Lest One Forgets

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?

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Uno 3 door – a FIAT publicity shot which is either deeply ironic or aimed at demonstrating new levels of rust-proofing (Source: WheelsAge.org)

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.

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Simple, tall and so very modern – a forgotten Italdesign masterpiece? (Source: Car Trade)

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.

fiat uno dash
Simple, uncluttered and practical dashboard – note the PRN-alike pods of switches grouped either side of the steering wheel (Source: Pinterest)

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.

uno 55s interior Pinterest
Exceptional sense of space – but note the lack of split-rear seat on this mid-range version (source: Pinterest)

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.

uno turbo ie - car and classic
Uno Turbo i.e. – loved by punctuation geeks but overlooked compared with the 205 GTi. (Source: Car and Classic)

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.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

29 thoughts on “Lest One Forgets”

  1. LJKS did indeed claim credit for the Uno winning COTY (or rather the 205 not winning). Peugeot were, to say the least, less than impressed.

    What is less well-known, at least until recently, is that the Uno originally started as a replacement for the A112. The 127 replacement was originally started in 1978 as project 143, and a new A112 as project 144 around the same time. The details (and some nifty photos) are here:

    The interior shot of 144 is what really speaks to me – that still looks amazingly good, even now, and was way ahead of the curve in 1980-odd, almost concept-car-like for the era?

    https://scontent-lga3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/67923859_869602190074785_3987029939151962112_n.jpg?_nc_cat=110&_nc_ohc=OE5DiJB4248AQnemfBN77ECDjX-RyvZDt1u1xa4ZGv7Fu_tp6qWzzUG5Q&_nc_ht=scontent-lga3-1.xx&oh=8f736400ab3ea87774fc4d17e608b695&oe=5EA3E238

    1. This is great material – it’s one of the things I love about this site, knowledgeable people who have researched some excellent other sites which are new to me. Thanks for the pointers.

    2. A pity Lancia had to make do with what became the Y10 as opposed to the Lambda that Fiat utilized to make the Uno, also cannot understand why Lancia could not make use of the Uno as opposed to the Panda when developing a replacement for the Autobianchi A112 (as was already the case with other models).

      That said, would not have minded a refreshed Autobianchi A112 over the exiting Y10 (believe the latter to be an inferior successor) though the styling proposal below is one of the better attempts.

      https://scontent-lht6-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/s960x960/74342983_931517897216547_3891947064094883840_o.jpg?_nc_cat=105&_nc_oc=AQl86iUnDbIlko6M90dgrWm3GZ0KklSGO4tMJLz5okJNMe3_whBo7Vxoix3zcV6gzos&_nc_ht=scontent-lht6-1.xx&oh=01710a1ad1d8cdc0e972be1b6fd4dd86&oe=5E66185F

      https://scontent-lhr3-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/81029766_976889482679388_8936081829044158464_n.jpg?_nc_cat=104&_nc_oc=AQkgMzuQONpz0L2dqxZk287aWW2mqQ8yw6yOTrkOriYtnOt3oVN7B00PKjzBwD0KdwQ&_nc_ht=scontent-lhr3-1.xx&oh=f97f9d9ca1538d6070863495602d85f3&oe=5EA0D460

      Also believe the facelifted Fiat Panda could have carried over more exterior looks of the original Fiat Uno, since the former IMHO looks too tall and tinny compared to the latter.

    3. A small point of order: the 903cc engine continued well beyond 1985. It was fitted to the entry-level MK2 cars in the early 1990s.

      Back in 2001, as a 17-year-old with a newly acquired driving licence, I was given my dad’s old Uno – a 1991 car, so a MK2, with that little 903cc 45hp engine.

      Propensity to corrode aside, what a brilliant little car that was. Not much power, of course, but the 903 unit always felt eager. The car’s minimal kerb weight helped, somewhere around the 750-800kg mark as I recall. Skinny 135-section tyres of some dubious brand ensured on-limit cornering was available without actually needing to carry much speed. And to top it off, the Uno was reliable too. In the 5 or 6 years that my dad and I owned it, the only mechanical issue it suffered was a worn CV joint, easily rectified by fitting a £20 driveshaft from the local scrapyard. The biggest problem was the rust; fortunately a friend owned a MIG welding set and I became fairly adept at patching up thin Italian sheet metal!

    1. Now that’s what I call a Giant Test! I so miss that level of testing and scrutiny – even the photo format where the same aspect of every car is lined up against each other; it’s iconic and thorough and just how such a test should be!

  2. Good morning, S.V. The original Uno was a lovely piece of rational industrial design. As is often the case, the design defied attempts to improve upon it. The facelift tried to force an inappropriately shallow front end on the tall silhouette and the result was to unbalance the formerly perfect proportions by visually elongating the bonnet.

