Fiat 126 Buying Guide
Proof that the best things come in small packages, the diminutive 126 is a bundle of fun that’s unusual, quirky and astonishingly good value
How much to pay
• Project £500-700 • Good £2000-3750 • Concours £4000-8000 •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★★★
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 in the same way as its predecessor. 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. 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 have dwindled – but that has also led to an increase in values and desirability. This is still one eminently affordable classic, though; here’s how to bag a good one.
Your AutoClassics Fiat 126 inspection checklist
With just two cylinders, the engine must be kept in fine fettle if the car isn’t to grind to a halt. Spark-plug condition is essential – if the engine runs poorly, fresh plugs may be all that’s required.
Although the 126’s engine is noisy, it shouldn’t sound like a bag of spanners in a spin dryer. If it does, it’s probably because the timing chain has worn; repairs are cheap. Oil leaks from the rocker cover or sump gaskets are common, but repairs are cheap and easy. If the dipstick is being ejected from the engine, it could be because the piston rings are trashed and the crankcase is getting pressurised. An engine rebuild might be required – or it could simply be a failed oil-filler cap.
Other potential maladies include worn valves and guides, which lead to blue exhaust smoke on the over-run. The Weber carburettor also gives problems, usually because rust particles have got in from a corroded fuel tank, which is why an in-line fuel filter is essential. The original fuel pumps could be dismantled and cleaned; cheap replacements don’t allow this. The timing and valve clearances also have to be spot on – anything less means poor running and high fuel consumption.
Despite being air cooled, there’s still a cooling system. A thermostatically controlled air vent should maintain an ideal temperature; it can fail, but this tends to be in the open position rather than the closed, so there’s usually no damage.
If the engine has overheated there could be a blown head gasket, which will lead to poor running. The outlet pipes either side of the motor will also be pressurised (put your hand over them to see if they are) and the fix is a new gasket. To minimise the risk of overheating, see if the fanbelt is correctly tensioned – if it’s obviously slack, the cooling system won’t be working effectively.
The water-cooled Bis has foibles of its own, which are 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, although staying on top of the maintenance schedule is usually all that’s required to keep things ticking over.
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.
All 126 engines have a centrifugal oil filter, which should be cleaned every service. Located near the alternator, it’s often overlooked. On balance, it’s the air-cooled engine that’s more reliable; the later Polish-built 126s reverted to this design, in a bid to improve reliability.
MGB Roadster 1969
1969 MGB Roadster VIN: GHN4U162049G condition: good cylinders: 4 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 85948 paint color: red size: compact title status: clean transmission: manual type: convertible This 1969 MGB is really a nice, clean, solid car with a lot of new parts. It was purchased in 2002 and the owner installed: new tonneau cover, Pertronix electronic ignitionFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Monticello, IN, USA$ 7,000
Mercedes-Benz 450 SL 1978
1978 Mercedes Benz 450SL VIN: 12048543 condition: good cylinders: 8 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 135000 paint color: silver size: mid-size title status: clean transmission: automatic type: convertible This 1978 Mercedes Benz 450SL has a lot going for it. It has had a new catalytic converter and pipes installed recently along with a new battery, new, black clotFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Monticello, IN, USA$ 8,995
Mercury Monterey 1956
1956 Mercury Monterey VIN: 56SL123598M condition: excellent cylinders: 8 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 47980 paint color: white size: full-size title status: clean transmission: automatic type: sedan PRICE REDUCTION! This is probably one of the most interesting and original 1956 Mercury's you will ever find. This 1956 Mercury Monterey Phaeton was one of 80 MercFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Kokomo, IN, USA$ 27,500
Chevy Special Deluxe 1941
1941 Chevy Special Deluxe VIN: AA 257699 condition: good cylinders: 6 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 109144 paint color: black size: full-size title status: clean transmission: manual type: sedan I'm selling this ALL STEEL 1941 Chevrolet Special Deluxe for a good friend of mine. He has owned it for a little over six years. He painted it himself six years ago. ItFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Lafayette, IN, USA$ 8,500
Cadillac deVille 1976
1976 Cadillac Sedan DeVille VIN: 6D49S6Q270397 condition: like new cylinders: 8 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 11564 paint color: custom size: full-size title status: clean transmission: automatic type: sedan PRICE REDUCTION! - This 1976 Cadillac Sedan Deville barn find has only 11,564 original miles on it!! It's been sitting up on jack stands since 1994. The cuFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Monticello, IN, USA$ 13,500
Ford Custom Sedan 1940
1940 Ford Custom Sedan VIN: 54519008 condition: excellent cylinders: 8 cylinders drive: rwd fuel: gas odometer: 3232 paint color: custom size: full-size title status: clean transmission: manual type: sedan This a great build that you just don't see too often. This 1940 Ford 2 Door Custom Sedan comes with a very rare, first year, 1957, 345 cu. in. Desoto Hemi engine mounteFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | St John, IN, USA$ 34,500
Ferrari 250 GTO 1962
Perhaps the ultimate collector car, Ferrari’s 250 GTO was effectively the final evolution of the marque’s famous 250 model, which debuted in 1953 and ended with the last GTOs in 1964. In total, a mere 36 examples of the 250 GTO were ever produced, all of which have survived. Widely considered the most beautiful Ferrari design, the model was one of the most successful road/racing cars that theAuction | 21 Jun 2018 | Monterey, CA, USA$ POA
DeSoto Firedome 1958
1958 desoto firedome condition: good cylinders: 8 cylinders fuel: gas title status: clean transmission: automatic 1958 DeSoto Firedome Automatic. Push button V8 motor. Runs great All original condition This car could be a daily driver It was a barn find and I do not have time to restore. The car runs and drives great. I am asking $6000.00 or best cash offer Title in hand.For Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Kokomo, IN, USA$ 6,000
Ford Falcon 1967
1967 Ford Falcon cylinders: 8 cylinders fuel: gas odometer: 8000 paint color: purple size: mid-size title status: clean transmission: automatic For sale 1967 Ford Falcon Futura. beautiful purple paint! 302 5.0 motor with C4 auto trans. 8 inch rear end. ground-up restoration everything newly rebuilt. newer leather upholstery with power leather bucket seats. Super nice car!! SeriouFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Indianapolis, IN, USA$ 16,000
Ford Super Deluxe 1941
1941 Ford fuel: gas title status: clean transmission: manual Beautiful 1941 Ford Super Deluxe Completely restored Custom Interior Manual Transmission Awesome stereo and sound system with lights. If interested contact us ASAPFor Sale | 21 Jun 2018 | Brownsburg, IN, USA$ 18,000
There’s no first-gear synchromesh, and if the change is especially nasty the linkage is probably out of adjustment. There’s a Metalastik bush in there that perishes; replacements are cheap.
