Ritmo Della Strada

There is a good deal more to the Ritmo than a bunch of robots and a certain confusion over its name.

Style statement. Image credit: cargurus

Was any decade as truly modern as the 1970s? One characterised in retrospect within a roseate glow of giddy colours and lurid sartorial fashions; long hair, beards, beads and ABBA songs; what chroniclers  ignore however, was how genuinely, thrillingly new it all appeared at the time and after an interval of four decades, appears to be 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, of 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 febrile period, 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, they also invested heavily in the Consorzio Macchine Utensili (Comau) automation business, culminating in FIAT’s much publicised Robogate system.

Image: Bibipedia

Like every FIAT Auto product launched in the post-oil shock era, the Ritmo arrived 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 Ital Design.

Fiat Ritmo. Image: Autoweek

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 equally striking interior design.

From a technical 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 larger-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 enthusiast-focused versions would follow).

Launched across Europe in June 1978, it reached UK shores the following year, renamed Strada in the odd belief that English speakers would struggle with the Latin terminology[1]. 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 is 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”.

Image: classic car catalogue

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 far from stellar standards a particularly reactionary facelift which sucked the very last screed of charm and visual character from the car, leaving only 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 Uno model.

Image credit: Favcars

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, and of the vagaries of timing, 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 could be said to have imbibed heavily – especially during the 1982 Citroen BX’s conception.

FIAT Auto’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 insufficient definition. The Etch-A-Sketch approach certainly didn’t serve them well.

But let us step away from the parent’s failings and recognise the Ritmo for what it truly is – as powerful a statement of Seventies modernist design as anybody’s Rover SD1.

[1] Curiously, the Irish market retained the original name.

A more Auto-Didaktic analysis of the Ritmo’s design can be viewed here 

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “Ritmo Della Strada”

  1. Loved them for the handles and wheels alone.
    Alas, that E European steel rusted fast, and I never see one now (but I do occasionally see a Uno).

  2. So the Fiat Ritmo was originally intended to appear much earlier by a few years, curious to know whether different (aka less oddball) front-end treatments were considered?

    As for the Fiat 128 and even the related Fiat X1/9, it is shame neither received 1600cc+ engines (or in the case of the latter a 1.3-1.4+ turbo).

    It would be interesting to find out more as to what Fiat’s overall product plan for the 1970s was originally across the range (including Lancia, etc) prior to the fuel crises and other uncertainties either delaying or cancelling various projects (e.g. Montecarlo V6, etc).

    Did Fiat plan to upscale the Fiat 128 layout in place of the Fiat 131/132 (plus Argenta) segments prior to the Fiat Regata and after the Autobianchi A111 (aka Fiat 123)? Sure there was the Lancia Beta yet it is strange for Fiat not to quickly adopt FWD across its lineup, even if the boxy conservative 131/132/Argenta-like styling is retained.

    While the following has been discussed before, it would have been interesting for the Fiat 130 (and a related Lancia variant) to feature FWD (with optional 4WD) instead of RWD.

    1. Without a doubt Fiat didn’t have a product plan to speak of, as in a long term strategy. There is no reason to imagine Fiat was governed all that differently from Italy as a whole.
      Is the Ritmo a neglected footnote? If you ask people born after the Return of the Jedi was released the answer might be yes. I wonder how much car history the under 25s have to hand.

    2. The 128/Ritmo and X1/9 didn’t get bigger engines because they were engineered around the small Lampredi four that was at its limit at 1.5 litres.
      The Ritmo TC and Abarth versions got the larger and very heavy DOHC Lampredi engine with negative effects on their handling.
      A DOHC equivalent to the X1/9 was developed under the X1/20 code that later became the Lancia Montecarlo (hard to believe, but the Montecarlo is actually a smaller car than the X1/9).
      The Montecarlo V6 (Abarth SE 030) used in the 1974 Giro d’Italia was a pure racing one (or, rather, two) off that never was intended to go into production but was a kind of an inspiration for the Abarth SE037 (Lancia Rally 037). As the Montecarlo didn’t sell anyway there was no need for an additional version of that car.

      In the early Seventies engineering wisdom had it that front wheel drive was suitable only for realtively small cars of low weight and a maximum of 100 to 120 hp. Big Citroens were an exception but had extremely front biased weight distribution and resulting handling characteristics not suitable for the general public. Large engined Audis seemed to prove this rule of thumb and Fiat as a fwd pioneer knew that. Therefore for Fiat it was logical that a car like the 130 would be rear wheel drive with a very advanced rear suspension design that found its way in modified form into the Fiat Dino Mk2s as well as Abarth Spider and 131 Rally Abarth sports vehicles. That left the 131/132 as the only cars where fwd would have been a possible solution. Fiat hoped to get the more adventurous customers with the Lancia beta and the more conservative customers with the 131/132. As the beta never sold in the numbers originally planned they at least made some money from the rwd cars.

