Fiat 128: Front Drive Fiat Fun
The X1/1 Project
In the mid 1960s, Dante Giacosa - head of Fiat design - had been developing ideas for a replacement to the venerable Fiat 1100 model. Code-named the X1/1, this new car was going to employ several revolutionary design philosophies, including a front-mounted transverse powerplant and front-wheel drive that had been developed during the design of the Autobianchini Primula in 1964.
Giacosa's design team - busy with continual updates to existing Fiat production models - was finally given the go-ahead from Fiat management in 1966 to further develop the X1/1 project, including the proposal to re-name the car the 128. With the full support of the factory behind them, the 128's development was quite rapid, and by the fall of 1969 the new car was introduced to the European buying public.
While it may not appear to be a design stand-out at first glance - due to its bread-box shape - the 128 was a truly modern design for the time, that favored functionality and good use of space over flowing character lines. This model of automotive design and packaging became a landmark Fiat design, which earned them the coveted Car of the Year award by European journalists.
Right away Fiat had a hit with the 128. It was fun to drive - thanks to its eagerly revving engine - as well as inexpensive to buy and operate, both strong selling points to the increasingly younger buying public. Offered in the basic three-box shape, with either two or four doors, the 128 could provide a buyer with a well-engineered little daily driver that had enough fire behind it for the occasional autocross or road rally. The 128's full independent suspension and front-wheel disc brakes provide excellent road holding and an overall balance rarely seen in a front drive car.
Fiat could see that the 128 would make a great little hot rod, so the factory soon turned its attention to the basic 2-door Sedan, and produced the 128 Rally. Rarely seen in the U.S., the 128 Rally brought along a bored-out engine with the ability to touch 7,000rpm on stock components, and with only 1,700 pounds to motivate, a 128 Rally was a formidable little factory hot rod.
For buyers more interested in family duties than racing, a unique 3-door Station Wagon was available that would swallow just about anything that could be fit through the large hatchback door. A hit both oversees and in the U.S., Fiat broadened the 128 range late in 1971 with a sporty new coupe, tagged the 128 SL.
The SL got a sportier look - thanks to a fastback roofline and shorter overhangs front and rear - as well as a slightly re-worked chassis with a shorter wheelbase. Under the hood was the larger 1.3L engine, making the SL capable of giving much more powerful machines a real run for their money, especially if the road turned twisty.
Some of the SL Coupe's thunder was stolen when Fiat introduced the 128 Spider, which by its introduction in 1974 had been dubbed the X1/9. The X1/9 caused quite a stir in the automotive world, which helped to increase traffic at the local Fiat dealership. The 128 range continued to be a strong seller in the U.S. market through the 1970s, giving Fiat the opportunity to continue revising and developing new model variations.
Such a new car emerged in 1975, as a replacement for the SL. The 128 3P - which stood for 3-Porte (3-doors) - brought about a host of unique features and updates that would see the car through the late 1970s. The 3P's back hatch was in-line with the current hatchback trend, popularized by such cars as the Saab 99 Wagonback and VW Rabbit.
Unfortunately, the mid and late 1970s brought about two strong adversaries to the small performance car enthusiast in the form of increased crash protection and increased pollution control legislation. Both of these new hurdles proved difficult for Fiat to overcome, especially since the European market - Fiat's strongest - did not have to deal with these issues.
Fiat was not an early adapter of fuel injection, and therefore pinned its engineering focus on tried and true methods of fighting the smog gods, which more often than not had adverse effects on power and drive-ability. Engines received numerous changes to compression ratios, carburetors, camshafts, and exhaust manifolds that dulled performance.
By the late 1970s, Fiat was eager to replace the basic 128 line with a larger car, called the Strada in the U.S., and the Ritmo oversees. The Strada shared the basic structure of the 128, including the powertrain, suspension components, and braking components. The heavier car also received an enlarged version of the 128's SOHC engine - now out to 1.5L - which also brought along a new 5-speed transmission. Although the Strada still used a carburetor, the mid-engine X1/9 received fuel injection in 1981 that helped to increase power and driving fun.
It was 1978 that marked the last year for the 128 in the U.S. market. This did not stop Fiat from continuing to take advantage of the car's excellent basic design however, as derivatives continued to be built throughout the world as late as the mid 1990s. The best known 128 derivative was built by the Zavodi Crvena Zastava (ZCZ) company in Yugoslavia, and imported to the U.S. as the Yugo, which continued the 128's presence through 1991.
How to Spot Them
The Fiat 128 Sedans and Station Wagons are the most distinguishable models, thanks to their bread box shape. Early models - offered in the U.S. beginning in 1970 - are distinguished by small chrome bumpers front and rear that feature small chrome overriders. Front turn signals are incorporated into the bumper, while small marker lights wrap neatly around the front fender.
