Introduced in 1966 in Europe and hitting our shores in 1968, the Fiat 124 was the thinking man's MGB. Obvious styling cues notwithstanding, the 124 offered an astonishing host of improvements over its traditional British rivals. Testifying to the strength of the American economy, more than 170,000 of the approximately 198,000 made ended up here.
The inline 4-cylinder engine, designed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi, offered dual overhead camshafts driven by a toothed, rubber belt. An impressive 90hp was squeezed out of the 1966 1,438-cc engine.
The Haartz cloth top was another big improvement over the competition, with clever folding rear quarter windows. The interior featured reclining bucket seats, a wood steering wheel, matching wood dash and full Veglia instruments worthy of a much more expensive car.
Despite a live rear axle, the handling and ride qualities were far above any British peer and nearly on par with Alfa Romeo and Porsche competition in the next higher price level. The brakes - discs all around - received high praise. Transmission was a slick 5-speed.
The body remained essentially unchanged throughout the 20-year run, with bigger U.S. bumpers arriving in 1974, as well as larger rear taillights. A wide selection of wheels began with steel discs or the elegant 5-spoke Cromodora alloys and continued with a host of other zooty designs, some of which worked well with the car's lines, some less so.
These are satisfying cars to drive, with a light, sweet feel to all the controls. But as you can expect from a small engine with high relative output per liter, there is no abundance of low-end power. To go fast, you need to buzz the motor well into the rev range.
Engine output varied from a low of 80 hp ('78-'79 2.0-liters) through 90-, 102-, 110-, 118- and 120-hp versions. Although the 2-liter turbocharged engine produced 120hp, my favorite is the Weber-carbureted 1,800-cc engine with 118hp (1972-'78).
Maintenance is the typical Fiat hassle, with part depots and knowledgeable repair stations few and far between. Cam belts need to be replaced every 30,000 miles or 5 years. Transmission synchros are worn by 50,000 miles. A 124 with 60,000 miles was either fully rebuilt or ready to be.
Even though thousands have rusted off the roads, prices remain reasonable. For a handsome and fun open car, these represent an undiscovered value. Plan on $3,000 for a driver, while $6,000 buys a first-rate example. Don't expect much appreciation, and be sure you have a Fiat mechanic on your speed dial.