Landmark design, vanity project, or just simply a pretty face?
There was no sensible rationale for the Fiat 130 Coupé. The market didn’t ask for it. Fiat Auto’s bottom line would not be strengthened by its presence. There was no gaping hole in the product line-up that it would fill. So why did it come to exist? Why did the normally market-savvy Mirafiori behemoth go to the trouble and expense of creating a Fiat like no other – was it simply because they could?
To attempt to understand this anomaly, one must first consider the situation Fiat Auto found itself in by the latter part of the 1960s. Europe was opening up and Fiat’s previously unchallenged domestic market dominance could no longer be taken for granted. In addition, research had illustrated that the majority of Mirafiori’s business was centred upon small, cheap cars from which little profit could be derived. It was clear to Fiat’s overseers that in order to future-proof the business, the carmaker would not only need to internationalise its output, but shift its focus upmarket.
The 1961 2300 berlina and its Ghia-bodied coupé derivative had up to then been Fiat’s Sixties flagship. Sales of this model outside of Italy were vanishingly small and even within the home market, owing to Italy’s draconian taxation policies, were confined to the affluent few. In 1967 Fiat’s upmarket gambit began to take shape with the debut of the Ferrari-powered and Bertone-designed Fiat Dino Coupé, swiftly followed by a Pininfarina-bodied Spider.
The following year marked the introduction of the 130 berlina, a ammiraglia intended to capture a slice of a growing European market for upscale saloons. The 130 was no half-hearted parts-bin raid either, but a serious ground-up design, carrying over virtually nothing from its predecessor. What was carried across however was something more akin to a carry-on – namely a schism within Fiat’s engineering centre where some senior engineers expressed vocal opposition to such a car – notably lead engineer, Dante Giacosa who felt it was instead Fiat’s moral duty to primarily provide affordable transport.
Placing aside his opposition, Giacosa’s engineering team went about their business with characteristic thoroughness. A new platform, new front and rear suspensions and a new, unique to the model V6 engine, designed under the auspices of Aurelio Lampredi. Clothing this state of the art rear-wheel-drive design was a body of formality and bearing. Created within Centro Stile Fiat under Gian Paolo Boano, the 130’s style married elements from concurrent Fiat saloons with a subtle nod to 1963’s Buick Riviera.
Conservative in style, it was largely overlooked upon its debut in 1968, although its chassis and ride were praised. However, sales were anything but buoyant and with reports of slothful performance, unreliability and a deep, unquenchable thirst for benzina, a series of revisions were quickly put in train.
Some accounts have since suggested that stung by the poor initial sales of the 130 berlina, Fiat management were spurred into sanctioning a more upmarket coupé – an assertion which sounds highly implausible. It is far more likely that a coupé was already in the product plan, Fiat’s ambition having been to export it widely, notably to the United States where the market for imported coupés was both lucrative and abundant.
The briefing for the design is said to have taken place in 1968 with senior Pininfarina designer, Franco Martinengo leading the programme. A number of different proposals were put forward initially prior to that of designer, Paolo Martin being chosen to go forward for development. It was at this point that carrozzerria Pininfarina’s talents really shone, for it was undoubtedly the work of the largely unheralded and sadly, nameless artisans who really teased out the nuances of Martin’s initial proposal and those at Cambiano were of the very highest calibre.
Paolo Martin created the two defining saloon car shapes of the 1970s at Pininfarina, yet they couldn’t have been more different. And just as Battista Pininfarina’s 1956 Florida II concept would prefigure the nature of the three volume saloon for a generation, Martin’s 130 Coupé would do likewise for the coming decade – underlining just how prescient Pininfarina at their zenith were as a design consultancy. While the 130 design was undoubtedly that of Martin, it was also very much a Pininfarina design, being imbued with a good deal of stylistic influence and feeling from Florida II, which was of course a design very much in the same idiom.
The styling of the 130 Coupé was characterised by the harmonious relationship between the individual volumes, each being painstakingly located and masterfully integrated. A simple three volume shape then, but the relative simplicity of the silhouette is deceptive; there being a huge effort expended to lend the car a richness in detail, that when studied closely is breathtaking in both precision and control.
Forced by the height of the engine and radiator to maintain a linear bonnet height, Martin cleverly incorporated a dip in the bonnet and wing line forward of the radiator position, which pulled the eye downwards and allowed for the car’s distinctive linear nose treatment. The sharply cut off nose section, with inset grille and modish integrated headlamp units situated within a thin slot; the grille and headlamps being read as a single entity was an innovative treatment and one which lent the 130 a distinctly modernist mien.
The unadorned bodysides, with the Pininfarina trademark dihedral crease along the beltline lent the flanks some visual heft. Keen to avoid a slab-sided appearance, Martin incorporated a deep scallop at shoulder-level, which picked up just at the point where the bonnet line dipped, running the length of the car before terminating at the tail. This had the effect of lightening the profile significantly, drawing the eye away from the distinctly tall, formal roofline.
The side glazing was a clear reference to that of the Lancia Florida – the deep and steeply raked C-pillar being exquisitely blended into the rear three quarters and semi-flush rear screen; the treatment here once again illustrating faint reflections of Florida/ Flaminia.
Aft, the tail was simple, yet elegant, with a subtle lip being incorporated into the bootlid for airflow purposes. The tail lamp units were broad wrap-around affairs, also striking a distinctly modern note. So too was the superbly laid out cabin design, which incorporated elements of the 130 berlina’s interior, but with an added dimension of richness and intelligent use of modern materials.
But no design is perfect. The front end, despite Pininfarina’s best efforts couldn’t quite disguise its height, and while the polyurethane bumper end-caps, while undoubtedly practical, struck a discordant note and looked a little cheap. The tail too, while elegant, tended slightly towards blandness. But nitpicking aside, the futuristic, yet deeply traditional 130 Coupé was a stunner. Pininfarina really did themselves proud in this instance.
