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Opinion

Don’t laugh – Italian cars run like clockwork

by Richard Heseltine
21 February 2022 2 min read
Don’t laugh – Italian cars run like clockwork
Photos: Stellantis

Italian cars are notoriously unreliable. Everyone says so. This isn’t true, at least according to Richard Heseltine.

It’s a tired old acronym, and one that lingers like a bad smell. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the legend ‘Fix It Again Tony’ whenever the name Fiat comes up in conversation. I don’t know who Tony is, but he is clearly a lousy mechanic if cars he keeps mending then keep breaking. I have owned several Fiats and they have mostly been perfect. I went two-and-a-half times around the clock in my 1997 Barchetta way back when; the same car that ‘knowledgeable’ friends insisted would dissolve the first time it saw rain. Or have electrical fires. Or throw a fit of pique for no reason other than, well, it’s an Italian car and they do that.

I drove ‘The Bucket’ every day for 14 years. It lived outside in London and started first time every time. It never broke down. Not once.

Fiat Barchetta

I have owned and driven Italian cars for close on 30 years and am sick to the back teeth of hearing about corrosion, dodgy wiring and all that other guff. Most of all, it grieves me that these and other lazy stereotypes are perpetuated by people who should know better. OK, there was a period – let’s call it the 1970s – when certain Italian cars dissolved faster than Alka-Seltzer. As we all know by rote, they were made of Russian reclaimed steel, blah, blah, blah. They did rot, but then so did my dad’s BMW 2500 when I was young ’un. My uncle’s Audi 80 also erupted in pox, but neither brand was stigmatised.

I’ve owned quite a few classic Alfas. Whenever my much-missed Alfasud 1.5 Ti ever needed parts, all I ever heard was jolly-japes about how unreliable it was. Should, say, a 40-year-old Ford need new widgetry, one would conclude that four decades is a good service life. Should a 40-year-old Italian machine require new parts, people invariably make snide remarks that it is because the cars are always breaking. Can you say, ‘double standard’?

Fiat Panda 100HP

As for the Fiat Panda 100HP that was my daily driver for three years, I covered more than 100,000 joyous miles before something electrical went pop – cue endless jibes. The component was made by a German manufacturer. As was the replacement item, which also failed.

Perhaps there’s a simple explanation behind all of this? Could it be that other car makers are better than the Italians at marketing their product? If, for example, I asked you to name the company that makes the world’s best 4×4 by far, you’d say Land Rover. Yet you only need to drive through the Alps in winter and you’ll soon come to appreciate that the locals swear by the Fiat Panda 4×4. Since when did we all start believing the hype?

Italian cars

What really sticks in my craw is that I’m a hypocrite. As much as I like to think I’m an equal opportunities enthusiast, that I like all types of car, that isn’t strictly true. Or any other kind of true come to think of it. I’m not above giving certain marques a kicking based on nothing more than long-nurtured (and irrational) prejudice. But, hey, I never said I was consistent.  

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Comments

  • Adam Fiander says:

    I entirely agree with you Richard. Not sure about their latest offerings because I am not that interested in moderns, but FIAT have made some stunning cars in the past. Take the 131 and 132 saloons from the late 70’s and early 80’s, for example – the gorgeous 2-litre twin-cam was a darn sight more exciting than anything Ford or Vauxhall were putting out at the time, and the plush interior and exterior style on offer, ensured it punched well above its weight compared to some of the similarly priced (and all rather boring) competitors that were out there.

  • Richard Brown says:

    I agree. I had 5 Fiats in a row and then two Alfas. On the Fiat 124 series and the Mirafiore Estate, rust became a problem but they were all reliable. The Alfa 164, 2 litre was bought with 101,000 on the clock and let go with about 180,000 on the clock. Other than routine maintenance, I never did anything to it.

    • James Mills says:

      Was that an early 164, Richard? I tried and tried to get my father to buy one, when new, and he came as close as taking a test drive, but the tin-pot local dealer, which shared a franchise with Daihatsu, if memory serves, didn’t fill him with confidence…

  • KEITH RYALL says:

    I owned a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe in 1968 and loved the car and always regretted selling it. I have been looking for one in RHD for a long time and recently found one at Barons which is now in my collection. It came from South Africa so no rust and is exactly the same colour as the one I had all those years ago. Now giving it some TLC!!

  • Richard Brown says:

    James,

    My 164 was a K reg. I am not sure where that fits with early or late. My son reckoned with nearly a 150 k on the clock it still drove like new.

  • Roger Blaxall says:

    My trusty/rusty (in parts) FIAT Cinquecento S, bought three years ago as a one-lady-owner-from- new car for just £50 has passed its MOT again; it needed a number plate bulb, rear tyre and some welding in the ‘boot’ thereby living to see another year!

  • Mike Gill says:

    I had a Fiat 124 Sports which apart from a change of gear box because of a duff 5th gear, which I knew about when I bought the car, (my mates would have endless fun taking the gearstick out of its housing), it was very reliable and a great to drive. To this day, I regret selling it. I had a Lancia Beta HPE. The rear suspension decided to exit via the strut tops! But again, a great engine and fab to drive. The last Fiat was a 131 Miafiore Estate. Armchair comfort, superb engine, bought for £200, ran it year, p/xd it for a Capri which was mostly a very disappointing car and drive.

  • Laurence T says:

    Unfortunately the Italian car-bashing is a self-fulfilling prophesy.
    Once a brand has a bad reputation its cars depreciate, so when problems arise the mechanic says “it’s not worth fixing mate”, or they get sold to people at the bottom of the market who can’t afford to take care of them as you would expect something German to be. They then break down due to the lack of care, and another Italian car detractor is born.
    I’m a recent convert to the church of Alfa Romeo and I’ve heard all the tired clichés too (including the Russian steel one, which is a fallacy – likely cold war propaganda) but I can’t say I’ve found any of them to be true. I think that luxury cars are inherently unreliable, but as long as you spend the same amount of time and money on upkeep an Alfa will be no more frustrating to own than anything from Munich or Ingolstadt. The difference is that the Italian car will always have real style and an engineering and design philosophy that makes any depreciation cost worth the pain.

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