Mezza Berlina

Fiat’s mid-Sixties compact saloon range was as convoluted as anything BMC could have contrived. Today we examine the 125 series. 

1967 Fiat 125 berlina. (c) wheelsage

Looking back through a dusty prism at Fiat Auto’s fifty-year old product planning decisions is unlikely to be fruitful – more likely to result in no more but a set of dubious assumptions and erroneous conclusions. Bearing this in mind and treading wearily by consequence, I propose we revisit Turin’s early-Sixties commercial mindset for the purposes of clarity, or at the very least, exposition.

Fiat 1500 berlina. (c) autoevolution

During the early 1960s, Fiat began development of the 124 programme, a conventionally engineered family of berlinas, familiares, coupés and spiders, to succeed the outgoing 1300/ 1500 series. These latter models shared an identical bodyshell and technical specification when first introduced in 1961. However, in 1964, the 1500 was placed on a (slightly) longer wheelbase, the resultant model (known as the 1500 C) – a matter which has some bearing on today’s subject.

Unlike the 1300/ 1500, which technically speaking was resolutely conventional (even if its centro stile bodystyle was very up to date for the time), the 124 if anything, went the other way, with a progressive chassis clothed in a resolutely conservative-looking bodyshell. By mid-decade, contemporary Italian saloon style was very much of the rectilinear idiom, and the 124 cleaved heavily to this – handsome and well executed to those who appreciate it, although the slight dip to the tail, aft of the C-pillar never quite gelled, lending it a slightly broken appearance.

For reasons best known to Fiat’s product planners, it was decided to separate the 124 from its more upmarket sibling, the (3″) larger 125 being introduced a year later in 1967. This car, which employed a variation of the 124 body centre section (including door pressings) was built on the longer wheelbase 1500 C platform and shared its less sophisticated, if well located leaf-sprung rear axle – the Italians being well versed in getting the most out of seemingly orthodox componentry – after all, even early versions of the Fiat Dino employed a leaf-sprung rear end.

Fiat 125 cabin. (c) storm.oldcarmanualproject

However, despite this and the fact that a willing 1.6 litre version of the Lampredi dohc four was fitted, not to mention the fact that the model was well received by press and buying public alike, the 125 nevertheless suffered a less than founded impression that it was something of a throwback – merely a be-tinselled 124. The following year, a more powerful 125 S was introduced, and this model was standardised following the 125’s 1971 facelift which also saw a number of well-judged visual enhancements to what had become a well-liked and (relatively) strong selling model.

1972 Fiat 125. Image: DTW

Meanwhile, Fiat continued to develop the 124 range, introducing the 124 Special in 1968, which along with a number of visual enhancements came with a larger-capacity 1438 cc unit, and a modified version of the coil-sprung rear suspension design. Two years later, Fiat carried out a modest visual facelift of the standard 124, but now sought to further differentiate the more upmarket Special models with different nose and tail treatments and the introduction of the 1400 twin-cam engined Special T model. In some markets, a 1.6 litre version of the Lampredi dohc unit was offered.

By the dawn of the 1970s, Fiat’s compact saloon range had become bewildering in its complexity and sheer fecundity. It’s difficult to see how this could have made sense; either from a product planning, manufacturing, component-sourcing, marketing or cost-management perspective. Certainly, the fact that the Torinese carmaker later chose to abandon such a scattergun approach for its 131 successor is quite telling.

In retrospect, it might have been more expedient to have placed the 124 estate on a longer wheelbase to that of the berlina, which then would have allowed for the 125 to have been a slightly larger car, yet still sharing the parts and manufacturing commonality with the more up-to-date 124 model. One also has to question the sheer variety of derivations – why offer a twin-cam 124, when that was the more profitable 125’s USP?

As it turned out of course, it didn’t really matter, since not only did both 124 and 125 sell in large quantities during their nominal lifespans – Fiat also made very pragmatic use of both programmes – repurposed and sold off to (amongst other territories) Eastern Europe, and in the 125’s case, Poland. The FSO version of the 125 reverted to the old 1500 C’s powertrain and suspension – sold in Europe as the Polski-Fiat 125p in saloon and estate form until 1991.

