Classic Fiat almost part of the family
Cheerfully sporty European car has been treasured since the 60s.
Heather Bayliss has fond memories of this Fiat 125. Her grandfather bought it new from Fraser Chapman Motors, Thames, on July 1, 1969.
He traded in a 1965 Fiat 1500 Crusader and until 1994 it lived with him on the Thames Coast.
“My uncle Harry lived with my grandparents and he was really into motorsport, that might be why they bought it,” Heather says.
“On a Friday grandpa used to get it out and we’d drive into Thames, and go to the movies or something.”
He was apparently a real leadfoot and when he had a stroke, the family had to hide the keys. That family history is part of the car’s appeal.
“Uncle Harry really looked after it, he washed it every week, and when it got flooded once he pulled it all to bits and fish-oiled everything.”
After Harry died it went to Heather’s parents, and around 15 years ago — knowing her husband Andrew’s tech background could be handy — she took it over.
It’s still only travelled 65,000 miles — 104,607km — and her car-mad husband reckons it’s the best one in captivity.
“These Fiat 125s were a kind of a boy racer when we were teenagers, that twin-cam engine is a sensationally good, revvy engine. We get guys come up all the time to talk about it. We had one today saying ‘rusty as hell, but man, it could go.”
Andrew reckons this might have been the first mass-produced car, except perhaps Lotus Cortinas, with a twin overhead cam engine.
Fiat NZ did a run of about 80 125T variants which raced in the Benson & Hedges 500 and used to win year in, year out.
Nowadays the 65kW power figure looks modest, but the car didn’t weigh a lot. As the manual says under “motoring etiquette”: “remember that a medium-sized, fully laden automobile weighs approximately one ton,” and, “At only 50km per hour, such a car generates more than enough energy to raise itself to the height of a three-storey building if brought to a sudden stop.”
Now this boxy design looks conservative, though there’s a growing band of youngsters who like that old-school look and rave about the performance.
The car is original, from the paint in, including the slightly wrinkled “wood effect” console trim and the standard tool kit.
“All we’ve done is got it recommissioned after it sat in a shed for years. Andrew did the tyres, the cam belt, brakes, radiator, an oil change. It was really just maintenance.
“That and the fish oil — Harry really should take the credit for the condition it’s in today.”
One reason it didn’t need more work to make it a great everyday classic was its specification at the time.
“Power disc brakes were standard — it was a performance European car, and in New Zealand they were a little bit odd.”
That said, there are still 120 registered on our roads.
The couple haven’t driven far in the car, just down to the Waikato and the Bruce McLaren Coast to Coast run in the Auckland area, plus day drives.
“It more than keeps up with the open road speed — the brochure claims 160km/h.”
The boot looks huge and the claim is 396 litres, which will “comfortably hold five people’s luggage,” according to the specifications.
It’s just as practical to drive, even nowadays. The all-round view out is good, the steering wheel large enough to offset the lack of power steering, the brakes efficient and the engine perky.
By now it’s time for a coffee and a flick through the original documents, including the brochure, instruction book and service book. It’s interesting to see how many Fiat dealers were in New Zealand back then — 43 from Invercargill to Kaikohe. Now there are 16.
Heather’s grandfather wrote details of all the oil changes in the back of the service booklet, with date and cost.
She and Andrew recently sold a car or three, but still own five or so classic VWs, and a modern car each: 10 cars in total. But as Heather says, “You need different cars for summer and winter.”
One of them will always be this Fiat — after all, there’s a fourth generation waiting in the wings.