Sunday Service : Standing Out

Some things simply take time.

Despite appearances, not everything is monochrome in West Cork. Image: The author.

Outstanding: As an adjective, it’s one that’s prone to be overused, or maybe ill-employed; frequently used to describe something which is at best average. The 1993 Coupé Fiat (as it was designated by the marketers in Turin) was an above-average car, well regarded, possessed of the expected verve and swagger one had come to expect from a close coupled Italian. However, despite its undoubted appeal as a driving tool, the descriptor did not entirely apply. For while the Coupé Fiat was rather good, it did not raise the art of corner-carving, or apex skirting to any noticeable extent.

Where Fiat’s mid-’90s coupé offering did stand out however was in the visual realm. Because, it can be said without fear of contradiction, that at its debut, the Coupé Fiat looked like nothing else on the road. Part of the reason for that of course was the fact that it was, in stylistic terms wholly unoriginal. Now before you write in and question my eyesight, my sanity or my critical faculties, allow me elaborate.

The Coupé Fiat was perhaps the most original unoriginal design to be rendered in CAD/CAM, insofar as it was to a large extent a compilation, a roll-call of close to fifty years of (mostly) Italian sports car design, cleverly amalgamated into one oddly cohesive shape. Its originator, as even the dogs in the street know, was none other than enfant terrible, Mr Christopher Edward Bangle – otherwise known to a sizeable subset of the automotive firmament as Lucifer incarnate, and the reason we’re in the fine stylistic mess we find ourselves in now. (A view that I find laughably simplistic, for the record.)

Taken in isolation, the forms and surfaces of the car are wholly incongruent, and as such, really ought not gel into anything remotely resembling cohesiveness, yet owing to a combination of a strong theme, some solid, if slightly offset proportions (almost Citroënseque if you squint a little), and some really assured art direction at studio and design management level, the Fiat transcends its narrow remit and enters a realm all to itself.

Now close to three decades since its debut, time’s passage has lent the already retrospective Fiat an even headier sense of nostalgia than the one it started out with. And yet, in stark contradiction, it also stands as something of a post-modernist trailblazer, for there is really something quite contemporary about the Coupé Fiat even now, in that it previewed the latter-day mania for surface expression.

There is a lot more to said about the Coupé Fiat’s design, but mercifully a good deal of the heavy lifting has already been done by esteemed former DTW author, Mr. R Herriott, who has lent the Coupé Fiat design the benefit of his gimlet gaze. Speaking of which, both he and I spent probably more time than was strictly decorous stroking our chins over this very example one particularly precipitous summer evening of late (well it’s West Cork after all…)

Photography of this car (which took place some time before this), was limited by the fact that your author was on dog-walking duty – impatient, attention-deficient canines with their union representatives on speed-dial, should their servant and provider of all good things in life fall short of their standards. Hence, what we have must suffice.

Image: The author

But what prompted these photos, in addition to the fact that a Coupé Fiat is now a vanishingly rare sighting just about anywhere was the presence of a car that serves as backdrop. Never direct rivals, the T160-series Toyota Celica ran from 1985 until 1989, making it if anything an even less likely sighting, especially round these parts.

What is striking about the two cars when juxtaposed, is the degree to which Centro Stile Fiat moved the aesthetic forward. Some four years separate the end of fourth-gen Celica production with the Fiat’s debut, and yet they seem from entirely different generations. The Celica is a pleasant looking design, and at the time of its introduction, wholly contemporary – even if it was often cited as curating elements of past designs in its makeup – yet seen against the Fiat it appears flat, somewhat boneless. But am I being unfair – is it not the contrast that makes it so?

There are a number of readings one could posit here. One is view the Coupé Fiat as the result of a period of intense creative freedom within Centro Stile, when both stylistic and supervisory management were of similarly progressive mind – certainly, the car could not have made production within any other environment. Another is to view it as the creation of a singular mind – the much clichéd stylistic visionary.

Mr. Bangle has been hailed as such, for as much as his name has oft been taken in vain for alleged sins against the Vierzylinder, he has equally been lauded by those who cite him as a creative genius. But let’s for a moment leave aside his later career and consider Bangle as a young designer, fizzing with ideas, who with careful but courageous direction brought forth a car of immense confidence and lasting appeal.