  3. At the rear, an unnecessary chamfer was added to the upper inboard corner of the formerly square tail lights and the tailgate was reprofiled to give the lower part a (real or apparent) “concave” profile at odds with the gently convex body sides:

    All these changes, in my view, undermined the purity of the original design. Moreover, because the Uno remained in production in South America, it was subject to a further facelifts that introduced a staggeringly ugly clamshell bonnet, which totally ruined the integrity of the design:

    What an ignominious end for a great design!

    1. The clamshell was adopted for latin america since the first year of production, in 85 (I guess). This decision was led by the need to put the spare tire in the front, like it’s precedessor, the 147 (127 in other countries). Other significant difference against the european version was the rear suspension setup, which was swithced from trailing arms to MacPherson struts due to a longer wheel travel.

    2. In fairness, I should have mentioned that Fiat Brazil partly redeemed itself with this rather cheerful successor to the Uno in 2017:

      It took the “squircle” motif from the current Panda and enlarged it to Uno dimensions. The Nuevo Uno was briefly mooted for production in Europe, but nothing became of this, as it was probably too close to the Panda and style and size for comfort.

    3. Daniel, you mean they took the Panda motif and shrunk, not enlarged, it to Uno dimensions. (Panda has a 2,510 mm wheelbase, 4,065 mm length, 1,687 mm width; Uno has 2,376 mm wheelbase, 3,770 mm length, 1,636 mm width.) It’s the first I heard that Progetto 327 was considered for European production; surely it was too primitive in safety and dynamics? I would respectfully disagree that the Panda and Uno were too close in size—the second-generation Uno is tiny, meant only for regional consumption as Fiat’s entry-level car (till the Mobi was launched many years later, smaller even than the Uno).

  4. My first brand new car was a FIAT UNO 45S with the innovative FIRE engine, in white of course 🤣. The reg was C123 OHH. I also considered the Metro, but the UNO was streaks ahead and I was smitten buy the quirky dash that I thought was brilliant. Over the 2 years and 50,000 miles I owned it, I think I added every optional accessory I could. I test drove the Selecta auto when it was launched but being newly married and a child on the way, I couldn’t afford it. They are very rare now, think I’ve only seen 2 over recent years at classic car shows.

  5. The fastest I have ever travelled in a car was a brief spell at nearly 130 m.p.h. on the public road being driven in my friend’s Fiat Uno Turbo i.e.

    His grandma died and left him some money which he used to purchase the Uno, replacing the rather more pedestrian VW Polo 86C, which had been his wheels since passing his driving test at seventeen. He used to come round to peruse my five or six year collection of CAR magazines. He spent a small fortune on that Fiat, upgrading the suspension, having the engine blueprinted etc. It was a very quick motor and along with his abundant self-confidence helped him get all the girls.

  6. Anno 1995.
    My sister just got her University diploma and was in need of a cheap car. The options:
    The venerable FIAT UNO -allready a big seller and in abundance everywhere-
    VS
    the all new -at the time- SKODA Felicia, the first SKODA made under the VW group but in the entry version still powered by the old Favorit, Czech designed and made, engine-quite efficient but with the habbit of blowing the head gasket quite often!
    Anno 2019.
    My sister’s Skoda is since 4 years long gone (3 head gaskets blown in 20 years of service, while it covered about 200 thousand Km). I still see though some Felicias from the same years running around in city traffic. Some in comical kombi versions!
    FIAT UNO? Not a single one in running form. And that’s how it’s been for more than maybe 10 years.
    But the question WHY, i.e. what happened to all those UNOs has been puzzling me for at least this last decate and that’s why I find today’s article very interesting, to say the least!
    Thank you very much, mr. Robinson!

    1. Design over mechanical longevity and reliability seems to be the main characteristic of the Italian cars! Poorly made and assembled, they were the inspiration for many comic phrases here in Cyprus, about choosing an Italian car over others (especially Japanese ones).

      Now in my 40s, I have found that other nations as well shared similar phrases, which I find very interesting 🙂 But boy, I do remember sitting at co-drivers seat , in an Uno of a friend , early 90s, having a heck of a time!!! Also remembering the dashboard switches making that chunky, clicky sound . . . .Cant find any Fiat of the period still running today though . ..even the mighty Punto seems to be vanished from the roads here in Cyprus . . . .

    2. You are welcome. I had the same thoughts – how does a car so common (I think at one point it was the biggest selling car in (western) Europe), and now you never see one. I was in Rome over the summer and saw none whatsoever. A shame for such an important car, I think.

