Before Fiat married Chrysler it was just Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, but most people probably would have told you it stood for this: “Fix It Again, Tony.” My dad took this as a personal challenge and adopted a 1979 Spider 2000 in the ’90s. The car’s still in the family. Actually, it practically raised me.
Listen, the Mazda Miata wasn’t always around to be everybody’s default modest mid-life crisis car. And even when it was, the Alfa Romeos, Triumphs, MGs and Fiats that inspired it still had innate appeal, what the French call je ne sais quoi and tragic car fans describe as “character.”
To the uninitiated, that “character” looks a lot like “spending all Sunday waiting for a tow truck.” But people who get it know there’s something satisfying about driving a car with pedigree, and the imminence of disaster is just part of the adventure.
Dad’s Fiat was in a bad way when he bought it, which friends and family members were eager to point out in the first year of ownership. Rust bubbles were erupting from the fender arches. The tires hadn’t been safe in years. The gears in the transmission were as weak as chihuahua teeth. Let’s say the car might have come with a little more character than pops initially planned on.
But my old man isn’t exactly the “careful restoration” kind of car owner. He reckons that an oil leak is free rustproofing, that tires are fine until they go flat, and will run a 40-year-old car through sand and snow because soft things can’t hurt metal.
Treating a notoriously unreliable car with that vicious brazenness should have, surely, spelled disaster. But the freaking Fiat’s will to live is stronger than you might think.
The stereotype of Italian cars being unreliable is a lot older than this year’s anecdotes about Alfa Giulias choking on back roads and race tracks. Like Alfa Romeo’s slightly maligned sport sedan today, early U.S. market Fiats leaned on outstanding design and the intangible appeal of “Italianness” to attract a first wave of buyers. But even decades before the internet, it didn’t take long for word to spread that these cars were not, objectively, all that great.
A Jan. 21, 1983 article from the United Press International’s archive reported the demise of Fiat’s U.S. operations with some particularly bleak data points:
“Fiat’s best sales year in the United States was 1975, when it sold 110,511. The company’s sales shrank to 14,113 in 1981, the lowest total in 15 years, and its December sales were a minuscule 573.”
Interestingly, the article went on to state that a company headed by Malcolm Bricklin (yes, that Bricklin) was set up to keep selling Fiats in America for a little longer. But that will have to be a story for another time. Whatever that effort ended up looking like, it wasn’t enough to keep the cars around for long.
It wasn’t just Fiat, of course. Every other automaker in the roadster business pretty much pulled out of the U.S. on similar schedules. Alfa limped into the mid-’90s, but by the time the first Miata came out most Americans hadn’t seen a store selling affordable imported two-seat drop tops in years.
Today, most people can barely tell the modest-means English and Italian roadsters of the 1970s apart. But when dad brought his Fiat home and started showing it off, it sure seemed like everyone was quick to remember the pejorative acronym I mentioned it earlier:
“Oh yeah, I remember these! Fix it again Tony, right?”
Actually our mechanic’s name is Nino, thank you very much.
But, yeah. Fiat’s reputation was bad enough to drag the cars down to the bottom-bracket of desirability even long after the company had been run out of America. Which, of course, brings us to the real reason my dad and a lot of other casual car enthusiasts might have ended up with one: It was one of the only cool-looking vintage sports cars you could buy for the price of a decent TV.
While our Fiat was a struggle to maintain early on, dad stuck through the hard times, made a few major restorative investments, and thanks to the tenacity of his mechanic (who really is a Sicilian ex-Fiat dealership tech named Nino) the car’s carried me through a few distinct phases of life.
I loved cars as a kid, but my technical knowledge was limited to what I’d gleaned from Richard Scarry books: vehicles made from hollowed-out apples were best, and if you couldn’t have that, you wanted a convertible with a face.
Granted, I’d graduated from picture books to scribbling hearts on Road & Track by second grade, which is where I was at when dad brought the Fiat home from the gross gas station parking lot it’d been sitting with a “FOR SALE” sign. But I had no idea what the thing was; all I could see in the face of that car was a wonderful combination of happiness and mischief.
My classmates, whose families all had exactly one Chevy Suburban (beige or dark blue) and one BMW 3 Series (black), all thought our Fiat was downright magical and, of course, I immensely enjoyed being picked up from school in it.