FSO 125p. (c) favcars

Fiat’s product planners didn’t really get the memo however, if the 132 model which succeeded the Italian-market 125 was any barometer. Because not only was it (once again) a bit of a parts-bin lash-up, but with the 1969 acquisition of Lancia, there were some entirely reasonable questions to be asked as to the rationale for a car in the 132 idiom at all.

It all comes down to choice really, does it not? Choice for the customer – Lancia’s offerings tending to be more sophisticated, while those of Fiat offered a more accessible, more (comparatively) rugged product. The question remains – was there room within Fiat Auto for both 132 (available in 1600 and 1800 cc form initially) and Lancia’s newly developed Beta (1400 and 1800 cc)? Not worlds apart in size, or market reach, yet in prestige and technology terms, on different planes entirely, yet both arriving the same year.

You may ask what these have to do with the 125, but both in their way, served to replace it in the Italian market, which until the 1980s at least, was the only market that truly mattered to Fiat Auto. But if you have acquired a luxury brand, it is incumbent upon you to fully utilise it. The acquisition of Lancia ought to have marked the point where Fiat drew a line in its upmarket aspirations. That it didn’t illustrates how deluded the carmaker’s corporate mindset had become.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Mezza Berlina”

  1. The Beta was a deservedly popular package in the UK — well, for a Lancia — until the 1400 engine kept falling out, which ended Lancia’s UK sales.
    The 132s were not seen as cheap, although they were, and compared well with any of BLMC’s offerings. But that market was very status-conscious, and Brits couldn’t see how Fiats fitted into the golf-club orthodoxy.

    Delta 1 retrieved the situation: Maxi 1500 was totally outclassed.

    That 124 looked right, but the 125 said “cheap” all over, and also that you lived on a council estate. The Polonez merely confirmed that.

  2. The 124 Special’s engine was an OHV design like that of the base version. It was just enlarged and more powerful but no SOHC in sight.

  3. The image of the Fiat 1500 Berlina brought back my childhood! In 1964 my parents bought a white “miletrecento” – the 1300 cc equivalent. It replaced a Ford Squire from the mid-1950s that chronically over=heated in the Israeli climate. the crank-driven cooling fan had just two blades – fine maybe for foggy England from where they shipped it when we moved to Jerusalem, but insufficient for the hills of the Middle east. Every journey out of Jerusalem involved a green jerrycan with 10 litres of water and at least one stop for the engine to cool down. A car from a fellow Mediterranean country would surly be more suited to the climate. It was.

    It was also highly memorable for other reasons. The “Miletrecento” inscription was a metal set of interconnected letters on a metal glovebox cover, and my first word in Italian (and still the longest). at the rear, a round reversing light was matched by a heavy chromes locking fuel filler cap. The door handles were chrome, lined and flush so that a roll-over wouldn’t accidentally push the door-button…

    It also had four forward gears but my parents never used fourth – that was, my totally un-mechanical parents explained – for motorways, which did not exist in Israel at the time.

    The car also had a knack of losing tune and cracking its distributor cap. A the age of 13 I learns about points, got a set of spacers to set the spark plugs and points gaps and used the extensive handbook to tune the carburettor. It was joy and I approached it with a boy’s ignorance and with faith in my own logic and what I’d read in motoring magazines at the British Council Library. Mostly it was OK – and any fits of stalling could be cured by pulling the hand-throttle (that sat next to the choke and was also a primitive cruise control…) out a little. I was a late developed and at this age was a bout 4’5″ so would use a stool to lean into the spacious engine compartment and then balance on the wing, head-down.

    I only remember it braking down once – a broken fanbelt on a trip to the Negev Dessert town of Eilat. My 14 year old self suggested using a stocking but i think the wardrobe was more swimsuits and sun-wraps!