Because, if anything, the Coupé Fiat’s design seems even more outstanding now than it did in 1993.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

30 thoughts on “Sunday Service : Standing Out”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I remember when the Coupé Fiat went on sale. I absolutely loved it. I dragged my dad along to the Fiat showroom. Outside was an older couple looking at a Punto Convertible. They seemed very interesting in buying the car. When the salesman came out he completely ignored them and walked straight to us. Clearlythe Coupé had higher margins. We didn’t buy it of course, but I still have the brochure. Not sure if the Punto was sold.

    I think the Celica was more poplar over here, but it’s been ages since I saw one. Same is true for the Fiat. Where have all the coupés gone?

    1. Freerk, the question as to where all the coupés have gone has two answers: the new ones have mostly disappeared because they sell for about two years and then fade away and that’s not an indulgence to be countenanced in these days of small margins in the motor industry (Peugeot said that the RCZ was going to be their last coupé and I believe Renault said the same about the Laguna coupé). The second answer is that the used ones like the Fiat and Toyota that Eóin spotted have disappeared due to the usual issues of rust and lack of spares, something that I understand particularly afflicts the Fiat.

  2. The Fiat Coupé is a car I have long struggled to appreciate properly. Rationally and intellectually, I understood that those three dramatic rising lines that define the design; the front and rear wheel arch slashes and the crease that runs from the centre of the door skin and defines the lower edge of the rear side window, are genius in their apparent simplicity, confidence and coherence.

    Taking the design as a whole, however, my emotional reaction was always to see a rather dumpy shape that lacks the elegance and dynamism I associate with coupés. However, I’m slowly getting there, and it has been a worthwhile journey.

    Here are some more flattering photos of the car than Eóin’s above, that might help others on the same journey:

    Now, my only real criticism of the design are those metal rings that form the rear light apertures. They are the only ‘thin’ detail on the design and the rear panel would look cleaner if they could have been part of the pressing rather than separate pieces.

    1. Perhaps these photos show that the design is very dependent on viewing angle; here all those upward lines seem congruent, in sync; whereas viewed from a less flattering angle, the much softer form of the middle crease (flowing upward from the door) doesn’t quite fit in with the rest.

      This is my explanation for my own uncertain and changeable opinion of this car’s design. When I first saw the launch photos, I remember disliking it. After the car was launched, I decided I liked it… but I keep questioning that conclusion.

    2. Hi Daniel, I think the ‘dumpiness ‘ could have been reduced by lowering the roofline a little, but the Coupe was a very practical car because of this, easily accommodating 4 adults and a VW Golf sized boot. The car itself was enriched by design features that never failed to delight. Every time I filled up would be a sensory delight, I would have to insert the part aluminium key into the beautifully polished solid aluminium fuel cap. The wonderfully quick direct rack reminded me of my CX albeit without the self centering. The soft red glow of a full set of instruments adjacent to a Pininfarina script.
      I recall the first time my wife drove our Coupe ( Red, 20V), she spotted flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror and duly pulled over , rolled down the window in expectation of a ticket, the young Dutch policeman on exiting his car slowly walked the long way around the car before stopping to run his hand over the cleavage of the headlight bubbles before proceeding to greet my wife with “Mooi Auto” beautiful car do you mind if I sit in it! Five minutes later after many questions about the car my wife was off without any ticket leaving an entranced policeman behind. This was THE coupe.
      The design was confident enough not need any identification script on the rear bootlid although I did spot at least one example with a prancing horse badge on the rear with matching horse logos on the wheel centres in Hong Kong – a pretend Ferrari but no apologies were needed for the last REAL Fiat.

    3. Daniel, you´re right with the design of those metal rings round the rear lights. They could have done it like on the Fiat Brava. There is actually no reason for the rings, but what do I know…

    4. It is impossible to stamp the rear wings with those ‘tubes’ around the rear lights in one part.
      If you make it from two parts and want no visible groove or gap you have to lead load them, which is very expensive.
      The Brava and barchetta have inset rear lights but theirs are not nearly as deeply recessed as the Coupé’s.

  3. Hyundai liked the ‘three slashes’ motif sufficiently to redeploy it for its own 1996 coupé:

    As its Sunday and early in the day, I’ve refrained from publishing a photo of the facelifted version of the same car, which might put people off their breakfasts!

  4. Funnily enough, I came across the video brochure for this on the ROVR YouTube channel recently (I found it incredibly boring, with intrusive, unoriginal music). It struck me how upright and dumpy the car seemed. Perhaps I’m just not in the mood to appreciate it, at the moment, as it’s usually a design I really like. I think it looks a bit SAAB Sonett-like when looking at it front-on.