I have two favorite memories of riding in the car as a kid: being dropped off for a ski trip in the dead of winter, with a pair of early parabolic skis hanging out of the back seat like we were living in a cutesy Christmas card, and the time dad and I made the ambitious drive from Massachusetts to New York with my dog Cookie.
The open cockpit was a tornado of mutt fur for five hours and I’ll never forget pops sucking some ice coffee through a straw, immediately spitting it out onto the road and exclaiming, “It’s like drinking through a shag carpet.”
With my pint-sized ass in the passenger seat, dad drove the car like an absolute maniac. At least, that’s what I thought, because it was always windy.
I never understood how he was able to drive that thing at full-tilt without being arrested. Until I got a driver’s license, and behind the wheel of the Fiat, myself.
When I turned 16 I was much more interested in tuner cars than classics. At this point dad’s Fiat had already come a long way; having been graced with a fresh Maaco paint job, a new transmission. Even a brake light bulb got replaced at some point. But there were no enormous exhaust pipes made for it in the back ad pages of Sport Compact Car, so I didn’t spend all that much time in it.
While I was busy modifying and misrepairing my non-turbo RX-7, the Fiat sat in the snow. And as my car would live and die and live again, dad’s freaking Fiat would just start and run. Every. Damn. Time. The odds didn’t tip in my favor when I replaced the ’89 Mazda with a ’96 Land Rover, either. Even my mother’s first-gen Odyssey seemed to be in the shop more often than the Fiat.
Anyway, my old man was a pretty lenient parent but he isn’t an idiot. After seeing the horrible treatment I wrought on my vehicular “projects” he only let me drive his car in a relatively limited capacity. Naturally, I used those opportunities to flog the thing like I was auditioning for 2Fast 2Furious, which I’m ashamed to admit I drove to see, multiple times, in our local theatre.
But even as an imperceptive ingrate, I learned pretty quickly that it didn’t matter how hard you pushed the pedals or how fast you could complete the Fiat’s comically long gear-throw. The car’s only speed was “casual progress.”
That weak-ass engine may have been a disappointment to a freshly-licensed hot shot, but it probably saved my life.
In the custody of my family, dad’s Fiat survived about 20 New England winters, two kids learning to drive stick, a teenager with a poor sense of self-preservation and a reputation for being one of the least-reliable cars of all time. Meanwhile, my dad’s idea of an oil change is occasionally adding a quart when about that much has leaked out.
Now I live about 3,000 miles from the house I grew up in, but when I lift the gate on dad’s old garage the Fiat is still in there and it still starts if you hold the key long enough and tap the gas pedal just right.
Even though you can tell the car was made to be inexpensive 40 years ago, and it hasn’t really been cleaned in 20, the fake wood and imitation leather seem to have so much soul.
The steering wheel, big enough to look correct on a bus, requires a massive effort to turn at low speed. Completely devoid of power assistance, it’s the kind of steering “driving purists” write poems about. Or at least, it would be, if there wasn’t so much play in the worn-out components between the wheel and the rack.
With a push of the surprisingly springy clutch pedal, the gearshift moves about a foot to go from neutral to reverse as you ease the car out of its nest.
Rev it up a little, drop the clutch, and the car’s so light that its 60-some-odd horsepower can actually produce a little tire screech even on the “fresh” rubber I convinced my dad to get a couple years ago.
These days, about 15 years after I first got my driver’s license, I have a whole new appreciation for the halcyon pace of the ’79 Fiat. Its four-cylinder engine spits like a toddler with its tongue out, rowing through the gears feels like stirring a spoon in a bag of sand and the vague steering makes suggestions as to where the front wheels might go.
The throttle has to be operated a certain way, depending on engine temperature, to keep the car from stalling. Activating the turn signal requires a unique two-fingered flick of a snapped-off switch inside the steering column. And braking, well, you have to know to start early.
Driving the Fiat now reminds me of why I’m crazy about slabs of steel on wheels, though. Cliché as it is to point to imperfections as a vehicle’s “personality,” the Fiat feels alive. And under its slightly scuffed bodywork, it feels like a friend. Or really, more like a fun uncle.
It introduced me to the joy of driving, reeled me in when I wanted to test my limits, and now it recharges my enthusiasm at 30 mph.
Long live cars with character.