Under the Knife: Hit and Miss (and Hit again)

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…

1974 Fiat Mirafiori Special. Image: fiat.com

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.

1974 Fiat 131 Mirafiori Normale two-door. Image: autoviva.com

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.

Supermirafiori dashboard layout. Image: Driven to Write

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.

1978 Fiat Supermirafiori. Image Driven to Write

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 131 Sport. Image: Driven to Write

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.

1981 Fiat Supermirafiori. Image: virtualgarage.com

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.

1988 Tofaş Şahin. Image: Erol Şahin (Twitter)

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

47 thoughts on “Under the Knife: Hit and Miss (and Hit again)”

  1. Our Colorado household had 131 Brava Wagon and SuperBRAVA concurrently in 1984-87. Both were well-engineered. Seating comfort was given thoughtful attention.
    The 2.0 SuperBRAVA was very inviting on numerous ski trips….while the Wagon was a light and nimble workhorse. I can push the car with left foot while seating on the driver’s seat.
    Our only setback was that the nearest service center also the authorised Ferrari service provider. Hence equal labor rate applied……

    Oh by the way, we had Lancia HPE and Beta Coupe as well…..

    1. Good morning Faisal and welcome to DTW. Your two-Strada household must have been unique in the US, so thanks for sharing your recollections.

    2. How did the Lancias end up in Colorado? I thought Lancia gave up on the N US market before their launch. Did your 131 have the single spoke steering wheel? The last one of these I saw was in Zurich in 2007 and I regret not taking some photos. The interior design was very pleasing and yes, seats looked very comfortable. I can imagine your care were something of an exotic collecion amongst the Chryslers and Chevrolets. It is somewhat unfair you were billed Ferrari rates for a Fiat though. You´d imagine labour rates might be proportional to the car´s sale price and not the coincidence the workshop sometimes dealt in Ferraris!

    3. Good morning Richard. The interiors of the facelifted 131s really were rather nice places to be. The father of a schoolmate of mine had a pre-facelift 131 Normale, followed by a facelift Supermirafiori and the contrast was enormous. The former had brittle and rather cheap looking plastics inside, whereas the latter had soft-touch padded surfaces on the dashboard and door trims and lovely warm colours:

      Today’s automotive interior designers should take note.

    4. By 1984 Fiat had already withdrawn from the US market so those were “orphan” cars which is likely where having to go to a Ferrari dealer (or semi-independent Italian car specialist) for parts and service came from. By ’86 or so Malcolm Bricklin was bringing in X-1/9s and 124 Spyders under the names of their respective *carrozzerie*, although they were a separate dealer franchise from his Yugo operation and possibly each other – in my town (Burlington, VT) the Dodge dealer had Yugo as a sideline and the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer had the Bertone X-1/9 (never saw any Spyders there…)

  2. Good morning, Daniel. I never knew the Mirafiori had a one spoke steering wheel. Could be a question for a pub quiz: Name a car with a single spoke steering wheel that isn’t a Citroën.

    The sliding lids covering the glovebox remind me of boats and caravans. Interesting solution indeed.

    1. Name a car with a single spoke steering wheel that isn’t a Citroën.

      Hold my beer…
      1. Matra Bagheera
      2. Matra Murena
      3. Simca 1307 (and its rebadges and derivatives)
      4. Aston Martin Lagonda Series 2 (more specifically, units built between 1976 and 1980)
      5. Sunbeam Avenger (post-1976)
      6. Some 1980s trim levels of the Nissan Skyline
      7. Nissan S-Cargo
      Do the various steering wheels on Japanese cars featuring two downward spars (usually angled outwards) count?

    2. Haha! I knew Freerk’s rhetorical question would be catnip to DTW’s expert readership. Well done, Konstantinos!

    3. In my view the Bagheera and Murena have two spoke wheels. The purist in me kind of refuses to see the 1307 wheel as two spoke. One and a half maybe, same for the Avenger.

      The only car I could think of was the Lagonda. Should have thought about the S-cargo. But the Skyline I was completely unaware of.

    4. Here’s another one that has not been mentioned yet: Holden Calais, 1987:

  3. The original 131 brought innovations where you least expected them.
    It had the first OHV engine with a cambelt and it was the first car with a central light source in the dashboard powering optical fibres that illuminated the switches for minor functions and HVAC controls.

    1. I thought the first OHV with a cambelt was the 1961 Glas 1004.

    2. Glas had the first cambelt but an OHC engine.
      Fiat 131 and CX TurboD are the only OHV engines with a cambelt that I’m aware of.