  5. I always thought the Fiat Coupe had a lovely nose and a shapely rear – it was just the part between the axles that spoilt it. And those awful 4-‘spoke’ wheels.

  6. I see this car as being in a kind of a “vacuum” regarding sports cars in general in that time frame, after the very unexpected success of the Mazda MX-5. There was some years in the first half of the nineties where the industry didn’t really know how to respond to that success, and I’ve always felt Fiat and Alfa Romeo was left in a kind of a vacuum during those years. Lacking any”real” chassis dynamics like the Mazda all they were left with was trying to win with design, throwing any random idea they had on the wall to see what stuck. Like the Barchetta and the Type 916 Alfa GTV and Spider.

    I don’t know if you remember the 80’s and the possible dying of the sports cars? The English were long gone, the Italians were on the fag end of ending production of the Bertone (Née Fiat) x1/9, Pininfarina (Née Fiat) Spider and the Alfa Romeo Spider. In the league above there was only dying dinosaurs like the Porsche 911, Mercedes SL, Jaguar XJS, cars that were some twenty years old at the time. It really felt like that whole sector were on the verge of dying out. And then came the Mazda MX-5. Which buried the newly minted M100 Lotus Elan over night, because even Lotus had lost so much confidence they went front wheel drive in a field the original Lotus Elan was the very template and dynamic benchmark of the entire sector.

    I think cars like the Coupe Fiat has to be put in that perspective, because it doesn’t make sense otherwise. Nobody really knew what to make of the situation, which resulted in sports cars like the BMW Z1, that was anything but. It wasn’t really after the second half of the decade the industry had been catching up, with cars like the BMW Z3, Mercedes SLK, Porsche Boxster, and the Lotus Elise.

    1. Hi Ingvar. That’s a perceptive analysis of the circumstances in which the Fiat Coupé arrived on the market. The 1989 MX-5 was a huge leap of faith on Mazda’s part and the company was rightly rewarded for having the courage to develop a bespoke RWD architecture for it at a time when other manufacturers were abandoning the market segment.

      Competitors like the Fiat Coupé and, more particularly, the Barchetta, were somehow half-hearted and inauthentic, sharing their FWD architecture with mainstream hatchbacks. Of the more expensive RWD coupés and convertibles you mention, the Z3 and SLK were pretty inert drives and only the mid-engined Elise and Boxster could compete on equal terms with the MX-5.

      That’s not to dismiss the Fiat Coupé as without merit and it’s a great shame that the SUV/Crossover juggernaut is sweeping aside other formats and homogenising the automotive landscape to such a depressing degree. I for one would love to see a new Ford Capri or Opel Manta, even if it were FWD.

  7. A 1997 Fiat Coupe was featured recently on the Wheeler Dealers television programme. I hadn’t realised that it was such a potent car – much underrated.

  8. SUVs and Crossovers may make up a large proportion of sales (though perhaps less among EVs) but I can’ think of a type that they’ve eliminated. Buyers have the widest choice ever: saloons, hatchbacks, town cars, estate cars, MPVs, coupes (2- and 4-door, RWD, FWD and AWD), sports cars, street-legal racers and I’ve probably left something out. I’m more concerned about the ability of the German manuacturers to dominate every niche than the prevalence of a type of vehicle that, for whatever reason, suits a lot of customers. This is an interesting site but the apparent need constantly to snipe at SUVs is tedious.

    1. You may not have recognized it yet, but the SUV segment have virtually slaugthtered the entire D-segment. I’call it out and tell you the premium mid-management sedan leased through the employer is dead in the water. All the people who were driving their Audi A4, Mercedes C-Class, BMW 3-4 series, they are now driving suvs as a company perk. When Volkswagen tells there probably won’t be a replacement for the Golf you know the landscape has shifted for real. This isn’t tedious sniping at something, it is a fact. The entire market has shifted. You only need to look around?

    2. Hello John – we´re glad you think the site is interesting. I would suggest that rather than accuse it (meaning the readers and writers) of being boring, try providing an interesting counter-argument. I sometimes worry about my critique of German cars (which goes against the grain of my romance with Germany as a country and culture) which is boringly enduring but feel that if the story hasn´t changed my view need not change either. Sometimes I surprise myself by liking vehicles such as BMW electric minnow, Audi´s coupes and the Mercedes electric thing which is properly pleasing (and so is the B-class saloon).

