A Pair of Crusty Four-Doors: 1974 Dodge Dart vs 1968 Fiat 124

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Happy Monday, and welcome back to Shitbox Showdown! Today, we’re back to the back-row of the used car lot, after Friday’s trip upmarket. It was fun, but honestly, shiny cars aren’t as interesting to me, nor to you, from the sounds of it. And apparently, sometimes I don’t know shitbox from shiny-ola anyway. (Never rely on the Cliff’s Notes, kids). But for the sake of completeness, let’s take a look at the results:

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You chose the Toyota Land Cruiser, which, if memory serves, means you have to take the low road through the valleys, but make sure to stop and grease the suspension after the river crossing, and then use the garlic to chase off the vampire bat in the gold mine (wait, that last one might be Zork). Anyway, when you’re done, turn to page four to start the speed race. [Editor’s Note: I have no idea what Mark is talking about, here. -DT] [Editor’s Note: I do. – JT]

Our search today takes us to a pair of old sedans from very different backgrounds, but with some striking similarities. Both started out as just ordinary family cars, but both spawned much cooler and higher-performance variants, and both had lifespans beyond their home countries (far, far beyond, in one case). And both have a propensity for rusting, which is evident in these photos. Let’s take a look.

1974 Dodge Dart – $1,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 318 cubic inch V8, 3 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Battle Ground, WA

Odometer reading: 160,000 miles

Runs/drives? Surprisingly, yes!

The Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant used to be as common a part of the landscape as Fotomats and K-Marts. Unlike those last two, Darts and Valiants seem to have survived the digital revolution in surprising numbers, and while they’re no longer common, you still see one once in a while, gamely soldiering on. Rust seems to be what ultimately does them in, and it’s well on its way to killing this one off. The seller says it has a specific set of heavy-duty bits on it that they were going to rob for another project that never materialized.

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The seller calls this car a “Swinger,” but as far as I know, the Swinger models were all two-doors. That lurid green color and the bumblebee stripe around the tail look original, so it might be some sort of special version. Chrysler sold so many different special option packages that I doubt anyone can keep them all straight. Regardless, it’s a 4 door, it’s a V8, and it runs and drives, but it’s coming apart at the seams.

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It’s probably not worth restoring, even if it is something special. By ’74, the bumpers had gotten huge and the great horsepower reduction was well underway. This car with a V8 isn’t fast; it just isn’t as dog-slow as the Slant Six.

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If you’re willing to clean up the nasty interior, you could make a case for driving it as-is until the rust starts compromising the structure. These things are built like tanks, unlike the Aspen/Volaré that replaced them in 1976. (Though you could still get a new Dart/Valiant under various names in South America until 1981.) And it is still a V8 Mopar with a stripe around the tail, for whatever that’s worth.

1968 Fiat 124 – $1,200

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.2 liter inline 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 93,000 miles

Runs/drives? Nope

The seller’s reference to a VAZ/Lada 2101 in this car’s ad speaks volumes: the Fiat 124 was produced in far greater numbers in the Soviet Union than they ever were in Italy, upwards of 15 million total. But this particular 1968 model is indeed a Fiat, and an original US-market car, judging by the tacked-on side marker lights that would have been required starting in ’68.

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While this car may look like its more-famous Russian sibling, the 124 is its own machine under the skin. It’s powered by an 1197 cc overhead-valve engine; Ladas have their own overhead-cam engine. The Fiat also has 4 wheel disc brakes and a more sophisticated suspension, likely tuned more for Italy’s curvy mountain passes than for the mean potholed streets of Leningrad.

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This little Fiat doesn’t run, the seller says, but a pushrod four-cylinder isn’t a complex engine, and old Fiats enjoy a wide enough fanbase that parts should be available to get it going again. (And failing that, later 124s were equipped with the famed Lampredi twin-cam engine, which should drop right in.) Like all old Fiats, it does have some rust on it, but I don’t see any gaping holes. And it’s such a charming, earnest little car that it wears its age well. If there’s no structural rust, I’d be tempted to leave it as-is.

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That earnest charm continues inside, and it’s not in terrible shape in there. And whatever happened to color combinations like turquoise blue with a brown interior? We need to bring this aesthetic back.

So that’s our choices for Monday: a decrepit Dart and a forgotten Fiat. Which one will it be?

QuizMaker

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42 Responses

  1. In 1968, my wife and I were looking for a new car, and we ended up trying to decide between a Ford Torino fastback and the Dodge Dart with a 383. Unfortunately, we chose the Ford. I have wished a thousand times we had bought the Dodge. Hell, I might still have it. I think that era was probably the peak for that beautiful body style. Oh well, we all have bought the wrong car!
    Of course, I chose the Dart.

  2. After long (at least 10 seconds!), feverish (103 deg.) thought, I guess I’d take the Fiat, if only because it appears to have slightly less rot, the engine is damn near as simple as a Briggs & Stratton, and it would be kinda fun to drive if you actually got it running. Also, it would take up slightly less space in the backyard while waiting for attention.

