bruce Alan Wilson

    I remember when I was doing my undergraduate semester abroad in Italy, I once sat down on the fender of a FIAT “Cinquecento” and it crumpled under me. At the time I weighed about 175.