Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]

Defying the naysayers. 

Image: FCA Heritage

The environmental non-starter” was how Car magazine’s Ian Fraser defined the 126 in December 1972, having attended the press launch along with fellow scribe and Car Editor, Douglas Blain, in its home town of Turin[1]. The thrust of their argument against the car seemed to pivot around the assertion that not only was the 126 “something of a throwback” in technical terms but also, in their estimation, that even Fiat themselves appeared unsure about as to its purpose in life.

This would hardly be the first time that the iconoclastic UK monthly took against a car largely on the basis that it failed to live up to their own expectations and aspirations, but their disdain for the baby Fiat rang a little hollow, especially since many of their criticisms could equally be levelled rather closer to home. One thing Fraser and Blain were quite correct about, however, was their assertion that the 126 had been developed primarily for Italian market conditions.

Autocar on the other hand offered a more nuanced appraisal in their August 1973 AutoTest. The UK weekly’s findings differed notably from that of Car and, in many cases, contradicted it entirely. Nevertheless, Autocar was also critical of the 126, noting that its fuel consumption increased noticeably if driven with the verve its lack of swept volume often required. They were more impressed with its dynamics however, stating that “the cornering ability of the 126 is quite phenomenal” although a tendency towards terminal understeer in the wet did raise some concerns. The 126’s stiff suspension set up – a requirement to help moderate unwanted camber changes in the rear suspension – also made for the kind of unsettled ride depressingly familiar to Mini owners.

Overall, while Autocar’s test team appreciated the improved driveability, additional interior space, better finish and more ‘grown-up’ appeal, they baulked at the UK price, which made it more expensive than its obvious UK-built rivals[2], both of whom offered larger capacity engines with two additional cylinders. For what UK customers were being asked to pay, Autocar’s test team expressed disappointment, expecting “something better than an old 500 done up in a new cloak”.

Following the UK’s entry into the EEC, the 126 would become a more viable sales proposition in the UK (and other RHD) markets – even more so in the wake of October 1973’s fuel shock. Overnight, small economical cars were in high demand but, fuel crisis or no, the 126 certainly hit the ground running in its native Italy and elsewhere, healthy sales of the Bambino[3] proving the essential correctness of Fiat’s commercial instincts[4].

Image: FCA Heritage.

FIAT Auto had concluded an agreement in 1965 with Polish carmaker, Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych (FSO) to produce the 125 saloon under licence. This was introduced in 1967 as the 125P. But with political currents in Poland shifting during the early 1970s, it was decreed that a small, affordable car for the wider market was required[5], precipitating the establishment of Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM), where 126 production would also take place from 1973 in two factories – Bielsko-Biała and later, in Tychy. For several years, all Polish 126P production would be absorbed by the home market[6], with demand for the car far outstripping supply.

At the Turin motor shown in November 1976, Fiat debuted a revised 126 range, now available in three versions – the 126 Basic[7], the 126 Personal and Personal 4[8]. Both latter models were distinguished by the fitment of larger, more robust polycarbonate bumpers, with matching side rubbing strips to help absorb the inevitable urban attrition[9]. In addition, the engine cover was also reprofiled[10]. All models gained revised (and less attractive) road wheels.

Inside, both Personal models gained improved cloth trim with a new, padded steering wheel and carpeting throughout the cabin, including on the dashboard itself. Technically, the brakes were improved, the suspension revised to improve ride comfort, while an alternator replaced the dynamo fitted to the earlier car. The following year saw more changes, with the fitment of an enlarged 652 cc engine taking maximum power to a heady 24 bhp (17.7 kW) and peak torque of 39.2 Nm.

Car meanwhile doubled down on its earlier appraisal of the littlest Fiat, dubbing the revised car a “Masochist’s delight”, before stating “Millions of Italians can be wrong.” Despite this, the 126 continued to sell in large quantities, owing primarily to its handy size, low running costs and, on the European mainland at least, the fact that there were few genuinely small alternatives to be had.

However by the late ’70s, Fiat were exploring more up-to-date ideas for a small car to meet the needs of the coming decade. Despite a number of abortive experiments, a proposal by Italdesign for a cheap to build, highly basic, yet wholly rational entry-level car gained approval at Mirafiori. The Panda, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s crowning achievement in minimalist car design, was introduced in 1980 in twin and four-cylinder versions. It would become the Turin carmaker’s and Italy’s small car fulcrum, and within a few short years would eclipse the 126 entirely. In 1985, all 126 production was shifted to Poland, with European market models now badged ‘Made by FSM’.

By now very dated in concept and execution, the 126 was starting to fade, within the European market at least. However, FIAT was not prepared to give up on its Bambino just yet.

Part three will conclude this series.

[1] It would prove to be the last such affair they would attend for a time.

[2] In 1972, the 126’s primary on-paper rivals were BL’s Mini 850 and the Hillman Imp, the latter also rear-engined.

[3] The 126 was dubbed the Bambino in marketing material for certain markets.

[4] Fiat’s Cassino plant in the province of Frosinone was purpose-built for production of the 126, first opening in 1972. Domestic production also took place in Termini Imersese, near Palermo, and the Autobianchi plant in Dusio.

