Under the Knife – One to Seven

The 1971 Fiat 127 proved to be an extraordinarily popular and enduring design. DTW recalls its many iterations, some pleasing, others rather less so.

1971 Fiat 127 (first series). (c) autoweek

The Fiat 127 was a supermini wholly in the modern idiom, with its transverse engine, end-on gearbox and a three-door hatchback bodystyle(1). It was not, however the world’s first such design: that title goes to the 1964 Autobianchi Primula. The Primula was, however, engineered by Fiat, which held an equal 33% share in the company alongside Pirelli and the Bianchi family. Fiat was able to use the Autobianchi marque to develop and market the new FWD technology without placing its own reputation at risk. By the time the 127 was launched, its mechanical package was already well proven.

1971 Fiat 127 (c) Classic and Performance Car

The styling of the 127 was credited to Pio Manzù. It was a pretty and pert design, having a neat upswept waistline and a castellated clamshell bonnet with rectangular headlamps inset into its raised corners. The only practical drawback was a high loading lip at the rear and a narrow opening on the booted version. The car was a deserving winner of the 1972 European Car of the Year and sold strongly across the continent.

Fiat wanted to maintain its strong sales momentum and launched the facelifted Series Two model in May 1977. Both front and rear ends were revised. The bonnet lost its raised castellated corners and the headlamps were lowered and incorporated into a full-width grille. The indicator/ sidelight units were now positioned within the front bumper. At the rear, the hatchback sill was lowered by about 50 mm and new larger tail lights incorporating reversing lamps were relocated to immediately above the bumper.

1977 Fiat 127 (second series) (c) drive-my.com

The upswept waistline was replaced by a more angular shape incorporating a ‘Hofmeister kink’ into the trailing edge of the rear side window. The chrome bumpers were replaced by either black painted steel bars with plastic end caps, or wraparound grey plastic units, depending on the spec. Inside, a new dashboard lost the strip of wood-effect plastic that had garnished the original and, consequently, looked rather plain and cheap.

The changes certainly freshened up the 127, but it is a moot point as to whether or not the Series Two model was more attractive than the original. I would argue not. Worse however, was to come.

The Series Three 127 was launched in January 1982. Fiat was in the midst of its fantastic plastic period and this wrought havoc upon the unfortunate ten year old supermini. Large rectangular headlamps with outboard indicators replaced the neat originals. A much deeper plastic grille was fitted, as was a large plastic bumper that covered the car’s front valance. The lights and grille were surrounded by ill-fitting pieces of plastic attached to the leading edges of the front wings and bonnet. The latter piece was, inexplicably, made in two parts that joined at the centre of the bonnet.

1982 Fiat 127 (third series) Image: autodata1

At the rear, a deep plastic bumper was fitted and the new tail lights were surrounded by clumsy looking thick plastic mouldings that needlessly added length to the car. The flanks received more plastic mouldings between the wheel arches – full-depth on higher spec models. One can only conclude that Fiat was trying to make the 127 resemble the 1978 Ritmo/ Strada, with its integrated plastic bumper shields at both ends. It missed by a mile.

All of this plastic cladding completely overwhelmed the delicacy of the original design. Even worse, the mouldings were of poor quality and quickly faded and distorted under a hot sun. Even year-old examples so exposed could look remarkably shabby and neglected. The best one can say about the Series Three 127 is that it only lasted a year before being replaced with the Uno in 1983.

Seat 127 4P. (c) automania.be

That should have been the end of the 127 story, but it was far from it. Fiat’s Spanish affiliate, SEAT, had been building the 127 since 1972 and had added models with two extra passenger doors in 1973 to suit its local market preferences. Otherwise, updates to the SEAT 127 mirrored those applied to its Italian sister, except that the two and four-door booted versions remained in production up to 1981, whereas Fiat had discontinued the two-door 127 in 1977.

The relationship between the two manufacturers ended acrimoniously in 1982 when Fiat refused to participate in a capital raising exercise for SEAT. Its licences to build the Ritmo and 127 were terminated, so SEAT was forced to redesign both models so that they could be adjudged sufficiently different to the Italian versions that they were no longer infringing Fiat’s copyrights. SEAT’s replacement for the 127 was the Fura.

1983 SEAT Fura Dos (c) lautomobileancienne.com

The first Fura was visually identical to the Series Three 127, but SEAT facelifted it modestly in 1983 to become the Fura Dos, giving it shallower headlamps and a different grille, which only partly undid the damage Fiat had inflicted. The Fura Dos ended production in 1986, having been supplanted by SEAT’s own supermini, the 1984 Ibiza.

The 127 enjoyed a parallel existence in South America. It was the first car manufactured in Fiat’s new Brazilian plant from 1976 and was sold as the 147. The first version had a front end that was a curious hybrid of the 127 Series One and Series Two, with high-level rectangular headlamps connected by a horizontal grille, below which was a metal panel containing separate indicators above the bumper.

