A Photoseries for Sunday: 1983 Fiat 131 Supermirafiori 2000 TC

This photo-series is the work of Mick who kindly sent me the images. The name of the car is almost as long as the production run. From 1974 to…

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…1983. Making this example one of the last made. The estate versions carried on for another year. It’s a series 3 Fiat 131 Supermirafiori with a 2.0 litre twin-cam engine, hence the T/C label tucked on the side at the rear. Ten years: that’s a long time in car design and the ten years from 1974 to 1983 were a tumultuous time in the wider world.

The oil crises and general economic malaise added to the miseries of Italy’s Years of Lead. Over its long life the 131 had to accommodate with disorientating changes in the car market and in society. For this reason one must bear in mind that the world the car was designed in (say, 1969 to 1971 or so) had a different atmosphere than the one of the mid 70s, and the early 80s when the car ceased production.

So now take a look at the 1974 car:

1974 Fiat 131 Mirafiori: source
1974 Fiat 131 Mirafiori: source

And this is the rakish two-door version:

1874 Fiat 131 Mirafiori two-door: source
1874 Fiat 131 Mirafiori two-door: source

In isolation, the 131 is what the unimaginative will call boxy. Imagine though if the car was seen next to this:

1972 Ford Cortina: wikipedia.org
1972 Ford Cortina: wikipedia.org

Then the daring Modernism of Fiat’s “box” becomes apparent. There is not a single word for the way the cars like the Cortina look, is there?** Interestingly, as aerodynamics became more important, Fiat’s Modernist approach made less sense. The car is unflinchingly square and angular. Their Modernism was really pseudo-Modernism.

The Series 3 Mirafiori made its way to showrooms in 1981. This was the point that the car acquired its side cladding (inspired by the 1979 S-class?) and its less-than subliminal similarity to the BMW 5-series cars, first shown in 1972:

1972 BMW 520: source
1972 BMW 520: source

The series 1 and series 2 Fiat 131s had a more vertical front end. The series 3 gained the forward leaning profile we think of as characteristic of this era of BMWs. Then in 1982 the Ford Sierra startled everyone and probably those at Fiat the most. All of a sudden their uncompromisingly angular car looked strikingly behind the times.

photo via greenmotor
This must have stunned Fiat, the 1982 Ford Sierra. Image: greenmotor

From the two images of the 1974 version we can see that the Fiat 131 was first, not just a “box” but a vehicle influenced strongly by world-leading Italian product design, Modernism and, quite probably, Italian furniture design (on the inside). Second, the car as intended, did not look like a watered-down BMW or S-class. That happened as a result of the car’s over-extended production run which forced Fiat to make superficial efforts to refresh the appearance for the third series.

By way of comparison, during the 131’s run, the Cortina went through two models and morphed into the utterly startling aero Sierra. Opel served up three versions of their Ascona and VW presented (barely, to be fair) two versions of the Passat. Fiat’s problems showed themselves in this car and these stemmed from Italy’s peculiar cultural, economic and social turbulence. Now I think about it, Fiat ended up with the same problem as Lancia in the 60s: slow product cycles.

In truth there very long story is asking to be told about the Fiat 131 and this post only scratches the edge of the surface.

What would the equivalent Fiat look like today? Can we even imagine that?

[Thank you to Mick for sending in these images.]


**That´s another thing I will have to come back to: design and language.


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “A Photoseries for Sunday: 1983 Fiat 131 Supermirafiori 2000 TC”

  1. Unfortunately we don’t have to imagine the equivalent Fiat today as it exists in China as the Viaggio – a less aggressive looking Dodge Dart.

  2. That’s interesting you compare the 131 to the Sierra. At the time the Ford must have made the Fiat seem obsolete. That said I have always thought Le Quement’s designs never aged well (his escort perhaps the worst of all). I still see a Ford Sierra. (2.3 diesel) regularly and it looks incredibly dated. I would argue that now 30+ years on the mirafiori looks better and sharper.

    1. Why does the Sierra’s modernism look more dated than the 131’s? That’s an interesting question. I think they are two quite different animals. The Sierra was one of the forerunners when it came to incorporating round(ish) shapes for achieving low drag coefficients, much as we still use today. Therefore, it first doesn’t look like an “old” car, but then the details look incredibly crude and the wheels way too small for being mistaken as contemporary. The Fiat clearly belongs to a different era and is preceived as old rather than dated.

