Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Nick Coetzee – Affordable Classics
Now here’s something you don’t see every day. 1980s-era Fiats are rare enough in this country, but a Fiat ute? That’s up there in the rocking horse sh*t category. There’s a very good reason for this, as a utility based on the Italian carmaker’s 128 model was never officially offered in Australia.
Familiar Fare, Local Flavour
In a lot of ways, South Africa’s car history and its automotive landscape has mirrored our own. Cars appeared early in the last century, with Fords and British marques dominating initially. The Model T Ford was one of the first cars to be assembled there, as it was here in Australia.
American brands grew in popularity after World War II, with Chevrolet the dominant GM brand in South Africa compared to our home-grown Holden equivalent. Ford was equally prominent, while Japanese brands, first appearing in numbers in the 1960s, would go on to dominate the market in both countries. More recently, the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger have become the local titans, just as they are here.
The main difference between them and us today is that South Africa still has an automobile manufacturing industry, where ours is dead.
South Africa also developed a strong ute market. Called ‘bakkies’ over there (from the local Afrikaans), the car-based unitary-body utes (as opposed to cab chassis-style pickups) followed the lead Australia set in the 1930s, with a diverse range available in the post-war era, including models from Opel, Peugeot, Leyland and Mercedes-Benz never seen here.
As most would know, Aussie-made utes were sold in South Africa, too, but given local touches and new model names, so the Holden Belmont ute became the Chevrolet El Camino, the Falcon ute was rebadged as the Ranchero and Valiant utes were sold as the Rustler!
The demand for bakkies in South Africa was never huge by global standards, but strong enough to see several models developed and built primarily for use in that country and its immediate neighbours. These include Ford one-ton utes based on the Mk III and Mk IV Cortina (TC/TD and TE/TF Cortina to us), and smaller half-ton units based on the Escort.
That half-ton category became a market within a market in South Africa, too, with the likes of Datsun, Toyota and Ford offering models to meet demand. Odd little half-tonners, like the Leyland Marina, VW Caddy and Hillman Hunter-based Dodge Husky, were also marketed in South Africa.
In the 1970s, Fiat decided to have a crack at the half-ton bakkie market, too.
Bakkie with Bolognese
A bakkie version of the Fiat 128 didn’t seem an obvious choice when that model was first released in 1969, but the 128 had a couple of features that made such a conversion relatively easy.
Firstly, it was front-wheel drive – a Fiat first – which meant packaging of a ute rear end didn’t have to accommodate a driveshaft and diff.
Secondly, that FWD layout allowed for fully-independent suspension: something of a novelty back in the early 1970s and virtually unheard of on a compact utility.
Finally, Fiat had already built a ‘Fiorano’ panel van version of their similar 127 model in 1975, so had the basics in place in terms of what would be required for a utility version.
But perhaps the main driver behind a 128 bakkie was the growth of the half-ton ute market in South Africa. Half-tonners had accounted for 11.8 per cent of the country’s commercial vehicle market in 1975, growing to 18.6 per cent in 1977 and 21.9 per cent in 1978, according to South Africa’s CAR magazine.
While those figures accounted for annual sales of only around 20,000 vehicles in actual numbers, they couldn’t be ignored. Fiat, already selling tractors and large trucks in South Africa with some success, was feeling confident in its ability to push into a market segment then dominated by the Ford Bantam, Nissan 1400 and Opel Corsa.
Designed in Italy, but with South African input on features and specifications, the Fiat 128 ‘Pick-Up’ (also known as the 1300 Pick-Up) was launched in June, 1978.
Based on the 128 station wagon and powered by the 1,290cc four-cylinder engine also fitted to that variant (128 sedans used an 1,100cc engine), the 1300 Pick-Up was roomy inside and well-equipped by the standards of the day, with a split-bench seat, heater/demister, floor carpeting and extra sound insulation fitted, while air conditioning was offered as an option – a true rarity in a bakkie in ’78.
