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Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000)

Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) Classic and Performance Car
Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) The Fiat 500 has long enjoyed cult status, yet when it was replaced by the 126 in the 1970s, the new car never captured the imagination like its predecessor did. That’s even though the 126 still packed a rear-mounted air-cooled two-pot engine for brilliant economy – indeed, both cars used pretty much the same running gear. Offering surprising practicality and more fun than you’d ever imagine possible, the 126 is one of those classics that has always slipped under the radar.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the 126’s low profile is its limited practicality. It’s not very quick and struggles to accommodate a family with their luggage – or indeed a family without their luggage. However, when it comes to cheap classics that raise a smile, the 126 is up there with the best of them. But these fast-disappearing classics are now very distinctive; you’re unlikely to bump into many of them unless you’re at a Fiat gathering. Easily maintained and well supported by clubs and specialists, you can buy pretty much any part you want.

Sadly, because the 500 is so revered, many 126s have bitten the dust to keep one of its predecessors going. As a result, 126 numbers are still dwindling, but that has also led to an increase in values. This is still one eminently affordable classic though, and it’s likely to stay that way for a long time yet.

Which one to buy?

There are very few early 126s left, so if you’ve decided that you now rather hanker after one, it’ll be a question of snapping up the first decent example you can find – and that’ll probably be either a later air-cooled car, or a water-cooled one.

The engines of these later air-cooled cars grew by just 50cc or so compared with the earlier editions, but power and torque levels were pretty much unchanged (they rose by just 1bhp and 1lb ft).

While air-cooled 126s are more popular (and more valuable) than water-cooled ones, there’s not really all that much in it. You need to be buying on condition rather than specification, so if you find a mint water-cooled 126, you should snap it up before somebody else does.

Performance and spec

Engine 652cc, two-cylinder
Power 24bhp @ 4500rpm
Torque 30lb ft @ 3000rpm
Top speed 65mph
0-60mph 42.1sec
Consumption 55mpg
Gearbox Four-speed manual

Common problems

• With its poor-quality steel and very thin paint, there isn’t anywhere immune from corrosion, but some spots are even worse than others. Start at the front and work your way round, opening anything that opens. Lift the bonnet, checking its leading edge and hinge mounting areas, as well as the front valance plus the inner and outer wings. The spare wheel well dissolves, not helped by the battery tray being sited next to it. Scuttles also rot, along with the front wheelarches, headlamp surrounds and sills (including the jacking points).

• With just two cylinders, spark plug condition is essential – if the engine runs poorly, fresh plugs may be all that’s required.

• If the engine is especially noisy, the timing chain has probably worn – DIY repairs are cheap and easy. Oil leaks from the rocker cover or sump gaskets are common, but easy to fix. The dipstick being ejected could be because the piston rings are trashed and the crank case is getting pressurised. A rebuilt engine may be the answer – or the oil filler cap could have failed. New ones are dirt cheap.

• Other potential maladies include worn valves and guides, which lead to blue exhaust smoke on the over-run. Clogged-up carburettors also give problems, usually because rust particles have got in, from a corroded fuel tank. The timing and valve clearances also have to be spot on.

• The water-cooled BIS has foibles of its own, not helped by the engine being mounted on its side and tucked under a lid to turn the car into a hatchback. The result is an engine that overheats, leading to blown head gaskets.

• Other problems arise from not maintaining anti-freeze levels; internal corrosion leads to the thermostat housing getting clogged up. Air locks can also strike if the cooling system isn’t filled properly.

• A bad gearchange points to the linkage being poorly adjusted. A Metalastik bush in disintegrates after years of being soaked in oil – once that has been damaged the only solution is a new one.

• Until 1977 the 126 had a worm and sector steering box which can leak, leading to premature wear and stiffness. Check for stiff spots. Track rod ends get bent through kerbing, while the idler bushes perish, creating lots of play in the steering.

• The suspension is simple but up front the kingpins wear along with the single transverse leaf spring – see if the car sits level from head on. At the back, look for corrosion in the swing arm – if it breaks away, you’ll lose control of the car.

• The interior trim is tough and if any new bits are needed it’s all available. The front seat covers simply slip onto the frame so replacing them is extremely easy. Less durable are the carpets, but making up a set is easy.

Model history

Nov 1972: The 126 is announced in Italy.
Jul 1973: The first official 126 imports arrive in the UK, in Base or L forms.
Feb 1974: The Sunroof model goes on sale.
Apr 1975: The 126L is discontinued
Dec 1976: The Sunroof edition is killed off, leaving the Base model and the newly introduced De Ville, the latter with sports wheels, black bumpers, sunroof and velour interior trim.
Sep 1977: A 652cc engine supersedes the previous 594cc unit.
Jul 1983: The De Ville is discontinued
Sep 1983: The 126 gets reclining seats, a laminated windscreen, heated rear window and opening rear side windows.
Dec 1987: The 126 Bis arrives, with a 704cc water-cooled engine, opening tailgate and larger rear window.
Apr 1992: The final 126 Bis is sold in the UK.

Key clubs and websites

• www.fiat126.co.uk
• http://club126uk.co.uk
• www.fiatmotorclubgb.com
• www.fiatforum.com/126/

Summary and prices

It might have replace the 500, but the 126 has a unique character of its own. Prices have been slowly increasing, and thanks to its scarcity in the UK, you’ll be looking to spend upwards of £6000 for a nice example today. Projects are rare, but do crop up from under £1000, while a usable runner should cost between £2000-£3000.

Words: Richard Dredge
Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000) Fiat 126 buying guide (1972-2000)
Last updated: 17th Jul 2015
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