    If the Dodge Dirt had a Slantie, I might reconsider. So equipped, experience tells me it would never, ever, fail. You could push it off a cliff and drive it away as soon as it stopped bouncing.

  3. Fiat with a NOTLADA license plate.

    I feel like I’m doing Torch’s job mentioning this, but only the rear side markers are all that tacked-on. Front ones (actually turn signal repeaters) had been a requirement in Italy for about a decade when the 124 appeared.

  4. That running Dart is only marginally faster than the not-running Fiat, and after rebuilding that engine or swapping it out (both of which could be accomplished in an afternoon) the 124 would a lot more fun that the 3spd slushbox rusto-barge.

  5. If you take the time to explain choose your own adventure books to David, turn to page 33.
    If you mock David’s lack of cultural awareness, turn to page 46.
    If you change the subject and talk to David about cars, turn to page 78.

    1. Hey, I was born here and I don’t have a clue about choose your own adventure books, though they sound a little like offshoots of the early “programmed instruction” books. They must just be a thing you kids were into.

      1. Choose your own adventure books were published from 1979-1998. I think their popularity was probably highest in the late 80s.
        They didn’t descend from the programmed instruction books, but it would not be surprising if the original author had encountered those and been influenced by them. He said that he got the idea from telling his children bedtime stories and asking them what the main character would do. They got excited about that, so he decided to adapt it into books. He had completed the first one in 1970.

  6. It’s probably just a factor of the era I grew up in, but you had me at “decrepit but running V8 shitbox.”

    There’s just a lot of freedom in knowing it’s been hooned for decades and with minimal upkeep will continue to fulfill that role for a couple more.

      1. Yep. In fact, Fix It All the Time.

        The rust gives me pause, but the extra doors don’t, and it’s got a V8 (even if I swap in a different V8 at least the suspension is made for it). And it’s smog exempt, so the domestic V8 sedan is the Devil I Know. I’ll take it, but only after negotiating down about three bills. That’s a three-digit car, not four.

  7. When I was in high school, the Dart and Valiant four doors were the hand me down cars from the parents, those Mopar’s took whatever you threw at them and kept going. It was hard to look cool in a four door, but it looks like someone did try to make it look tougher by adding that bumble bee stripe. Probably had some type of mag wheels on it at one point too. My grandma didn’t learn to drive until she was about 58, her first car was a 72 Scamp with the 318. That car would get up and go and my grandma took full advantage of it.

  8. I don’t think I really have a choice in the matter, do I? The Dart. Though I might actually pick the Fiat if it were running.

    74 Valiant was the first car I drove on a regular basis, and it seemed like a good avatar picture to match the user name.

    Anyway, they are pretty much shit cars, but also cockroaches that will run forever, and as noted survive in surprising numbers, especially for an appliance car.

  9. Assuming I don’t give a damn about getting where I need to go and all that stuff I think I’d go for the Fiat just to see if the Italian original can stand up to the Garage 54 treatment. Chaining the tires together, filling the crankcase with gasoline, replacing the piston rings with rubber O-rings, the whole Vlad Special. I bet the Fiat dies while the Lada keeps crawling forward even under the weight of Soviet automotive oppression.

  10. My dad had a 124 and it had no floorboards anymore. Just a beater passed down by generations of Air Force dudes at Ramstein. I loved that car and learned to drive in it. 124 all the way. He replaced it with a brand new 131S which was nicer but not the same.

  11. While I love the Dart, I already have an M-Body with literally the same engine and transmission lol

    Despite the non-runner status, I’d take the Fiat. It looks almost exactly like my grandpa’s ’70 Lada.

  12. The Fiat is quite charming, particularly on the inside. The color is *chef’s kiss* and it looks to be much less abused than the Dart. Plus, I see clapped out Dodges all the time, albeit not usually of this vintage.

  13. Rust on the Dart is nowhere near that bad. The body goes long before the structure on those. Cheap, disposable, runs, drives.

    Just paint it a more invisible color before you take your friends camping.

  14. I voted for the Fiat in Portland. As much as I dislike driving into Portland, if I chose the Dart I would have to drive to Battle Ground, where every third vehicle is a lifted 4×4 diesel pickup sporting a giant “Let’s Go Brandon” flag.

  15. They both look like parts cars to me. The Fiat’s ad is light on details, but that looks like moss growing in the driver’s footwell. Yikes. At least the Dodge seller is being honest about how far gone their car is. I would buy the Swinger because the power train and rear end could easily drop in to so many other American cars of that era.

  16. My first car was a ’73 Dart Swinger (2 door). It didn’t have a gas gauge so much as a gas station locator needle – every time you passed a gas station the needle would swing to “E” like a divining rod.

    Still, I’d take this Dart for the sentimentality.

    1. My granddad had a ’72 that he hooned around in. It literally went from one end of the family to the other. My mother’s sister bought it new. After a few years, it went to my mom. A year after that it went to my father’s father who drove it for the next 15 years until he died. At that point it went to my brother, who sold it after a couple of years to a friend who junked it. Still pisses me off to think about that to this day.

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