The 1972 Fiat 124S. —Creative commons
The 1972 Fiat 124S. —Creative commons

The year was 1984 in Karachi and I was 29 years old. I was getting married in two weeks time and it is a well-known fact that no decent girl ever marries a man without a car.

Money was short, so it had to be a used car. And thus began the saga.

I sought out the counsel of a seasoned car owner over lunch at work. As it is well known, grown men start to drool at an opportunity to give their golden advice to a novice like myself.

The answer started with a deep sigh, then an extended into a “Hmmm….”, and finally with an all knowing smile, the pearls of wisdom flowed:

“I will tell you. You see, a car is passed or failed by a mechanic, and any mechanic will tell you that never was a car better built than the ‘76 Corolla.”

Since the gentleman advising me was from the province of Punjab, and all the car mechanics in the country hail from this province, I had no reason to challenge his opinion. I profusely thanked my benefactor and immediately started scouring the classified sections of all the Karachi newspapers for a “‘76 Corolla in Outclass condition”.

That evening I mentioned my choice to a friend who would spend a lot of time tinkering with his car. He gave me a withering look and announced, “I thought you were an intelligent man, but now I will have to reconsider my opinion. The ‘76 Corolla is nothing but a bicycle on four wheels that consumes petrol!”

“But the mechanics say….”, I started to protest.

“Hold it right there!” my friend cut me out briskly.

“Trusting mechanics is like putting your trust in the devil himself. They recommend this piece of junk because it needs constant maintenance; you see the connection my friend?”

The man had a point. “So what do you recommend?” I asked rather sheepishly.

Alarmingly – quite like my earlier advisor – he sighed, then hmmm’d, looked at the sky, and opined in an all knowing, somber tone, “I will tell you. Now what is the car most used as a taxi? Of course, it is the Datsun Bluebird!”

The vision of me driving a taxi was not too appealing but my expert friend was on a roll.

“Cheap spare parts aplenty and every mechanic, his chotta (assistant), and his dog can fix that car if it breaks down which – mind you – is rare.”

Taxi or not, I am loathe to running around to get things fixed. So, the Corolla was summarily dethroned and the search of used car classified changed to a lady driven, Datsun Bluebird. I did not find many matching ads; I guess the taxi drivers had already relieved the Parsi ladies, who mostly drove them at the time, of their immaculate Datsuns.

So what did I end up buying?

No, it was not the “mechanic passed” Toyota, nor the “taxi driver’s favorite” Datsun Bluebird. The car was — roll of drums — a 1972 Fiat 124S. It was after one month that I understood what the S stood for, and I can tell you it was not Sport.

Like most single men of my age, I was impractical and impetuous. I had heard through the grapevine that the Fiat 124S was a ‘little Italian devil’ on wheels and could leave behind the Japanese imports in a trail of dust.

Looks wise, it would not win any competition. It had a squat purposefulness about it. Their asking price was low and that should have raised a few alarms, but I was smitten by the Italian dream.

Maintenance? Did the famous Italian Carlo Ponti worry about high maintenance when he married Sophia Loren? That was the life: fast and on the edge. I imagined driving around in style in my black speedster with my beautiful new wife.

I brought the car home. In retrospect, I would have been better off if I had left it with the owner after paying for it.

For starters (no pun intended) it would not restart after I had switched off the ignition. I had to resort to the embarrassing but time-tested method of “dhakka start” by commandeering the services of the chowkidar, the tea shop walla, and various other good Samaritans.

I would give the car that much credit: It was heavy. However, with the inability to start with the ignition, that quality was a serious liability. When the car finally spluttered to life, I took it to a mechanic.

It was a visit that would be repeated frequently and cement my relationship with a fine mechanic named Javed alias Mota (he was not really fat but it is mandatory for mechanics to have a nick name).

For two weeks the car mostly stayed in the care of Javed Mota. Finally, the big day arrived. Dressed in my best, I sat behind the wheel. The engine growled to life; indeed an auspicious beginning.

On my way to the Nikah, I picked up the Maulvi Sahib who was to perform the ceremony. About a hundred yards before the bride’s house there was a loud whooshing sound and I could see nothing through the windshield. I braked hard. The Maulvi Sahib panicked and started reciting “Ait Al Kursi” to fend off the devil. I stepped out and saw that the car was steaming like a Turkish Hamam.

Clearly the radiator had burst and the car was rendered unusable. The Maulvi Sahib covered his face and asked me in a very worried tone whether the “gas” was poisonous. Those were not the days of cell phones and I had no Plan B. So, off I marched on foot to the bride’s house, with the Maulvi Sahib in tow, still reciting something under his breath.

The ceremony went well and the Maulvi Sahib was given an extra box of sweets to calm his nerves.

I am still married to the same fine woman but my first love, the Fiat 124S, did not make it beyond six months. The choice was between keeping my marriage and keeping my car.

The only person who profited from the car was Javed Mota and some spare part dealers in the Plaza car parts market.

On the debit side, those who suffered were myself, my newlywed wife, Behram Khan the apartment building chowkidar, the tea stall boy, and the other good souls on the various streets of Karachi who had to push the car when it decided to stop like a sulky Italian beauty.

Many other cars followed the Fiat. I should have learnt my lesson and asked the mechanics and the taxi drivers for advice before making my choice, but I again followed my stupid old heart and ended up with mostly lemons.

Cars came and went, but none - like an unrequited love, had the thrill, the unfulfilled promise, and the utter nuisance value of that little understated Fiat 124S.

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