Torinese Marina – 1977 Fiat 132

Dud big Fiat or misunderstood mongrel? Lets get our feet wet, shall we?

All images taken from original Fiat sales material.

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.

Insert the joke of your choosing here…

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Torinese Marina – 1977 Fiat 132”

  1. Great stuff. If LJKS considered it second only to Citroen, it must have had something to commend it!

    I remember motoring journalists being driven to distraction by the Italian habit of affixing dashboard trim with exposed screw heads. And looking at these pictures, you can remember why – it’s an absolutely infuriating failure.

  2. If the Fiat 132 / Argenta was never conceived to be a long-lived car, then what did Fiat plan to replace it?

    Was the Type Four based Fiat Croma originally intended to appear a few years earlier or was there a Type Four precursor project of sorts during the 70s that was later abandoned?

    Also while it was probably discussed in one or two other articles, would Fiat have been better off spawning a Fiat 130-derived replacement for the Lancia Flaminia?

    1. Bob- it’s likely Fiat didn’t have a replacement project simmering while the 132’s career dragged on. They skipped direct to the Croma. What this means is that from 1972 to 1980-something their engineers and R&D weren’t practising large car development. Use it or lose it. Further, the Croma was a joint project so Fiat had less opportunity to re-learn the business. Corporate knowledge withers as Fiat shows.

    2. Fiat’s plans, such as they were took a sharp turn in the wake of the fuel crisis when car sales in Italy collapsed and it looked for a time as if they might never recover. This prompted Fiat management to abandon plans to move upmarket, focusing instead on sectors that were showing recovery. The 131 was a strong seller, so Fiat prioritised development of that (not much smaller, but handier sized) car, culminating in the twin-cam SuperMirafiori, a car that probably cannibalised a good proportion of the 132 market.

      In the Dec 1979 issue of Car, they published a report which included a render of a putative 132 replacement. Said to retain rear-drive, but with an IRS instead of the latter’s live axle. Styling (said to be in the modernist Ritmo idiom) was by Bertone – (doubtful but anyway). It’s possible this was in fact the beginning of the Type 4 programme, which was probably delayed further owing to Fiat’s continuing financial difficulties – in no small part owing to their failure to crack the upper market. Projects like the car which became the Uno were prioritised – ( a car which was originally to have been a Lancia by the way).

      We’ve discussed the 130 as Flaminia successor on quite a few occasions within the Gamma series, so I won’t rehash it here.

      As an aside, a relative of mine bought a 132 new around 1979/80 to replace a series 2 Beta 2000. Fiat were offering very aggressive finance deals at the time. With a back catalogue of cars which include (from memory) a Peugeot 404, a Triumph 2000, several Fiat 124’s, a couple of 131’s and said Beta, he still maintains that the big Fiat was the best car he ever owned. Who am I to argue?

    3. Here’s something else to put in your Porsche Design pipe and take a few puffs on: the same year the 132 was announced saw the introduction of the more technically and stylistically advanced Lancia Beta. Now you can argue that Fiat were wisely covering the bases by introducing two diametrically opposed cars into (broadly) the same market, but it does further illustrate the bipolar nature of Fiat’s product planning at the time.

      Another question is how, given Fiat engineers’ record of honing quite humble mechanicals into a superb dynamic package, they dropped the ball so comprehensively with the original 132? Were they overstretched? Was there no budget? The relative competence of the 131 – especially in twin-cam form really did call into question what the 132 was offering – apart from snob value of course.

      Can any of our Italian industry specialist contributors elaborate further?

    4. Cannot really say why Fiat dropped the ball on the Fiat 132 given the Fiat 131 / SuperMirafiori was taking sales away from the former. In some respects it seems like Lancia after being acquired by Fiat essentially became a continuation of Autobianchi albeit with significantly more brand cachet.

      Would it not have made more sense for the Fiat 132 to receive a 2-litre 4-cylinder followed by a V6 (either Dino, 130 or another design) assuming there was room in the 132’s engine bay?

