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It's 1972 and you need a cheap new family car right now. Fiat 128! Read more:

Author: Elise Thornton
by Elise Thornton
Posted: May 26, 2016

After a cross-country move in which the family Chevy van suffered a rollover, this 128 got my family back on wheels

In late December of 1972, not long after Richard Nixon pounded the crap out of George McGovern and the final Apollo lunar mission took place, my parents decided to pack up and move from Minneapolis to the San Francisco Bay Area. This was more or less a spur-of-the-moment decision triggered by a California visit featuring a 100-degree Fahrenheit difference in outdoor temperatures between the two places. They quit their jobs, sold the house, sold their cars, bought a brand-new 1973 Chevrolet Beauville van, and we all headed west. I was six years old.

The van hit black ice and flipped over near Battle Mountain, Nevada. Nobody was hurt, and the Nevada Highway Patrol gave us a ride to the Reno airport, but there was a problem when we reached our new home in California: no wheels, and thus no way to hunt for jobs in the screwed-without-a-car Golden State. The Beauville would be fixed by the insurance company and delivered months later, but in the meantime my parents needed a way to get around. The solution: head over to J. Dunn Imports in Walnut Creek and buy a pair of brand-new Fiat 128 sedans!

This was one of the cheapest 1973-model cars you could buy in America.


I'd like to say that these efficient little sedans were great cars, but they fell apart pretty fast (in spite of their beautiful engine sounds); the yellow one lasted until about 1975 and the green one limped on to 1977. However, they did get the job done, fit two adults and three kids just fine, and their great fuel economy proved to be a godsend when the Arabs shut off the oil spigot a year later. The main thing the 128s had going for them, though, was that they were incredibly cheap, something that an industrial-equipment salesman and a nurse could afford to buy while between jobs and raising three kids. The 1973 Fiat 128 four-door sedan had an MSRP of only $2,299, versus $2,499 for the 1973 Super Beetle (which had just two doors and a far more primitive design, even considering its snazzy McPherson strut front suspension). Of course, the 1973 Civic hatchback (a far superior machine, despite its lack of a four-door version at that time) was just $2,250, but at that time Honda was known by most Americans as a motorcycle manufacturer and Honda cars were yet to be taken seriously.

Not many photos of the Martin family Fiats exist.

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In fact, there were very few choices for four-door cars cheaper than the Fiat 128 in the United States at this time. You could get a stripper '73 Chevrolet Nova sedan for $2,407 or a '73 Plymouth Valiant sedan for $2,447, so the price difference versus the 128 was quite significant. If you were a masochist, you could pick up a new Plymouth-badged Hillman Avenger (known as the Cricket) for $2,017; the much better Mitsubishi-based '73 Dodge Colt sedan went for $2,437, but those Chrysler-badged import cars were old-fashioned front-engine/rear-drive machines with nowhere near the interior space of the 128. The front-wheel-drive, Mini-cousin Austin America would have been available for a mere $1,985 ('72 was the last model year British Leyland attempted to sell the ADO16 in the United States), but the Fiat was much more the known quantity. So, much of my first years as a new Californian was spent in breakdown-prone-yet-spirited Italian machinery.

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Author: Elise Thornton

Elise Thornton

Member since: Aug 20, 2015
Published articles: 79

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