    3. Not that I’m averse to a little Fiat-bashing from time to time, I think it might be a little unfair to suggest they didn’t have a product plan. More that the one they had was subject to delay and in places, outright revision in light of a vastly altered reality post-1973.

      It appears that the intention had been to produce more upmarket models to shift Fiat’s dependence away from the lower end of the market where profitability was more challenging. That was one of the casualties of Yom Kippur, but was partially readdressed by the late ’70s when matters improved slightly. Another factor was Fiat’s utter failure in the United States where insufficient on-site proving, substandard componentry, poor rust protection and shoddy build saw them retreat ignominiously. Because of these factors, I cannot envisage a sizeable shift from the orthodoxy in terms of engine capacities – Italy’s taxation regime was particularly stringent when it came to larger capacity engines.

      This probably explains why the Ritmo wasn’t offered with anything larger than the 1.5 SOHC unit (which may have been at its expansion limit anyway). There simply wouldn’t have been the demand for them. (Performance models notwithstanding…)

    4. Prefer the look of the 2nd and 3rd Series Ritmo models, since the original’s styling perhaps unfairly looks like it belongs on a Fiat 126 particularly a Western-Bloc built production version of the Fiat 126p NP prototype. Speaking of the latter have heard Dante Giacosa originally planned for what became the Fiat 126 to feature an air-cooled 850cc Flat-Twin engine.

      Understand the 128 and X1/9 were designed around the 128 SOHC engine though the engine did later grow to 1.6 and even 1839cc as well as produced 1.3-1.4 turbos. Even so both models at minimum should have received 1600cc engines putting out 100 hp.

      As for the more potent Ritmos, was under the impression they were one of the most underrated hot hatches of all time especially the Abarth 130TC.

      Read a 3-litre V6 engine was considered for what became the Montecarlo prior to the fuel crisis as well as the Gamma Flat-4 engine, though Lancia missed a trick in not having the Beta / Montecarlo feature 4WD variants to further differentiate Lancia from Fiat along with 2-litre turbocharged variants.

      Thought the FWD limited was 150 hp instead of 100-120 hp? In any case there were the likes of the Citroen SM and Maserati Quattroporte II that featured more powerful engines above the assumed FWD limit and either successfully tested or planned to feature more potent V8s. Also as Fiat were becoming one of the FWD pioneers, they could have easily produced a FWD Fiat 130 or even a FWD Lancia Flaminia replacement from an enlarged Lancia Gamma platform (or some version of the Maserati Quattroporte II with conventional suspension).

      While the Beta/Trevi were not huge sellers, both suggest there would have been little issue with FWD 131/132 models.

      Heard Fiat looked at a V8, 120-degree V6 for the 130 as well as a modified Dino V6 (though little is mentioned of what the capacity was and whether it was above 2400cc) prior to the eventual 130 V6 (that still looked to the Dino V6 in some respects), which was said to have a potential maximum displacement of around 3800cc.

      Apart from the Fiat 130, what did Fiat’s upmarket strategy entail?

      In retrospect given Fiat’s ambitions they would have probably been better off acquiring Maserati instead of De Tomaso.

    5. Bob: I’m unclear as to whether you were a reader back then, but we did cover a good deal of this during the Gamma series from 2015. It’s in the archive should you wish to delve further.

  3. This car is anothet test of for Folkmann’s schema (see the previous article). It has strong concept (manufacturing-driven functionalism) and a clear æsthetic principle. It must be further right towards functionalism and higher up the concept axis. Here functionalism becomes beautiful and appealing.
    I don’t think the Folkmann matrix is usable as a guide to beauty – it’s not meant to be.
    The many-facetted concept of functionalism is vexed because beauty and finctionalism aren’t opposed.

  4. Arguably the most delightful aspect of the Ritmo’s design was/is its dashboard, which is simply sublime – a piece of cutting-edge product design, at a time when the competition mostly just stuck buttons and levers onto a plastic plank.

    1. But it is. One needs to look attentively though.

      The hearing aide brown in the article’s photo doesn’t help, admittedly.

