A retrospective on Spain’s automotive flag-carrier and the rare occasional flowering of its independent design talent.
In the late 1940’s Spain was an economic wasteland. The bloody 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War, immediately followed by the privations of World War II, had left the country impoverished and largely without an industrial base. The government of General Franco was desperate to improve the welfare of its people and reduce their reliance on subsistence level agriculture and fishing.
One key element of this plan would be the development of an indigenous automobile industry. European manufacturers, still rebuilding their post-war domestic capacity and markets, were largely uninterested in expansion into Spain, but the government realised it had neither the capital nor the technical expertise to build the industry from scratch. Instead, it courted both Fiat and Volkswagen, offering shares in a new auto company and royalty payments in return for permission, not just to assemble but to build from scratch their models at a new plant in Spain.
Fiat emerged the winner from these negotiations, mainly because of the Italian company’s perceived greater expertise in small cars and its already strong presence in the small Spanish auto market. (Volkswagen was still only three years old and a single-model company, which had yet fully to establish its reputation.) An agreement was signed in October 1948 between the Spanish government, Fiat and a consortium of six Spanish banks for the manufacture of Fiat cars under licence.
In May 1950, the state-owned Instituto Nacional de Industria (INI) established the Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo, S.A. (SEAT) as its new auto company. INI held a controlling 51% shareholding in the new company and Fiat was given a 7% stake in return for its technical input.
Barcelona was chosen as the location for the new auto plant. This was already the most industrialised part of the country and offered good road, rail and sea links to the rest of Europe. There were also tax advantages in locating in the duty-free port area of the city. Construction began immediately and was completed in just three years.
During this time SEAT did a great deal of groundwork, inviting nascent Spanish engineering companies to supply it with components for its cars. For the new venture to be successful, both economically and in employment terms, it was vital to source as high a percentage of parts as possible domestically. So successful was this effort that local content of SEAT cars was 93% in 1954, the first full year of operation.
The first car to roll off the new production line in November 1953 was a mid-sized four-door saloon, the SEAT 1400. This model was, however, beyond the pockets of most Spanish people so a smaller car was needed. This arrived in 1957 as the SEAT 600, which was largely identical to the Fiat of the same name. This was a hugely successful model and in 1963, SEAT added a unique four-door version developed in-house, the 800, to further enhance its appeal.
SEAT repeated this trick with Fiat’s slightly larger 850 model, although here the changes were much more extensive. The car was lengthened by 150mm and the rear screen and C-pillars made more upright to increase passenger accommodation in the four-door Largo version, which had a much more conventional saloon profile.
SEAT quickly became the dominant player in the Spanish auto market, but the 1948 agreement prevented the company competing with Fiat in export markets. The agreement was renegotiated in 1967 and, in return for allowing SEAT to export its cars, Fiat’s shareholding was increased from 7% to 36%, while INI’s shareholding was reduced from 51% to 32%. The remaining 32% was still split equally between the original consortium of Spanish banks.
SEAT’s profitability and self-confidence continued to increase throughout the 1970s, a decade of growth and prosperity for the Spanish economy, particularly after the death of Franco in November 1975, which heralded a new age of democracy and prosperity for the country. For a third time, SEAT repeated the trick of adding two more passenger doors to a Fiat design, this time with the 127 model in 1972. Otherwise, SEAT models remained virtual clones of the Fiats on which they were based.
SEAT had opened its own technical and design centre in Martorell near Barcelona in 1975. In December of that year, the company launched its first wholly independent design, the 1200 Sport, intended as a showcase of its talents and ambition. This was a sharply styled two-door coupé with a transverse-engined FWD layout.
The design was originally intended for NSU and was shown as the Nergal design study at the 1970 Turin Motor Show, but NSU, in financial trouble and recently acquired by Volkswagen, was not able to bring it to production. A 1430 Sport with a larger engine followed and the model remained on sale for four years.
The long-standing agreement with Fiat fell apart in 1982 after the Italian company refused to participate in a capital investment programme. Having lost its licence to produce Fiat designs, SEAT embarked on a re-engineering and restyling programme for its existing models. The first fruits of this effort were the Ronda and Fura models, SEAT’s reworking of Fiat’s Ritmo and 127 respectively.
The Ronda immediately became the subject of a lawsuit by Fiat, claiming that it was still, essentially, a Ritmo, which SEAT no longer had the rights to build. Somewhat surprisingly, at the International Chamber of Commerce Court of Arbitration in Paris in 1983, the case was decided in SEAT’s favour, on the basis that there were sufficient differences between the Ritmo and Ronda to adjudge the latter a new model.
To add insult to injury, Fiat’s own rather cack-handed facelift of the Ritmo was widely judged to be considerably inferior to SEAT’s very smart Ronda. It was rumoured at the time that Fiat’s original facelift proposal was very similar in appearance to the Ronda so had to be scrapped, but the timeline doesn’t seem to support this, since both the Ronda and facelifted Ritmo were launched within a few months of each other in 1982.
SEAT enjoyed a brief period of independence before becoming increasingly tied to Volkswagen. In Part Two we’ll look at the models it produced as an independent company and how SEAT evolved under Volkswagen Group ownership.