A matter of perspective.
“It’s not you or me, or Fiat who will decide whether the 126 is a good car. History will make that decision.” These words were spoken, no doubt through clenched teeth by FIAT’s UK representative to Car magazine journalist, Ian Fraser in the wake of the UK imprint’s assessment of the new for ’72 Fiat 126. The Italian carmaker’s displeasure at Fraser’s trenchant review can be gauged by its reaction – FIAT UK pulling their advertising and banning Car’s staff writers from forthcoming press junkets.
The issue, if you could call it that, was one of perception. By 1972 Fiat was viewed as a progressive manufacturer of some of Europe’s most up to date motor cars, with a reputation for fine engineering and superior dynamic characteristics. By contrast, the 126, in Car’s estimation at least, was dismissed as a throwback to the 1950s. But it should behove us to first consider the following. Car was in the business of making money selling magazines, while Fiat was in the business of making money selling automobiles. Both entities therefore had their own agendas. Both therefore could not be right.
In order to fully understand Italy’s unbreakable relationship with small cars, one first requires a decent grounding in history, geography, architecture and socio-economics, all of which have to a greater or lesser extent impacted upon the nation’s choice of automotive transport. Despite its abundant natural resources and proud history, Italy has endured more than its share of hardship and privation, especially so after so much of the country was pummelled to dust during the second world war. It was therefore little surprise that for Italians in the post-war era, auto-mobility was to be of the sparsest, most cost-effective variety.
The Turin-based carmaking giant had been at the forefront of Italy’s pre-war industrial might, giving eloquent voice to that most Italian of characteristics – the mastery of material technology. During the post-war years of Italy’s meteoric economic recovery, FIAT Auto and the multitude of smaller suppliers, workshops and carrozzieri who moved within its orbit gave shape to another defining Italian talent: aesthetics.
And while the 1957 Nuova 500 may not have been everyone’s platonic ideal of la bella figura, the Cinquecento was nevertheless as finely wrought a piece of 1950s product design as could then be envisaged, much for what it lacked as for what it offered. About as pared back as any useful motor car could be without becoming a parody, the diminutive Fiat sold in millions over an 18-year lifespan. But more than the commercial success it undoubtedly became, it gained an even more potent afterlife as cultural touchstone and shorthand for an entire way of life.
Overseen by eminent technical director, Dante Giacosa alongside engineer, Ettore Cordiano, the rear-engined Cinquecento had been schemed, with its larger 600 sibling as the most efficient means of packaging passengers and luggage within such compact dimensions. While an enthusiastic proponent of front-wheel drive, Giacosa was also painfully aware of not only the technical limitations of the format, but furthermore, the cost implications at the time. Fiat after all he recognised, was first and foremost a business.
By the latter portion of the ’60s, within Mirafiori’s nerve centre at least, the 500 was simply an increasingly dated product which required updating. By the turn of the decade, with Giacosa edging towards retirement, Fiat engineers, by then well-versed in front-drive technology, might have considered employing it for the 500’s replacement, but for one compelling reason: cost.
Notwithstanding some toe-in-water Autobianchi designs, the Fiat 127 and 128 programmes were hugely expensive flights into fresh technical territory and while undoubtedly successful, were more upmarket products with a greater likelihood of profitability. For a Cinquecento successor, such an approach made no commercial sense whatsoever, especially as the existing car’s admittedly dated layout proved no impediment to sales. Therefore it was decided that the Nuova 500 would form the basis for the new 126.
Maintaining the Cinquecento’s technical layout almost to the letter, only the all new unitary bodyshell deviated noticeably, being 30 mm longer than its forebear, measuring 3054 mm bumper to bumper, with a wheelbase of 1840 mm. Track widths differed marginally front to rear; the rear being 61 mm wider. The 126’s narrowness was evident in that it measured a mere 1377 mm across.
