I loved my first car, a '69 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe. But I grew disenchanted from dealing with too many breakdowns and seeing the former object of my affection turn, not so slowly, from green to rust orange.
I thought the massive corrosion was due to my neglect, such as not visiting the car wash enough. Years later, at a store, thumbing through a book, “The 100 Worst Cars Ever Made,” I found mine among them.
“Fiat 124 owners watched their cars rust before their eyes,” wrote the author, telling why my car made the loser-cruiser list.
Turns out, bad batches of sheet metal, not my lack of care, were to blame for the rusting of thousands of Fiat 124s, not just mine. In an odd way, I felt better.
Fiat makes better cars now, though not all of its quality issues have been resolved. But apparently the Italian auto maker, which left the U.S. market in 1984, feels confident enough to return through a proposed hookup with Chrysler.
The comeback has been in the works for a while. Six years ago, Ward's David Smith interviewed a Fiat executive who spoke of grand plans to get more global.
But how, Smith asked, can Fiat do so without being in the biggest auto market in the world? “We can't,” the executive said.
Under the proposed alliance, Fiat would take a 35% stake in Chrysler, give it platforms to build fuel-efficient small cars and plug into its North American dealership network.
Back when I had old rusty, I got to know my Fiat dealer, Sam Goldfarb, because I was at his place so often for repairs. The joke then was Fiat stood for “Fix It Again Tony.”
Sam, a big, bearish guy who had played football at Detroit Central High School, sometimes blitzed factory guys.
He'd complain his shop had to do too much prep work on cars shipped to his dealership. A touch up here, a tweak there was one thing. Reattaching badly installed window cranks that fell off delivered new inventory was another.
The old dealership has housed various operations since Sam left. The building now is vacant. It's small by dealership standards, then and now. The showroom barely had enough room for two compacts. The service department wasn't much bigger, although it should have been, considering Fiat repair needs of the time.
I spent hours there, roaming around, chatting with Sam and Boris the salesman, and asking mechanics questions such as, “When might my car be fixed because, yet again, the walls of this place are closing in on me?”
Last month, I ask Chrysler President Jim Press this question at a press briefing:
“How do you respond to xenophobes and others in Detroit and elsewhere that wonder about Chrysler getting $4 billion in U.S. aid, then getting cozy with a foreign auto maker.”
“Good question,” Press says. He repeats what he said before, when another journalist posed a Chrysler-Fiat query: “One, it would preserve American jobs in plants and dealerships. Two, it would accelerate our high-tech, fuel-efficient powertrain efforts. Three, it would help preserve the American car industry.”
My tip to the Fiat side of the rescue mission is to go heavy on the rust-proofing.
A junk collector paid $50 for my oxidation science project on wheels. Eric Gearhart's 124 Sport Coupe met a more dramatic end.
Gearhart, director of Skills USA, was on an industry panel I moderated for the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn. in 2005. He and I discovered we were fellow Fiat 124 owners.
“Mine was in the shop just about every other week for the two years I owned it,” he told me. Frustrated, he sold his fickle Fiat to a cousin, who had it for a year with no problems - then drove it into a tree.