Ciao Bambino! [Part One]

A matter of perspective.

Small, or far away? Image: FIAT Auto via the author.

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.

Last of the line – 1972 500R. Image: classiccarcatalogue

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[1], but furthermore, the cost implications at the time. Fiat after all he recognised, was first and foremost a business.

Image: FIAT Publicity, via the author

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.

Image: Fiat Publicity via the author

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[2]. The four-speed gearbox was again derived from the 500, but now with synchromesh fitted to the upper three ratios[3].

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[4] 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[5]. 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.

Image: Fiat publicity via the author

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.

 

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Sergio Sartorelli is also credited with overseeing the exterior design for the 1978 Ritmo/ Strada hatchback.

[5] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Ciao Bambino! [Part One]”

  1. Quoting, “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.”

    Absolutely and completely true.

    1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more, and it wasn’t a retro facsimile either!

  2. In one of the first tests of the then new 126 there was a remark that the improved crash safety might not be much on absolute terms but that it might be that the other car involved in the accident was a 500 and then one would be far better off.

    A friend was building his 500 into what he called a Maserati. Abarth twinnies, aluminium wheels, sports steering wheel and rev counter. When the 126 came out he put such an engine in his 500, his comment was “you can’t beat cubes”. He quickly discovered that the jump from 18 to 23 PS from the larger engine was too much for the standard chassis. With the new engine the 500 could easily exceed 100 kph (instead of 90) and it clearly was not made to be driven at such speed…

  3. Almost every family had one over here in Poland, as I suspect you will describe in later parts. When socialist government was buying license back on the verge of 1960s and 1970s it was already quite dated car. Plus, too small for families. It’s a shame we didn’t go with something like Seat 133, wich was also dated rear engined derivative of Fiat 600 (more directly – Fiat 850), but bigger and more practical. It would make sense as it was used as family car in Poland. Level of technical advancement was similar, so price would also be close.

    The fact that we produced this car until 2000 is astonishing as it was still based on ’57 Fiat 500. At the and of production it costed something like 12 000 PLN, about 4 000 euros back then. Of course as we were joining the EU, we had to stop producing it, as it didn’t pass… well any norms in 2000’s.

  4. Whilst I agree that the 126’s lines are well executed, personally I have always found that its original wheels had a lot to do with why I like it. Basic pressed-steel wheels they may be, but their deeply recessed form made them somehow look wider, chunky and sporty. This optical illusion improved the whole car’s stance, and gave this utilitarian runabout an unlikely, cheekily sporting look. One only needs to compare these wheels to the 126’s later, flatter models to see how much they added to the effect. These wheels are much sought after in the Fiat 500 community, for the same reason : they look great on a 500 too. At various times I have owned and loved four Fiat 500s. Upgrading the wheels was one of the first things I always did.

    1. Absolutely agree re the wheels. I also like the ‘white’ effect of the wheels, chrome, headlights and indicators together. They bring out the colour of the rest of the car and have an association with pleasantly hot weather, in my mind – perhaps I think it looks as though they have been bleached by the sun. The same effect is noticeable on early 128s.

      https://www.tommycarclassic.com/en/vehicle/fiat-128-berlina-1970/

      By the way, I think the brochure is a minimalist work of art in its own way, too. Fiat had real corporate style, back then.

    2. Those white indicators in combination with small number plates from that era immediately make me want some pici all’aglione and bistecca Fiorentina.
      Only a model car but it works

  5. Apart from the rear of the 126p BIS, cannot say am a fan of the 126’s front. It would have benefited from a fake-grille treatment something like the Polski Fiat 126p NP (that for some was was longer than the regular 126 in FWD guise), mk1 Panda or even a mk1 Ritmo style.

    Also question of the wisdom at Fiat of keeping the 126 rear-engined at a time when they were switching over to FWD and it being dismissed on grounds of cost. It may have been more suitable for markets outside of Western Europe, however a case could have easily been made for making the Autobianchi A112 into a 2/4-cylinder powered alternative to the 126 to replace both the 500 and 600 on top of negating the need for the 133 (or overlapping too much with the entry-level 127 models).

    After all both the Panda and Cinquecento would be powered by 2/4-cylinder engines, with the costs of using the A112 platform being much lower since it was shared with the 128, 127 and others.

  6. Good morning Eoin, thank you for this article. Most of the Fiat 500 cars I see nowadays, are red, yellow, orange and blue. They have been rebuilt and repainted, this car has an icon status here, and I believe is not used as an everyday mount. The owners are more classic car collectors than ordinary drivers. The Fiat 126 cars are white, blue, the typical well known Fiat dark blue, this colour was used from 60s to 00s, green, pink, yellow. This car has not yet achieved a classic car status, I calculate that it will in some years. They are not a frequent sight in the streets, thy must be stored in garages waiting for their price to go up.

  7. There was another rear engined car based on an earlier Fiat updated with a new body, the SEAT 133, based on the old 600/850 . It came across to me like a rear engine 127, but somehow, not as good. It looked like a 127, but drove like a twenty year old 600 – which is exactly what it was.

    1. I own a 1976 Spanish consumer journal (“Ciudadano”) commenting on the SEAT 133.

      The journal calls the car “soap holder with an engine” (¡!), explains that it is simply a SEAT 850 reskinned and gives a stern piece of advice to its readers: Save a little more and buy the cheapest SEAT 127 available, which at least was a modern car.

      http://www.foroelectricidad.com/download/file.php?id=5069

      The original 1976 “Ciudadano” text:

      https://www.pieldetoro.net/web/pruebas/ver.php?ID=988.55#CIUDADANO

      Corrosive criticism against the little car.

      Being a children I was carried in a 133. It looked spartan and outdated even to my standard back then: My daddy SEAT 131.