    1. Eoin could have written another article about the Celica in the photo. There was an all-dancing, all-shouting version of the Celica with 4WD which “Car” put up against the Lancia Delta Integrale. It did very well too. That´s a lovely car.
      I believe Mr Doyle and I have both seen this car simultaneously. Nice to see it again. Kinsale is full of odd vehicles.

    2. Robertas: Fluences were (briefly) very popular here, largely I suspect because Renault Ireland were offering very attractive finance packages on them at one point. In fact, I did wonder if there was a BOGOF scenario going on for a time. Their sales success, if you can call it that, was short-lived and represented a final flowering of the Irish penchant for the three volume saloon. No longer, the CUV has Captured the heart of the Irish market. Tedious, but true.

    3. It certainly is Robertas. They were quite popular in Ireland and my nephew drives one. It’s perhaps an odd choice for a first car, but he’s 6’8″ tall, so that limits his options somewhat. And yes, that’s exactly what the family call his Fluence!

    4. Robertas, it is to be remembered that the Irish market is, and formerly was very much, a market for three box cars. At one time the Opel Astra was offered in booted form in Ireland and nowhere else between here and the Polish border. The three box Corolla remains a big seller. Looking at the ever useful I find that the boxy Corolla has made up just over 50% of sales of that car thus far in 2021.

  9. Ah, the Fiat Coupe. A car I have long admired, but not thought about too much in recent years, being based between two continents where if there were a dozen of them in total I would be surprised and impressed.

    And yet, it was a car I was reminded of just last weekend, on an autumnal jaunt to Montreal, in whose main art gallery you will find the Fiat, in canvas form:

    I jest. But only slightly. According to Cressoni speaking at/around the car’s launch, the wheelarch slashes are a direct reference to Lucio Fontana’s famous ‘spatial concepts’ canvases, of which the above is but one. Di Giusto said the same: “The basic idea is already clear in numerous sketches, with a powerful dynamism expressed by cuts.”

    But it’s hard to know, really, where strict reality ends and some post-facto verbal embellishment begins. At least according to Bangle speaking years after the fact, the slashes were never originally supposed to be there (an assertion supported by the initial clays):

    “In the models the dark areas were supposed to be foam, like skid protectors for the side. They were painted a blue violet, which you can’t see in the photos. Ultimately they became the cutlines on the wheels.”

    But then again, perhaps it is possible to overanalyse these things. A line in CAR about these Fiats always stayed with me: that the face of the car was “inspired by a frog breaking the surface of a pond.” I really cannot explain why it stayed with me, because it wasn’t a description that ever made sense then and still doesn’t resonate with me now. Anyway, according to Bangle (again), it’s self-confessedly “brutal” rather than sweet or delicate. I am but the messenger…

    1. Could the CAR comment refer obliquely to Matsuo Bashō’s 1686 haiku ‘The old pond’?

      An ancient pond
      a frog jumps in
      the splash of water

    2. Hi Stradale. That’s very interesting. The elliptical shapes above the wheelarches are more consistent with the shape of the feature line beneath the rear side window than those on the production car. As Chris pointed out above, those in the production car are inconsistent in their relative sharpness / softness.

  10. “But what prompted these photos, in addition to the fact that a Coupé Fiat is now a vanishingly rare sighting just about anywhere was the presence of a car that serves as backdrop. Never direct rivals, the T160-series Toyota Celica ran from 1985 until 1989, making it if anything an even less likely sighting, especially round these parts.

    “What is striking about the two cars when juxtaposed, is the degree to which Centro Stile Fiat moved the aesthetic forward. Some four years separate the end of fourth-gen Celica production with the Fiat’s debut, and yet they seem from entirely different generations. The Celica is a pleasant looking design, and at the time of its introduction, wholly contemporary – even if it was often cited as curating elements of past designs in its makeup – yet seen against the Fiat it appears flat, somewhat boneless. But am I being unfair – is it not the contrast that makes it so?”

    I think there’s no doubt the Fiat did move the aesthetic forward, but to be fair to the Celica, without any exaggeration it was two generations old by the time the Fiat came along, so it’s no surprise the Fiat looks significantly more garde-avant in that photo. The T160 Celica was unveiled in mid-1985; the quad-headlamp T200 was launched within a few months of the Fiat in 1993, and in-between, Toyota had the wherewithal to launch an entirely separate Celica (although mechanically, it was closer to a two-door Camry than a true replacement for the T160, but that’s a story for another day).

