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