      A contemporary Spanish test:

      https://www.pieldetoro.net/web/pruebas/ver.php?ID=988.55

      The SEAT 133 looked like an enlarged version of the Fiat 126.

      It was not. It was a totally different car.

      And the SEAT 600 looked like an enlarged version of the Fiat 500:

      It was not, neither.

      Curiously Fiat never licensed or sold the 500 nor the 126 in Spain.

      And the Fiat 2300 in Spain was sold as…SEAT 1500. Same body, much smaller engine.

    2. It really is hard to make a case for the 133, given that it was sold alongside the thoroughly modern 127, and can’t have been that much cheaper to build.

    3. I don’t know the case, either. I could imagine not only cheaper production, but maybe also easier/cheaper maintenance. Or it was made for more conservative customers who might shy away from FWD.
      Just guessing…

    4. It is strange Fiat never licensed or sold the 500 later the 126 in either Spain or Yugoslavia, for whatever reason the 2-cylinder models were viewed as being ill-suited for both countries unlike the 600.

      The same can be said of Zastava not receiving the 850 or 133, although their 750 version of the 600 did later receive the 850 engine. Otherwise both Spain and Yugoslavia could have benefited from licensed versions of the A112 since both were already building the 127 and 128.

  8. Sorry, but I could never work up any enthusiasm for the 126, however well it might have been styled. The appearance in 1959 0f ADO 15 made any rear-engined family car obsolete overnight.

    1. I don’t feel it for the 126 either. Maybe another factor is that they weren’t that common where I lived.

      One of my friends briefly had one. He owned eleven cars at the time, most of them in need of TLC, some of them roadworthy. His 126 had (probably aftermarket) armrest on the door. The only time I ever sat in it and closed the door, gently I might add, I tore the whole thing off. We did go for a spin though. It was noisy and slow as you might expect, but I didn’t see the attraction.

  9. Beautifully written article about a car I had previously dismissed, but can now see had merit in its styling. I think the problem is that it looks like a less characterful and charming makeover of the car that preceded it. Viewed on its own merits, it looks fine, though.

  10. It’s virtually impossible to successfully replace an icon like the (nuova) 500. The Golf did it, but that was in large part because it was a completeley different car which did away with most of the disadvantages of the Beetle. The 126 was far less of a leap, hence it could almost never be as iconic as its predecessor. That said, it is a superbly designed little thing, looking very substantial and ‘finished’. I cannot in hindsight judge the financial decisions to keep the same platform (was FIAT in one of its downswings when they developed the 126, or one of its upswings?) but with the clarity of hindsight, keeping the rear engined platform was maybe a bit too conservative.

    It’s interesting how the post war economic booms in western Europe led to such different manifestations of public and personal wealth in northern versus southern parts. In northern Europe, particularly Germany, from about the 1960’s displaying personal wealth through (amongst others) unapologetically expensive cars became possible and socially acceptable. In southern Europe, such displays are much rarer. In the case of Italy they are confined to Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborgini customers, a much smaller group than those of top end Mercs, BMWs and – latterly – Audis. Even Alfa and (partly) Lancia, ostensibly playing the same markets as BMW and Merc, were consistently cheaper than their Teutonic counterparts. Maybe there is a difference in how collective a culture is? It could also be that the distribution of wealth is subtly different, with the south retaining a larger (and more visible) proportion of lower income households.

    1. I beg to differ regarding the perceived or true cheapness of Alfas and Lancias relative to their German counterparts. On the German market an Aurelia GT was at the same price level as a gullwing 300 SL, a Giulia 1600 sold for the same money as a BMW 2002, an Alfetta 1.8 cost the same as an E12 520 and the Montreal was at eye level with an E9 3.0 CSi, a C107 350 SLC or a G model 911 S.

      Germans and French/Italians spend their money for completely different things. Germans pend a lot more money for housing because they spend most of the time inside because of the weather, they get expensive company cars but don’t go to fancy restaurants or buy expensive clothes.
      In Italy or France a lot of life happens in the open and people spend less money on housing and more on dining out. Look at the cars French Presidents or ministers have to use since the end of the DS and CX Prestige and compare them to the barges their German colleagues use at international meetings. Italian presidents at least arrive in Quattroportes.
      Look at the way Italians interpret the term ‘traffic rules’ which is definitely more fun in a smaller car.

    1. There was a SEAT 770, basically a 600 with an enlarged engine.
      Zastava had a 750.

    2. The Fiat 600 only had a 600cc – actually 633cc – engine for the first 5½ years of its long life. The 1960 600D brought in the 767cc version of the ‘100’ engine, the size increase was marked by a name change in Spain, Yugoslavia and West Germany, but not by markets served from Mirafiori.

      To add to the confusion there was the extended wheelbase four door SEAT 800, still with the 767cc engine, and the 770S was a higher specification version of the two door 600, which also had the 767cc capacity.

  11. I find myself wondering if reason the Agnellis offered the 126, rather the better suited 127 or 850, to Poland was to obtain a low cost production base for a product which was only marginally viable if produced in Western Europe.

    Demand is not in question, since close to 200,000 126s per year were being sold in Western Europe from 1972-79 when production was based at Cassino, then Termini Imerese. The heavily state-subsidised Sicilian plant should have helped profit margins, but such thing don’t always work out as hoped.

    In manufacturing cost terms, the 126 was probably uncomfortably close to the severely value-engineered 127. Applying the raw measure of weight, the smaller car is only about 10% lighter, but was priced at 20% less than the 127. A consistent reason for Fiat’s dominance in their domestic market was very low pricing of their staple products – the real profits came from export sales and upmarket vehicles.

    The FSM production base was very useful to Fiat, but the 126 was ill-suited to the market, fortunately for FSM and Fiat one which was closed to rivals.

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