The bonnet was flat, with the centre section raised to the level of the Series One’s castellated corners. The car had the ‘Hofmeister-kink’ window line that Fiat copied for the 127 Series Two model, but with a unique plastic vent in the rear quarter panel. At the rear, the tail-lamps were also of a unique (?) design.

The 147 was facelifted in 1979 and given a slim reverse-rake grille and lower bonnet line. A further facelift in 1983 made the front end more vertical and it was given Fiat’s new five-bar corporate grille, similar to that of the Uno. This version was given the suffix Spazio(2) to distinguish it from the earlier model, which continued in low-line versions for a period. The 147 remained in production in Brazil until 1987.

Fiat 147 Oggi. Credit – see image.

A two-door estate derivative of the 147 called the Panorama was built from 1980 to 1986, while a three-box saloon derivative called the Oggi was manufactured for just two years from 1983.

The 147 was also produced in Argentina from 1981. It was facelifted in November 1984 with the five-bar grille and renamed Spazio (without the 147 prefix). It was given larger 1.3 and 1.4 litre engines and, although visually unchanged, renamed Vivace in 1993. Production finally ended in 1996, twenty-five years after the launch of the 127.

Fiat 147 Spazio. Image: favcars

Over that quarter of a century, the 127 and its derivatives had a total of seven different front-end treatments. Is that a modern automotive record? In any event, my vote goes to the car in its purest and prettiest original form, although I would nominate the Brazilian Spazio as the most successful facelift.

(1) The 1971 launch car had a conventional enclosed boot. The hatchback was added after a year in production.

(2) An unfortunate choice for those familiar with Anglo-Saxon slang, reminding us again of the perils of automotive nomenclature.

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

24 thoughts on “Under the Knife – One to Seven”

  1. The original 147 was often criticised for having a ‘Far Eastern’ look because of the upswept beltline (the same criticism was pointed at the first 128 coupé). In both cases I agreed with that cricitism and still do.
    The first facelift cleaned that up as well ads the (then) old fashioned front end with its separate gille and at least in my eyes looked much better.
    The second version should be forgiven its facelift also because it brought us the 127 70 HP Sport which had a lot of power for the time in such a small car

    1. Good morning Dave. That’s interesting about the rising waistline of the original 127 being perceived as ‘too Far-Eastern’. Intriguingly, despite first impressions, the Mk2 127 and 147/Spazio were not identical in their window treatment. The 127 retained a subtly rising waistline, whereas the waistline on the South American cars was arrow-straight. Here are some comparative photos:


    2. Regarding the 128 Coupé, I always preferred the original, which I thought rather more stylish than the rather plain 3P hatchback replacement:

      Both cars were identical from the B-pillar forward.

    1. Good morning Marco. I have, and I think it’s really nice:


      So much more interesting than many identikit current supermini designs. Fiat should make this as an EV.

    2. The 127 is also very similar to the Honda EV. or the other way around.

  2. Cannot really see the appeal of the Series 1 Fiat 127 at the front (specifically the headlights) though the rest of it is fine, there must of been other alternative styling proposals during its development that could have been an improvement. Much prefer the Series 2/Series 3 Fiat 127, SEAT Frua (that received a 5-door hatchback) as well as the 147/Spazio.

    Find it difficult to view the 70-75 hp Fiat 127 Sport as befitting its name (let alone the 70 hp 127 Abarth) when compared to the smaller lighter and more renowned 58-70 hp Autobianchi A112 Abarth, at best the 127 Sport should have been comparable to the 84 hp Mk1 Ford Fiesta XR2 either by way of an uprated 1.3 or carrying over the 85 hp 1.5 engine from the Ritmo 85 and X1/9 1500.

  3. Thank you Daniel for reminding us of the car which, at its introduction, was hailed in some quarters as the car which BLMC should by then have been producing. The Mini had been resting on its laurels, and despite the hype about its handling and efficient use of space, remained a harsh-riding and ill-equipped road-going roller skate. Great fun if you liked that sort of thing but a pain if you didn’t.
    Suddenly, with the 127, we had the Mini concept with proper seats, decent insulation (both sound and climate) which was still fun to drive but managed to remain so at the end of a long journey. Somebody (was it a Car magazine staffer?) coined the term ‘Supermini’ and before we knew it we had the Renault 5, the Ford Fiesta et al – and the Mini was upstaged for ever.
    Viewing the likes of the 127 with the benefits of hindsight (especially when you are all so obviously young!) can sometimes miss the impressions a vehicle made on its introduction. A friend had one of the first and being allowed to drive it was a revelation: perhaps this FWD idea wasn’t so bad after all (I’d always preferred the Hillman Imp to the Mini). But did I buy one? Not when for far less money I could buy a 3-year old Triumph Spitfire Mklll…..

