Fiat 124 Sport Coupe: Reader resto

By: Scott Murray with Greg Johnstone, Photography by: Greg Johnstone

Presented by

Greg Johnstone's Fiat 124 Sport Coupe Greg Johnstone's Fiat 124 Sport Coupe Greg Johnstone's Fiat 124 Sport Coupe
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Greg Johnstone blows the dust off a forgotten family heirloom and saves one of Fiat's finest...

Fiat 124 Sport Coupe: Reader resto
Greg Johnstone's Fiat 124 Sport Coupe

 

Fiat 124 Sports Coupe

When I was a child, there were two cars my mother desired. First was the pagoda-roof Mercedes SL and the other was an AC series Fiat 124 Sport coupe. Once us kids were all old enough to free up her time to take on some part time work, Mum saved enough to buy a car of her own. The Mercs were still well beyond her budget, so one morning Mum announced that she had seen a Fiat advertised in the paper and wanted to take a look.

The car was located at one of those car wholesalers in dingy old warehouse buildings dotted around North Melbourne. Even then it showed signs it had been well used, with the front passenger side corner wearing accident damage that was probably the reason the previous owner decided to let the car go.

On the positive side it had a canvas sliding sunroof from the old Salvado sunroof place in Richmond, which was popular in the ’60s. Plus it had a neat set of Cromodora wheels which really worked with the distinctive Positano yellow colour. Close inspection revealed that the car didn’t have any of the rust that was becoming a trademark of the 124 Sport by that time and after a quick test drive, Mum was keen to do a deal. A couple of guys turned up at the dealer during this time and made an offer on the car which Mum countered and the Fiat was hers.

Once home, my older brother – who was getting into auto repair – was assigned the task of stripping the Fiat back and repairing the damage to the front corner and then preparing it for repainting. While it was gutted my dad decided that as we lived on the beachfront, every surface should be swamped in Fisholene. That decision probably saved the car. While the family wagons were traded every three years or so as the salt air took its toll, the Fiat just didn’t rust.

Mum rarely drove far from home in the car but when things did go wrong my dad hated working on it. When they had trouble with the gearbox, a reconditioned unit was purchased and fitted. But on the test drive it proved to be complete junk. After being removed and inspected, it turned out to be worn out and not reconditioned at all. Undeterred, we bought a 124 that looked well cared for but was available on the cheap as it had suffered a small engine fire. The engine and gearbox were swapped into Mum’s car and the mechanical gremlins subsided.

By 1985 the car was looking distinctly tired. The sunroof, although a much loved and used part of it, was a terrible design with no joins between the four sides of the frame and as a result the canvas skin was cracking and letting the rain in. We found a matching one on an old Celica in a wrecker’s yard. The door skins had started to develop metal fatigue and, with my father’s lack of interest in the car, the niggling issues had started to mount up. The last time I drove it around that time, I was struck by how run down it had become. When the registration was due to expire, the car was driven to my parents’ farm where the wall of a shed was taken down. The car was driven in and the shed wall put back up. It stayed entombed like that for 22 years.

In 2007, after the passing of my parents, their estate was being settled and the Fiat wasn’t wanted by either of my siblings, so I had it brought back to my garage and pondered what to do with it. I looked at other 124s for sale at the time and considered buying one and using the parts from Mum’s car to make one like the car I remembered.  I was about to sell my house, so decided the car needed to be either sold or fixed. It was loaded onto a truck and sent to Fiaparts in Moorabbin to assess whether or not bother with it.

Garry at Fiaparts got the car running, so the mechanicals were removed and the body sent off for restoration, while engine and running gear were given the once over. Fortunately he didn’t have to do much other than major servicing and replacing gaskets. Better doors, boot lid and trim pieces were sourced and used. While the car was stripped, I took all the interior material and trim home and assessed what I could do with it. Vinyl upholstery from that time was not renowned for its durability and there were plenty of cracks from sun damage. I decided that I’d reuse as much as possible of the interior. Armed with a secondhand sewing machine and new vinyl I somehow managed to do an acceptable job of remaking the headlining, dash pad, door tops and some seating areas without ever really learning how to sew.

Once the shut areas were painted, the mechanicals were refitted and the car painted and reassembled. It was delivered back home and over the next few months I fitted the interior and got the flaky electrics working properly. I had to replace the old air horn compressor for a more modern version which meant reversing the polarity. The speedo also needed a new drive and while I was at it, I converted it to include km/h. Lights and switches were all pretty much there; I just had to track down a set of tail lights from another 124. The fake interior woodgrain trim was another assignment altogether. This was seriously hard to find and was in poor condition, having cracked and bubbled, but I eventually managed to replace it with new timber veneer.

The old rego number was bought back from VicRoads and the Fiat got a revisit to the mechanic. In March 2009 I got the roadworthy certificate passed and the car was driven to VicRoads in Carlton and re-registered.

The car has never left me stranded in the last five years and is a hoot every time I take it out for a drive. There are things about it that you don’t think about these days with modern cars, like how to sit on black vinyl seats on a hot day without cremating the backs of your legs. The sunroof works surprisingly well and when driving on the freeway I got caught by a sudden downpour with the roof open. I was amazed to realise that as long as you kept your foot in, the rain was deflected straight over the open roof leaving the inside perfectly dry!

As with most old cars the Fiat gets plenty of looks and comments out and about and if left parked someone’s usually snapping pictures of it on their phone. It always puts a smile on my face and I think Mum would be pretty happy if she saw how the car is these days.

Fiat parts resources:

Turin Imports, SA
(08) 8346 0000
turinimports.com.au

Motors, Victoria
(03) 9386 9650
maranellopursang.com

Monza Motors, Victoria
(03) 9720 4442
monzamotors.biz/index.html

The Italian Job, Victoria
(03) 9569 7779
italianjobauto.com

Milano Spares, Victoria
(03) 9462 2138
milano.com.au

FIATorque, NSW
(02) 9637 7700
fiatorque.com.au

 

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