Dud big Fiat or misunderstood mongrel? Lets get our feet wet, shall we?
We should get a couple of provisos out of the way before I commence. Firstly, the 132 began its lengthy career in 1972, so by 1977, it had already entered its third iteration. Secondly, while I admit it’s probably a little unfair to directly compare Fiat’s big saloon with British Leyland’s cynically conceived Cortina-baiter, some compelling parallels do suggest themselves.
Both arrived around the same period, aimed a conservative customer base (albeit at different price points). Both were cost-rationalised products whose mechanical specifications were similarly regressive – the BLMC car in particular. Both were pilloried by the motoring press for road-holding deficiencies and were hastily revised to assuage press and customer reaction. Through stark necessity, both lived longer lives than anticipated – receiving late-life facelifts which took them further into the following decade than their product planners could possibly have envisaged, by which time they were hopelessly outclassed.
As stated, the 132 arrived in 1972 to replace the popular and respected 125 model. The newer car was larger in most significant dimensions, initially offered with a choice of two engines and model hierarchies, and introduced a subtle shift from the 130 berlina styling themes which had come to dominate centro stile Fiat thinking during the late ’60s.
Conservatively and pragmatically engineered, the 132’s mechanical package offered few surprises. Struts up front and a coil-sprung live axle aft, while Lampredi’s lusty twin-cam four provided motive force in 1.6 and 1.8 capacities, through a standard five-speed gearbox. None of this should have been at issue, since Fiat were past masters at imbuing simple mechanicals with enough brio to elevate them well above mere transportation. The 125 had been praised for its chassis behaviour, so the 132’s initial reception was as mystifying as it was unequivocal.
Car didn’t mince words in 1972, describing the 132 as, “all fake wood and understeer – just the thing for Mr. Britain.” The car’s steering and road-holding was derided, prompting Fiat, like BLMC in the aftermath of the Morris Marina’s introduction, to hurriedly re-engineer the chassis. The 1974 revisions were enough to assuage the critics, but with the Italian car market reeling from the previous year’s energy crisis, Fiat was leery of investing in a sector of the car market which at the time had visibly collapsed.
By 1977, the outlook had improved markedly and with Fiat’s former flagship 130 model discontinued, the 132 was shunted upmarket to fill a yawning gap at the top of the Turin giant’s range. Maintaining the sheet metal changes introduced in 1974, the ’77 edition gained larger plastic bumpers, chunky side rubbing strips, revised nose and tail styling and wider roadwheels fitted with low profile Pirelli P6 tyres. Inside, a new dashboard, doortrims, upholstery and extra sound deadening added up to a plusher, more upmarket proposition. Mechanically, the fitment of the largest capacity version of the Lampredi four, and the welcome addition of power steering further bolstered the 132’s driver appeal.
Car drove a fuel injected version in December 1979, noting, “Such is the grip of the Pirelli P6’s that you can drive the 132 very quickly indeed without getting much into the handling. The fact that understeer comes in at higher cornering speeds means that, one hand, the suspension is not tested to its limits so often, and, on the other, if you do use up all the roadholding, the scare potential may be that much bigger.” On the plus side, they commended the relatively unsophisticated live axle’s characteristics, the steering and in particular, the gearbox, which they described as “a delight”, but ultimately dismissed the car as “not for us”.
Contrarian, LJK Setright however defended the model in the march 1981 issue of the same organ, pointing out, “For some reason, Fiat’s best cars have never been properly understood. Look at the 130, and the Bertone 2.4 Dino, for examples – or even the 132, a car that is far better than the misguided readers of a generally misguided press ever suppose. I tried the luxurious Bellini version and I thought it awfully good: if I were looking for a 4/5 seater saloon that was fast, discreet, sure-footed, compact and very comfortable, I would much rather choose this than any other medium-sized saloon not made by Citroën…”
The 132 received a major upgrade in 1981, with all body panels except from the doors being altered, a new interior and further mechanical upgrades, in addition to a new name: Argenta. It wasn’t markedly dissimilar in principle to the changes applied to BL’s Marina, which had the previous year become the Ital. The Argenta soldiered on until 1985, when the front-wheel drive Croma was introduced.
But to return to my original question: misunderstood or simply a poorly conceived design eventually facelifted into something half decent? Probably a bit of both really. The 132 wasn’t nearly as lashed together as BLMC’s bottom of the barrel ADO28, largely because Fiat, despite its mid-70’s existential crisis, remained far better resourced than cash-strapped BL ever was. In mitigation, neither car was intended to be long-lived, economic circumstances leading to their vastly over-elongated careers. So if the 132 wasn’t the outright dog some painted it to be, it still fell a good deal short of expectations, to say nothing of the Latin ideal.