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:
- Americans don’t believe in preventive maintenance.
- 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.