Part 42 – Fiat Expands and an Agnelli Returns
By David Cavaliere
Last week I began the story of Fiat, from its modest beginnings to its swift emergence as an industrial giant. The company has given us several iconic cars, but its many of its models are not well known in the U.S. Always with an eye towards keeping production and tooling costs low, Fiat made great small cars, good mid-sized cars, but it never truly produced a fantastic large car. This helps to explain why Fiat was much further down on the list of automobiles sold in the U.S. than other foreign manufacturers. Millions of Fiats were sold throughout the world, but the company left the shores of America after 1982. Fiat sales in the U.S. had fallen fell a high of 100,511 cars in 1975 to 14,113 in 1982. It returned in 2011 with the new Fiat 500 on the heels of saving the Chrysler Corporation.
As the 1960s began, Fiat introduced the 2300 an executive sedan powered by a six-cylinder of 2,279 cc. It was the higher-market car of the Fiat model range and was produced between 1961 and 1969. The 2300 was made as saloon (four-door), estate car (wagon) and coupé. The 1966 model became the first Fiat model to be available with an automatic transmission. The 2300S Coupé was the sportiest model in the range. It was fitted with a more powerful engine of 149 hp.
For the small car market, Fiat introduced the 850 in 1964. It was a small rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car. The engine was based on that of the Fiat 600, but its capacity was increased to 843 cc, providing a maximum speed of approximately 78 mph. The 850 family included several body styles – sedan, coupé and spider. In 1967, Road & Track magazine called the Fiat 850 coupé “one of the handsomest, best-balanced designs ever seen on a small car. “ The cars were well-engineered and inexpensive, but they had a major flaw that would haunt many car companies of the period – inexpensive steel (often recycled in the case of Fiat), plus inadequate rust-proofing equated to cars that were highly susceptible to body rot. Still in all, nearly 2.3 million models were sold worldwide through 1973.
Fiat continued to experience growth of production through the 1960s in both its domestic and export market. Car ownership in Italy expanded from one car for every 96 Italians to one in 28. Fiat attempted to take advantage of the increase in demand by establishing several factories in southern Italy. Unfortunately its timing was horrendous. The mid-late 1960s were made infamous for trade union conflicts which, by 1969, had led to millions of production hours that were lost to strikes throughout the country.
The biggest news from the company in 1966 was not the introduction of a new model, but the ascension of Gianni Agnelli to the presidency of Fiat. He was the grandson of founder Giovanni Agnelli. Like his grandfather, he ensured the company followed a trend of innovation with increased automation in the production process. The model that was launched that year was the Fiat 124. If you could guarantee it would never rain again, then the Fiat 124 would be a perfect car. It was a mid-sized family car manufactured between 1966 and 1974. The sedan spawned variants including a station wagon, four-seater coupé, two-seater spider convertible and a slightly lengthened and more luxurious version, the 125,which was launched in early 1967. It was quite nimble, will well sorted interior space. Easy to drive and economical, it was awarded the 1967 European Car of the Year. Power came from a 1.2 liter OHV inline-four engine with 65 hp. There were also special models in the lineup – the 124 Special came with a 1,438 cc OHV engine with 74 HP and the 124 Special T and a 1,592 cc twin cam OHC engine with 94 hp on tap. The car’s design was readily adopted for foreign production in Russia, India, Korea, Turkey, Bulgaria, Malaysia and even in Egypt. Since the production was under so many banners, no accurate manufacture number is available for the car, suffice it to say that millions were produced. The designation has been resurrected for the new Fiat 124, a wonderfully tidy sports car that will be covered in depth during another feature.
In 1969, Fiat introduced the 130 model. This was a large six cylinder executive car with a nine-year production run (1969 to 1977). It was available as a 4-door saloon and as a 2-door coupé. A thoroughly modern car, the 130 had four-wheel independent suspension, standard power steering and four-wheel disc brakes. A new crossflow Lampredi 2.7 liter V6 engine with twin overhead camshafts powered the car. It originally had 140 hp and later produced 165 hp. The car´s strong points were its excellent handling, road-holding, and smooth ride. It had a very high standard of interior appointments and comfort, but on the negative side, the engine was noisy and thirsty (it was not fuel injected).
The Fiat 127 – a supermini car, was introduced in 1971 and had a 12-year production run. It was Fiat’s first “hot hatchback”. It had a state-of-the-art transverse-engine/front-wheel-drive layout, with the transmission mounted on the end of the engine. The 127 used the rugged Fiat OHV 100 series 903 cc engine. It featured a unique transverse leaf spring suspension at the rear and included safety innovations, such as crumple zones to protect occupants during collisions. The 127 was an instant success, winning the European Car of the Year award in 1972 and quickly becoming one of the best-selling cars in Europe.
In 1972, Fiat brought out a two-seat mid-engine sports car – X1/9. It was designed by Bertone and manufactured by Fiat from 1972-1982 and subsequently by Bertone from 1982-1989. The car had a transverse engine and gearbox in a mid-mounted, rear-wheel drive configuration. It was very-well balanced and offered excellent handling. It had a lightweight-removable hardtop and although a small car, it had front and rear-storage compartments. After 1982, Fiat ended its presence in the U.S. Sales were down and its reputation was tarnished (although some would say rusted) due to poor build quality and issues with rust. Fiat turned over full production duties to Bertone. In 1983 the orphaned X1/9 was sold as the “Bertone X1/9.” Bertone continued to update the X1/9, providing rust protection, revised seating to accommodate taller drivers and a modernized electrical system.
The Fiat 131, called “Mirafiori”, was a mid-sized family car, first introduced in 1974. It was the replacement for the 124 and was available as a two-door, four-door sedan and as a 5-door wagon. The 131 was given the Mirafiori name after the Turin suburb where the cars were produced. This was a break with the former Fiat convention of naming models using a three digit number. It set the pattern for Fiat to adopt a new naming practice, with carefully chosen names for subsequent new models. Initially, the Mirafiori was offered with 1.3 liter and 1.6 liter overhead valve engines. The model had two major updates, in 1978 and 1981, with production concluding in 1984. In total 1,513,800 units were produced in Italy.
To keep Fiat on the path to automated production, Robogate, a flexible robotic system for assembling bodywork, was introduced to factories in 1978. Fiat was also becoming an economic, as well as industrial powerhouse, as it began to acquire other well-known Italian brands such as Lancia, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati, becoming Fiat Auto S.p.A. Between 1978 and 1990, Fiat also setup numerous operations as independent companies. These included Fiat Avio, Fiat Engineering, Comau, Fiat Ferraviaria, Magneti Marelli and Teksid.