Espíritu Independiente (Part One)

A retrospective on Spain’s automotive flag-carrier and the rare occasional flowering of its independent design talent.

(c) favcars

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 850 Largo (c) classiccarcatalogue

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 127 4P. (c)

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.

Seat 1200 Sport. (c) clasicos-auto

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 magnificence of Ronda. (c)

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

34 thoughts on “Espíritu Independiente (Part One)”

  1. The government of General Franco was desperate to improve the welfare of its people – funniest thing I’ve read today.

    1. From Wikipedia:

      “During the start of the Cold War, Franco lifted Spain out of its mid-19th century economic depression through technocratic and economically liberal policies, presiding over a period of rampant growth known as the “Spanish miracle”.”

  2. Taking into account the economic situation of post war Spain it was pure madness to hire Vilfred Ricart and have him create a car like the Pegaso Z103 for 1951 just to show the world that Spain was able to design a complete car.

  3. That’s fascinating – thanks, Daniel.

    SEAT must have had some talent in design, as those 4-doors are done well (never seen them, before). They’re both small cars, though – I wonder how long (short) the doors were!

    I also never realized the 1200 Sport was intended for NSU. I think its original design with its sharper front looked better, but SEAT didn’t do a bad job. I still don’t like the rising rear swage line, though. It looks as though it was originally meant to be rear wheel drive., given the rear styling and vents.

    1. Here are some pictures of the NSU Nergal which of course was rear engined

    2. Hi Charles. Thank you for your comments. I’m happy you’ve enjoyed the piece. I remember studying the five-door SEAT 127 on one of my first trips to Spain. I hadn’t known of its existence before seeing it. As I recall, it was a very professional and well integrated. The front doors were shorter to accommodate the new rear doors, so it remained well balanced.

      Incidentally, I believe name given to the more recent ‘Bocanegra’ (Black mouth) sporting versions of some SEAT models stems from the 1200/1430’s front end treatment:

  4. Thanks for this interesting and well documented piece, Daniel, and for waking up some good memories: my father was the proud owner of a couple of SEAT 600, plus a 124D, a 1500 and a 131 Supermirafiori.
    Not supporting the Allied forces during WWII pushed Spain out of Plan Marshall and other rebuilding post war efforts, so Franco created the “autarchy”, a kind of forced independent economy. Under this umbrella, in the automotive sector, some car companies started operations by their own (Renault, Citroën), others with mixed founds (SEAT) or under license, like Santana to build Land Rovers or Authi (Automóviles Hispano Ingleses) to build Minis. There were fully independent ones, like the trucks of Pegaso and Barreiros.
    After the divorce with Fiat, SEAT had talks with Suzuki and VW, but finally married the Germans.
    Looking forward to the second chapter.

    1. Hi Luis. Glad you enjoyed the piece and thank you for the additional background information about Franco’s economic policies.

    2. Hello Luis,

      Car reviewing site, Autogefühl, road tested the SEAT 600, a while back. It looks a charming car.

      In addition, here’s a short video of the Fiat prototype. I always find it interesting to see manufacturers’ first thoughts.

  5. “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”

    Excuse me, Sir, but the opposite is the truth.

    Francoist “Desarrollismo” in the 1960s did not obtain a solid economic development:

    The 1973 petrol crisis hit very hard Spain.

    In the late 1970s the political-econonomical picture in Spain was horrendous. I suggest you this reading:

    1. Good Afternoon Spanish Reader. Thank you for your comment and the references, but I am afraid I must respectfully disagree you with regard to Spain’s economic performance during the 1970’s. Spain’s GDP grew in every year throughout that decade apart from 1979, when it was unchanged:

      Year / GDP Growth / GDP Per Capita Growth

      1980/ +1.2% / +6.4%
      1979/ +0.0% / +32.5%
      1978/ +1.5% / +20.1%
      1977/ +2.8% / +10.7%
      1976/ +3.3% / +2.2%
      1975/ +0.5% / +16.8%
      1974/ + 5.6% / +22.3%
      1973/ +7.8% / +31.6%
      1972/ +8.1% / +25.4%
      1971/ +4.6% / +12.5%

      Expressed in US Dollar terms, Spain’s GDP grew from $41.0Bn in 1970 to $230.2Bn in 1980.