    There were other gems – delicate chromed stalks with flattened black plastic tips like manicured nails; a gorgeous metal gold-and-red Fiat badge mid-dashboard on a panel that was to be removed if a radio was fitted. It never was – that was deemed far too distracting to the driver. The way the seat back adjusted for angle with a tap-like lever that could be twisted for fine adjustment or lifted to push against a spring.

    By 1973 my mom, by then a widow and never keen on clutch and the column-change gearshift, charged me with choosing An Automatic. It boiled down in my mind to two options – Fiat 124S (with two-dial instrument panel and a three speed automatic) or the magnificently-named “Citroen GS 1220 Club Convertisseur” – three speed manual with torque converter. There was no content – it had to be, and was, the GS. And a direct line, over five more decades, to this website.

    1. What great memories, and delightfully told! Thanks for sharing, David.

    2. Nice story – this should bring back some memories, complete with badges. The 125 similarly had a panel, mid-fascia, with a Fiat badge on that had to be removed to fit a radio.

  4. Good morning Eóin. I hadn’t really noticed the 124’s sagging tail before, but it’s now impossible to ignore:

    I think the problem is not caused by the slight downward slope of the boot lid per se, but the fact that the lower bodyside crease also slopes downward aft of the rear wheel arch. It would have been much better to have kept that crease horizontal, like this:

    On the 125, the longer tail and, in particular, the chrome strip on the body side distracts the eye from the lower body side crease, so it doesn’t share the sagging tail problem:

  5. Eóin, there are so many interesting questions arising from your article that I will just write about what catched my eye here and there.
    The Lancia problem: I don’t think Fiat ever in its life thought rationally about market shares.
    They bought Lancia in 1969 for the nominal sum of one Italian lira “in order to do a favour to the city of Turin”, according to Giovanni Agnelli, and I think the only real ground was that nobody else was allowed to buy it, exactly like happened with Alfa Romeo in the Eighties, when the Ford offer was refused by the Italian state, and Alfa given to Fiat in 1986, with payments theoretically starting on 1993.
    When Fiat had the Lancia factories and the brand, they just used them, since there were still many loyal Lancia followers: at the beginning of the Seventies in Italy a Beta buyer would have never bought a 132, and viceversa.
    This loyalty was visibly shaken and shrinking at the end of the Seventies, when the last top-of-range Lancia 2000 owners bought Gammas as replacements, only to be terribly disappointed, to die finally at the beginning of the Nineties, kept afloat through the Eighties by the Delta market and rally success, which brought however a new type of buyers, very different from the previous “lancisti” and not particularly loyal to the brand.
    I would say that after 1980 there were no more real “lancisti” around: I can imagine they bought as a replacement Mercedes 123, Citröen CX but also Volvo, a brand arrived in Italy at the end of the Seventies enjoying a sudden success, especially with the 240 series.
    I am just thinking now about Robertas’ comment in the thread “Under the knife” about the noticeable quantity of Volvos present in Italy in the early Eighties, and the typical customer, in fact, was someone who in the past might have been a “lancista”: people in their fifties, doctors, high level professionals, the affluent layer of the society, people who wanted a car with superior qualities which blended unconspicuously in the traffic.
    A replacement of Lancia with Volvo by this kind of customers does not appear so unthinkable, taking also into consideration that in Italy Volvo never was a cheap car.

    I’d have also a question to Eóin: what did you intend exactly with “Mezzo berlina”? Because the meaning is a bit blurred, did you intend half a car or something similar?

  6. I was going to make a post in the Fiat 132 thread but after seeing a thread on the 125, I was compelled to post a reply here instead, as my first car was a 1972 125B Special. At the time my particular car was nearly 15 years old but it was quite reliable and the rust was quite minor. I’m in Australia which would help to explain the latter. Also in all my years of being on the internet, there have always being too few articles on the 125, a car which has been somewhat underrated and overlooked in the grand scheme of things.

