David Mullen goes back to the USSR with the Fiat that mobilised millions

Picture the scene: A sleek, silver jetplane flies through the air. Inside in the cockpit, the pilot pulls a lever to open the cargo doors and sliding out of the cargo bay comes a car sitting on a pallet. The car tumbles out of the back of the plane, upside-down, end over end, plummeting to earth.

Within seconds though, a pair of white parachutes snap into bloom. From the plane, a quintet in white jumpsuits leaps out, parachuting down, following the car which is now drifting slowly towards the ground.

It comes to rest with a bump on a concrete runway and the men land too, collapsing into heaps before getting to their feet and running to the car. They remove some padding from the pallet before getting into the small, boxy, maroon saloon, starting it up and driving it away.
This was the 1966 launch of the Fiat 124.

For such a spectacular debut, the Fiat 124 was not a terribly exciting car. It looked as if it had been styled by a child armed with just a pencil and a ruler. The technology wasn’t especially cutting-edge either – its 1.2 litre engine drove the rear wheels, unlike its more forward-thinking competitors such as the Austin 1100 or Renault 16.

The 124 was, in theory, a car along the same lines as the Ford Escort or Vauxhall Viva. That’s where the similarities ended though. For all its apparent conservatism, the 124 was an excellent car whose modest virtues left it a cut above the competition.

Such a well-rounded car was it that it won European Car of the Year in 1967, trouncing more expensive metal from BMW and Jensen.
A 1.2-litre engine, producing just 65 horsepower, may not sound like much, but in a car weighing just about 950kg (c.2,000lbs) coupled with all-round disc brakes and a sophisticated coil-sprung suspension, it was enough to make the 124 a nippy little machine and a favourite among keen drivers.

Faster again were the pretty 124 Sport Coupé and Spider with bigger, 1.4-litre engines. For the less sporting motorist, there was the practical five-door estate.

Irish buyers have never been especially fond of sporty cars but the 124’s cautious, yet well-executed small saloon design, made it popular here. Assembled by Fiat on Dublin’s Kylemore Road, even by 1975, eight years after its launch, it was still Ireland’s seventh best selling car.

Whilst it may have been common here, our embrace of the 124 was nothing compared to Russia’s.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own