      Source of data:

  6. From the same period, there is a peculiar sidenote of Spain’s motor industry, namely building , as far as I know, the only 120° V6 ever produced in quantity, a Ricart designed 7.5 litre alloy(!) diesel for the Pegaso z 207 Barajas lorry.

    If I recall correctly, Ricart was hugely influential at the time, not only at Pegaso, but was one of driving forces behind the Seat project as well

    1. Consalvo Sanesi, Alfa’s long serving collaudatore (head of road test department) who had already worked under Jano and later was responsible for the Alfetta layout called Ricart a “lunatico”.

    2. I wouldn’t propose to be an expert on this subject, but from the reading I have done, there appears to have been a concerted effort on the part of those of a particularly pro-Jano bent to rubbish Ricart’s reputation. I recall reading that Enzo Ferrari was amongst those who lobbied for him to be removed from his pre-eminent position in Portello’s engineering department, during the Scuderia Ferrari era at Alfa Romeo. The Modenese ‘ingenere’ and subsequent carmaker wasn’t exactly noted for his appreciation for the finer points of engineering, and while Ricart was somewhat ahead of his time (perhaps too much so), I’m a little suspicious of the motives behind some of the allegations levelled against him.

    3. Vilfred Ricart was an aero engineer (Alfa 1101, a 4×9 radial engine with 2.000 PS) with no articular knowledge about cars. He was good at engines but didn’t know how to make a car handle, which was detrimental with a car like the 512 and when those in the know, particularly guys like the test driver Sanesi, weren’t willing to help.
      I don’t remember old Enzo considering himself an ingegnere.

    4. Ferrari got an engineering master degree h. c. in 1960, given by Bologna university.
      Apparently he was very proud of it, but it was just an honorific title with no real effect.
      And, if I remember correctly, the same thing happened to Ferry Porsche, he was also engineer h.c.

    5. And yet the only title old crook nosed Enzo insisted upon being called was ‘Commendatore’.
      Ferry Porsche never thought he was an engineer.

    6. According to Brock Yates’ biography of the great man, Enzo loathed the term ‘Commendatore’, which was allegedly not an official honour, but one widely conferred upon ‘men of affairs’ within Italy at the time. Yates contended, having spoken with many of Enzo’s contemporaries that if you didn’t want to incur Ferrari’s undying disdain, you addressed him as ‘Ingenere’.

    7. Ferrari was awarded the title of “Commendatore della Corona d’Italia” in 1929, after being “Cavaliere” in 1923 and “Uffiziale” in 1927 of the same order.
      It was an official Italian and Royal order (Order of the Crown of Italy), given by the King of Italy, and instituted after the Italian unity in order to provide also “normal” non-aristocratic people with a decoration for special merits: in other words you did not need to be a nobleman to get it.
      I suppose this is where the term “commendatore” referring to Ferrari came from, and I can imagine that old-fashioned Enzo was equally proud of the royal order and of the h.c. degree, although the former lost its legal validity since 1951.

  7. Good afternoon Daniel

    A good read and looking forward to part two.
    I do like the side on view of the 1200 sport. This is preferable to the equally unheard of (to me) NSU Nergal but at least the German car had pop up lights. Can I see some inspiration for the Volvo C30 in that frontage?
    The Ronda picture has elements of Peugeot 205 as well.
    Must be the heat, here.
    As for the percentage game played out above, no fiduciary expert am I but it’s no wonder Fiat went wonky with the money. Speaking of which, FCA have just asked for and got six billion from the Italian government. Where did they find that, down the back seat of a 500?