    More useful, I think, is to reflect not just on how the Fiat compared to direct rivals (including the contemporary Celica, but also things like the Calibra, Probe, Preludes, GTV, MX-6 and 406 Coupe). While it’s a close-run thing with the Peugeot, my favourite at the time always was the Fiat, and over the years I have become more sure of that position rather than less, which is quite a feat for such a bold design statement and – dare I use the word – a nominally fashionable one.

    On the overall design direction, Bangle reckoned: “I thought it was better to go after the radical, like what Bertone did in the ’70s. If we’d tried to go classical it would’ve been totally misshaped.” As a fan of the 20-degree-from-horizontal-glasshouse and the whole Bertone-showcar effect of that era, I suppose it is no surprise I am inclined to be receptive to this. But perhaps there is also an element of wanting what one cannot have (stuck in 1990s Australia…). I think, though, in the end, it may be as simple as – I like that the Fiat seemed to simply be a very considered and thorough car, in design terms, from the overall shape to very particular details. No doubt the overwhelming majority of cars are like this to a greater or lesser extent. But in the Fiat, that consideration feels more relatable than most – the elusive feel-good factor is very tangible. For me, that’s key to why the design has gone the distance.

  11. Thank you for reminding me of the Coupe, an example of which I had (as a daily, mind you) for 7 years, by far the longest car ownership for me to date. Mine was a ’98 20vT Portofino Blu, fully loaded with leather, sunroof and A/C (important, as it was imported to Cyprus from the UK). Allegedly, the UK owner had two of them, one for him and one for his wife, both imported by the same company to Cyprus. I had to choose between them, and I opted for the “wife’s car”, mainly because of colour and sunroof (the other one was silver), plus the inherent misconseption that it would be less abused. It was debadged at the back, making it difficult to identify in untrained eyes, prompting one British driver (in Cyprus) asking me if it was a Maserati. Granted, the overall shape and proportions were a bit challenging to digest, and many simply went for the more conventional 916 GTV. After all, both cars were built at the same time sharing many mechanical parts. But, when you had to break the bank to get a 3.0 V6 GTV to enjoy the sonorous Busso and its power delivery, the Coupe could be just as fast with one of the most underrated engines FIAT ever produced. The Inline 5 had the characteristic offbeat burble, accentuated by a cold air intake, and a classic 90s turbo power delivery, as in nothing below 2500rpm, and constant thrust until 6000rpm. The Ferguson viscous coupling helped matters a lot, although it was tricky and uncomfortable on a tight track day, partly due to the long gearing ratio.
    All in all, daily use was a delight, apart from the really wide turning circle (a feature shared with the GTV), which turned every 3-point manuever into a 5 one. Eventually sold it to a FIAT collector, as it wasn’t getting much use with the arrival of children and a diesel Giulietta.
    At least the spirit of the 5-pot still lives on in the household, in the form of a 2014 Volvo V40 T5 AWD.
    (Cam timing belt replacement was a pain).

  12. I´d like to stick my oar in here and say that the studio mock-up with the appliqué slashes is inferior to the production model. I have seen studio mock-ups for unproduced cars that ought to have been completed but not yet a mock-up better than the eventual production car. Dealing with the mock-up, notice the way the panel gap between bumper and bonnet intersects at an oblique angle with the black “slash”. That is not pleasing and is the sort of intersection that is usually avoided in production for all the problems it creates. The same line makes for a nasty intersection with the air intakes and the central intake is not alligned. The under-bumper area is not refined at all.
    What makes the production car so pleasing is the very sharp contrast of the slashes with the bodywork´s overall smoothnesss. And the slash at the front doubles up work to be part of the bonnet edge.
    The little rings around the rear lamps are probably there because pressing the metal to the best radius was too hard to do. I have no problem with them. I adore the big, plain curve of the boot lid. Brave design.
    The coupé Fiat is interesting and on the edge of nice and strange which is why we´ll be admiring it perpetually.

  13. I guess I’ve spent too much time in France as I can’t help the Matra 530 barreling into my brain every time I see a Fiat Coupé. Singular visions such as this are a thing of the past, steamrollered into oblivion by a never ending tide of Stupid Ugly Vehicles. Cars are rarely as ballsy as the Coupé. Imagine a little Z logo adorning the flanks and the eulogies would flow like a fine Barolo. I bumped into CB at The Rover back in ‘98, he was hawking something designed by a minion inspired by a Maxi… Herr Reizle was not amused in the slightest.
    Schadenfreude was on the menu with the Coronation Chicken batches that day

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