Fiat Nox (I)

Apart from contributing more than a few inventions of enormous importance and automobiles of superior significance, Fiat have also established themselves as true masters of the counterproductive facelift.

Ritmo, post surgery, photo (c)

Italy unquestionably is a country of immense creative energy. More to the point, it is one of the hotbeds of automotive design and style, not to mention: taste.

And yet few marques have so comprehensively struggled to give its products a stylistic boost halfway through their respective productions runs as Fiat has. So much so, in fact, that describing any facelift effort as ‘Fiat bad’ acts as a fixed term denominating a particularly ill-advised attempt at refreshing a car’s design.

So, in order to lend some unrequested substance to the cliché, let’s have a look at some of the cases in point.

In 1977, Sergio Sartorelli’s original Ritmo was quite a bold statement. A piece of raw industrial design, rather than yet another offspring of the Italian ‘folded paper’ school prevalent in those days, the Ritmo not only embraced the plastic bumpers that had become such a difficult feature to be incorporated into any automobile’s shape in those days, but turned them into a signature feature.

Taking the astonishingly explicit graphics of the Ritmo’s round door handles, ‘squircle’ air vents, bonnet scoop and wheel trims into account as well, Sartorelli’s stylistic audacity cannot be overstated – and that’s even without mentioning one of the most advanced dashboards in this class of car at the time.

Of course, boldness has the habit of being stimulating and alienating at once. In the Ritmo’s case, the ingenious use of plastic as a decorative element was too much to bear for potential customers shopping or a car that wasn’t a Golf, Kadett or Escort. This in turn led to the Ritmo getting rid of all that had defined its appearance as part of a very comprehensive facelift.

So gone were the bumpers doubling as headlight housing and grille, the bonnet scoop and even the round door handles. Instead, the Ritmo gained side plastic cladding à la Saccobretter, a generic ’80s style Fiat grille, even more generic, rectangular door handles and light units in those places where one usually expected to find them.

The end result may have been more palatable than Sartorelli’s Ritmo, but it was also bereft of any character, like a cross between a VW Golf and a Simca Horizon. The recently introduced ‘five bar’ logo hence became an outright necessity to denominate this automobile as a Fiat.

Such treatment wasn’t the preserve of Sergio Sartorelli though. Even Giorgetto Giugiaro wouldn’t be spared the indignity of having one of his designs butchered by Fiat’s Centro Stile. In his case, it was his 2005 Punto, as it was turned from Grande into Evo. In that process, it was disfigured by the application of an utterly inconsistent front that seems to have been an equally foolish and incompetently executed attempt at bringing the Punto in line with Fiat’s other, more recent bestseller, the 500.

Yet the end result looks more like the combination of Fiat 600’s front badge with a very ill-advised homage to the Ritmo’s contrasting plastic trim – which sounds far more intriguing than it was.

In a way though, all of this was to be expected. For the previous generation of Punto hadn’t fared much better.

Despite not being the most brilliant of Fiat’s entries into this class of automobile to begin with, even the Mk2 Punto didn’t deserve the kind of drastic mutilation it was to receive in 2003.

As part of Fiat then-CEO, Paolo Cantarella’s ill-fated attempt at re-aligning the Fiat brand as purveyors of solely rational, cheerless automotive devices (which was already working out very well indeed with the Fiat Stilo by this point), the Punto received not just a grille that was almost as bland as it was ill-positioned, but also a perplexingly wayward shutline on its front wing that suggests actual changes to the Punto’s body-in-white had been carried out in order to accommodate the new, unbecoming front lights.

Similarly, the Punto’s traditional vertical rear lights  were also joined by an insert in the tailgate, which again suggests rather costly changes to the car’s metal parts.

Photo (c) Car Brands

This second generation Punto, in its original form, had also seen the introduction of Fiat’s retro ‘laurel wreath’ logo. In yet another astonishing case of changes in corporate identity unmasking far more significant changes in corporate attitudes (see Mercedes-Benz for a more recent reference), the loss of Fiat’s perfectly recognisable ‘five bar’ logo in favour of the significantly less modern and expressive ‘laurel wreath’ badge suggested that the company had lost its footing.

There are, of course, many more examples of the ‘Fiat bad’ facelift than the ones mentioned here. But this isn’t about completeness, anyway. It’s about how car design doesn’t just reflect upon the talents of the people who create it, but also how significantly it is informed by corporate attitudes – for better or, more often, worse.

(to be, probably and regrettably, continued)


The author of this piece runs an obscure motoring site of his own, which you may choose to visit at


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

28 thoughts on “Fiat Nox (I)”

  1. This is going to be a long series… Without further thinking, Multipla, 127 and Uno could be candidates for the next issue. What got me thinking much more: is there evidence of any facelift at Fiat that improved a car? I haven’t figured out one yet.

    1. Simon: the Multipla facelift stands out as an example. To be fair to Eoin, the list is long. If I might be picky, most facelifts look poorer than the original and typically those that aren’t are hard to detect. Ford’s Focus Mk1 might be a rare case of an ameliorating revision.
      The argument here is that Fiat had an especially bad track record in this area.

    2. I offer (without huge enthusiasm) the 1974 first facelift to the 132. A lower waistline gave a slightly larger glass area and allowed the addition of a “Hoffmeister Kink” to the rear door. This relatively subtle (albeit costly) update gently modernised the design which was already looking dated after two years on the market.

      Subsequent facelifts, ultimately leading to the execrable Argenta, were in the grand FIAT tradition…

    3. There is one ironic example of FIAT improving a car. When they deleted the crome strip and the plastic on the front of the EVO in 2012. Of course, they could have decided not to botch up the Grande Punto three years earlier.