    1. That’s a lovely example with the desirable FIRE engine and classic flat mid blue paint. The price is a bit steep, but that’ll be down to rarity. Tempting!

  7. How true was it the Fiat Uno had inferior handling compared to the Peugeot 205, especially in hot hatch challenging Turbo?

    The Fiat Uno could have benefited from a 90-103 hp 1.6-litre naturally aspirated version of the 128 engine, it along with the Ford Fiesta could have also benefited from using the Transmatic / HTA (for High Tech Automatic) CVT as used in the Volvo 440/460 and Rover Metro/100 instead of the Ford CTX developed by Ford, Van Doorne and Fiat. At least on the basis of the Transmatic having a comparatively better reputation than the CTX, despite the Transmatic being the subject of a big court case involving Volvo and Van Doorne.

    1. EVERYTHING had inferior handling to the Peugeot 205.

      I had a ’87 205XS once… not a GTI but a 1.4 with twin carburetors (yes, really). It would cough and grumble from start on a cold day, but it had mid-range torque once warmed through. And it drove very sweetly indeed.

      Dearly missed!

  8. The primary difference between Pug 205 and Uno was that the Pug was a grown-up car of a smaller size whereas the Fiat was a primitive driving aid in long standing small car tradition.
    The Pug had excellent chassis dynamics with smooth riding comfort and long suspension travel where the Fiat had hopping suspension coupled to an excessively high centre of gravity (remember that a change in height of CoG of one centimetre equals a difference in track width of about ten centimetres, depending on suspension design).
    The Pug had grown up engines with the exemplarily good XUD Diesels where the Fiat had to make do with lawnmower sized emergency power units.
    The only area where the Fiat had any advantage was interior ambience with the Pug showing lots of bare painted metal and the Fiat with a fully clad interior with attractive fabrics.
    On the road the Fiat felt like a bus in danger of toppling over at any moment and the Pug felt like a real comfortable car of a much larger size.
    The coachman’s seat/bus driver/toilet seat seating position of the Fiat with legs were stepping on the pedals from above was enough when compared to the Pug with proper car seating position and feet pushing pedals in a horiztal movement.

    1. Diesel aside, the 205 started life with XU petrols from the 104 with gears in the sump (could be wrong about the latter). These were not great engines, with issues of cylinder head manifolds blowing frequently (it happened on my Talbot Samba). So, not sure I agree with you on the engine front – at least at the launch of the two cars.

    2. To what extent was the Peugeot 205 a development of the Citroen Visa and Peugeot 104 (along with indirectly the Renault 14)?

    3. I’m not sure I agree with Dave either, having driven examples of both while they were contemporary. Yes the 205 was a nicer, more supple car, (I recall in particular a 205 diesel van) but the Uno I recall driving (with only a few hundred miles on the odometer) was impressive and surprisingly refined, despite its 903cc pushrod engine (which sold in Ireland alongside the FIRE version circa-1989). Now, let it said that I subsequently put my money where my mouth is and bought a 205 GTi (a fabulous car), but the Uno was nothing to be ashamed of. Interestingly, a number of UK motor journalists purchased Unos with their own money, which might suggest something.

  9. A bit harsh Dave.

    I have owned both ends of the Uno spectrum. My first was a 903 which was able to be driven in true Italian style and wasn’t fast but immense fun.

    This was replaced with a turbo that had power to spare but a bone jarring ride. I stupidly made that worse by fitting a suspension kit which lowered it and basically removed any of the limited movement that Fiat had originally engineered into it. Along with a boost kit it was great fun on track days, but could easily eat a set of front tyres even with pressures up to ridiculous levels.

    Some years later I owned a 205 GTI 1.6 – a vastly more refined car yet the turbo is the one when driven hard that put the larger smile on my face. I am no thrill seeker yet the turbo always felt that it was one step away from doing something really scary at the limit which somehow endeared me to it more so than the GTI.

    1. Uno a primitive driving aid? Most definitely not. Neither did it confirm to the “style over substance” reputation in some quarters of Italian design – although I admit that I base my view on a drive of a very scruffy but structurally sound diesel example which had covered over 370,000 miles with its one owner from new. Nicely loose but entirely predictable, the handling was still sharp enough to be fun and felt as if it was good for another 370,000.

      One might almost be tempted to suggest that the Fiat Uno was a driving aid way ahead of its time in terms of potential sustainability. And entirely fit for purpose.

  10. I always liked the restyled version, it seemed more stable, more charming to the upper category, I also remember with nostalgia the fabric of the velvet interior, the current cars are very boring, black fabric in 90% of cases.

  11. Despite the millions of units sold the Uno was never that charismatic perhaps. The only famous one is the white one supposedly seen in the tunnel where princess Diana died isn’t it ?

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