The world is full of bar rooms in which people are asking “What’s the best car in the world, ever?” It’s a popular question, a good question, and one that people have been asking for years. The answer is of course subjective, and depends entirely upon the people answering it. But let’s narrow this down. What is the greatest car of all time? The one which has done the most, for the most, and had the biggest impact on the mobilisation of the masses?
There are many who’d cite the Austin Seven. And to be fair, you can see why; the Seven popularised what has now become the industry standard for car control layout (Even though the 1916 Cadillac got there first). Its simple chassis and mechanicals meant everyone could maintain it, and its low price meant many could afford it. But the Seven is not my hero. Yes, it did a lot for the cause, but it did not mobilise a larger proportion of the planet than any other single car.
No, not the Volkswagen. I understand that with 21 million sold, it might technically be the biggest selling single model, but I think I can better it. And while there is a strong social scene to the Volkswagen, they’re infinitely moddable, and the basic engineering principles were solid at the time, I’m not entirely sure I can say the Volkswagen is the best car in the world when realistically it outlived its sell-by date by decades.
No, I’m nominating a car many have forgotten ever existed, but the legacy of which all petrolheads will know. It has had a wider reaching impact than the VW, even if its silhouette is less immediately recognisable. The car which has had the biggest impact on the world of motoring is the Fiat 124.
Why? Because the Fiat 124 spawned many license-built copies and evolutions around the world, it gave us one of the longest-lived and fondest-loved engines, and away from its fearsome practicality the 124 range even offered sex appeal. It’s a simple car with simple mechanicals – one box for the engine, one for the people, and one for the luggage. When children draw cars in school, the car they draw is always a Fiat 124, and that demonstrates the perfection of that original design.
Yes, we all know it as the basis of the Lada – but it also underpinned the Premier 118NE, SEAT 124, Tofas Serce, Pirin-Fiat, Kia 124 and others. It mobilised Italy, Spain, India, Egypt, the USSR, Turkey, Korea – and in several export markets, its Soviet cousins represented the cheapest way into a new car. The Fiat’s legacy of basic transportation stretches far and wide – and it’s barely five years since they stopped making them in Egypt. As cheap transport it endures.
As the origin of one of the great engines too, it should be remembered. Fiat’s Twin-Cam was based on the 124’s OHV engine, and was fitted to higher powered models within the range. This engine powered a litany of Fiats, Lancias, Morgans and many others from 1966 to 2000. Not only that, but it was the backbone of the British kitcar industry for decades – fitted into everything from home-made specials to modded Minors. Light, strong, and tunable, it was and still is everything a good engine ought to be. It also spawned a world first; the first direct-injection diesel powered car used a SOHC engine derived from the Twin Cam, and thus from the 124 of 1966.
Convinced yet? ‘Ah, but the Fiat 124’s not exactly a sexy car, is it?’ Think again, because the Sport Coupe and Sport Spider were among the sharpest looking and sweetest handling cars of their era. Fiat itself recognises the appeal of the 124 Spider in particular – its MX-5 clone has reintroduced the name to our streets, and is selling well. 124 is an appreciating brand asset, and the cars that have historically worn the name are going to appreciate as a result.
So the Fiat 124. Best car in the world? I think it might just be that.
This article was originally published by Hagerty Insurance on 20 Apr 2017.