  2. The Evo facelift to the Punto was a shocker – it always reminded me of a clown’s face (in particularly, the mouth).

    1. Alas, John, I have not noticed it. That means it might be alright, actually. There are lots and lots of these cars around where I live (a city centre). That and the Aygo trio and VW trio are among the most popular vehicles in this area and then come larger, obviously second hand hand cars.

    2. I commented on it briefly in my ‘Pointless’ test of the 500 just before Xmas. My view was (and remains) that the facelift makes the car look more modern – the new ‘ringed’ rear lamps and bisected ring DRLs are obvious gimmicks to make it more trendy; the spangly diamond effect lower air intake adds bling but drags the visual weight downwards – but in so doing has rendered it fussier than the it was pre-facelift. All in all, it’s pretty minor stuff, but I’d rank it as less attractive than the Phase 1 car. For me, the biggest style crime are the alloy wheels on the Lounge version; they are weak and fussy and a sod to clean too.

  3. I quite liked the launch version of the Mk2 Punto at the time. Those rear lamps were super distinctive and quite a distinctive feature. The facelift was so clumsy and cack-handed – I thought it was a FSO knock-off the first time I saw it on the road.

    1. Mk2 Punto really is among the worst ones. The initial version was good, I also liked the front part very much – I’m a sucker for cars without grille.

      I had to google the 132 facelift. Actually, the pre-facelift version had left no traces in my visual memory, the later one is the one that says ‘normal’ to me. So yes, I have to agree that it’s a good counter-example.

    1. And after the first facelift:

      Rather reminiscent of the contemporary BMW 5 Series.

  4. This is a fun in a sad way. How about the 127 facelift of the early ’80’s, which was horrid? Someone else mentioned the Tipo’d Uno, which was a bit grim and unnecessary.

    Being controversial for a minute, what about the original Panda, which received a facelift in the mid 80’s too, and, although it lost a lot of the original’s charm and industrial design elements, it was neat and cohesive, even if it changed the character of the car from something archly practical and functional (in the 2CV sense of the word) to being more of an urban sophisticate.

  5. Returning to the Ritmo for a moment, SEAT showed how to facelift it properly (or, at least, inoffensively) when they did so to create the Ronda:

    1. The Ronda is a legend but I must remind readers that the court of Cassation declared it to be not a copy but another car. That must imply it isn´t a facelift at all.

    2. Daniel: the facelifted 132 looks like a total make-over. That version I know quite well. The predecessor seems like it was from another decade in comparison.

  6. I’ve appended a link in the text above, but some of you may not have delved sufficiently deep into the archives to uncover this early piece, from the pen of DTW’s very own J.D Salinger – or should that be Thomas Pynchon?

    Another potential counter argument. The first facelift of the (1967) Fiat 124 Sport Coupe, when it went from single headlamps to twin units – similar in principle to the Fiat Dino GT. Some might prefer the original, but I always found the 1969 arrangement to appear more sophisticated. Normal service was resumed with the third (1972) facelift however.

    I would also point out Richard, that I cannot take credit for this piece. That would be our Hamburg correspondent.

    1. Chris: I apologise for attributing this item to Eoin. And Eoin, also apologies. I was not paying attention. It does say Kris was the author too. Whoops.

    2. Markus and SV: indeed, the Seicento is a facelift, even if it thorough. I never accepted it as a different car. They smothered it with blobularity and it suffocated.

  7. The Seicento should also be mentioned to complete these list. I know, for Fiat it was not a facelift of the Cinquecento, but i always regard the Seicento as a Cinquecento without style.
    Maybe the Uno is also a contender for this list. The Fiat 124 Coupe and the Croma Mk1 are Fiats with a slightly more attractive look after the facelift.

    1. Yes, of course, the Seicento! I suppose one could argue that it’s not a facelift (in the same way Ford argues that the ‘all new’ (the lady doth protest too much!) Fiesta is, well, all new, when it’s clearly a heavy facelift) of the Cinquecento, but … Any kind of scrutiny reveals just how much it is a revised Cinq. It’s hard for me to say how or why, but somehow the Seicento lost all of the charm and visual stance of the Cinq.

    2. Ah yes, the Seicento: every time I saw one from behind, I thought someone had tried to jemmy open the tailgate with a crowbar:

  8. Richard, the original 132 was only two years old when facelifted. IIRC, the only metalwork changes were new door skins and minor changes to the D-pillar (to incorporate the full width air vent). Perhaps it is, after all, a really successful FIAT facelift, the exception that proves the rule?

    That said, Eóin, I agree that the first facelift of the 124 Sport Coupé was also pretty successful:

  9. An excellent article. But am I the only one who HATES the rear lights on the facelifted 500? What was retro and stylish is now a “ring” with a centre of body colour metal? I surely can’t be the only one who has noticed?

    1. I like these lights. Totally pointless, I agree, but does not look like any other rear light.

  10. Actually prefer the face-lifted Ritmo / Strada along with the related Seat Ronda over the original.

    That said the original styling could have worked on the Fiat 126 had Fiat decided to make it FWD from the beginning instead of leaving it to the Poles to develop the FWD Fiat 126 NP years later. Such a car could have either carried over the existing air-cooled 2-cylinder or even potentially been powered by the larger water-cooled Fiat 100 Series 4-cylinder or a air-cooled horizontal 850cc 2-cylinder that Dante Giacosa was said to have been working on (mentioned in page 323 of his book).

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