    Although most contemporary reports and more recent impressions stated the 125 handled better that the rear suspension configuration, even with rear track rods, would suggest, I always through that Fiat should have extended the wheelbase of the 124 platform in order to make the 125. After all, nothing stopped them shortening it for the 124 Spider, so why not go the other way?

    With 124 type suspension, the 125 would have been have been a closer match for the Alfa Romeo Guilia. With the 125 Special it was obvious Fiat were trying to go after some of the Gulia’s market share, but the extra power, 5 speed box, cloth trim, wood dash (in the Special B), C pillar interior lights, Chromodoras alloys (not standard in all markets, tacho (strangely also not standard in all markets – a crime with that engine) were not matched by a suspension set-up that would give the Guilia a run for it’s money.

    I feel it was laziness/penny pinching to use the basic 1300/1500 chassis, which had been around since 1961 for a new 1967 car with some aspirations of sporting sedan intentions.

    Speaking of the 124 suspension, if Nissan/Datsun could bring out a fully independent rear on the contemporary 1600/510 sedans, a significantly cheaper car than the 125 in many markets, Fiat ought to have tried harder at the time. Imagine a 125 Special with 124 sport type suspension if not an independent rear and even with the 124 Sport 1600’s twin carburettor engine with 110 BHP (DIN). That would have been quite a car in its day.

    Having said all that, experience with the various Fiats of this period showed that the 124 in all its guises had fairly weak front and rear suspension components, and a weak axle and differential. The more powerful 1.8 litre 124 Sports (with nearly double the power of the original 1.2 124 sedan) in particular highlighted these deficiencies. The components inherited and/or derived from the 1300/1500 were stronger, and in most cases were able to be passed onto the 132 which had torquier 1.8 and 2 litre engines. Perhaps Fiat, intending to give the 125 more power with the twin cam engines from the outset, was aware of this?

    It’s been suggested that Fiat may have been inspired by the Chrysler 300 of 1965 with the front end styling, in particular the headlight surround treatment and the manner of the slight flaring of the guards. Fiat original intended to release the 125 with circular headlights, and I think they went with the square units to further differentiate the styling from the 124 sedans.

    I never considered the 125 as looking cheap for it’s time, but it did always help to go for the 125 Specials with the Chromodoras, tinted windows, and nicer interior did look classy. The only attributes that marred it were its tendency to have a tail up attitude (the 132 was an even worse offender here) which would further expose those rear leaf springs (never a good look) and the fact that one knew that the car being made under licence in one form other another in some former Eastern bloc countries and other countries considered developing markets.

    I found my car to be very good to drive for the most part. My car had a retrofitted 132/124 Sport (never knew which version I had) 1.8 litre engine which was fairly was worn (I’m sure it had been around the clock once or twice) but it still performed well and I was able to get it up to just over 106mph, which was the claimed maximum when new. The breaks were great, the steering was a little laggy but no where near as bad the nasty vague steering of most Japanese cars of the period. The handling on dry surfaces was good and predictable, but I learnt early on not to push the car in the wet. Even the 124s were not good in this regard. The overriding driving impression is that the car was a terrific high speed long distance cruiser for its weight and engine capacity, definitely in 5 speed form, if not the standard version. The car sort of still felt modern to me at the time in some ways. With the engine being so willing to rev, and with a taller final drive than most 124 Sport coupes, it was possible to cruise at nearly 90 mph for hours on end, notwithstanding the draconian attitude of the police here towards speed limit enforcement, which was prevalent then and even worse now.

    Fiat stupidly located the fuel tank vertically tank on the rear right-hand side, which would have done wonders in a rear end crash and for weight distribution. This may have been a legacy of the 1300/1500 layout but the 124 sedans (and maybe the wagons, but not the Sports models) and even the later 132 had had this dubious feature. The Poles wisely modified their Polski Fiat 125p with a flat fuel tank above the rear axle.

