Although the styling was similar to the 124 and 125, the 128 was an advanced and influential design that pioneered the front-wheel-drive revolution at Fiat. Like the Mini, the 128 has a transverse-mounted engine, however, the significant breakthrough with the 128 was the use of unequal length drive shafts which allowed the engine and gearbox to be located side by side, a layout which has since become ubiquitous for small cars.
The 128 was voted European Car of the Year for 1970, and continued to be acclaimed by the press throughout its lifetime: the magazine Road & Track placed the 128 above the Datsun B210, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 808, and Subaru DL but behind the VW Golf (which was launched in 1974 some five years after the 128) and Honda Civic in a comparison test, praising it as a "driver's car" with "excellent" brakes and "outstanding handling".
The 128 was the first car to feature the all-new Fiat SOHC engine, an engine design which was considerably advanced for its time, featuring an aluminium alloy cylinder head with a direct overhead camshaft driven by a rubber toothed belt. This type of engine design became commonly adopted by most manufacturers of small cars at the beginning of the 1980s, but in the late 60s was unusual.
Initially, the 128 was available as a two door sedan, four door sedan or station wagon. The car was only available with a 1116 cc engine on launch, though the 2-door-only 128 Rally edition launched in 1971 used a 1290 cc unit. Also in 1971, the Sport Coupe, an all-new coupe body on a shortened 128 platform, was unveiled at the Turin Motor Show. On launch it was available with both existing 128 engines. The 128 range underwent a revamp in 1972, featuring a range of minor changes inside and out; pre- and post-revamp cars can be distinguished by their differing radiator grilles. 1974 saw the launch of the 128 Special, which used the Rally engine in a four-door sedan body. In 1975 the 128 3P (3 door) replaced the Sport Coupe. The range was overhauled in 1976 with an array of exterior and interior changes including new bumpers and rectangular headlights as well as modifications to the engines.
Production of all 128s except that of the base 1100 cc powered model ceased in 1979 after the introduction of the Fiat Ritmo/Strada in 1978, whilst in 1980 a small three-door station wagon Panorama was dropped from the range. Production finally ceased in 1985.
The 128 running gear and engine was used for the Fiat X1/9 sports car, where the entire front-wheel drive train, suspension and engine was moved to the rear of the car to provide a mid-engined layout.
The 128 formed the basis of the Zastava 128 (four-door sedan) and Zastava 101 (three-door and five-door hatchbacks) ranges of cars made by the "Zastava Automobili" company in Serbia. The 128-based Zastavas were available throughout Europe in the '70s. In Britain, two variants were offered: a three-door hatchback (Zastava 311) and five-door hatchback (Zastava 511).
Today, Zastava continues to produce the five-door hatchback model as the Zastava Skala 55. It is the Serbian automaker's most affordable model and, at a price of approximately 3,750 euros, it is also among the most affordable cars in the world. Spare parts are particularly cheap.
Rumor has it that production of the Skala 55 will cease in 2010.
Zastava also produces the 128 in its original, four-door sedan form, but as of 2001 no longer sells the car as a whole. Rather, CKD kits are sent to Egypt's El Nasr manufacturing company, where the cars are assembled and marketed as the Zastava 128. It remains popular among Egyptian taxi drivers.
Among other 128-based cars, a 5-door wagon (Fiat 128 Rural) was also produced in Argentina for that market, as no 2-door 128s were made there. In Spain, SEAT manufactured its own version of 128 3P model (31,893 copies).