At the front, a honeycomb grill is painted black on 2-doors and Wagons, while the 4-door receives a bright aluminum look. The 4-door and Wagon also receive a single horizontal chrome trim bar running through the middle of the grill, that ties in with the center badge. All models use silver painted steel wheels, with small round cooling holes and chrome hubcaps. The most distinguishable difference on the Wagon - offered only with 2-doors - is the large rear hatch that exposes a flat loading floor. Most Wagons also came equipped with a roof-mounted luggage rack.
Inside, early cars have a rather spartan dash, made slightly more luxurious with a hint of faux wood grain. A binnacle - mounted ahead of the two spoke steering wheel - houses a speedometer on the left and a combination gauge - that keeps track of fuel level and coolant temperature - on the right. Four ventilation outlets - two on the dash top for defrosting and two in the dash face - continue the round styling theme inside.
These early cars received the 1.1L engine, which is rated at 49hp (net) at 6,000rpm, and twists out 57 ft-lbs. of torque at 3,600rpm. Like most small cars of the day, performance was not overwhelming, with acceleration to 60mph taking just over 16.0 seconds, and a top speed approaching 90mph.
The biggest change to the 128 Sedan and Wagon line occurred in 1974, with the addition of much larger 5-mph bumpers, both front and rear. The bumpers themselves are constructed of bright aluminum, use a thick rubber pad along the face for added protection, and again incorporate the front turn signals. The bumpers add roughly 7-inches to the overall length of the cars.
Front grills were also changed, in favor of a black plastic unit with four thin aluminum horizontal bars, and a smaller badge. Headlight surrounds were also made of black plastic instead of bright aluminum. Outside rear-view mirrors were also changed to a rectangular design, painted flat black. Inside, the most obvious change was made to the steering wheel and ventilation controls.
Underhood, the larger 1.3L engine became standard in all 128 models, increasing horsepower to 51 and torque to 62 ft-lbs. Performance was slightly better, but most of the extra power was offset by the added weight. It was distinguishable by a different air cleaner - painted black instead of silver - and the addition of a smog pump, located behind the engine on the passenger's side. A unique feature of all 128 models was the location of the spare tire, placed under the hood just ahead of the driver.
Another series of updates was made in 1977, the biggest of which was another grill redesign that incorporated no chrome bright work. The only other significant update was the addition of much larger rear light clusters that combined the parking, tail, turn, and backup light functions into one assembly.
More changes were made in 1978 - the last year the 128 series was offered for sale in the U.S. - with the addition of large overriders to the already massive bumpers. The most significant change occurred inside, with a completely redesigned dash. The new design was much more modern in its layout, but still lacked full instrumentation. The steering wheel was again changed - still using two spokes - and new side panels and seat upholstery gave the inside a more contemporary feel.
An interesting model - based on the standard 2-door Sedan - was the 128 Rally, which was first offered in the U.S. in 1972. The Rally was Fiat's first car to use the 1.3L engine, and boasted unique striping and decaling to set it apart from the standard car. Inside, later Rallies - 1977 and 1978 - even featured a unique tachometer mounted directly to the dash top, as well as custom-upholstered seats with either red or yellow stripes sewn into the fabric.
Another unique Fiat 128 was the SL Coupe, powered by the 1.3L engine in the U.S., was first offered in 1972. The SL had completely unique bodywork, and featured a sloping roofline that ended in a short, truncated rear deck. Like the standard Sedan, early SL models used slim chrome bumpers front and rear, with chrome overriders mounted quite low.
The front grill was comprised of a center radiator intake that features seven slim horizontally mounted aluminum bars. Two round headlights mount on each side and are housed in black plastic surrounds and give the car a refreshingly clean look. That clean look also shows when running down the side of the car, as Fiat didn't feel it necessary to use any add-on body trim. Three slim air outlets are placed on the wide C-pillar, and the driver's side rear quarter panel incorporates a simple, round, exposed fuel filler cap.
Wheels on the SL are still made of pressed steel, but have a sporty design incorporating aggressive cooling vents and a black painted center section that match the painted rocker panels. In the rear, vertically-styled tail lamp clusters once again clean up what would otherwise be a chunky profile, accentuated by a simple chrome surround and center-mounted reverse light.
Inside, the SL again has its own unique dash design, but pulls several key items, like the large round vents, from the standard 128 design to help keep a family appearance. A much more pronounced instrument binnacle projects quite deeply toward the driver, and houses a speedometer on the left and tachometer on the right. Two smaller gauges - for fuel level and coolant temperature - flank the main binnacle, and the center ventilation stack is arranged horizontally. The steering wheel still uses two spokes - as on all other 128s - but uses a thick rubber rim supported by wide aluminum spokes, lending a sporty flavor.