    Despite there having being a Fiat 1300/1500 Familiare, Fiat never made a 125 wagon (Familiare) although Zagato and maybe a few other coachbuilders did design some show cars. The Polski 125P had a wagon version called Kombi. It looked a bit too boxy and the curved trailing top edge of the rear doors made it look a little like a Crayford conversion. The Argentines released a more credible looking wagon in the form of the Fiat 125 Potenciado Familiar. New Zealand had the locally conceived 125T with 120hp, and modified suspension, mostly painted in yellow.

    As for the Fiat 132, I was never a fan. Although the 125 wasn’t the last word in sedan style like say a NSU RO80 or a Triumph 2500 or a BMW 1500/1800, it still had some charm and a certain understatement that suggested the owner knew they were driving a car with mechanicals and performance that were (mostly) ahead of the class curve, and they didn’t need to advertise the fact. The 132 although at a very basic level used some of the design elements of the far classier looking king 130 sedan, looked like a Italian Hillman Hunter or Morris Marina completely devoid of any style or charm, especially in the original version. These doors were atrocious. The interior was equality bland and lost the 125’s almost Alfa Guilia like dashboard and instruments. The 1974 facelift was what the 132 should have been from day one, and if once squints you could almost imaging an early Alfetta sedan form the rear three quarter angle, but it was still porridge Italian style. With the 1977 2 litre facelift and the Argenta in all its disgusting flavours, it was a rapid descent down a cliff, not completely apart from the general direction Fiat was going with its cars. Regatta anyone?

    I’ve never had the misfortune to drive a 132 or its Argenta brethren, but the common theme was that it handled worse than the 125. At least they were being consistent with their bad 1970’s habit of of producing new cars that were quantifiably worse than the ones they replaced. Car Magazine UK had a series called the World’s Worst Cars. You guessed it, the Fiat 132 was featured. If I recall the article correctly, the stated that Fiat had attempted several (perhaps almost as many times as they face lifted it) suspension revisions on the 132 to address the bad press it had received, and they all turned out to be bad.

  7. In its rather brief prime the 125 was highly regarded by the British car media, and ordinary enthusiasts, as offering an Alfa-like experience at an affordable price – Cortina GT money, or about 34-40% less than an equivalent Alfa or BMW.

    By the early ’70s things had moved on. Alfa, Audi, and BMW were aiming at the upper end of the mass market rather than the exclusive, deliberately high-priced connoisseur sector, and the 125 needed a replacement – but something more inspiring than the one Fiat delivered in 1972.

    Gerald Palmer (I’m beginning to think he’s taken up residence with me) sums the car up neatly in ‘Auto-Architect’:

    “I left at 7:20am to be in my office by 8:30am and the hour drove became a useful test run for Victors, Vivas, and other competitive products… I particularly enjoyed the Fiat 125 with its zippy twin-cam engine, impressive roadholding, and then uncommon five-speed gearbox.”

  8. Anastasio: I apologise for any mangling of Italian. I had the piece written last night, but for the title. It was late and I was tired. I had something non-specific in mind, given that the 125, fine car that it was in many respects, was something of half-way car – a bit of this, a bit of that. Anyway, done is done.

    Dave: My thanks for the correction. I should have double-checked, so mea culpa. I’ll amend the text accordingly.

    DavidJK and AntiSUV: thanks for your reminiscences, which you have brought quite vividly to life. I hope you both enjoy the site.

    Daniel: I’m not 100% convinced the 125 had a longer tail, more that it was flatter and by consequence, more flattering. I always had the impression that the 124’s tail was sagging due to their fearsome reputation to oxidisation when exposed to the air – especially in Ireland’s eternally damp climate. 124s were very popular here, but long lasting they were not – perhaps the ones I would see were literally sagging. They did rust with staggering enthusiasm.

    I do wonder if Fiat had managed to get the 131 into production earlier (I recall reading its introduction was held up by the fallout from the ’73 oil embargo), whether the 132 would have been all that necessary – the home market seeming to favour nimbleness and compact dimensions to displays of relative opulence. I also wonder if it had been originally conceived to be exported to the US – although to my knowledge it never was – (unlike the 131).

