A Candle Stick Fell Into The River One Day

Seven fat years: from 1993 to 1997 Fiat sold the Coupé Fiat as nobody calls it.  As if that was not enough Fiat also sold the cheaper Barchetta, which had a good ten year year run. Glory days indeed.

For inspiring the possessed
1997 Coupé Fiat

We’ll discuss the Coupé today. If the body slashes down the side of the car get the most attention, and deservedly so, this view shows another form of design discipline in operation.  The whole lot seems to be defined by very few lines: the outline, the dark trapezoids of the of lamps, grille aperture and the front screen and not much else.

How I wish I could say the same about some more recent designs. It is such an economical shape. The bonnet in particular deserves attention: the grille is a gap between the bonnet piece and bumper, the lamps are cut-outs as well. The edge of the bonnet is also the edge of the front wheel-arch and is where the bumper meets the body.

To deter rats and mice
1997 Coupé Fiat, rear lamps

While involving very few elements, all the elements on this design are working very hard. The shape is credited to a guy called Christopher Bangle who I presume went to on to other good things somewhere else in the car industry. This design certainly shows incredible promise: the wit and intelligence shining from every (B)angle.

At the rear, there are two pairs of recessed lamps which is supposedly a retro-touch and isn’t. Rather than being retro it is cleverly economical. A form as a pure as a circle can’t be said to be dated, can it? Geometry is timeless. Excuse me if I wax lyrical about the near-symmetry of the rear-screen outline and the boot-lid aperture. The glass house perches on broad haunches and the panel the lamps are placed on is as beautiful as a simple double-curved panel can be. The clay modelling is not interesting – the effect of all that empty metal is however thrilling.

It’s often said the side view of the car’s a bit odd: long overhangs and those love-them/hate-them slashes. I’d argue the proportions were interesting. They work an awful lot better than the too-tall Kappa coupé (1997-2000). Luckily I have no photos of the car from the side anyway.

The Coupé Fiat didn’t just look good. It did very well in tests and comparisons. Car magazine rated it better than the Honda Prelude and Nissan 200 SX (if memory serves). The throaty petrol turbo five performed well but showed dipsomaniac tendencies. Luckily mainland Europe markets got a 1.8 petrol four.

Sales of the car were about what you’d expect of a pricey two-door with striking looks: dire. The peak year was 1995 with 17,619 and declined sharply to an average of 12,000 units for the next three year and then it faded away. In all, they sold around 72,000 units in 7 years.

Despite the rarity and stylish looks, a good one is not that expensive still. It’s rather cruel that the ingenuity shown in this car didn’t lead to more success. I think a lot of designers looked at and felt they couldn’t do more than approve its daring. It was one of those cars that made a big impression but offered no formal solutions that could be used elsewhere.

That’s not to damn the car: a car design is there to serve its own ends and not to provide handy ideas for those who come after. Do you wonder if the fizz and sizzle of this car awoke Ford from its slumbers, to make it able to present the Focus in 1998?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

26 thoughts on “A Candle Stick Fell Into The River One Day”

  1. The double bubble headlight covers were meant to look like a bum and they were supposed to be cleaned ‘con amore’.

  2. Please allow me to complete the picture by posting a side profile shot:

    It’s a wonderfully confident and simple design. I really like that the upward slope of the rear side window (and the softer crease below that runs into the door) runs parallel to the wheel arch slashes. It’s a shame that its stance is somewhat compromised by the FWD architecture, with a long front overhang and rearward positioning of the front wheels, but that’s not Bangle’s fault. If I had to be hyper-critical. I would complain that the circular rear lights are surrounded by separate bezels, rather than being inset directly into the panel. (I realise that, practically, they would probably have to be flush rather than recessed to achieve this.)

    1. That’s a very lovely photo, with a car in ‘Broom Yellow’ as it was labelled in the UK. My Cinq Sporting was the same colour and it’s still the nicest yellow I have seen on a car – bold and non-metallic. Nice to see Richard use it’s proper name; it amazes me how even enthusiast magazines still get it wrong.

      My favourite element is the rear view, with those lamps and the beautiful fuel cap. The interior was nice too, with the painted trim across the dash. FIAT was on a roll at this time, producing interesting, innovative and handsome cars. They probably make more money now (as FCA), but their creative bank account is pretty much in overdraft.

