If you’re looking for an affordable classic from the 1960s and ‘70s, should you go Japanese or Italian?

We’re doing things differently this time, in the name of affordability. Two contenders square up and offer a fascinating insight into the different design philosophies of their countries back in the day. Meet the Datsun 1200 GX and Fiat 128 1100, vehicles of which I own an example each.

Background

When the Japanese decided to get serious about exporting cars to help revive their economy after World War Two, they employed tried-and-tested designs that had already succeeded in other countries, especially Britain, and made sure the material choices and manufacturing tolerances were of the highest standard. Being ultra-conservative in the construction methods and in an effort to ensure reliability, this meant a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout with leaf-spring rear suspension.

Europe was already well into the swing of modern innovation; Italy had spent decades honing designs through the racing exploits of Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati. The country’s volume producer was Fiat and, with the 128, the manufacturer was making its first foray from rear- into front-wheel drive. To be more accurate, Fiat had tested the concept first with its joint venture with Bianchi and Pirelli (called Autobianchi). This car was named the Primula. FWD had, of course, already been successfully mass-produced with the Mini in 1959 and the Citroën Light 15 and DKW beforehand, but the layout with the gearbox behind the engine instead of below quickly became the format of choice.

It was the well-respected motoring journalist LJK Setright who said: “If Citroën had made front-drive practical and Issigonis had made it affordable and fun, it remained for somebody else to make it good. That somebody was Dante Giacosa, chief engineer at Fiat.”

Setright claims Giacosa had wanted to produce a small, front-wheel-drive car way back when he designed the Topolino in 1936 but did not have the backing of his bosses. He got the go-ahead years later and assembled a team of three engineers: Montabone, who had all-round knowledge; Cordiano, who was a suspension expert; and Lampredi, considered the greatest engine boffin of his time. The 128 was launched early in 1969 and was voted European Car of the Year in 1970.

Packaging and powertrains

Fiat 128 – The layout chosen was transverse with the gearbox behind the engine. A quiet belt-driven overhead camshaft was employed and an electrically powered radiator fan meant the radiator could stay up front, in the air stream. In the days of eight-valve heads, cambelts did not perform too badly but with modern 16 V heads and higher revs, these days they have lost favour as being somewhat overstressed and unreliable.

When new, the engine produced 41 kW at 6 000 r/min with 77 N.m of torque. It had a compression ratio of 8,8:1 and the vehicle’s overall mass was 770 kg. The unit is tilted forward 20 degrees to allow more space for the inlet manifold and to stow the spare wheel behind the engine. This is not the only Fiat to try this trick. The Uno Way imported from Brazil in 2010 had the same shoehorned arrangement. Somehow, the engine was endowed with incredible smoothness and rev-ability, partly thanks to the short stroke of 55,5 mm compared with the Datsun’s 70 mm. Carburetion uses a single-choke, downdraft Weber.

The biggest advantage of the modern layout is interior space, particularly the rear legroom. This measured 685 mm with the Datsun at 545 mm, making a substantial difference to comfort levels.

Datsun 1200 – Although the Datsun engine’s head was made of aluminium, the design used ohv with pushrods. The 1200 had 55 cm3 more capacity than the Fiat with more power, too (50 kW and 95 N.m). The powertrain’s compression ratio is 9,0:1 and the vehicle’s mass 715 kg. Carburetion is via a twin-choke, downdraft Hitachi. The GX model uses twin side-draft Hitachi-SUs which boosts power to 52 kW.

One advantage with an inline engine is much easier accessibility. An interesting observation that, to some extent, continues today is the smaller engine-oil capacity of the Japanese car: 2,7 litres compared to the Italian’s 4,5.

The Datsun is just 30 mm more compact but its wheelbase is 148 mm shorter than the Fiat’s. While the Datsun loses out on interior space, boot capacity is closer at 360 litres as opposed to the Fiat’s 380. The 128 is taller and wider by 30 mm and 95 mm respectively. It also weighs 55 kg more than the Datsun. Wheel sizes are 12 inches for the 1200 and 13 inches on the 128.

Performance

Performance is similar while the 1200 is slightly ahead of the 128 in braking times from 100-0 km/h: 3,59 versus and 3,67 seconds.

Suspension and steering

In typical Italian fashion, the suspension was tuned for excellent handling in the Alps and Apennine mountain passes. Unassisted rack and pinion steering allowed more feel and a quick turn-in.

Both cars use MacPherson struts in the front with anti-roll bars. In the rear, there are leaf springs on both but with completely different layouts. The 1200’s are longitudinal while the 128 has a single transverse leaf with a control arm. Steering on the Datsun is by recirculating ball and rack and pinion on the Fiat. Without power assistance, both cars have 3,4 turns lock to lock.

Problems

You’d battle to find two more different cars in the same class. The Datsun is probably the more reliable engine-wise with a pushrod design as opposed to belt-driven ohc of the Italian.

Ironically, with my minuscule sample size of two cars – each with under 100 000 km on the clock – we have taken the head off the 1200 twice due to gasket leaks but the 128 has not yet been opened.

They are prone to rust and brake work has been necessary on both because their rear brake shoes came adrift at the same time. I repaired some rust on the Datsun more than a decade ago. This was confined to the bottom of the doors and in front of the rear wheelarches. Our example of the Fiat is largely rust-free, thanks to being garaged for 90% of its life, but it did receive a new clutch. After some years of inactivity, carburettors (and braking) will need a thorough, careful cleaning.

Which ones to get, availability and prices

The best Datsun is the GX Coupé with its two doors and fastback styling. As far as the Fiat goes, it’s the Rally with extra instrumentation, spots, stripes and leather-rimmed steering wheel plus the 1 300 cm3 engine.

We have seen a few in the classifieds but these cars are a challenge to find in reasonable condition, let alone in an excellent state. Prices range from R10 000 to around R60 000.  

Interesting facts

Japan and Italy may have been allies in World War Two but were unceasing competitors in the automotive world in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Perhaps the strongest rivalry happened on the racetracks on two wheels. Motorcycle racing showed the world the Japanese were serious. Decent motorcars soon followed to challenge the British and Europeans.

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