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.
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.
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.
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.