While the 130 berlina was heavily criticised for its appearance – in fact it was as disciplined, correct and market-appropriate as anything from Munich or Untertürkheim – the Coupé by contrast elicited only gasps of admiration at its introduction at Palexpo 1971. The only downside appeared to be the rather proletarian badge upon its prow, many observers noting that such a beautiful shape ought to have been clothing something from Maranello, Viale Ciro Menotti or (perhaps more to the point), Borgo San Paolo.
Whether a more storied nameplate would have improved the dismal sales figures is moot, but is it relatively easy to imagine that prospective customers might have baulked less at an asking price in the ballpark of Citroën’s SM or BMW’s 3.0 CSI to name but two, had a more storied emblem have been affixed.
Technically, the 130 Coupé carried over most componentry from the sibling berlina. New for 1971 on both models was an expanded 3235 cc version of the Lampredi 60° V6 unit designed for the model, developing 165 bhp. Front suspension consisted of struts attached to forged transverse lower arms, with transverse torsion bars providing the suspension medium.
The rear suspension (which were subject to a Fiat patent) consisted of struts and coil springs anchored longitudinally by a lower arm which pivoted at the base of the suspension strut, aft and forward to the crossmember housing at the rear end of the propshaft. Anti-roll bars were fitted front and rear and brakes were discs all round. The Coupé’s dampers were setup for a slightly firmer response to that of the saloon.
Fiat’s due diligence paid off, dynamically at least; the Coupé being lauded for not only for its road behaviour, ride comfort and refinement, but for the space, comfort and logical layout of its beautifully appointed cabin. But despite several vocal aficionados amid the auto press, the 130 Coupé failed to ignite.
Despite the larger capacity, the enlarged V6 engine’s performance remained below expectations and fuel economy didn’t improve either – both allegedly factors of the engine’s inherent design. This might not have mattered had the 1973 fuel crisis not placed such matters somewhat front and centre, but in its wake, sales of indulgent motor cars like this collapsed – especially in Italy – the 130’s primary market. It remains unclear why Fiat never carried out its plans to export the Coupé to the American market, since US sales might have saved the car’s business case.
All matters move towards their end; the 130 in berlina and Coupé form bowing out in 1977, replaced (indirectly at least) by Lancia’s smaller capacity Gamma. Coupé production amounted to a rather pathetic 4491 cars, built alongside 124 Spiders (and others) at Pininfarina’s Grugliasco plant in Turin.
But even though the 130 Coupé was shortlived and unsuccessful, its afterlife proved to be more fruitful, inspiring the designs of innumerable cars and concepts, including the 1972 Ferrari 365 GT4 2+2, Frua’s 1975 Maserati Kyalmi, 1976’s Lancia Gamma Coupé, the 1977 Caprice by Chevrolet, Ford’s Granada II of the same year, and even 1981’s C126 Mercedes. Jaguar too tried reflecting the 130’s styling themes during their 8-year search for a definitive XJ40.
To this day Paolo Martin’s 130 remains a stylistic touchstone and enduring archetype of a certain classical modernism, of a style which spoke of the open road, of languid coastal journeys, of evening light on open water, a fine meal, good company, an amorous rendezvous. The 130 Coupé then was a car for a man of affairs – a man like l’avvocato Agnelli for example. Could it really be that the 130 Coupé was created primarily with him in mind? After all, when you control not only the mighty Fiat industrial group, but bestride the nation like royalty, with the Adriatic coastline your personal playground, you could probably get away with that sort of thing.
And sometimes, just sometimes, beauty alone is enough.
 This isn’t quite accurate, upmarket Fiats not being entirely unheard of, even in the postwar era. In 1952, Fiat introduced the 8V coupé. It was however to prove shortlived and was built in very small numbers.
 Lending credence to this is the fact that Fiat’s 1971 press release for the 130 states that the body was designed to meet US safety regulations.
 At the time the 130 was being created at Pininfarina, clay was not used by the modellers there. Instead, they used styrofoam, before handing over to the ‘tinnies’, which is where the real artistry took place. My thanks to C.B. for this correction – the text above has been altered accordingly.
 The 1967 Berlina Aerodynamica for BMC was also believed to be a Paolo Martin design, working closely alongside Pininfarina’s Leonardo Fioravanti. Amongst his other noted designs for Pininfarina are the 1970 Modulo concept and the 1976 Lancia Beta Monte Carlo.
 In a latterday interview, Paolo Martin stated that the advanced headlamp designs were hampered by the lighting technology of the time. He added that circular headlamps (which preformed better) were to be substituted for the proposed US market version.
 Amongst the cabin’s highlights was the beautiful ribbed roofliner, the elegant and modernist doorhandle cum-armrest and the subtle lever in the driver’s footwell which opened the passenger door remotely: Suave. The Coupé dashboard was adopted wholesale for the revised second-series 130 berlina, which also gained the same technical revisions.
 Given the vagaries of the Italian market, there was no way it alone could have supported the 130, even without the effects of the oil crisis. Add into the mix the charged political situation during the 1970s, the risk of high profile individuals being kidnapped (or worse) and cars like this soon became a genuine liability.
 It wasn’t simply the lack of cachet in the Fiat name. Customers trading against a 130 Coupé were not only unused to the Fiat dealership experience, but the dealers themselves were inexperienced in handling upmarket trade-ins and lacked training in customer expectations at this level. Citroen dealers experienced similar issues handling the SM.
 While Pininfarina built the Coupé, the 130 berlina was constructed at Fiat’s Rivalta plant.