The Fiat 131 Mirafiori was facelifted twice during its decade-long lifespan. The first was highly effective, the second rather less so. That was not, however, the end of the story…
The 1974 131 Mirafiori(1) was Fiat’s replacement for its 1966 124 model. It was offered in two and four-door saloon and five-door estate variants. Like its predecessor, the 131 was a resolutely conventional front-engined RWD design, with 1.3 and 1.6-litre OHV engines derived from those in the 124 and mounted longitudinally. Transmission was via a four-speed manual gearbox, with the option of a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic on the larger engined model.
The styling was neat and conservative, and the car grew modestly in wheelbase, length and width compared to the 124. One notable change was the abandonment of the 124’s pronounced shoulder line: the 131’s glasshouse was pushed out to be almost flush with the lower bodysides, to increase shoulder room and the feeling of interior space. The design had few stylistic flourishes. These were limited to a groove in the bodysides and indented longitudinal pressings in the bonnet and boot lid inboard of the wings.
One oddity was the sideways-T-shaped rear light units, which looked as though the inboard reversing lights had been added as an afterthought. There were just two trim levels at launch, base (Normale) and S (Special). The latter was distinguished externally by twin 5¾” circular headlamps, chrome window surrounds and a side rubbing strip, rather oddly mounted immediately above the bodyside groove. The base model had single rectangular headlamps that looked slightly undersized and seemed to be mounted a little too far inboard within the grille.
Inside, the S was distinguished by cloth rather than vinyl upholstery and a fuller complement of instruments, albeit still housed in a rather cheap and brittle looking black plastic dashboard with silver painted highlights.
The 131 was a strong seller for Fiat, but was beginning to look a bit dated by 1978, especially after the launch of the built by robots Fiat Ritmo(2). The 131 was given a facelift that involved no major panel changes but was highly effective in updating the design. The bonnet and boot lid lost their indented pressings. The grille on all models now incorporated custom-made large rectangular(3) headlamps that bookended the grille neatly. At the rear, similarly sized rectangular tail lights replaced the T-shaped originals. The flanks were smoothed out simply by moving the side rubbing strip down to conceal the groove.
Inside, the 131 was given a much-improved dashboard made from deeply padded plastic mouldings, which were also used for the revised door linings. Distinctive features included a new single-spoke steering wheel and an unusually wide glovebox with twin sliding lids(4). A new upmarket Supermirafiori(5) model was introduced with a 1.6-litre DOHC 95bhp (71kW) engine. It was distinguished by grey plastic semi-integrated bumpers instead of the chromed steel bar originals and highly distinctive cloverleaf-patterned steel sports wheels.
The effect of these changes was to bring the 131 into line with the contemporary style introduced by the Ritmo and give it a much more youthful appeal. This was enhanced by the introduction of a halo model, the 131 Racing(6), a two-door saloon version with a 2.0-litre DOHC 113bhp (85kW) engine and a perforated front grille with dual circular 7” outer and 5¾” inner headlamps. This model was designed to capitalise on the 131’s success as a rally car, winning the World Rally Championship three times between 1977 and 1980.
Fiat again facelifted the 131 in 1981, albeit in a more minor way. The upper side rubbing strip was deleted, revealing the hidden bodyside groove again, and a lower bodyside moulding added instead, either a rubbing strip on lower line models, or deeper cladding with matching wraparound bumpers on upper range versions. New, slimmer rear light units were fitted, which neatly bookended a rectangular rather than square aperture for the number plate (but overlapped the corners of the rear wings somewhat uncomfortably). Inside, the dashboard remained unchanged apart from the replacement of the sliding glovebox lids with a more conventional and practical lift-up item.
This was possibly a facelift too far for the now dated 131. Whereas the first facelift had smoothed out and updated the lines of the car very successfully, as well as giving it a much more pleasant interior, the second had a hint of desperation about it, like an ageing actress with rather too much make-up to hide the wrinkles. This notwithstanding, the 131 remained on the market for a further three years before being discontinued in 1984. Over a decade on sale, more than 1.5 million examples found buyers.
That was not, however, the end of the story for the 131. It lived on in Turkey, Egypt and, finally, Ethiopia as the Tofaş Şahin, Doğan, and Kartal until 2010. The car received a comprehensive facelift in 1988, clearly inspired by the Regata(7), Fiat’s replacement for the 131. The bodysides finally lost the indented groove and the front end featured a sloping grille with rectangular headlamps and outboard indicators. The rear deck was raised and the boot sill lowered, and properly integrated horizontal tail lights were fitted. The Kartal estate version was even given a raised roof line over the load space, increasing its carrying capacity.
This was a remarkably thorough and competent facelift, far removed from the deformed mutants that sometimes live on in developing markets long after mainstream production has ceased. Of course, it remained the case that the car’s newly smartened appearance was disguising underpinnings that were already decades old, but it was robust and reliable, which was far more important than cutting-edge engineering in developing markets. In any event, back in 1974, Fiat can have had little idea that the 131 Mirafiori would live on in its various guises for thirty-six years.
(1) Named in honour of the Stabilimento di Mirafiori, Fiat’s headquarters and largest manufacturing plant at that time. As an aside, I cannot think of any other car model name comprising a single five-syllable word. Can you?
(2) Called Strada in the UK (but not in the Republic of Ireland, interestingly).
(3) In the US, where the 131 was sold as the Brava, it continued to feature twin circular headlamps to comply with lighting regulations.
(4) This was a novel but somewhat impractical arrangement, since more than half the glove box was still covered with either one of the sliding lids in the open position.
(5) According to Ian Fraser, writing in the August 1978 issue of Car Magazine, the 1973 Oil Crisis deterred Fiat from introducing a sporting version of the 131 at launch and the company was “grossly overly cautious” in this regard.
(6) The 131 Racing was called the Mirafiori Sport in the UK and Ireland because Fiat was afraid the insurance industry would take fright at the original name.
(7) The facelifted car was, however, better proportioned than the Regata, which suffered from the tall, long and narrow stance that often afflicted hatchbacks subsequently converted into three-box saloons.