    3. Despite what Liepedia tells us about the 131 engine, the 1972 Ford York diesel engine was the first pushrod ohv engine I am aware of with a cam belt. Fiat’s own Nuova Campagnola had the same arrangement, and was in production around six months before the 131.

  4. The Supermirafiori’s ‘signature’ colour, in Ireland at least, was this rather unusual non-metallic blue-grey:


  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this was probably last Fiat that had extremely long live in developing markets. After 124 (as Lada), 125 (South America and my home contry of Poland- where it lived until 125p until 1991 and as basically rebooted version – Polonez until 2002), 126 (again Poland until 2000….), 127 (Spain and Yugoslavia) and 128 (Yugoslavia again).

    The “numbered” Fiats from sixties and early seventies were especially lucky for long lifespans in communist countries, didn’t they? I’m not surprised as those were the last years when communist counties were on the rise, with some money to invest. After that it only got worse as you can see with the cars that were produced for decades in more and more deformed forms. Well, I do not miss those times 🙂

    1. Good morning, job, and thanks for your comment. Yes, I think you’re right, ignoring those models that lived on in South American markets, but those were still made by and sold as Fiats, unlike the 124, 128 and 131.

      I think the Tofaş, at least in saloon form, was the rare exception to the ‘mutant’ rule as it was a highly competent and credible facelift of the 131. The Kartal estate, although very practical, looked slightly awkward with a step in the rain gutter and oddly profiled D-pillar:

    2. Daniel, the rear door on the Kartal looks like a slightly tweaked Fiat Uno rear hatch? At least it looks like they used one as a starting point. I would guess the odd lines comes from the fact they had to build the longroof around parts that they already had available, and in this case from a completely different car.

  6. The Mirafiori… This is a true childhod memory for me. I used to see one of them almost every day. An Italian employee in my dad’s business had a first series one in a very nice, light metallic blue. I thought the unusual rear lights were rather appealing. As far as I can remember, these cars were not uncommon on our Swiss streets, but maybe it’s also this one, often seen example that fools my memory here.

    I was not aware of the single spoke steering wheel either. This feature instantly put the 131 on my ever growing list of cars I desire. What a disastrous blog this DTW is…!

  7. To what extent was the 131 still related to the 124 and 124 Sport Spider? Additionally was it also related to the larger 132/Argenta, unlike the case of the previous 124 and 1300/1500-based yet 124-bodied 125?

    Despite the 131 being sold as a 2-door saloon, did wonder if it have also spawned a decent looking successor to the 124 Sport Coupe.

    Returning back to the 132/Argenta, would love to know what Fiat’s original plans were for its replacement prior to initiating what would become the Type Four platform?

    1. Hi Bob. Regarding a 131-based replacement for the 124 Sport Coupé, the only image I uncovered of a prototype was this one:

      I’ll leave it to your own judgement as regards its looks. “Needs more work” would be my assessment. 😁

    2. Daniel

      Sigh, they could have drawn ideas from the 128 and 130 Coupes for a 131 Coupe, not to mention the stuff Moretti and others were producing.

  8. Dear Daniel
    Thanks for remiding me my driving career and part of the list of vehicles of my father.
    I learnt to drive in his SEAT 124 (1,247 cc engine, four speeds gearbox, four braking discs), and later a drove his SEAT 124 S (vinyl roof).
    The first 5-speed gearbox car I ever drove was his Barcelona made SEAT 131 Supermirafiori (1.6 l engine DOHC): I’ll never forget the first time I engaged fifth gear, I was expecting something like going into hyperspace!

    1. Hi Luis, yes, five-speed gearboxes seemed very exotic when they arrived in mainstream cars in the 1970’s. I wonder what was the first such car to be fitted with one? (The 131 must have been an early adopter.)

    2. The Alfa Giulia Sprint (the Giulietta with the 1,600 engine) had five gears from 1962/62. The Porsche 911 had five gears from the beginning and the Lancia Fulvia HF had five gears from 1969.

  9. If I think about it a bit, this car and rusting Asconas characterise the middle 1980s in Ireland. The blue colour Daniel highlights is pretty much the colour I have in mind for the SuperMira131. Apart from the inevitable rust, the 131 was a decent offering though I do wonder why Fiat didn´t have a range nearer the breadth of Opel and Ford. The volumes were considerable. The original edition has a pleasing severity to it – this was when car design was Modernist. You could easily adjust that theme with slightly bigger wheels to make it acceptable today.
    I can understand how the single spoke interior appeals to Simon; I´d probably only want one as a museum peice or to sit in inside a warm dry place. I looked again at Autoscout24 and found 4 examples for sale, with a standard model for 14K and some sport versions up at 20K plus. That is strange – a fairly ordinary car like the 131 being so much more expensive than the equivalent Lancia.

