You have to hand it to the marketing people at Fiat. They were really on top of their game. Faced with a general perception that Italian cars were fragile they decided to publicise their new 124 by throwing it out of an aeroplane! Yes, a couple of parachutes were attached and it sat on a pallett - with no doubt a bit of cushioning installed - but five parachutists followed it out of the aeroplane, got inside the car and drove straight off! Yes it really happened and you can watch the video on YouTube here..
Launched in 1966 the car was not the best looker on the block; in fact it was quite boxy but you should never go completely by appearances because this was a pretty good car. Roadholding and steering were impressive thanks to rear coil suspension and an antiroll bar to the front; disc brakes all round made it good at stopping too. The initial model had a 59bhp 1200 cc straight four-cylinder engine which could push it up to 90 miles an hour whilst the Special T variant which came out in 1968 could do over a hundred miles an hour.
An award called the European Car of the Year was established by a group of international car magazines and the 124 took the award in 1967. It was not a perfect car though.
It had major drawbacks. For a small family car the engine was thirsty and coupled with a small petrol tank the range wasn't great. It's unattractive appearance was matched by the interior, which was fairly spartan. What was far and away the worst defect however was the material it was made from.
Fiat had given help to Russia in setting up Lada. At the time the Russians were very short of foreign currency so they part repaid with steel rather than cash. Unfortunately, like their own currency, the ruble, their steel was junk.
It wasn't long before the original 124s were falling apart because of corrosion. Fiat, like Lancia (for the same reason of poor quality Russian steel) gained a reputation for building rust buckets which took a long time to overcome.
The Russian connection was a double-edged weapon however. Fiat licensed Lada to produce their own version of the 124 and since these were sold cheaply, and to be cynical the Russian population hardly had a mass of competitors to choose from, this was a runaway bestseller. Similar licensing deals were agreed with manufacturers in Turkey; Egypt; Spain; India; Korea and Bulgaria and although accurate sales figures are not available it has been estimated that around 16 million cars based on the 124 have been sold worldwide.
It just goes to prove that sometimes it isn't necessary to have the best product in the world; just the best marketing department.