    The more upmarket (SuperMirafiori) 131s were delayed until the home market recovered, but proved strong sellers once they were made available. But then, the 132 in all its forms also sold well, so what do I know? On balance it was one of those “I wouldn’t have done it that way” cars, but to call it a dud is perhaps a little one-dimensional. It was clearly a ‘B’ team creation however.

    1. Hi Eóin. Believe it or not, the 125 was 202mm (8″) longer than the 124 (4,232mm vs 4,030mm) most of which was in the tail. There’s a lot of visual trickery going on to disguise the extra length and stop it looking tail-heavy.

      Looking at the comparative side profile photos above, the leading edge of the rear wheel arch starts (I would guess) around 40mm further back than on the 124. You can see this in the greater space between the rear door shut-line and the wheel arch than on the 124. The 125’s rear wheel arch is also flatter and considerably elongated compared to the 124’s. Even though the wheelbase is 85mm longer than that of the 124, there is still a noticeably greater distance between the rear wheel centre and the trailing edge of the wheel arch than between the wheel centre and the leading edge. (On the 124, these distances are roughly the same.) The tail aft of the wheel arch is also longer, but the greater wraparound of the rear bumper disguises this.

      All clever stuff on the part of the designer, but it gives away the fact that the 125 was a bit of a lash-up, compromised by the use of the 124’s centre section.

      As for the 124, its ‘sagging’ tail could have easily been corrected by keeping the crease horizontal behind the rear wheel arch, as I’ve mocked up above. That seems like a schoolboy error in comparison to the expertise lavished on the same area on the 125!

      And yes, they really did rust with ferocious enthusiasm in Ireland’s climate. My childhood next-door neighbours had one, bought new, which quickly succumbed. It was also notoriously reluctant to start when damp.

  9. Eóin, there is no need for apologies, as a non-native speaker I know too well that there are traps everywhere, in this case I had really doubts because of various possibilities. If you want you can just write “mezza” instead of “mezzo” and the half-car concept is there.

  10. The grandmother of one of my colleagues from university had a dark blue 125 S. The lady was presiding judge of a High Court of justice, so at least one customer must have seen the upper class aspirations of the 125. I held her in high respect for choosing such a car.

    1. She should have got a Lancia Flavia 2000 or 2000ie.
      Few cars fulfilled a brief so well: fast, decent traction thanks to huge Rzeppa joints, and a body that made the Fiat 125 ideas work. And a gearbox with 1st opposite Reverse, the best for parking.
      The Pininfarina Coupé was something else.

      Air con was an option, which would bring fuel consumption down below 20mpg — at a time when there was a Gulf Crisis, so not too good.
      Both iterations were complicated rust traps, it (almost) goes without saying.

    2. The boxer engined Lancias had one big disadvantage, they were painfully slow even in late 2000 fuel injected guise. Theywere no match for the lively 125, let alone a comparable Alfa.

  11. The 124’s sagging tail is odd – I wonder why they did it – was the wing line from the front to back meant to be an arc?

    Re the 125, my father bought one new, in 1970, to replace a Volvo 144. It was a very light blue / off-white colour. I’m afraid the Fiat lasted just over a year before it blew its engine – the bodywork was on the way out, too. My parents rated its performance and handling very highly, though and said it was fun to drive. It was replaced by a SAAB 99.

    Finally, here’s an advert – not sure about the Hammer House of Horror music.

  12. Ok, we’ve all been wondering about it all day, so I’m going to ask the question: what is up with that very elegant woman standing next to the Fiat 1500 Berlina? Has she stood in some dog-poo and is trying to scrape it of her shoe? We need to know.

    1. It may be one of two possibilities, Daniel. That she is (a) admiring her well turned ankles (and why wouldn’t she?), or (b) she is ensuring that all her chevrons are in alignment (and again, who wouldn’t want that?) Of course it could equally be neither of these things. Perhaps others might have a more sensible suggestion. Or not…

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