    1. Not that I’d really want to own one. But sitting inside one and taking a drive (which will be fun, I guess) is definitely on my wish list.

    2. Two of the 131s on offer are Sport versions with two litres and 115 PS. These are sought after and every now and then one comes on offer, mostly in astonishingly good condition and with a matching price.
      There’s also a rally Abarth in full group 4 trim with dry sump lubrication and fuel injection that is offered by a professional dealer that’s obviously a complete moron considering the number of faults he built into the offer. I wouldn’t want to bu a 214,000 EUR car from somebody like him.

  10. Re five-speed gearboxes, I suppose it depends to an extent on your definition of ‘mainstream’, but the 1969 Austin Maxi must be a contender.

    As for five-syllable model names, how about Metropolitan (Nash), Cosmopolitan (Lincoln) or Murciélago (Lamborghini)? ‘Supermirafiori’ has seven syllables, but perhaps it’s not considered a stand-alone model name.

    1. Hi Jonathan. Ah yes, the Maxi. If we ignore the terrible quality of the cable-operated gearshift, it must be a contender.

      ‘Supermirafiori’ is debatable for the reason you’ve mentioned, but we cannot argue with the others (and good to see someone reading the footnotes!)

    2. Not really bought on the five syllables, actually. For me, the ‘fio’ is actually closer to one syllable, the ‘io’ (pronounced more like ‘yo’, not ‘i-o’) is a diphthong. I’m no native Italian speaker, though, so I’m not aware how the Italians define their syllables.
      If I look at Italian songs with flowers (fiori), the i and o are never on separate notes…

  11. The level of detailed knowledge of so many cars as shown by the DTW readership is staggering imho.

  12. My then future brother in law bought one of these back in the mid-80’s … I think it was his first car. It was a yellow Supermirafiori, made a lovely noise and had corduroy seats! The build was a bit shonky as I recall, but it seemed very exotic to a young version of me at the time. Happy memories.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Robertas.

      The Marengo looks a bit ‘cut and shut’ with that body seam above the rear wheel arch, but I guess that didn’t matter on a commercial vehicle. There were Marengo versions of the Regata and Tempra as well, but they retained the rear doors of the estate cars.

  13. Those images of the Marengo remind me that the Mirafiori was available, post-facelift, with a diesel engine. Hence the “power” bulge, which approaches that of the contemporary Rekord diesel. I think the Mirafiori’s was a VM Motori unit, but I’m going on memory here. Sadly neither it nor the Opel’s powerplant conferred IMSA levels of performance on their recipients…
    As Richard says, the Mirafiori was pretty successful in Ireland (I’d add the Corolla K30 to the list of cars that characterise the era). Surely though it also has the sad distinction of being the last truly successful large Fiat anywhere? The Uno was successful all over Europe, and had a long afterlife in South America, but nothing bigger ever achieved anything like ubiquity in Northern Europe as far as I can tell.

    1. The Fiat’s diesel came from SOFIM (Renault), VM was used by Alfa.

    2. The SEAT 131 missed out on diesel power for its first four years before the SOFIM engines were offered.

      According to Liepedia:

      “In the meantime however, for a great number of Spanish taxi owners and other professionals who were opting for the SEAT 131 as their taxicab of choice, a very common practice was the after-market replacement with a diesel engine of a newly purchased gasoline-powered SEAT 131. Engines that were widely used for this purpose were derived from Perkins, Barreiros, Mercedes-Benz and Sava, but the most widespread option was the 52CV Sava 1,795 cc engine.”

      It’s pleasing to think that all these Spanish 131 taxis used a BMC B series engine. The Sava engine used in their licence-built J4 started out with the same design as the 1489cc British diesel. The 1.8, first introduced in 1977, seems to have been developed in-house by Sava, and evolved separately from the British 1.8 diesel used in the Sherpa from 1974 to 1986.

  14. They tried a hybrid version in the late ‘70s, using the 127’s 903 cc engine, which shows remarkable foresight.

  15. In the mid eighties I spent a lot of time working in Italy. Our agent drove me from Milan to Porto Fino in his diesel version (2litre horrible noisy thing) with his foot flat to the floor most of the journey. Terrifying journey and what I remember most about that car was the overpowering smell of the cheap plastic trim. Could of course have been my sense of smell heightened with blind fear.

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