In 1974, the SL received the larger bumpers from the 128 Sedans, and simpler steel wheels with no black paint scheme. The fuel filler cap was also changed from aluminum to black. Fiat didn't change too many other details on the SL, as they were set to replace the car with a similar design, called the 3P Coupe.
The 3P was first offered in 1975, and from the outside looks identical to an SL - especially from the doors forward - but with a longer roof and more sharply-sloped rear deck. The rear deck incorporates the 3P's namesake, a third door in the from of a back hatch. The 3P also received an updated grill with a wide egg-crate look, but still features four round headlights.
The 3P's new rear end incorporates a unique tail light treatment, with six separate light clusters mounted nearly flush with the bodywork. Wheels were a carry-over from the SL, but were updated in 1977 when the car also received large bumper overriders.
All the Specs
The heart of the Fiat 128 is its transverse-mounted, SOHC in-line four cylinder engine tilted 20 degrees toward the front of the car. Designed by Lampredi, these engines are generically called the Fiat SOHC engines, differentiating them from the DOHC engines as used in the popular Fiat 124 series.
The block is made from cast-iron, and features a front-mounted distributor and starter, and a rear-mounted water pump and alternator. Camshaft drive is taken off the passenger side of the engine, with the driver side of the engine transmitting power to the transmission.
A strong bottom end is essential for a small, high-revving power unit, so the SOHC engines feature a robust forged crankshaft that is supported by five large 50mm main bearings, with thrust washers located on the end bearing. Connecting rods are short and stout, using large diameter 48.6mm big ends to connect to the crank.
On the small end of the rods, excessively over-square pistons are used that allow for elevated revs. The original 1,116cc engine - labeled the 128A - features light-alloy pistons measuring 80mm in diameter, with a very short 55.5mm stroke. Surprisingly for such a short stroke design, the SOHC engine still produces excellent low and mid range torque for its displacement.
A 1,290cc variant was first offered in the Rally and SL, and soon became the standard choice for all 128s in 1974. This engine - the 128A1 - uses the same short stroke of the 1.1L, but features a larger 86mm bore, making the 1300 the highest revving of the two engines.
Yet another increase in displacement came about with the introduction of the 138A series engine - as used in the X1/9 and Strada. This time a longer 63.9mm stroke was used in conjunction with a slight increase in bore to 86.4mm, bringing total displacement to 1,498cc. Both horsepower and torque were increased (65 or 76hp and 75 or 84 ft-lbs of torque, depending on whether carburetors or fuel injection was fitted) which was needed with the heavier Strada and X1/9 range.
Compression ratios were juggled through the years, with the original 1,116cc engines featuring an 8.8:1 ratio and the 1,290cc engine destined for the US market featuring a lower 8.5:1 ratio. European enthusiasts - not saddled with the burden of lower grade fuel and stricter emissions - had 8.9:1 compression, bumping output slightly. The 1,498cc engines uses a lower 8.5:1 compression ratio, as this engine saw duty in the dark days of the emissions fiasco.
All SOHC 128 engines use two valves per cylinder, arranged in a standard pentroof combustion chamber with a single front-mounted spark plug. The valves feature an 8mm stem diameter with intake heads measuring 36mm in diameter, and exhaust heads measuring 30mm in diameter for the 1.1 liter and 1.3 liter engines. Exhaust valves grew larger in the 1.5-liter engine, increasing to 33.5mm in diameter.
Regardless of the displacement or valve sizes, Fiat didn't skimp when it came to designing this engine for high rpm operation. Double valve springs are used, with inner keeper-springs providing added resistance to valve float, and a certain amount of safety should an outer spring fail. Conventional solid lifters are used, with large diameter shims provided for adjusting valve clearances.
A cast-iron camshaft features a cogged timing belt that is driven off the end of the crankshaft and kept in tension with a small hydraulic belt-tensioner. The cam itself is a robust unit, held in place with five large 30mm diameter bearings. The cam is removable through the end of the cylinder head tower, making cam changes quicker and easier than on most SOHC designs.
Once again, Fiat juggled the cam specs through the years, with an original 12/52/52/12 valve timing offered on the 1.1-liter engines. The 128 Rally uses a hotter "European" spec cam - with valve timing set at 24/68/64/28 - that really helps bring these little engines alive. 1.3 liter engines - as used in the SL, 3P, and later made standard in the 128 sedans and wagons - made due with either a 12/52/52/12 or 10/54/54/10 spec cam depending on the year. All 1.5-liter engines for the U.S. market used a 10/54/54/10 spec cam.
The aluminum cylinder head features both intake and exhaust ports on the backside of the engine - in a non-cross flow arrangement - with a single gasket sealing both intake and exhaust manifolds. Intake ports measure roughly 28mm in diameter, and provide a nearly straight shot into the combustion chamber. Exhaust ports measure slightly larger in diameter, but feature a curved cross-section that gradually necks down around the valve guide, before entering the combustion chamber. Valve guides measure 15mm in outside diameter and protrude slightly into each port, while valve seats incorporate a standard three-angle grind for better flow.
On the intake side, a compact aluminum manifold features short rusnners that merge into a shallow plenum. 1.1-liter engines, and very early 1.3-liter engines fitted to the SL Coupe, use a single-barrel Weber 32 ICEV carburetor, while the 1.3-liter engine gained a two-barrel Weber DMTR that provides added breathing, especially at higher revs. A slightly revised Weber 32 DATRA was used on the later 1.3-liter and 1.5-liter engines, gaining extra pollution control devices by the late 1970s. All carburetors use a standard sheet-steel air cleaner - painted light gray on the 1.1-liter engine and black on the 1.3-liter engines - with a hot-air duct for cool climates, and a conventional round filter element.
The exhaust manifolds also differ between the two engines, with the 1.1-liter engines using a cast-iron manifold with one outlet, and the 1.3-liter engines using a cast-iron manifold with two separate outlets. From there, two pipes run back roughly 24-inches before merging into one 1.5-inch diameter pipe that runs the length of the car. This 4-into-2-into-1 design helps to improve engine performance.
All this engine power is transmitted through a single dry-plate clutch disc measuring 181.5mm in diameter for cars equipped with 4-speed transmissions. The Strada series, which brought along a 5-speed transmission, uses a larger 194mm diameter clutch disc. Clutch actuation is through a direct cable with a simple threaded adjustment. The cast steel flywheel measures 240mm in diameter for all 4-speed transmissions - and weighs 12 pounds - while the 5-speed transmission uses a larger 262mm flywheel that weighs 16 pounds.
Inside the ribbed-aluminum transmission case lie three primary shafts, with the top shaft acting as the input shaft, the second shaft housing the gear clusters, and bottom shaft acting on the differential. All 128 models used the same basic design, with four helical-toothed forward gears using Porsche style spring-type synchronizers. A single straight-toothed gear is used for reverse, with no synchronizer.
Gear ratios remained constant through the years, with first gear set at 3.583:1, second gear at 2.235:1, third gear at 1.454:1, and fourth gear set to 1.042:1. The final drive, however, was changed depending on the year and model, with 2-door and 4-door Sedans receiving a 4.077:1 ratio, and the heavier Station Wagons using a shorter 4.416:1 ratio. SL Coupe and 3P models received the standard 4.077:1 final drive. Late model Stradas gained a revised transmission, with five forward gears. The case was extended to accommodate the fifth-gear cluster on the end of the gear shaft.
Drive axles for all models use standard tripod joints on the transmission end - with needle bearings - and Rzeppa style constant velocity joints on the hub end. Since the transmission is offset to the driver's side, a shorter axle can be used, while a longer axle is used on the passenger side. Two different styles of axles were used, with early cars - before 1972 - using a sleeved shaft, and later cars using the more common one-piece integral style shaft.
There were minor changes to the hub design to accommodate the two axles, however the same suspension and brake components were retained. Up front, full-floating brake calipers are used, with a single 48mm piston squeezing crescent-shaped pads. Solid front brake discs measure 227mm in diameter and 10mm thick. Drum brakes, measuring roughly 185mm in diameter are used at the back, which also act as the parking brake. All models - except very early Sedans - use a single-diaphragm power booster.
The hydraulic brake circuit is split into three channels, with one for each front corner, and a single circuit for the rear brakes. The rear circuit incorporates a unique load-leveling pressure regulator that senses when the car is loaded down - through direct mechanical linkage to the rear suspension - and provides more hydraulic force to the rear wheels.
Directional control on the 128 is provided by a manually operated rack and pinion steering system. The steering wheel is positioned quite flat - to suite the long-armed physique of Italian drivers - and features a slow 3.5 turns lock-to-lock. Two universal joints in the steering column provide added safety in the event of an accident, by allowing the wheel to fold forward, away from the driver.
Underneath the front of every 128 model lies a fully-independent front suspension, incorporating MacPherson struts, coil springs, lower control arm, and either a stabilizer bar or tie-rod. The MacPherson struts use a simple two-bolt method of attaching to the hub, and three bolts for attaching to the car. Coil springs were offered in two different stiffness ratings, depending on the model, but both featured a free length of roughly 428mm. Both ends have ground, open coils, with thin rubber-isolating pads for noise and vibration reduction.
The steel lower control arm mounts to the car through a large diameter rubber bushing, and features a cast knuckle-joint where either the anti-roll bar mounts - as on Sedans and Wagons - or a simple tie-rod mounts - as on SL and 3P versions. No provisions are made for adjusting camber or caster. Sedans use a 19mm diameter anti-roll bar, while the Wagon uses a thicker 22mm diameter anti-roll bar, both mounted with standard D-shaped rubber bushings.
In the back, a unique independent suspension uses a transverse leaf spring, Chapman-style struts, and lower control arms to produce a compact, and tunable system. The strut looks similar to a conventional MacPherson strut, except it does not support a coil spring. Two mounting holes are used to bolt the strut to the hub, and a single stud is secured to the car's body, with a small rubber bushing helping to eliminate vibration.
The heart of the system is the multi-layered transverse leaf spring arrangement that also provides the benefits of an anti-roll bar. Two thin spring-steel leaves sandwich a thin interleaf lining - used to eliminate squeaking - featuring sharply angled ends that wrap around rubber securing brackets. These brackets are attached to the lower control arms, and when the suspension moves upward, transmit force to the ends of the leaf springs. The lower control arms use large rubber mount-bushings, and can be adjusted - through the use of thin shims - for toe. Station Wagon models - designed to carry more weight - use an additional third leaf spring.
Rolling stock is provided through the use of pressed-steel wheels, measuring 13-inches in diameter and 4.5-inches in width. A uniquely Fiat 4x98mm bolt pattern is used, which is also shared with certain Lancia and Maserati models, as well as just about every other Fiat model. Stock tires measure a skinny 145SR-13 in size, but featured radial construction as standard.
Hot Rodding the 128
The Fiat 128 is a perfect choice for hot rodding. It seems as if Fiat designed the car to support elevated power outputs and the increased grip afforded by race tires. Better yet, there is a long list of aftermarket parts and suppliers - as well as upgrades from later model Fiats - which have been proven in the heat of competition.
Starting at where the rubber meets the road, 128 owners can drastically improve the handling of their car by ditching the skinny wheels and tires in favor of something wider. At minimum, a simple upgrade to wider 5-inch steel wheels - from the 124 and 131 series cars - can make fitting wider tires a reality. Another popular upgrade is to find any number of stock aluminum wheels, offered in 5 and 5.5-inch widths that were available on X1/9 and later 2000 Spiders. Staying in the corporate family, wheels from the Lancia Beta series - 14x5.5 inches - can just fit inside the fenders of a 128, and lend a unique appearance.
Several aftermarket companies have offered wheels for the Fiat-specific 4x98mm bolt pattern, including Chromadora, Daytona, and Campagnolo. Many of these designs are cherished among the Fiat community. A good market also exists for autocross and road race fans, as companies like Ultralite and Revolution offer Fiat-specific wheels, with custom widths and backspacing available. A cheap route for the part time local racer is to have custom steel wheels made, using the stock Fiat centers.
In addition to wheel upgrades, upgrading to wider, more performance oriented tires offers a significant improvement in overall grip and driving fun. For the daily-driven 128, a good choice would be a 175/70-13, a size available in countless designs. Another popular tire size, the 185/60-13 - is an excellent choice for owners with wider wheels to match. This used to be a much more common size, but now days is limited to selections like the venerable Yokohama AVS-I, which can also perform admirably at an autocross or during road course play days.
All out DOT approved racing tires are still available in 13-inch sizes, with the Yokohama A-032R, Kumho Victoracer V700, new Kumho Ecsta V700, and Hoosier radials available in widths from 175mm to 235mm, the latter requiring custom wheels and fender modifications. For enthusiasts who like to venture off road, any number of 13-inch rally tires are offered by Michelin, Kumho, Pirelli, Yokohama, and Silverstone.
Any good hot rod 128 should have some attention spent on upgrading its suspension. Starting with the front struts, a popular upgrade unit is the KYB GR2. This strut is not adjustable, but provides a good improvement over tired, worn-out stock units. Since the 128 is blessed with long suspension travel, the old school method of shortening stock springs can be used effectively, if it's not overdone. Upwards of two coils can be removed - and the springs effective rate increased - without fear of bottoming.
A better alternative can be pulled directly off the Fiat parts shelf, in the form of X1/9 rear struts. When used with the 128 top mounts and stock X1/9 springs, this combination lowers the front of a 128 by roughly 2-inches, without affecting suspension travel.
Lowering the rear of a 128 is easy, because of the ingenious nature of the transverse leaf-spring design. It's a simple matter of spacing the lower A-arm away from the spring perch. The most common method for doing this is to remove the stock mounting bolts, and replace them with longer (upwards of 3-inches in length) bolts that can accept a sleeve-type spacer. The thickness of the spacer determines the amount of lowering. Without too much trouble, this spacer can be swapped, providing for quick rear ride height changes.