    2. The car in the article is a basic spec version with painted metal visible on the doors and very simple door trim. The car in the detail photos is a higher spec with fully trimmed doors and no paint on open display in the interior. The pseudo push button switchgear and the higher spec door trim are just as individual as the wheels and the nose.

  5. Good morning Richard and Kris. Regarding the dashboard, I think that the one in the piece is a lower spec version without a rev counter, but otherwise similar.

    The Ritmo was a nice piece of functional industrial design before they destroyed its integrity with the execrable facelift. The lower spec faceflifted version with the single round headlamps and huge black plastic grille and bumper was particularly grotesque. For me, the worst aspect was the front indicators fashioned to fit the existing cutouts in the front wings that accommodated the original front bumper, saving Fiat the cost of retooling for new front wings. These bore no relation whatsoever to the new grille and headlamp arrangement:

    Incidentally, do you remember the original, “Designed by Computers, Built by Robots” TV advert for the Ritmo, which was brilliantly parodied:

    1. I don’t suppose you ever read the NTNOCN “calenders”?
      The Tipo came next, also very industrial-design though quieter in going about it. I don’t recall Fiat managing to spoil that with a facelift.

  6. Here’s the original, in case anyone has forgotten or is too young to remember:

  7. Although the Ritmo enjoyed a lengthy lifespan and sired the incomparable Seat Ronda, its 128 forebear was immensely more long-lived, and popular. In Europe, it remained on Fiat’s price lists alongside its putative replacement (albeit in lower capacity form) and was only phased out in 1985 – a point in time when the Ritmo had only three years of life left. Built under licence in Eastern Europe and Argentina, it lived longer still.

    Was the 128 more intrinsically ‘right’, the usual Fiat-standard provisos notwithstanding? While dated looking in silhouette, it maintained its appeal, while the Ritmo did not.

    Perhaps the Ritmo was Fiat’s Sierra. They have quite a lot in common, I believe.

    1. As I recall from road tests of the Ritmo when first introduced, there was some disappointment that it was rather softly sprung, and seemed more French than Italian in its driving characteristics. The 128 was fun to drive in a “point and squirt” manner. Its rather staid styling undersold its sporty nature. Like most Fiats, it became progressively uglier as it was faceflifted. Particularly egregious to my eyes was a truly nasty plastic capping added to the base of the C-pillar of the four-door model that served no practical purpose:

  8. Yes, but assuming that seam was always there and didn’t look offensive, why the need to “garnish” it? Perhaps this was just a cheaper way of finishing it than before?

    1. The alternative was a polished weld: more time consuming. Or a bigger pressing which would cost more. Volvo, Jaguar, Mercedes and Opel used a similar trick as Fiat did here at various times.

    2. Hiding such a seam means to use body solder to fill the gap. At some time Italian unions made workers go on strike because of the noxious fumes from the solder used in the factories.
      That was when the Alfasud got its fabric sticker (later replaced by a plastic strip) on the seam between C post and roof.
      And of course a strip of black plastic is cheaper than soldering done by hand.

  9. If you like all things Fiat, it’s worth looking at Centro Storico Fiat on YouTube. They feature old manufacturer-produced films, adverts, etc.

  10. Five years after Europe were introduced to the Ritmo/Strada, the lucky Argentinians got the Fiat SuperEuropa, produced from 1983-90:

    It doesn’t so much comply with the Fiat Charter (facelift clauses), but the Latin American rules for combing the hair of automotive corpses.

    It’s said that the El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company in Egypt were still building 128s from Zastava-supplied CKD kits in the early years of this decade.

    On engine matters, I knew there was a 1.6 litre version of the Lampredi SOHC engine, which was used in the Tipo and Tempra, but it turns out that there were two differently dimensioned 1.6s and a 1839cc version for Fiat do Brasil. Some of the ‘SOHC’ engine family got a 16 valve DOHC head. The Tofas 131 used the 128 engine adapted for RWD, and the Brazilian versions of the 16V units were known as the “Torque” engine – not to be confused with the later E.torQ which is a reworked BMW / Chrysler MINI (Tritec) engine.

    All here in Liepedia, I can’t vouch for its veracity.


  11. I posted quite a lengthy comment yesterday, but WordPress swallowed it, perhaps because it was a bit rambling. Anyway, all I’ll say is that I learned from Wikipedia that the series one Ritmo roof swept upwards at the rear (clearly visible in the profile picture in the article). They changed it for the series two because apparently it caused dust and water to accumulate over the rear window. Sounds like an expensive sheet metal change.

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