    1. Quantitative easing, in other words, printing money!

      Now, that won’t end badly, will it?

  8. Great article.
    Funny how everything comes together. Italian engineers – German design studies in between – all playing on a Spanish stage, and you can read it first, again, in World’s Most Influential Motoring Site.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Fred. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for your kind words about DTW. Stay tuned for Part Two!

  9. Don’t forget the Seat 133, which was essentially a modernised and rebodied 850, in the same vein that the 126 was essentially a modernised and rebodied 500.

    I remember the 133 as the family rental car for our vacation on Gran Canaria in 1980, though I was only 5 years old at the time. Though I can’t for the life of me remember how we all could possibly fit in the car, with me, my mother, two additional grown ups and their two teenage daughters being along for the trip.

    A question on a slightly larger scale, I’ve always wondered what really was the long term gain and benefit with closed markets like Spain, Brazil, Argentine and the likes. They put a cap on imports or added punitive taxes that could double the price of a car for the sole purpose of helping their own domestic industry and have the money stay inside the country and not burden the trade deficit. But it also meant a closed market and plan economy without free choice and without free market competition, leading to technical stagnation. The question is, did those countries really gain on that policy in the long run, or was it a socio-economic loss? And what happened with all those countries without an industrial base and without a domestic car production? Did they lose or win on importing all their cars without punitive taxes added? Did it lead to trade deficits and money leaving the country? I don’t think I’ve ever read an analysis on this subject, but it would be a very interesting read.

    1. That’s a big (interesting) subject, Ingvar.

      In closed, or restricted economies, like North Korea, USSR, etc, car production and ownership are a bit academic, and often discouraged, so the impact on the economy of importing small numbers is negligible. Home-produced models are often technologically backward, as you say, and are often pretty much unobtainable, in any case.

      Can protectionism and quotas work? Possibly, in the very short term, but not in the longer term, as you end up with trade wars and technological stagnation. The UK tried to protect its own car industry by limiting Japanese imports and later encouraging local production of Japanese vehicles, but that strategy had limited success.

      There are few countries which don’t produce cars. However, production is often on behalf of relatively few manufacturers. So, these days, the big question is more about globalization and who calls the shots about where production is situated.

      Finally, you mentioned Brazil – I found this article from 2012 interesting, as it shows the effects of taxation and income per head on manufacturers’ and governments’ attitudes. Money talks, regardless of political inclinations.

    2. “Did it lead to trade deficits and money leaving the country?”

      During the Franco era we were forced to maintain our money in Spain. It was a serious felony to move surreptitiously (in a suitcase) money or gold outside Spain. Doing so legally was simply impossible.

      We had to wait to joining the Common Market in 1986 to be allowed to move our money outside Spain.

      For instance, during the Franco era the Great Studios (MGM, 20th Fox…) were forced to spend profits generated in Spain in Spain, so after decades they had millions in profits blocked in Spain. That is one of the reasons for classics as Battle of Britain or Patton being filmed in Spain. This way they “converted” blocked assets in Movies in a can they could export.

      “I’ve always wondered what really was the long term gain and benefit with closed markets like Spain”

      None. Just a fact: My car is a British built Toyota Avensis. I would no touch the cars manufactured in Spain. Not good enough for me.

    3. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s. Very many countries, including the UK, imposed strict exchange controls that limited the amount of money even holidmakers could take abroad. Before the advent of internationally accepted credit and debit cards, you had to take either cash or travellers checks (remember them?) up to your allowance, and you were subject to checks on departure.

      I recall a (possibly apocryphal) story about apartheid-era South Africa, told to me by a colleague who worked in banking there. The country had draconian and rigorously enforced exchange controls, but one way that wealthy South Africans circumvented them was to buy an ocean-going yacht, sail it to Europe and sell it, and bank the proceeds there.