    2. In Italy the colour was called ‘giallo ginestre’ which just means broom yellow.

      With Punto Mk1, barchetta and Coupé Fiat was indeed on a roll. They also financed the Alfa 916 which made the model range pretty adventurous.
      What has gone so terribly wrong for them? Was it only the Stilo desaster?

    3. Not named after a domestic implement, but the Genisteae or Broom shrub, I would imagine, which has a vivid yellow flower:

  3. The front overhang is especially evident in this ftont three-quarter view:

  4. Autotrader has six for sale from £3k to £20,000. One would have to be a serious fan methinks. But one would have a unique and super looking coupe. And yellow is the best colour but the expensive blue one is somewhat tasty…

  5. A very nice car and one I’d like to have. Yes, I’m generally not a big fan of yellow cars, but here it’s probably the best colour. It will also highlight these wonderful body coloured panels in the interior.
    As always, I like very much the forward-leaning stance of the car with long front and short rear overhang. It just adds more tension to the design than plain, conservative RWD proportions.

    1. I have a recollection that the Fiat Coupé Fiat (apparently!) needs regular cam belt changes at about £500 a time. Definitely worth checking that it’s been done on any car one is considering.

    2. Fiats from this era need cambelts every 50,000 to 80,000 kms depending on the engine type. On the five cylinder engines it’s an engine out job which is offered by independent specialists for 1,500 € as a bargain.

      The Coupé Fiat is much better made and a much more practical proposition for everyday life than the closely related Alfa GTV (916). You get useful rear seats and the boot is much bigger with one half of the rear seat being foldable. You can get in and out of the car without being Houdini and you actually see something through the side windows. The turbo 20V also is seriously fast at around 250 kph. The only thing you don’t get are the Alfa’s fabulous engines and its incredible road manners. To my eyes the Alfa also wins hands down style-wise.
      The biggest problem for the Coupé (and barchetta and Alfa as well) is that there are nearly no more spare parts available through official channels. At Fiat dealers you get brake pads and screenwipers and not much more. For some engines not even cambelt tensioners are available anymore and in case of an accident most body panels have to be fabricated, rendering the car an economical write-off very quickly.

  6. I loved this when it came out and still do, now. It was one of the first vehicles to reintroduce body colour as a feature in the cabin, as I recall.

    Here’s a short couple of pages showing some prototypes and Chris Bangle’s thoughts. I didn’t realise its existence was helped by the failure of a Cadillac. The wheel arches were inspired by Marcello Gandini, apparently


    On a related note, I see that FCA are teaming up with Renault…

    1. Wonderful link. The finished product was such an amalgam of ideas and aero requirement that one cannot stand back and say: there are the bold original strokes of an automotive design genius. More like accumulated nips and tucks as everyone got their say-so in on the project, forcing change. At least they caused the rear wing to be ditched. This process is much more how I experienced work at a large company.

      It’s no criticism to say DTW is like a collection of food critics commenting on the plate delivered to the table. However, one cannot necessarily deduce things from the final result as to how the food was ACTUALLY prepared, because nine times out of ten you’re going to get it wrong, unless it was a boiled egg.

      When it came out originally, the car looked strange to me. Nowadays, with several decades of designed on gargoyles, excresences, giant grilles, fake air intakes and rubber band tyres signifying nothing useful whatsoever in car design, leading to the blob crossover as vehicle of choice as everyone throws up their hands in frustration, this Fiat looks extremely pleasant indeed, if a bit stubby overall.

    2. Bill: you are quite correct to point out the significance of the various links that led to the final Coupé design. I still think that these influences are usually funelled through one or two “editors” and structured by some key themes. In the case of cars from Ford and Opel the role of a single mind is probably reduced markedly, due to the nature of the corporations. And still they produce predominantly professional and succesful work. The Coupé Fiat seems to me to be more directly attributable to a few personalities, appropriate given its price and niche role in the world.

    3. Eóin ends the piece with a thought about Focus Mk1. It seems that for a brief time Claude Lobo (working under Jack Telnack) was able to exert tremendous influence over the Mk1 designs of Ka and Focus. I think the parallel to the Coupé Fiat is that of a strong personality or two in design ascending to a position of being trusted such that the resulting product(s) is design driven.

