The FIAT Uno was one of the biggest selling and most significant cars of the 1980s. Then, it was such a common sight that one barely took note. Now, it’s invisible just because so few remain. Out of sight, out of mind; does anyone care anymore about the Uno?
The 80’s was the decade when my interest in all things automobile really took hold. In 1983, I remember deciding to indulge my hard-earned ‘pocket money’ once a month on Car Magazine. Believe it or not, that first purchase was inspired by the launch of the Austin Maestro and all the hype which surrounded it. Having quickly got hooked on what was then a rather learned publication, one of the first new model launches I remember being featured was the FIAT Uno.
Launched into a supermini class where the too-big-for-its-chassis mini-Metro was still considered new and fresh, the Uno made everything look as mid-seventies as Keynesian economics and glam rock. Tall and functional, and yet chic, with elegantly simple detailing, the Uno was the supermini for the era of monetarism and new romantics. It influenced the shape of superminis to come but has, ultimately, been overshadowed in our memories by its great rival of the time, the Peugeot 205.
In January 1983, FIAT’s Type 146 was launched as the Uno to replace that early supermini trail-blazer, the 127. The latter had been serially besmirched by layers of increasingly clunky facelift, and, although still a spirited drive, like that other ground-breaker in this class, the Renault 5, had fallen well behind the class best (in its case, in the areas of packaging, ride, and interior comfort). The Uno swept-in and all before it … for all of a month, when 205 made its official appearance.
I will admit that, in my youth, I wasn’t that keen on the looks of the 205, which is a funny thing to say these days. My eyes were overly distracted by what I saw as proportionately tiny rear lamps and that ugly ribbed plastic panel which stretched between them. That strange fabric-like plastic finish of the dashboard also weirded me out. Certainly, next to the innovatively tall, Italdesign inspired Uno, I thought the 205 mostly pretty, but a bit démodée.
It’s well documented that the packaging of the Uno was influenced by Giugiaro’s Lancia Megagamma concept. Occupants sat high up in that tall body to increase both physical space and the sense of it, helped by deep side windows. The dashboard was interesting to behold (with secondary controls and switches clustered ‘Citroën-esque’, either side of the steering wheel) and practical too, with a deep dashtop shelf and moveable/ detachable ashtray. The instrument display had a very comprehensive set of dials and a smorgasbord of warning lights. The driving position was less typically Italian, but not entirely natural either.
Looking at photos of the interior, one is reminded by how uncluttered they were in those days. Today’s centre consoles, which extend down from the dashboard and between the front seats, were often pleasantly absent – only the i3 sticks out in this mind as a current design providing the same airy sense of freedom and space to move.
At launch, engines were carry-overs from the 127, and some could also be found in the Panda and Y10, with 903cc, 1,116cc and 1,301cc capacities. These were willing and reasonably efficient units, the latter pair being SOHC. The OHV 903cc unit was replaced by the 999cc SOHC FIRE in 1985. Four and five speed gearboxes were available, and, later in the Uno’s life, there was the then innovative Selecta with its CVT transmission. The manuals were known for their rather rubbery and imprecise action, but things improved later in the model’s life.
Suspension was simple with struts at the front and a twist beam at the back, with coil-springs all round. Whether it was the added height of the body, or just less time spent tuning the settings, but this was the aspect of the Uno which lagged most behind its arch-rival, the 205. The ride was less refined, the handling a little edgier and the steering more influenced by the effects of torque, especially when it came to the hottest version of the Uno, the Turbo i.e.
That car’s punchy power and torque delivery tended to overwhelm the front-end, and, together with the rubbery and imprecise gearchange-action, meant that it was consistently ranked a more distant second to the 205 GTi as a driver’s car.
In my mind, the reason why the 205 is still so consistently vaunted, even described in one publishing quarter as the car of that decade, is down to the lingering, rose-tinted reputation of the GTi. It stuck in the imagination, physical injury threatening oversteer and all, whereas the unruly but ultimately less dangerous Turbo i.e. has dwelt less in the consciousness of most. That three-door 205 body was also a bit special, and looked great with the wheel-arch and sill extensions and distinctive alloys: the three door Uno looked less bespoke, although it tried (too hard?) to make up for it with its side decals.
As you can tell from what I have written so far, to me the Uno’s battle with the 205 for class supremacy (throughout its initial iteration, at least) became one of the things that defined it. This seminal ding-dong was perfectly teed-up by the Uno narrowly pipping the Peugeot to become European Car of the Year in December 1983. If my memory serves me (and it may not), the win was – not entirely fairly – attributed to a UK jury member, one LJK Setright, allocating all his votes to the FIAT and none to the Peugeot. In his regular column for Car, I recall he described the gearchange of the 205 as something of a dog, which he could not bring himself to forgive; hence, nul points.
Overall, I think the Uno to be the more impactful and influential car – superminis for at least a couple of generations after subscribed to the same packaging-led profile. One could more tenuously argue that its tall-boy formula also laid the ground for the emergence of the compact MPV.
The featured version of the Uno was succeeded in 1989 by a Tipo-inspired heavy facelift. I thought this looked shrewdly executed at the time, but now I just find it rather clumsy. This series-two car was built in Italy up until 1995, but the Uno lived on until 2013, with final versions being built in Brazil. Wiki tells us that over 8.8 million were produced in its various guises, making it the eighth most produced car platform in history!
Somehow, I can’t see the new PSA-led Franco-Italian-American combine repeating such a success with a FIAT branded supermini. After all this time, it seems the 205 may have had the last laugh.