The 126 was powered by an enlarged 594 cc version of Fiat’s parallel twin cylinder air-cooled engine. This lightweight, low-revving unit, with its aluminium crankcase and cylinder head was slightly oversquare, with a bore of 73.5 mm and a stroke of 70 mm. Maximum power was 23 bhp (DIN), coupled to reciprocating characteristics described by eminent scribe, LJK Setright as being more akin to aero-engine practice. The four-speed gearbox was again derived from the 500, but now with synchromesh fitted to the upper three ratios.
Suspension too would follow tried and true baby Fiat practice: upper wishbones, telescopic dampers and a transverse leaf spring/ anti-roll bar arrangement at the front, with semi-trailing arms and coil-spring/damper units to the rear – the engine and gearbox sitting just aft of the rear axle line. Steering was by worm and sector, with a three-piece collapsible column. Brakes were unassisted drums all-round.
The 126 body was designed to be as safe as a genuinely small car could be, with crumple zones, door intrusion barriers and a centrally mounted fuel tank, ahead of the rear axle. Italian cities and towns might have become more prosperous by the early 1970s, but they certainly weren’t any less serpentine or congested. Hence, the 126 maintained the 500’s unparalleled wieldiness, but with a greater emphasis on passenger accommodation and creature comfort. The larger bodyshell was wider, especially above the beltline, lending the cabin more shoulder room, while the flatter roofline also enabled larger door openings. A less sloping rear increased rear passenger space, even if it remained a somewhat marginal proposition for fully-grown adults for any protracted length of time.
Styling was attributed to Sergio Sartorelli at centro stile Fiat, the design maintaining a clear visual link to the Cinquecento but with a more modernist, linear approach to surface and graphics. Often dismissed as an inferior visual proposition to that of its more romantic looking forebear, the 126 was in fact a very accomplished piece of work. Superbly proportioned, the larger passenger compartment was neatly incorporated into the familiar silhouette, while the deep scallop bisecting the flanks not only prevented it from appearing slab-sided, but also added visual (and actual) strength to the panelwork. Minimal overhangs and a four-square stance lent the 126 a distinctly purposeful appearance, aided by the alloy-look 12” wheel designs. In fact, the longer one studies the 126’s body design the more one appreciates just how well executed it was. There really wasn’t a bum note – a line out of place. For such a tiny car, that is quite the achievement.
Inside, the 126’s cabin was understandably sparse; a single combined speedometer and fuel gauge was placed in a non-reflective binnacle in front of the driver, with a ribbed, padded dash housing the ashtray, windscreen washer and lighting master switch controls. Column stalks operated everything else. Like the Nuova 500, the starter and enrichment control levers were mounted on the central tunnel just aft of the gearlever. But while there was little but the essentials, what was there was well wrought, nicely finished and a good deal less penitential than several key rivals.
The 126 made its public debut at the Turin motor show in October 1972, with the 500 continuing to be offered alongside (in the home market at least) – Cinquecento production continuing until 1975. It didn’t take long for the UK press to lend their verdicts – lukewarm in the main – but one in particular would prove a good deal less than effusive.
 It really wasn’t until the advent of the BMC Mini in 1959 that the major impediments of front-wheel drive were solved, with the mass production of the Unipower-adapted Rzeppa constant velocity joint.
 FIAT had vast experience during the pre-war era with aero engines, with many of their finest engineers having had a grounding in the aviation division before moving across to automotive engine design.
 The Nuova 500’s gearbox had been, for the bulk of its production life, what was commonly known as a ‘crash-box’, lacking baulk-ring synchromesh.
 Sergio Sartorelli is also credited with overseeing the exterior design for the 1978 Ritmo/ Strada hatchback.
 The 126’s body design was inspired by the styling of the 1968 City Taxi concept by designer, Pio Manzù. The feted designer from Bergamo was also responsible for the styling of centro stile’s 1971 Fiat 127.
Sources and credits – see part three.