      Looking at the big picture I think we can see it happening with less frequency of late, so the Focus stands as a landmark of sorts, perhaps the last memorable design driven mass market car. Or do we think it could be E60? or how about the Nissan Juke? (I personally would prefer to ignore it, but can’t look away). How about the current Lexus LC, a labour of love spearheaded by Akio Toyoda? Arguably that is not a mass market car. The new Supra perhaps?

    4. I don´t think Eoin ended this article with a thought about the Ford Focus, but I get your point.
      And who was behind the E60?
      The Lexus LC does not display enough eccentricity to be a candidate. It´s still a striking car. Most of Infiniti´s recent output is at least as unusually strongly flavoured. Maybe you think I am mad but there´s not a lot of the committee about the Volvo S90, is there?

  7. I haven’t seen the new S90 in the metal yet, but I find the “Hoffmeister kink-like” element quite contrived as if it were one of several choices presented… So many commenters however have praised it that I am ready to have my mind changed. (Speaking of Volvo, add the C30 to my list).

    1. The C30 is duly added. Nice one, that.
      The Hofmeister kink depends on a certain angle to the shoulder line and also that it meets a line much longer than itself. The S90 DLO ends in two shorter sections which to my eyes don´t look like a kink but a sharp point.

    2. I’d also have said that the Volvo is quite remote from Hofmeister, but with the double kinks BMW produces nowadays, this can be debated. For me the third window on the S90 looks like a triangle formed by the downward slope of the prolonged roofline and an upward portion of the belt line, which is then truncated at the rear. That’s working quite differently than an (original) Hofmeister kink.

  8. I loved how this car looked right from launch except for those where. They were far too small. It really detracts from the side profile. Bangle was guilty of this again especially so with the E90 saloon. I still see a couple and every time my eyes are drawn to those tiny wheels.

    1. These wheels are more than big enough. I don’t get this nonsense with ever bigger wheels (and lower profile tyres). They eat interior space, add unsprung weight and increase tyre cost. For a smallish car like this one, 15 or 16 inches are sufficient, even if it’s supposed to be on the sporty side.

      Of course, today’s obese vehicles tend to look ridiculous with reasonable wheel sizes, but fortunately in the late nineties the shapes were still a lot slimmer.

    1. Wow, thanks for showing this. I think I’ve never seen it before. It’s a nice interpretation of a tiny coupé shape, although in my opinion it lacks a bit of optical weight in the front part.

  9. Among the myriad of class acts that Bangle liberally sprinkled over this car, I find the following an especially touching one:
    the geometric outline/shape of the virtual rear light “clusters” (not the twin circular taillights themselves) is an implicit
    but direct hommage to the masterfully designed,
    two-dimensional 128 SL Coupe taillights.
    As a design solution, it is outstanding
    also because it relies purely on the
    trailing edge of the rear wings,
    making the entire rear wing
    follow the same profile as
    on the exotic 128 SL.

    Another important point about the Coupè Fiat: it’s one of the few designs out there that are tremendously, massively sensitive to ride-height : even a 10mm lowering
    renders it practically a totally different
    design, for the better.

    Actually, with the above in mind (and although it hardly applies to all Bangle’s designs), it’s somewhat tempting
    to take note that a very slight lowering noticably
    enhances also his extremely polarising E65
    7-series. I have seen one on OEM wheels
    with a very slight lowering, and that
    picture is still etched on my mind.

    Perhaps it could lead to an article about C.Bangle being a very peculiar designer also because of his visualizing the
    sketches in a very Supercar-like format right
    from the onset (no wheelarch slack etc.).
    From there, as we all know, the inevitable series
    production limitations palpably damage
    the original ideas.

    As for the de rigeur comparison w.the Alfa 916, the pair
    are two massively different aesthetic approaches.
    Of the two, the 916 has a much more exotic
    appeal to me, personally. Somehow, the 916 GTV is way
    more of a true Alfa, than the Coupè is a true Fiat.

    I recall John Barker once describing the two, to the tune
    of “…the Alfa is Sharon Stone in a silky dress.
    The Fiat is Madonna in a pointy bra”.

    He knows his paradigms.

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