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