Front wheel drive, transverse engine, overhead cam four cylinder engine, unibody construction, and strut suspension. Sounds like pretty mundane stuff to modern ears but the Fiat 128 was a revolutionary car when launched in 1969. There had of course been very successful, mass produced front wheel drive compacts like the Mini but it had its gearbox under the engine and shared the oil supply with the engine. Others like the Oldsmobile Toronado or Citroën Traction Avant used a longitudinal layout. The Fiat used unequal length drive shafts allowing the engine to sit next to the gearbox. This would prove to be the blueprint for the majority of small cars in later years.
The engine was also very advanced and sporty for its time. An over head valve inline four cylinder with large bore and short stroke gave the engine a rev happy character. It was designed by Aurelio Lampredi who is most famous for his Ferrari V12 engines. Add an aluminum head to the mix and its a rather appealing engine. Again modern eyes would say that is a pretty normal specification except with a carburetor but think back to 1969 and it competed against long stroke and/or pushrod engines. Initially launched with a capacity of 1116cc but a 1290cc became available (initially on the Rally). This engine lasted all the way to 1997 with various updates.
Chassis wise the 128 was a unibody with all independent suspension featuring MacPherson struts front and rear. An anti-roll bar was added to the front only except for the coupe which curiously didn’t have one. Contemporary road tests raved about the handling and ride quality balance. It was voted Europe’s Car of the Year in 1970.
1976 the 128 received an update with redesigned front end that gave new bumpers, square headlights (North America stuck with the round sealed beams), tail lights as well as a few interior changes. In 1978 the Ritmo/Strada was introduced and the 128 was relegated to just the smaller engine in 1979. Production wrapped up 1985.
The story doesn’t end there of course as the Fiat 128 donated its whole front end including engine and transmission to the Fiat X1/9 sports car in 1972 where it moved to the rear to create one of the early affordable mid engine cars. The X1/9 was sold until 1982 as a Fiat and then to 1989 as a Bertone. Later the 128 design would be re-used to create the affordable Yugo (later, in other markets Zastava) car which is probably better known to North Americans. There where even knock down kit versions sold world wide.
The Mini, Citroën Traction Avant are both well known pioneers of front wheel drive but the Fiat 128 deserves to join their ranks as it established the mechanical layout used by almost all modern front drive sedans. Unequal length drive shafts allowed the engine and gearbox to sit next to each other which made front wheel drive really work. Sadly it tends to be a bit forgotten especially in North America where something like the Volkswagen Rabbit or Honda Civic using the same basic layout is more remembered.