03 August 2009

My 1978 FIAT 131 Mirafiori

This 1978 FIAT 131 Mirafiori was my own daily driver in Los Angeles from 2003-2006. And after driving this 25-year-old car in mostly stock condition every day for 30 mos, I'm here to tell you first-hand that FIAT cars are engineered very, very well indeed- this car was nothing short of amazing to me.

It was purchased in late 2003 out of Colorado for just $500 on Ebay- I was looking at these and other sedans like FIAT 128's, and Alfa-Romeo 164's... and this 131's owner was delighted to find a buyer who would restore the car to perfection.

Having a Lancia Scorpion sports car that I drove on the weekends, I wanted a semi-practical car for commuting 50 miles/day that kept the Italian driving experience in my daily life. I had only seen pictures of the car- it looked to have only surface rust and was still in the hands of the original owner... so I rolled the dice and wired the money: since FIAT, Lancia, and Alfa-Romeo had all exited the US market in the 80s and 90s, such Italian "berlinas" remain a rare breed in our country to this day... and I wanted one. I then promptly hired a flatbed operator to deliver it to me in Southern California... and it was in my driveway 5 days later.

This 131 had just a little over 105,000 mi on it... and even impressively effective electrics- everything was original, and worked- even the clock! The silver with black interior was a major bonus- some of the lime-greens, golds, and burnt orange colors of the seventies didn't age too well for my taste... nor for most other people. Although it offers a fuel-injected 2.0L engine, the later, upgraded 131 SuperMirafiori of 1978.5-1982 (Brava in the US market) has a tacky velour interior, the fabric of the 70s... so I was delighted with this find of the earlier version. And the original window sticker was in the owner's manual... $4850 brand-new.

Since I had other cars and things to do and spend money on, this project was done with an eye to budget: First off, the car needed paint and some larger alloy wheels- I got extremely lucky in picking up four Maserati Biturbo alloys on Ebay for $60- the gentleman in Minnesota seemed to have a dozen of them for some reason. Refinished and fitted with new, Italian Pirelli's, these (real magnesium alloy) wheels transformed the look of the car and gave it a wonderful, solid feel... and are one of the few affordable alternatives for the odd FIAT 98mm (not 100) x4 bolt pattern.

In addition to bare-metal repaint done by a sympathetic old car-buddy, the car's only real needs were a rebuild of the noisy rear differential and some exhaust work... everything else worked, and the interior was in excellent condition. Add all-new filters and plugs, plus a powerful coil and ignition-system wiring from International Auto Parts in Virginia... and this car ran like a top with an almost factory-original drivetrain. Once I got my new dashpad and Fuba rooftop antenna... the 131 Mirafiori was ready to drive... and that's what it's all about when you own a FIAT.

The 131 Mirafiori was marketed in the 70s as a more mainstream economy car than, say, the upscale BMW 2002 of the period- but this car compares more than favorably with the Beemer in ride, handling, and performance- and to my eyes appearance, while more practical in most ways and a far more comfortable car. Yes, the late-seventies smog-choked US-spec 1.8L Twin-Cam FIAT four offers only about 80 hp... but its light-weight and unusual-for-the-time 5-speed transmission make for a very entertaining drive. This is the legendary FIAT Twin-Cam engine designed by Lampredi of Ferrari V-12 fame... so naturally, it's a delight to rev to the redline.

Back in 1966, American writers in Car and Driver magazine said: "It is the Italians, and the Italians alone, who possess the ability to create a small car -even a 1.0L economy car- with the sound and feel of a race car." And if you've ever had a FIAT or Alfa Spider... or even a family sedan like my 131 here... you surely know what they were talking about.

FIAT engineers did their famed magic on the suspension of the 131; you'd never believe the car had a solid, live rear-axle. In an incredible innovation, the car even features an early, mechanical version of an ABS anti-lock braking system- if the car lifted in the rear under heavy braking, a lever regulated pressure to the rear brakes, moving bias to the front disc-brakes as needed... impressive and visionary, and with no computer whatsoever. FIAT also delivered other standard features unusual in 1978- such as a tilt steering wheel.

In a testament to it's enduring, timeless design, the 131/Brava line continued to be built in numerous countries after production ceased in Italy in 1984, some until just recently... in Spain, Turkey, and Egypt.

I loved driving this car in the California canyons of course, as all FIATs are nimble above-all to deal with the mountains, short reaction times, and decidedly un-straight roads and avenues of Italy... however the real surprise was just how well the Mirafiori could clip-along at 85 mph all-day-long on road-trips... and while returning 30 mpg.

A sporty, fun sedan that loves curves... but can rip down the Autostrada for hours too... what a car. And this is how my final day with my 131 Mirafiori was to be in January 2006, as I drove up to deliver it to the new owner in the Bay Area... smooth, fast, comfortable... and fun.

I really do miss that car...


  1. so match memori s

  2. I'm from Indonesia i have it one in my garage...and it just like on the picture...^^

  3. The 131 is a terribly underrated car by most people... I consider it an outstanding design in every way, wish I hadn't sold mine.

  4. The 131 is currently being produced in Ethiopia by Holland Car Co. after Fiat's Turkish affiliate, Tofas, ceased production at its Bursa plant & shipped machinery/tooling to the African country. So the Fiat design is still alive & kicking on the African continent.

  5. Good to hear, and why not... it's a great design that still felt fine to me~ does the job, too

  6. Oh memories, memories

  7. Extremely interesting and true also , as I've owned the two door verion Fiat Mirafiori for 31 years now... and still enjoy taking it out on the road from time to time. The huge twin barrel carburettors do sound more noizy now and the 2000cc engine not as fuel efficient as today's technology,,,, but what a motor-car.
    Not to many left in Souh-Africa , so will hang on to it !!


Your comments are welcome... and questions, too!