Another popular modification to the rear suspension of a 128 is the addition of a third leaf spring, pulled from the Station Wagon model. This shorter, third leaf - and its corresponding innerleaf lining - can be added to the two existing primary leaves, which not only provides a stiffer spring rate, but since the leaf springs act like an anti-roll bar, rear roll resistance is also increased. Adding the third leaf will raise rear ride height slightly, so the lowering sleeves will need to be lengthened to compensate.
For die hard enthusiasts - and part time racers who want flatter handling - the thicker 22mm front anti-roll bar from a Wagon can be used on 128 Sedans, but not on SL or 3Ps, which don't have provisions for anti-roll bars. Firmer center and outer bushings - where the anti-roll bar connects through the control arm - helps to take out much of the slop, and quicken response.
If even greater rear roll resistance is desired, Addco makes a 3/4-inch rear anti-roll bar for the 128. This bar helps to keep the car flatter, and can be used to bring the handling balance closer to neutral, or even into an oversteering condition.
Better stopping power is always a good idea, and several grades of front pads are available. Popular options include PBR/Axxis Metalmasters, which provide good initial bite and better resistance to fading during track use. There aren't too many options for better rear drum linings, however many local brake shops can re-line shoes with better grade lining material. Regardless of the pad or lining material, it's always a good idea to bring the entire braking system - including master cylinder, brake lines, and calipers - up to as new conditions, and always use a good high-temperature DOT4 brake fluid.
A unique brake upgrade for the front of 128s, is to adapt Fiat Uno Turbo front rotors and calipers. The Uno Turbo was a model offered in Europe, and came equipped with small diameter vented front rotors that still fit inside 13-inch wheels. A good upgrade to the back end of a 128 is to adapt disc brakes off the rear of a 124 series car, complete with handbrake mechanism. While the rear brakes aren't asked to do much on a 128, this upgrade has proven to increase stopping power.
Making the chassis stiffer will also go a long way toward improving the performance of a 128. Even though the front strut towers are set relatively close to the firewall, a front strut tower brace will help to minimize chassis flex. A popular brace is manufactured by Courtney Waters Industries, and features a polished aluminum brace with heim-joint end links.
With everything held tight and secure, a good alignment can make a 128 turn quicker lap times, or simply improve its on-road stability. Up front, toe settings in the neighborhood of 1/8-inch in can improve stability for high-speed events, and improve turn-in, while the same amount of toe-out can improve overall front end grip.
There is no provision for changing front camber, however tried and true methods of slotting either the upper mount bolts (where the strut mounts to the body) or slotting the strut to hub mounting bolts can be used to dial-in some much needed negative camber. Street cars can generally get away with 1-degree of negative front camber, without affecting tire wear, while cars used in autocross or road course play day events should experiment with higher camber settings - such as 2 or 3 degrees - until the right balance and tire temperatures are found.
In the back, Fiat provided adjustment for toe by using thin shims in the lower A-arms mounts. Generally, zero toe is a good starting point, with toe-out used to help induce oversteer. Rear camber changes dramatically as the rear of the car is lowered, with values approaching 2 to 3 degrees negative. These dramatic camber settings may sound excessive, but have proven to provide good levels of grip and balance.
The heart of any Fiat 128 must surely be the high-revving SOHC powerplant, which responds exceptionally well to standard tuning practices, and benefits from a healthy aftermarket supply. Anything from a replacement carburetor to a stroker crankshaft can be sourced through any number of vendors specializing in Fiat.
Starting on the outside of the engine, with intake system first, the 128 engine can benefit greatly from increased carburetion or even fuel injection. At minimum, early cars - equipped with the single barrel carburetor - can benefit from fitting a two-barrel carb and manifold from the later cars. Popular replacement carburetors include the Weber 34 DMTR - an exact bolt-on for the stock 32 DMTR - which provides a bit more flow. With a bit of handiwork to the intake manifold, to accommodate the different base, the popular Weber 32/36 DGV series carburetor can be used, which has a ready supply of aftermarket parts and supplies.
For those seeking more power and dazzle, twin carburetors are a perfect match to the SOHC engine. The most popular setup consists of Weber 36 or 40 DCNF carburetors, the latter being better suited to higher output 1,500cc engines. An even flashier setup consists of twin Weber 40 DCOE sidedraft carbs, which require custom fabricated throttle cables and associated bracketry, but the results are worth it. Any of these setups - downdraft or sidedraft - helps these little mills breath at higher revs, and generate excellent improvements in mid-range pulling power when jetted correctly.