    1. Hi JTC. I well remember the launch of both the 127 and the Renault 5. They were a revelation, just a bit larger than the Mini, but a huge improvement in terms of comfort and refinement. It is a tragedy that it took BL ten years to catch up and launch the Metro, which certainly didn’t represent a decade’s worth of progress over either the Fiat or Renault.

      Well done on the Spitfire. I did something similar when I first moved to London and bought an eight year-old Midget 1500. Needless to remark, rust was lurking not far below its superficially pristine white paintwork, but I still loved it.

  4. Great article; particularly as it is another one about a car that is unfamiliar to me personally.

    It’s interesting to see a number of comments preferring the 2nd series styling: My initial reaction was also that it is neater and more coherent (I think this is to do with the horizontal line that headlights and grille form in this iteration) but a second look leads me to recognise that the original has more character and its profile is delightful. I will refrain from comment upon the 3rd series…

    1. Hi Chris. Glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree that the Mk2 is smoother and more conventional, but the Mk1 is more characterful. As for the woeful Mk3, however, Fiat’s plastics at that time were hopelessly poor quality and quickly became bleached and distorted, even in Northern Europe. Here’s the typical end result:


      I’m not sure, but I suspect that the plastic strip across the leading edge of the bonnet is covering the cut-out for the Mk2’s grille, so they didn’t have to alter the metalwork for the Mk3. If you take a look at the photo of the Fura above (which replaced the Mk3), you can see SEAT still had to use a filler piece, this time shaped exactly to the cut-out. The 147/Spazio instead got a different bonnet with a straight leading edge.

  5. This morning I posted a response bemoaning the demise of small brands like Autobianchi. They´d be useful for niche products and experiments. Ford can used Vignale now; Fiat could keep Lancia for one or two models and we see BMW using MINI but lettting it get out of hand with a model range much larger than it needs to be.

  6. Haha, the one-two-seven. A car where memories come back.
    Beginning the 70th one of my uncles grirlfriends, a very funny and also very good looking girl, had a 127 series 1. As cool as she was she drove the 127.
    A few years later when I started dating her, she still drove her 127. Beautiful woman, beautiful car, beautiful journeys, beautiful arrivals…

  7. Nice article, thank you.

    I, too, recall the 127’s launch – my father had a 125 at the time, so I was given quite a bit of merchandise by the dealer. I have a badge, somewhere, with a slogan along the lines of “The Big Little Fiat 127”.

    Plenty of (rather charming) films about it on Centro Storico Fiat, including this one:

    And some pictures of the prototypes, courtesy of Car Design Archives.

    1. Great period video, Charles. Thanks for sharing. I love the ‘futuristic’ (for the 1970’s) digital clock that seems always to feature in these Centro Storico Videos.

    2. Funny, italian filmmakers (and some others) did feature films in the 70th the same way.

    1. Gosh, I’d forgotten about that advertisement. Imagine how suicidal it would be to run such an advertisement today. Times have changed, for the better in many respects, despite all we have to worry about these days.

  8. I suppose the Primula was the first “hatchback” transverse-engine with end-on gearbox vehicle. But it certainly wasn’t the first car built in quantity that way.

    The Borgward Goliath GP 700 and 900 built from 1950 to 1957 had transverse engine and end on-gearbox, as did the sister company’s Lloyd air-cooled 400 from 1953, so Fiat/Autobianchi didn’t have to look far for “inspiration”. You can see a photograph of the Goliath power-unit/gearbox here:

    https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/cohort-sighting-1951-goliath-gp-700-rometsch-looks-like-a-porsche-but-this-fwd-coupe-pioneered-fuel-injection/

    The first Saab, the 92, had a transverse engine even earlier than the Goliath, but who knows about the gearbox location? Those who visit the Saab Museum, I suppose.

    This hatchback obsession at DTW I’ve wondered about before. I see them as not much more than an shortened estate/station wagon for the impecunious or those not requiring excess length, not a much ballyhooed inspirational moonshot of the imagination. But that’s me. Practically speaking, a 1960 Ford Anglia estate is a hatchback.

    Renault made the 16 a hatchback in 1964, but didn’t seem that deeply wedded to the idea when they brought out the 12 four years later, so the concept didn’t exactly rattle the collective automotive world with its innovation. I was a car enthusiast in the 1960s and cannot remember anyone wandering around in a daze saying about hatchbacks: “I wish I’d thought of that!” As with end-on gearboxes for transverse-engined FWD cars, the hatchback seemed quite logical and obvious at the time. It was Issigonis with his gearbox in the sump who was the outlier, surely?

    1. Hi Thomas, you got one on the driver’s side because they were generally mandatory, but that was it, at least on cheaper cars.

  9. Our Alfasud Sprint fom 1978 has just one on the driver´s side, and it wasn´t a really cheap car those days.

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