Performance from the 1300 engine was 44kW at 6,000rpm and 97Nm at 3,200rpm, and a 4-speed manual was the only transmission offered. Rack and pinion steering, 13-inch steel wheels, radial tyres, disc front brakes and a larger 52-litre fuel tank were other features.
From the front, the 128 Pick-Up looked identical to the 128 sedan, with the same simplified grille, larger bumper and rectangular headlamps that had been applied to the sedans and wagons in 1976. Beyond the doors, the 128 Pick-Up was unique, though, with the reinforced unitary utility body extending noticeably further past the rear axle than the boot did on the 128 sedan.
The tub lining was double-skinned and ribbed for strength, with prominent ribbing on the exterior of the full-width tailgate. This tailgate could, apparently, be removed and used as a loading ramp, too.
The 1.7-metre tub had a load capacity of 2.06 cubic metres and an even 500kg. As mentioned, the 128’s front-wheel drive (and placement of the spare wheel under the bonnet) allowed the tub to be particularly deep – certainly deeper than if it was RWD. That, in turn, meant the tray height was lower for easier loading.
Clever features included a removable steel hurdle behind the cab and a sliding rear window that allowed tub contents to be accessed without leaving the vehicle.
Multi-Purpose, Limited Appeal
From its launch, Fiat pitched the 128 Pick-Up as a leisure vehicle as much as a work one, so the South African aftermarket responded by producing factory-approved canopies (like the unit fitted to this example), as well as sports bars, ladder racks, spotlights, tonneau tents for camping, fishing pole holders - even specially-designed surfboard racks.
Despite being well-equipped, innovative and well received by the South African automotive press when new (‘charming, useful and outstanding value’ said CAR magazine in 1978), the 128 Pick-Up failed to get that slice of the half-ton bakkie market Fiat were hoping for. Its lifespan in South Africa is unknown, but it seems it only survived for a few years there and certainly wasn’t produced beyond Fiat’s discontinuation of the 128 platform in 1985.
This limited appeal and one-market release means survivors are rare today, and survivors in the condition of the featured example are even rarer.
The featured 128 Pick-Up comes from Affordable Classics, and Nick Coetzee of the ACT-based classic car dealership and car storage facility admits that purchasing it was something of a punt.
These bakkies are rare now in South Africa, but their even greater rarity in this country may appeal, thought Nick, especially to Italian car buffs. Nick jokingly added that he could picture it being used to haul a classic Fiat 500 Bambino racer.
Rarity alone doesn’t guarantee desirability though, and had this Pick-Up been in poor condition, Nick said he wouldn’t have bothered with it. But it was exceptionally clean for its type and age, so the bakkie was purchased, shipped over and is now on the market for an Aussie looking for something a little different (see breakout).
Nick says most of the history of this bakkie is unknown, but it’s obviously been cared for, has carried next to nothing in the tub and has been repainted in its original colour in the recent past. The interior is original and hasn’t been messed with.
Since arrival here, the Fiat has been fully serviced, the engine has been tuned, a new carb kit and radiator fitted and new suspension rubbers fitted all round. Additionally, a set of original steel wheels were sourced, refurbished and fitted with new tyres.
It’s unlikely that there are more than a handful of Fiat 128 Pick-Ups in this country and this writer can’t recall seeing another one advertised in the 23-year history of JUST CARS, so the new owner will be in rare company.
Want something rare, Italian, practical and affordable? This Fiat ticks all those boxes! Let this one go and you’re unlikely to encounter another one.
Available through Affordable Classics, the rarity of this Fiat 128 Pick-Up is its major drawcard. Its condition is the other. The exterior and interior are in remarkably good order for a vehicle approaching 40 years old, with the tray appearing almost untouched.
The model-specific canopy is included and this mechanically refurbished bakkie is being sold with full ACT registration.
This vehicle has since been SOLD.