      Charles and Spanish Reader are both correct: closed economies only offer short-term economic relief, and are increasingly difficult to enforce as the wealthy will always find a way to circumvent the regulations. For example, look at all those vastly expensive apartment buildings that have been built in New York, London and other major western cities over the past decade. The apartments are rarely occupied, but are bought as offshore repositories of wealth in case things turn nasty at home.

    4. Thanks for all the answers, really interesting points.

      Case in point, the 200 Ford Taunuses Ford had to import to Spain for their own staff (I think I read the story here?) and the 100% punitive taxes Ford had to pay for the privilege and they weren’t even allowed to sell the cars on the used car market afterwards but had to ship them out of the country. In essence, Ford payed Spain the full cost of the cars like the cars had been produced locally.

  10. It is surprising SEAT never built localized versions of the Fiat 500 and Fiat 126, also question the rationale of developing the 850-based 133 instead of building a localized Spanish version of the Autobianchi A112 (that given its relation to the 127 and 128 would have made some agree of financial sense). The same applies to Zastava / Yugo regarding not building localized versions of the Fiat 500, Fiat 126 and Autobianchi A112.

    Fiat’s version of the 850 could have definitely benefited from the SEAT variant’s 4-door bodystyle just like the Simca 1000, unless Fiat and Simca had an informal arrangement that precluded the former from developing a Fiat 850 4-door during the parallel development between the Fiat 850 and Simca 1000.

    Despite some aspect’s of the Ronda having nice detailing, find it quite bland compared to the Series 2/3 Ritmo.

    Though Fiat already had the Uno to replace the 127, It would have been fascinating seeing Fiat develop a Ritmo-derived supermini along the same lines as the Ritmo/Ronda-based mk1 SEAT Ibiza. Such a car would have made for a much better Lancia supermini compared to the Y10, featuring Lancia Lambda version of the Uno’s styling with elements of the Lancia Delta (the range-topper Lancia supermini being equipped with a 130-140 hp 1.6 HF Turbo engine).

  11. The answer is in SEAT’s “keep things simple” policy, driven by rigorous local content requirements, The 500 and 126 were not proper four seaters, and the 110 engine did not have the stretch capacity of the 600’s water-cooled four cylinder. In an either / or choice the more universally functional 600 would always win.

    Similarly, SEAT made the 124 do the jobs of both the 128 saloon and 125, and never built the 128 OHC engine, instead adapting the pushrod 124 unit for transverse use with 127 and 128 gearboxes.

    1. Thanks for the additional information, Robertas, which is very useful. I was amazed at how high the percentage of local content in SEAT cars was, even those that appeared to be direct facsimiles of their Fiat equivalents. SEAT was never an ‘out of the box’ assembly operation and the company was a major factor in developing indigenous engineering expertise.

    2. Agree to a large extent on the 110 2-cylinder engine not possessing the stretch capacity of the 100 4-cylinder engine, despite the twin being stretched to 650-700cc in the 126 with others managing to reach 750-850cc (perhaps the Puch 500 flat-twin could have been utilized earlier on for the SEAT 500).

      However was under the impression the Fiat 126 was conceived as a 4-seater, while the Fiat 500 was originally conceived as a 4-seater during its development before it was changed to a 2+2 in order to prevent it potentially stealing sales from the Fiat 600 (which does not really make sense given the 600 was much more usable in terms of engine layout / size).

      Could a locally built 500 have worked in Spain (and Yugoslavia) in 600cc+ 4-seater form or would it have needed a 650-700cc+ engine from the outset (thereby pushing the SEAT 600 to feature the 843cc engine as was the case on the later Zastava 850 version of the 600-based Zastava 750)?

      Could definitely see a locally built SEAT (or even Zastava / Yugo) version of the Autobianchi A112 making use of the 767-843cc 100 4-cylinder engines prior to receiving the 903cc engine (later 899cc in the case of the Zastava / Yugo variant). With Apicsa or another company selling a 60 hp kit for a SEAT 112 Abarth as was later featured for the SEAT Panda Abarth (not sure if the SEAT 133 feature a similar kit). –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: