Vittorio Ghidella presided over one of Fiat Auto’s rare periods of growth and prosperity. The 1988 Tipo exemplified his pragmatic approach, but all gains would become subject to the Fiat Charter.

Don’t worry, it’s galvanised! 1988 Tipo perilously close to water. Image credit: stubs.centreblog

Boom and bust appears to have been as essential a part of the Fiat charter as ill-judged facelifts. Periods of prosperity punctuated by blind panic when the balance sheet nosedived. In 1979, Gianni Agnelli appointed former engineer, Vittorio Ghidella to head the Fiat Auto division. The Turin carmaker was in desperate straits, emerging from the 1970s battered from the legacies of the ’73 fuel crisis and from labour disputes which threatened the future of the business.

Within a decade, the picture would be vastly different. Fiat Auto was profitable, nudging VW to become Europe’s largest carmaker by volume, bouyed by the huge success of the B-segment Uno, the sales resurgence of Lancia and the 1988 introduction of the Tipo, arguably the most significant model programme in Fiat’s history and perhaps its most far-seeing.

The Tipo was Fiat getting deadly serious about the car business. Ghidella understood that the key to sustainable prosperity was product which customers wanted to buy, not simply in Italy, but Internationally.

Having established the default front wheel drive layout, Turin elected to leave innovation for others to pursue, so the 1978 Ritmo had been as technically conservative as its Autobianchi predecessor was groundbreaking. Because after all, Fiat engineers were at heart, pragmatists.

The Ritmo had arrived too late for Fiat. Volkswagen had planted their flag in the sand with the Golf, although it was only with the introduction of the second generation model that it became codified both within VW and the buying public’s mindset. The Type 160 would benefit from lessons learned both from the disappointing performance of the Ritmo programme and the phenomenal success of the Uno.

From a technical perspective then, the Tipo was entirely conventional: Struts and lower wishbones up front and trailing arms at the rear. Unusually however both suspension units were subframe mounted to the bodyshell for refinement and solidity. Further innovations came with all body panels (apart from the plastic tailgate) being galvanised to excise the rust-bucket reputation which dogged the carmaker.

While its predecessor was stylistically very much a child of the early ’70s, the Tipo was rooted in ’80s rationalism. So while it shared an essentially product design concept with the original Ritmo, the Tipo was executed with a straighter, less playful demeanour.

Clearly unimpressed with centro stile’s output, Ghidella, having employed ItalDesign to clothe the Uno bodyshell, assigned the bulk of the Tipo-Due programme to the newly formed IDEA Institute, lead by former Zagato (and part-time BMW) designer, Ercole Spada. IDEA’s design was tall, glassy, aerodynamic (0.31cd) and visually striking. But while it was every inch the rationalist, there was a distinctly Italian flair to its aesthetics. Shaped to harmonise with the Uno model, it was if not quite a homage, then a respectful nod to Giugiaro.

Image credit: classic and Performance car

The primary ethos behind the Tipo was refinement, space efficiency and dependability – a Fiat which spoke two languages, the second of which being German. Mind you, according to contemporary reports, it would appear that neither language was entirely fluent.

But the Tipo’s most significant innovation was unseen – the Type Two platform being something of a (European industry) pathfinder for today’s industry norm. Designed with lessons learned from the earlier Type Four programme, it was schemed from the outset to underpin multiple vehicles within the C-segment as well as the class above.

Becoming one of the most fecund platforms of its era, Tipo-Due formed the basis for Fiat’s Tempra, Coupé and Multipa, Lancia’s Nuova Delta and Dedra , Alfa’s 145 /146 twins, 155 saloon and GTV / Spider, not to mention the Zastava / Yugo Sana / Florida.

Later, a highly evolved version of the platform was believed to have be employed for the Alfa 156 and Lancia Lybra. In many ways, Type Two became the prototype for today’s modular architectures like VW’s MBQ and is testament to what Turin could achieve when they put their minds, their money and their shoulder to the wheel.

One of the few models not to be ruined by a Fiat charter facelift, the Tipo lived out with minimal visual changes until 1995, when it was replaced by the more visually flamboyant Bravo / Brava twins. By then of course, Ghidella was gone, ousted by Cesere Romiti’s 1988 power grab, politics after all being yet another essential component of the car maker’s charter. His replacement was Paolo Canterella, lionised by the motor press as a ‘car guy’ par excellence, but one whose subsequent legacy is to put it mildly, questionable.

Image credit: auto-forever

Having emerged from the 1970s by the skin of their teeth, Fiat entered the 1990s on course for stability, profitability and future security. It’s believed that even a putative tie up with Ford was rejected owning to Turin failing to accept a subservient role. By the Millennium however, the needle had dropped once more and panic mode was restored.

The Tipo stands today both as a testament to Ghidella’s leadership and sound judgement, and as a rebuke to those who followed him for their failure to capitalise on the gains he masterminded. But most of all, as another pivotal chapter charting Fiat’s decline and fall.

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “Eurochild”

  1. Hard to believe now but the Tipo in top trim-level and painted in White was considered classy in my neck of the wood back then. It played the role Audi’s A3 and Mercedes’s A-class play now. A weird aspect of the car is that I remember it being prone to have black petrol marks around its filler cap, a bit like a child with chocolate around his mouth. I’m not sure if the location of the filler cap was the issue but it was most obvious in white and light colours.

  2. The sad fact is that the Tipo quite frankly wasn’t a good car and most of its descendants inherited its major faults.
    The Tipo was too large and too heavy for its old engines, the chassis dynamics were underwhelming and crash safety was disastrous.
    It took Fiat far too long to bring out the Sedicivalvole, they never fixed the chassis deficits and a widely publicised crash test showing the crumple zone to be between A and B posts resulting in a completely collapsed passenger cell did for the rest.
    The facelifted cars were fifty to sixty kilos heavier in search for better crash resistance but the improvements were marginal.
    Alfa’s 145/146 and 155 inherited the inept chassis, only the 156 finally got proper driving dynamics but they all still had the crashworthiness of wet toilet paper.

    1. All the Southern European brands were considered less safe than their Northern counterparts, up until Renault started their five star NCAP offensive, which did a lot to alter people’s perception that any French car is inherently less than robust.

      Fiat didn’t follow suit though. I remember that even the 147’s crash performance was very poor by the standards of the time, which contributed to Alfa’s 90s renaissance running out of steam by the early noughties. I guess the management board was too busy elsewhere by then, as there didn’t appear to be any reaction from Fiat’s side (up until the 159).

      So the safety offensive was yet another industry trend Turin had almost completely missed.

    2. The Alfa 156 and 147 had dismal crash safety because they still used the front half of the Tipo platform.
      Their front footwell, lower A post and bulkhead are more or less inherited from the Tipo and these are the parts that define crash safety (this and the strange excessively high seating position were the last links with the Tipo).
      I don’t dare to imagine how a 147 GTA (or a 156 V6 or a Tipo 916 GTV/Spider V6 or an I5 engined Coupé Fiat) with an engine bay filled to the brim and no room for crumpling does in a head on shunt with anything more solid than a pillow.

      Look at modern cars’ A posts. Thick as a tree and made from high tensile steel they are very troublesome when rescue workers try to get at passengers in a bent vehicle. Conventional scissor-type hydraulic cutting equipment often is no longer able to cut through modern cars’ A and B posts so they have to use angle grinders or special tools that can cope with the material strength here.
      Imagine you have to get someone out of a car after an accident and the vehicle is full of explosives because there’s an airbag in every visible trim item, there are high voltage cables because it is a hybrid or electro vehicle and you have to use angle grinders or other “sparkling” equipment because the thing is made from something like unobtainium. Cheers to the rescue workers!

  3. Unfortunately, Dave is right. Fiat’s engineering somehow missed out the crashworthy design revolution in the 80’s. Another example of this was the Type 4, the Saab 9000 having a heavily reinforced structure in comparison to the Thema and the Croma. When the public became aware of this, thanks to the Crash Test series done by Auto Motor und Sport in 1990 iirc, where the Croma had the worst crash performance, the loss of reputation was unavoidable

    1. While this doesn’t particularly reflect well on Fiat Auto, it comes as little surprise. It wasn’t until safety became something of a cause célèbre in the aftermath of these tests that the motor press pursued such matters. Interestingly, I don’t recall the UK press showing the slightest interest in crashworthiness until Euro-NCAP got going. What I’d be interested to know is how well Fiat’s immediate 1980s Euro-rivals fared, because I find it difficult to imagine anything made by PSA (for instance) during this era being much better. They certainly felt flimsy and frangible.

      I would imagine at the time, only the carmakers selling into the US market took crashworthiness seriously until they were shamed or mandated into doing so. Of course the likes of Volvo and Mercedes-Benz always did.

    2. In the Eightes Mercedes still had teams of travelling engineers and accident investigators that visited every single site of an accident in Germany where a Mercedes driver had been injured by contact with interior fitments of his car. These investigations led to innumerable minor changes in Mercedes interiors.
      At the same time, even BMW designed the E30 with front crumple zones between suspension mountings and A posts, resulting in even minor accidents needing expensive replacement of chassis rails and accordingly high insurance ratings. This was changed quickly and crumple zones moved where they should have been in the first place.

      The Golf Mk3 basically was no more than a heavily (quite literally) reinforced makeover of the Mk2 with greatly improved crash worthiness. The contemporary Astra F still was fully collapsible.
      During the Citroen BX’s lifetime you could see cars in every dealer’s backyard that had taken some slow speed blow with minimal overlap. Hitting a rear light at say 10 mph resulted in distortion of the complete body structure with a crease running from the B post on the side of the hit to the A post at the opposite side and the A post pushed up and distorted. You could tell the grade of distortion by the way the GRP tailgate sat on top of the completely bent hatchback opening.
      A problem with most cars of the time can be seen in the video above. The front wheel is moving at or even under the lower portion of the A post, intruding in the affected footwell and clamping the poor person’s feet. Getting the front footwell, bulkhead and lower A post right is the most expensive part of developing a new mechanical platform and the demands (particular of crash safety) result in the geometrical relation of pedal box, steering column mounting and upper suspension mountings being in a fixed geometrical relation. VW’s MQB is the first and up to now only platform with variable longitudinal relation between front suspension mountings and A post and vertical flexibility between pedals and steering column mounting.

  4. A video of the original AMS crash test (plus a later test of the then new Audi 100)

    1. Sweet mother!

      The fact that we take decent crash performance for granted these days speaks volumes about where the industry has arguable made the greatest progress. The Croma footage is truly shocking.

      Moreover, this illustrates why ‘German Premium’ and Swedish steel were worth the additional outlay, back then. These cars simply were engineered to a different standard than the industry norm.

    2. I remember the first such crash test performed by German magazine “auto motor und sport” with participants like 2CV, Renault 4, Alfa Giulia, VW Beetle and such in around 1972.
      The 2CV did astonishingly well because its low weight greatly reduced the stress on the body structure (that’s why an Elise is an inherently very safe car as long as you are alone and hitting an obstacle. Low weight and a stiff extruded frame structure with no mechanical parts occupying the crumple zone make it perform very well in crashes against barriers. It’s a bit different in a head-on with a Q7…). The Giulia did particularly well because the crash test dummy’s head came far forward but thanks to the deeply dished steering wheel it didn’t make any contact with rigid objects (the wheel’s metal spokes were only fractions of an inch away).

      With time, even Fiat got it right as the Punto Mk1 was a car performing exceptionally well in crash tests.
      That’s until you see that today’s Polo is offering better crash test safety than a W126.

  5. Interesting to see the W124 in that video. According to Wikipedia:

    “Some main innovations of the W124 series were related to occupant safety. Derived from the Mercedes 190 (W201), with which the W124 shares the basic layout, its likewise angular body was designed to withstand an offset-crash in a concrete barrier at some 35mph (56km/h) without serious harm to the occupants and a largely undamaged passenger cabin, a windshield that stays in place and doors easily opened without special recovery tools. This crash-test configuration became the base for the Euro-NCAP procedure currently being the standard crash-test configuration in the EU. Unlike Euro-NCAP, Mercedes required the body of the W124 to withstand an offset impact from the front and from the rear.”

    1. Mercedes took crash safety at a time when nearl no one else cared about it. Bela Barenyi was a driving force in this with great support form Messrs Nallinger and Uhlenhaut.
      Their unique and expensive “cone pin” door locks made it impossible for a door to unintentionally open in an accident and their pull-out door handles indtroduced with R107/W116 that are now common industry standard made it possible to exert serious force on a door to open it.
      Look at the interior paddings on door window frames of very early W116s and not just so early ones to see a prominent result of the works of the investigation teams mentined above.
      Mercedes had myriads of patents for safety equipment but never asked for royalties from other manufacturers because they wanted to establish these safety measures.

  6. With due respect to the importance of safety (either passive or active), looking on an historical perspective I fear saying that today safety lead to bulky trendy anouymous SUVs. And that is a motoring and environmental pitty. Safer and more powerful cars are seriously affecting the agressiveness behaviour of drivers. All what we can say may be true, or half true, but considering a car as a loving machine, I wouldn’t mind to keep using a Renault 5, unless I would need a larger car for practical reasons. Or just keeping using, as I do daily, a very unsafe 86hp motorbike.

    One thing that DTW has shown, along many other things, is the ability to like and enjoy cars as a result a technical and designed man made machine, out of the stigma fabricated “ad populum”. The understanding behind the concepts, designs, technical developments, sales, rides, restoring projects, mod projects are a whole thing tied together. Focusing the impact and importance of Tipo Due to crashworthiness is a slim slice of the complete package we can enjoy. No, I do not have a Fiat Tipo. Yes, I would take one to may Noah’s Ark.

    1. To take it to the Ark, you’d first have to find one. I checked: Tipos for sale currently in Switzerland (source zero. Tipos seen in the last five years: zero (most probably, I don’t remember. Maybe one or two in my Italian Holidays…)

    2. Hi Luis: Indeed something has been lost on the way to making utterly safe cars. The present crop is very anaesthetic. In some cases that refinement is appropriate (who wants a lot of noise). On the other, the sensory inputs that make you feel like the car is an extension of the body are really really muffled now. I won´t ever forget the thrill of chucking a Peugeot 205 around on small country roads, for example. Even my much larger XM feels pretty agile. I believe it is possible to make a safe and sensually satisfying car – manufacturers and customers are not that interested though. The brief period where this was the norm was a happy acccident.

  7. All of the above is quite correct of course. I have an old copy of an AMS article from 1991 I believe, in which the Tipo is crash tested against mk2 golf, Mk3 escort, gm astra, corrolla etc. All fared really badly. The main surprise was that the Tipo was such a new design but was no safer in body structure than the oldest test car.

    Fiat fell foul of crash worthiness awareness mainly because they designed the Tipo platform in the 1980s before crash worthiness was really the mind of the public or press. This was exacerbated when they had so many fiat/lancia/alfa models being launched on a platform which was not upto what was later considered essential safety standards. If they could have predicted the future push for stronger cars, they would have designed a suitable platform.

    Remember also the Tipo was considered to be a heavy and substantial car when launched in 1988, compared to rivals.

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