Several options exist for owners wanting to go the fuel injection route, including the use of stock late model X1/9 systems. Many of the parts and pieces can be pulled off a fuel injected X1/9 and adapted to the 128 engine bay. Another option - made popular by the DSP X1/9 crowd - is the use of a Electromotive Tec II programmable fuel injection system, which provides excellent performance and has years of reliable operation.
On the exhaust side, several different performance options exist for the 128, depending on the year and model. Early cars can benefit from the use of the standard 4-into-2 cast iron exhaust manifold offered on the later cars. All models can see improvements from the use of a tubular header, offered in either 4-into-1 designs for better top end breathing or 4-into-2-into-1 designs for better mid-range power. Either way, a good exhaust system, featuring a less restrictive path and free flowing mufflers, can let out a few more horsepower, as well as those beautiful Italian sounds common to the SOHC Fiat engine.
One of the most beneficial component changes on a SOHC engine is changing the camshaft. U.S. spec cars received camshafts featuring very mild profiles, better suited to producing good fuel economy than power and revs. For mild engines, changing out the stock camshaft to a European grind 26/68/68/26 spec cam will net excellent increases throughout the rpm band, including the opportunity to actually make some power between 6 and 7,000rpm.
Fiat owners have literally dozens of camshafts to choose from, from several well-known suppliers. Popular camshaft specs include the 30/70/70/30 - an excellent option for a mild street engine - and the 35/75/75/35, which is a good choice for higher strung 1.1L and 1.3L engines, or dual-carburetor-equipped 1.5L engines seeing autocross or track day use.
Any number of camshafts designed for high rpm operation (8,000rpm and beyond) can be sourced, but these are best suited to cars looking for ultimate horsepower figures, or for cars destined to live on the racetrack. Stock valve springs - thanks to Fiat's use of stiff double springs - are safe for engines designed to occasionally see 8,000rpm. Anything higher and it is a good idea to also spec stiffer valve springs to ensure there is no danger of valve float.
The cylinder head of the SOHC engine is a good place to spend some time when building a hot rod 128. Intake and exhaust ports are relatively small, and can be opened up - 2.5mm for the intake and 3mm for the exhaust ports - to increase airflow. Inside the head, it is popular to relieve around the valve guide, and even slim down the end of the valve guide, to increase flow into the combustion chambers.
A popular swap among the Fiat crowd is to use a cylinder head off the 1.1L or 1.3L engines on the 1.5L engine, which raises the compression ratio from 8.0:1 to roughly 9.2:1, giving impressive power gains. Another popular operation - and one that bites back if taken too far - is to mill the head in an attempt to reduce the combustion chamber volume, and raise the compression ratio. Unfortunately, the SOHC cylinder head design is a bit thin in the amount of aluminum present in the clamping area, and cars with excessive compression ratios can have difficulty holding head gaskets.
Regardless of the cylinder head used, there is room for improvement, specifically with the fitment of larger valves and reworking of the combustion chambers. Several companies offer big valve heads - such as PBS - and a good engine shop, familiar with seating hard valves in aluminum, can also do much of the work if the owner is willing to source the parts and do a bit of hand finishing.
Once all the right components are chosen and installed, a hot rod SOHC engine will surprise its owner by its flexibility, strong pulling power, and willing desire to send the tach needle off the end of the gauge. The little 1.1L engines have a distinct feeling, light and rev happy, while the 1.3L engines bring about a bit more mid-range grunt. For owners seeking even more power, the 128 (and Yugo) can readily accept a 1.5L transplant from the Strada or X1/9.
The 1.5L swap brings instant displacement, and provides a perfect base for a hot rod 128 project. With the right selection of camshaft, carburetor setup, and compression, a hot rod 1.5L engine can produce 120-130hp, can be driven daily on the street, and will quite literally turn Fiat's favorite bread box into a real rocket ship, much to the surprise of Neon, GTI, and Civic drivers.
Regardless of what model of 128 or Yugo, or its state of tune and preparation, owning one of these frisky little Fiats is a pleasure today, thanks to a core group of Fiat enthusiasts who share knowledge and experience. 128s can still be found out on the track, whether at an autocross, hill climb, road race, or simply an enthusiastic group of owners enjoying a track day. Fiat 128s are fun, plain and simple. Owning a 128 is even more fun. Driving, or better yet racing a 128 is the easiest way to bring a grin to anyone's face.
Chris Hartman has been turning quick times at local Oregon autocross events for years with his hot rod 1986 Yugo. Special thanks go to the members of Mirafiori.com Racing, Mark Scholtz, Eric Armstrong, Mike Richmond, and Mike Mittelstead.
Sidebar: The Zastava Connection
Little known outside of Europe, the Zavodi Crvena Zastava factory - located in the small town of Kragujavic - has been manufacturing automobiles since 1954, typically based directly off production Fiat automobiles. Further, ZCZ designers and engineers often participated directly in the development of the Fiat model from which the Yugoslavian derivative would be built. Such was the case with the Fiat 128.
