Fiat’s Seventies C-segment style statement is largely a neglected footnote today, but there’s more to the Ritmo than a bunch of robots and some confusion over its name.
Was any decade as truly modern as the 1970s? One retrospectively characterised in a roseate glow of giddy colours and lurid sartorial fashions; of long hair, beards, beads and ABBA songs, what chroniclers choose to ignore was how genuinely, thrillingly new it all appeared at the time and after an interval of four decades, seems even more so now.
In terms of product design, little that occurred in the decade that followed came even close to the impact of the ’70s. Unfortunately this was probably equally true in other areas. Ah Italy. Bastion of culture, impeccable taste; leaders in industrial innovation and design, but fatally prey to political instability. Certainly no product of this land can be assessed without consideration of the febrile political situation of the day, coupled to the near-collapse of the Italian auto market post-1973.
During this period of uncertainty, vast quantities of unsold Italian cars were stockpiled while customers, spooked by petrol rationing and doom-laden predictions, held fire. Fiat Auto’s Gianni Agnelli began a process to diversify away from motor cars, and it’s been alleged that in reaction to political elements bent on destabilisation amid Fiat’s car plants, he also invested heavily in the Consorzio Macchine Utensili (Comau) automation business, culminating in Fiat’s much publicised Robogate system.
Like every Fiat Auto product launched in the post-oil shock era, the Ritmo came late to market and was prey to the uncertainty that permeated Turin. The X1/38 programme was instigated in 1972 as a replacement for the seminal 128, a car which codified the modern compact FWD saloon, but in retrospect at least, was clothed in the style of yesterday.
And while it remained a strong seller, it illustrated that Fiat’s innate conservatism wasn’t aiding their cause as the European saloon silhouette moved into dramatic new realms with forward looking designs from Citroën, Alfa Romeo and from VW, courtesy of Giugiaro.
Styled within centro stile Fiat and credited to Sergio Sartorelli, X1/38 would be the first dedicated Fiat saloon line to be designed expressly as a hatchback from day one. A resolutely modernist statement, it was also amongst the first of its kind to employ the use of integrated plastic bumpers which also encompassed both front and rear ends of the vehicle, both housing and protecting the lamp units.
Further emphasising the industrial design aesthetic was the lack of a recognisable grille, the starkness of the car’s ‘face’ and strong graphic elements, most notable in the style and placement of air vents, door handles and the Ritmo’s distinctive wheel designs. Yet, despite being pure product design there was a humanistic element; a visual warmth to Sartorelli’s exuberantly rational exterior and to some extent at least, to Mario Bellini’s interior design.
From a mechanical perspective, its 128 forebear had done all the heavy lifting, so the Ritmo carried forward most of it in a more refined fashion. In addition to the 128’s 1.1 and 1.3 litre engines, an increased stroke 1.5 litre was added as was the option of a five-speed transmission or a VW-sourced automatic. Two trim levels, C and CL were offered as were two body styles – three door and five. (More upmarket and driver-focused versions would follow)
Launched across Europe in June 1978, it reached UK shores the following year, renamed Strada in the belief that English speakers would struggle with the Latin terminology. (Interestingly, the Irish market retained the original name) But Ritmo it was and will forever be. Trailed by a much referenced TV commercial making much of Fiat’s robotics, the Ritmo was marketed as the car of tomorrow.
The mostly conservative UK press were broadly positive about the car, but took against its styling and perhaps because the 128 had been such a technical gamechanger, damned the Ritmo with faint praise. For what it’s worth however, LJK Setright was one of its early proponents in print, summarising it as viceless and suggesting that, “in its engineering, the Strada is the most modern mass production car in the world”.
Unfortunately Cassino’s robots appeared to have built the Ritmo to a similar approximate standard as their human equivalents, so they were less than trouble free propositions and despite much being made of Fiat’s attempts at rust protection, those metal components of the Ritmo’s bodyshell crumbled with the best of them.
The Ritmo’s case was further undermined in 1982 by what was even by centro stile’s woeful standards a particularly reactionary facelift which sucked the very last screed of charm and visual character from the car, leaving an emaciated husk. By the time production ceased in 1988 to make way for the Tipo, the Ritmo was hopelessly outclassed, not only by European rivals, but by Fiat’s own superior Uno model.
A good 18 months late to market and in production a good four years too long, the Ritmo was a commercially successful model (close to 1.8 million made) which really ought to have made more of an impact. A consequence perhaps of its origins, it dated quickly and as the modernist style of the Seventies fell out of favour, Fiat found themselves once more out of step. Nevertheless, the design left some traces. Certainly, Bertone imbibed heavily during the 1982 Citroen BX’s conception.
Fiat’s mixed fortunes in the C-segment are rooted in the highly cyclical fortunes of the car giant, but perhaps amongst the most eloquent symptoms of its failure was one of insufficiently defining their offering. But let us step away from the parent’s failings and recognise the Ritmo for what it is: as powerful a statement of Seventies modernism as anybody’s Rover SD1.
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A more Auto-Didaktic analysis of the Ritmo’s design can be viewed here