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…
…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:
And this is the rakish two-door version:
In isolation, the 131 is what the unimaginative will call boxy. Imagine though if the car was seen next to this:
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:
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.
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.