Early in 1966, with the development of the X1/1 project well underway, Dante Giacosa was working with ZCZ's director, Prvoslav Rakovic, to pull together a new model called the "X auto." The "X" was to be 1,000-1,100 cc in displacement, and seemed to directly correlate with the Fiat X1/1 project parameters.
Several design prototypes had been developed for the X1/1, including two Breaks (hatchbacks) in both 3 and 5-door variations. It was the later 5-door hatchback design that was rejected by Fiat - in favor of the true Wagon variation, tagged the Familiar - that soon found a home in the ZCZ autoworks, thanks to Rakovic.
Rakovic's incredible motivation to turn an old weapons plant in Kragujavic into a fully functional autoworks was helped when Giacosa offered up the Fiat design and engineering center in Turin. ZCZ sent engineers to Turin, and with considerable input from Giacosa's team, helped these inexperienced designers and engineers to build models and eventually fully functional prototypes. It was one of those prototypes - tagged the ZCZ 1100 - that was presented to Marshal Tito at the Belgrade Motor Show in 1971.
The 1100 model - also called the 1300 when the larger engine was fit, and renamed the 101 in the mid 1970s - formed the ZCZ factory's highest volume product line, with upwards of 100,000 cars produced each year by the early 1980s. It was around this time that ZCZ began having the resources and engineering talent to think about taking on a design of its own.
This is where the Jugo model came to life. First seen in late 1981, the Jugo 45 and 55 models again used the 128 as a solid platform, with most of the mechanicals - engine, transmission, suspensions, brakes etc. - pulled directly from the Fiat parts bin. This new model had an entirely unique look, inside and out, and thanks to better materials and advances in manufacturing technologies, the Jugo proved to be a step upwards from the 128 which it was based off.
What developed next was perhaps ZCZ's boldest move: targeting the incredibly vast U.S. market with their tiny little car re-named the Yugo, and sold under the direction of the newly formed Yugo America corporation. The Yugo made quite the splash when introduced to the U.S. buying public in 1ate 1985, thanks largely to its incredibly low $3995 price tag. The Yugo was originally offered only in basic GV grade - standing for Great Value - and was powered by the venerable 1,116cc Fiat SOHC engine. In Yugo trim, the 1.1-liter engine was rated at 55hp and 52 ft-lbs. of torque, and was equipped with a Carter two-barrel carburetor.
The Yugo immediately sold like gangbusters, no thanks to most of the country's automotive journalists, who favored cracking Yugo jokes over printing anything factual. It was these kinds of hurdles that made the Yugo's success all that more staggering.
By 1988, the Yugo range had been broadened with the introduction of the better-equipped GVL and a sporty new model called the GVX. The GVX was fitted with the 1.3-liter engine and 5-speed transmission, and was easily distinguished by its body kit and 8-spoke aluminum wheels, which also brought along wider Tigar brand tires. Inside, the GVX received seats with bigger bolsters and sporty trim. It was certainly no rocket ship - with 67hp and 74 ft-lbs. of torque propelling it to 60mph in roughly 12 seconds - but it could outpace similarly sized small cars like the Chevy Sprint, Subaru Justy, and Daihatsu Charade, for several thousand dollars less.
Unfortunately, messy politics and mis-management led Yugo America into bankruptcy proceedings in 1989. Soon after, Yugo America became a subsidiary of Zastava, and all Yugo models received the larger 1.3L engine and 5-speed transmission, as well as an advanced Bosch LH fuel injection system. The Yugo was one of the last cars to be sold in the U.S. with a carburetor, the other being the Lamborghini Countach.
The Yugo range was again broadened by the introduction of the cute little Cabrio model. The Cabrio was a genuine convertible, that offers features not available on much more highly-touted rag tops, including a fully automatic convertible top that houses a glass rear window. Cabrios have the same fancy body kit and wheels as the GVX, and came in fun, bright colors like yellow and red. The Cabrio uses the 1.3L engine - as on all other Yugo models - but never adopted the fuel injection. In fact, the Cabrio never had the time to make a name for its self, as only 72 cars were sold before Yugo pulled out from the U.S. market.
Today, Yugos are considered part of the Fiat family. It is not uncommon for fans of the original 128 to own a Yugo or two, as they provide the same fun factor but in a more modern package. Several enthusiasts have even taken the Yugo under their wings, creating little rocket ships ready to do battle at an autocross, road course play day, or even the drag strip. The same SOHC hot rod tricks can be applied under the hood of these fun little Yugoslavian machines, which can catch many a stoplight racer off guard, much to the Yugo driver's enjoyment.