The clutch needs to be properly adjusted to avoid damage to itself or the gears, but because there’s so little power the rest of the transmission shouldn’t give problems. But that’s only if the car is standard – engine swaps can double the power, leading to the final drive and gearbox wearing faster.
Oil leaks are caused by overfilling the gearbox; it doesn’t help that there aren’t any gaskets where the different casing parts mate to each other. Take a look at the driveshaft gaiters, too, as these also tend to leak. New ones are cheap.
Suspension and brakes
Until 1977 the 126 had a worm-and-sector steering box, which can leak, leading to premature wear; check for stiff spots. Track-rod ends get bent through kerbing, while the idler bushes perish, leading to a lot of play in the steering.
The front kingpins need to be greased to prevent wear. Even if this has been done the metal can wear, resulting in a worn or seized bottom bearing. An exchange pair of rebuilt units is the solution.
Check for a worn single-transverse leaf spring; see if the car sits level from head on. If it’s leaning to one side, you’ll need to fit a new spring and reset the tracking. The spring may be broken and the telescopic dampers worn, but repairs aren’t costly.
The biggest thing to be wary of with the suspension is corrosion within the swing arm at the back. If this has cracked or corroded, the arm could break away. If it does, you’ll lose control of the car. It’s not that tricky to fix, with the work usually taking a couple of hours.
Expect corrosion thanks to poor-quality steel and very thin paint. There really isn’t anywhere that’s immune from corrosion, but some spots are even worse than others – at least Polish-built cars don’t dissolve as readily.
Start at the front and work your way round, pulling on anything that opens. Lift the bonnet, checking its leading edge and hinge mounting areas beforehand, and look at the front valance plus the inner and outer wings. On this latter area there’s a rubber seal that runs along the top of each front wing, onto which the bonnet closes; water gets under the rubber, rotting the steel underneath.
The spare-wheel well was made of metal too thin for the purpose, so it dissolves. Matters are not helped by the battery tray being sited next to it – acid often seeps out, then chews away the metal. Scuttles also rot, especially on the Bis, around the air vent cover.
Drain holes block up, particularly in the spare-wheel well, while front wheelarches, headlamp surrounds and sills (including the jacking points) also rust badly. Many 126s feature an aftermarket sunroof, which leaks.
The cabin 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. While the carpets are less durable, making up a set yourself is easy.
The 126’s electrics are simple and durable, too. Everything is available should you need it, even if it’s only on a used basis. The key thing to check for is brittle looms and dodgy earths – other than that, there’s little to worry about.
- Nov 1972: 126 announced in Italy
- Jul 1973: First official 126 imports arrive in UK, in Base or L forms
- Feb 1974: Sunroof model goes on sale
- Apr 1975: 126L discontinued
- Dec 1976: Sunroof edition killed off, leaving Base model and newly introduced De Ville – latter with sports wheels, black bumpers, sunroof and velour interior trim
- Sep 1977: 652cc engine supersedes previous 594cc unit
- Jul 1983: De Ville discontinued
- Sep 1983: 126 gets reclining seats, laminated windscreen, heated rear window and opening rear side windows
- Dec 1987: 126 Bis arrives, with 704cc water-cooled engine, opening tailgate and larger rear window
- Apr 1992: Final 126 Bis sold in the UK
The 126’s usability is restricted by its limited performance and tiny dimensions, but its size is one of the things that makes this Fiat so much fun. The fact that the 126 isn’t a 500 also increases its appeal – the older car is a brilliant classic, but the newer model is now so much rarer that it’s bound to generate plenty of interest wherever it goes.
The fact that the 126 is so well served by clubs and specialists only increases its appeal. Cheap to buy as well as to run, easy to maintain on a DIY basis and with excellent parts availability, the Fiat is easier to own than most other classics.
Put in some legwork and you’ll find there are some great cars available to buy, with the air-cooled models worth the most. Water-cooled 126s aren’t far behind, though, which is why it’s best to focus on condition rather than specification.
|126 Bis (1987-1992)|
Pictures courtesy of Fiat Media
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