      It is interesting that Fiat were looking to move upmarket though could it have ever worked without the disruption caused by the fuel crisis? Aside from the 130 and the Dino it is difficult to envision how Fiat planned to move upmarket.

    5. @richard – more important that 20 cm of the length 132 had 6 cm greater wheelbase – I think that difference was in 70s similar to present day difference between Octavia and Superb. However it’s interesting that after 1300/1500 bigger FIATs were more traditional (or less modern) than they smaller sibling (124 has coil spring rear suspension compared to leaf springs of 125; MacPherson front in 131 and double wishbones in 132).

  3. Apart form the wheels shown in the second set of photos, it’s difficult to imagine this coming from the same company that gave the world not just an endless number of highly competent small cars, but styling high points in the shape of the exceptional 130 Coupé and the creative Ritmo/Strada.

    One of Fiat’s main issues has always been consistency. This is more proof of that problem.

  4. Some vulgar numbers:

    132/Argenta (1973-86): 975,970 + around 100,000 SEAT 132s

    Marina /Ital (1971-84): 1,338,392. (Figure probably excludes Portuguese, Australian and South African factories. And a few thousand Huangdus…)

    The accepted position is that the Marina sold well, despite being a cynical, under-engineered, lowest common denominator interpretation of what the British mass market wanted.

    Yet over almost the same timespan, the Fiat did nearly as well. More impressive given that there was never a strong market for big Fiats outside of Italy.

  5. Selling distinctly different Beta and 131 made eminent sense – that’s choice. Not putting a V6 in the 132 made less sense. Wikipedia alleges there was a supercharged version of the 2.0 – is that true? Simple explanations are a) Fiat thought a V6 excessive and b) they had no money and c) mismanaged. An argument is that in oil crisis years a V6 made no sense. Renault and Peugeot didn’t have one of their own. V6s in this class of car was more a German preference.

    1. Largely agree with the explanations though both Renault and PSA did have the PRV V6 that appeared in 1974, on top of that Fiat were willing to collaborate with PSA on other projects pre-Sevel in roughly the same period.

      Can perhaps somewhat understand why Fiat were reluctant to use the PRV V6 as a low-cost alternative (finances and fuel crisis notwithstanding along with the fact the V6 was a 90-degree design), since in better circumstances they would have probably wanted to use their own V6 in an attempt to move upmarket though the PRV V6 did later end up powering the Lancia Thema.

    2. Given Fiat’s dependence upon the home market, a six cylinder 132 would have made no commercial sense. It wasn’t so much a matter of the post Yom-Kippur situation – (although that was a sizable factor for a time) – but more the punitive taxes applied to large capacity engines in Italy. A 2.0 litre was about as large as Fiat could go with some hope of getting a return. Late-era Argentas were offered (in Europe) with the supercharged 2 litre Richard mentions. This was an in-line installation of the same compressor-driven, (Volumex-badged) version of the Lampredi twin-cam as fitted (transversely) to latter-era Trevis and Beta coupe/HPE’s.

      Another factor against the use of a V6 in the 132: Given the car’s handling deficiencies – a noted front bias and tendency towards terminal understeer – the additional weight over the nose would only have emphasised this characteristic further, leading to further ridicule from a motoring press who had already taken against the car.

      If anybody should have had a V6, it was Lancia, since they were to have been Fiat Auto’s luxury marque, but that would have necessitated a RWD Gamma, which then puts the 130 issue into play and enough has been said about that matter…

    3. That supercharged engine must have been installed after Lancia used it on the Trevi. Lancia made a big deal about being the first to use that for decades.

    4. It was introduced into the final (facelift of a facelift) edition of the Argenta in 1984. The Croma wasn’t far off by then. Oddly, for the latter car, Fiat elected for turbocharging. Indeed, the Volumex engine appeared to die with the advent of the Type Four cars. I’m unclear as to why. Fuel consumption perhaps?

    5. The supercharger consumed a lot of fuel though did deliver good torque at lower speeds (though it wasn’t any faster outright). It’s news to me that Fiat used this set-up and also it was a bit cheeky too. That set-up was by rights a Lancia USP.

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