      And then there is another aspect. Many of the soft shapes, especially from the eraly nineties, have worn out very quickly. Presumably the eye is more comfortable with better structural clarity, as is provided by apparently “simple” designs like the 131.

    2. They are all good points Simon. I think the “jelly mould” rounded shapes actually look bland and make the car look forgettable now. Unthinkable when it was first launched and nothing was like it I know.

  3. The 131 was a car for many markets, with a simple technical layout and a perfect size (a big car in upcoming markets, a family and a business car in Europe and a small family car in the US). Reliable and easy to repair – two aspects that were surely more important than exciting design and innovative solutions.
    In this multi-purpose world car category, the Fiat 131 with its subtile italian touch was definitely not the most boring car.

    Was not the Fiat Ritmo the car, that replaces the 131 as Fiats car for families in many european markets? After 1978, the 131 was a car for conservative markets.Here in central europe, it became a sports car – Walter Röhrl´s car. With other rivals (Opel Manta, Ford Capri, etc.)

    A new Fiat 131? – I think, the Fiat 500 is Fiat´s world face.

    1. Part of your point is correct: the 131 suited a variety of markets. In 1974 its design stood out in a good way; by 1980 it had worn thin. That’s how to lose customers.

  4. Today’s equivalent to a simply and sharply styled car with an underlying, unaggressive sportiness?I don’t see that at Fiat – and not much more elsewhere.

    I guess the “real” successor of the 131 was the Regata (a Ritmo derivate), but tastes may have shifted from saloons to hatchbacks in Europe, so the Ritmo was more popular.

  5. There’s some science to how people respond to edges. Apparently lines and edges attract the eye. If the edges are blurred as on the Sierra the eye has a harder time sorting out and deciding on the shape. The Fiat will always look clearer than a Sierra. However, the hard-edged and rectinlinear theme had been worked over and exhausted by the mid 70s. Ford made a good move at the time in busting out of that territory. Personally, I’m fine with the Sierra. As piece of industrial design it has a lot going for it. I’d like to be able to put my finger on why it lacks (to a small degree) the sense of strength found in other aero designs.

  6. Don’t get me wrong here. I was a huge fan of the Sierra’s shape when it was new. It seemed to be derived wery closely from Ford’s aerodynamic concept cars of the time. I especially liked the “better” versions with larger headlights and no apparent grille. The design was very consistent, which unfortunately was corrupted very much with all later additions (busy front treatment, notchback, new rear lights, to name just a few).

    I always found it a pity that the futuristic outside was not matched by equally advanced underpinnings (RWD, archaic diesel engines, for example).

    The lacking sense of stength, as you put it, I can see in a few things:
    – The general stance. It’s rather high-footed, and from today’s point of view, it’s not only the wheels that are small, but wheelbase and track width could also be larger. Of course, they were all standard for the day, but seemed better fit for straighter shapes. (The Audi 100 C3 had the same problem, by the way.)
    – One “problem zone” is the bonnet to A-pillar junction. The bonnet line is rather high, resulting in an irritatingly narrow windshield and a massive area of sheet metal between wheelarch and A-pillar. They lightened it to some extent by the fold which is one of the typical and unique design festures of the Sierra.
    – Relatively thick pillars (for the time) should in theory add to an impression of strength, but it somehow fails on the Sierra. I don’t know why… Maybe the windows look a bit small in a 1930s way, when they also had very rounded corners.

    1. Some of those factors are true of other cars where they don´t trouble me as much. Here they compound a problem. If very tight radii imply thin sheet metal, then the Ford is on firm ground. Something else is amiss. I think it is to do with the subliminal impression that none of the main panels are deep pressings. I would have to look over a car in the metal to see if that´s a correct analysis. The Fiat might have thinner steel (those radii are small, no?) but the pressings appear to be deeper which lends an impression of greater robustness: a box is stiffer than a sheet. I don´t mean to criticise the Sierra. Lots about it is rather good. I´d love to have heard the conversations about its styling as the car was modelled in clay. The Fiat must have had a much more straightforward genesis: big sweeps dragged along simple surfaces and then loads of small edges whittled off to finish it.

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