[5] Although a larger supermini sized car might have better suited Polish conditions, the 126’s relative affordability, married to its rugged mechanical layout, lay behind it being chosen by the state-owned carmaker.

[6] Zastava also assembled the 126 for the Yugoslavian market using components provided by FSM in Poland

[7] The 126 Basic was largely identical to the outgoing model apart from some minor shared technical changes.

[8] The 126 Personal employed a +2 seating layout, with no backrest as such, just a padded horizontal bar. Two large side bins provided additional stowage space. The Personal 4 retained a standard rear bench arrangement. The 126 Personal was marketed in the UK as the 126 De Ville.

[9] The 126 Personal’s bumpers and side strips were inspired by FIAT’s ESV experimental safety car programme.

[10] This change was to facilitate the fitment of a horizontally-orientated rear number plate.

Sources and credits: See part three.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Ciao Bambino! [Part Two]”

  1. I seem to recall a later Car verdict in the GBU was “More bovver than a hovver” paraphrasing a lawnmower advert of the time.

  2. Autocar wasn’t owned by Haymarket until 1984 – prior to this they weee owned by Reed and Illife.

  3. I have a few old editions of ‘Car’.

    In December 76 their comments for the 126 are….. For – Economy……Against – Cramped, noisy……Sum up – Buy one for your mother-in-law.

    By June 78 they had changed to…..For – Easy to park……Against – Cramped, noisy…….Sum up – In short, a masochist’s delight.

  4. Good morning Eóin. I’m thoroughly enjoying this series, thank you. The 126 might not be quite as cute as its predecessor, but it’s still a lovely piece of design, especially in its purest original form:

    Those original wheels are a minor work of genius. The design makes them look much bigger than they were in reality, improving the stance of the car. Looking at the position of the wheel bolts, the hubs must have been unusually large for such a small car(?)

    My secondary school French teacher drove one, in a nice navy blue colour. I recall that the tiny exhaust pipe made a strange ‘farting’ sound, much to the amusement of of me and my fellow schoolboys!

    1. The hubs aren’t any bigger than in any other car. The wheels are bolted to the outer circumference of the brake drums, indepent of the hubs. Just like it was with old Beetles which also had wheel bolts that were set wide apart

    2. Hi Dave. Poor choice of words on my part: I meant the brake drums. Thanks for the explanation.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this car every now and then since the start of this series. I agree with Daniel it is a nice clean design, which is right up my alley, but somehow this car doesn’t resonate with me. Maybe it is because there were none around in the area where I lived. I’d rather have a Honda N600.

  6. A school friend of mine drove one of these which was actually his mum’s. It worked and had a certain charm – although I recall that across our group of friends many were somewhat reluctant to accept a lift if they were to be sat in the back of the car. It was slow and noisy, but then so was my step-father’s Maxi, which I was driving around the same time, but at least the Maxi could seat 4 passengers very easily. Happy days.

  7. We had a green Personal 4, upholstered in what one could possibly call “burnt ochre”. My dad had bought it second-hand for my mom – it was her first car. When she saw it, she said “what am I supposed to do with it, tie a piece of string to its front and drag it behind me as I walk?” – I kid you not. Three days later, she got in, started it, and went to her school. Her students quickly developed a habit of lifting it and moving it around the courtyard.

    Ridiculously, we also took it out on the highway; one suitcase in the trunk, one on the rear seat right next to me. It. Of course, overtaking anything was out of the question. I do remember my parents liking the way it handled. The Clarion radio installed by the previous owner was dead. We never repaired it or replaced it. Instead, we installed a Gelhard cassette player in the opening of the oddment bin in front of the passenger, along with two speakers on the rear parcel shelf, while the old radio stayed put.

    I remember it fondly. It was cute, cheeky, fun, and owning it felt more like having a puppy. It also didn’t give us too much trouble, mechanical or otherwise.

    1. ‘When she saw it, she said “what am I supposed to do with it, tie a piece of string to its front and drag it behind me as I walk?”’ That really made me laugh.

      On the subject of reliability, the production engineers must have done a good job with the 126, as it was built in new plants, and all around the world. I know it was a simple car, but there’s still plenty that can go wrong.

      I just about remember the 126’s launch and recall how modern and nicely-made it looked (and how amazing the wheels were). It did seem small, though, even back then – a Mini is shorter, but has a longer wheelbase and is a bit taller and wider.

      I believe the 126’s designer, Sergio Sartorelli, also did the 1966 Daf City concept (as previously profiled by Bruno), which is not a million miles away in design from the 126.

      Square rear number plates – I guess all Type 1 Beetles had to have one.

  8. I doubt that the motor jounalists understood the 126 yet, as they were already used to bigger, more powerful and more comfortable vehicles.

    The 126 did exactly what it was built for: cheap and dry from A to B – no more, but also no less.

    When my parents moved near Weissach in the mid-70s, as my father no longer wanted to drive the long distance from our former place of residence, my mother needed a (second) car to continue to maintain earlier contacts (the whole girlfriend thing and such).
    So a (used) 126 of the first series came into the family.
    It was cheap to buy, cheap to maintain and suited my mother’s driving style very well, as she could do little damage to her driving licence thanks to the low horsepower figure (she drove physically digital: either full throttle or full on the brakes – and speed checks were her natural enemy).

    On the weekends off from my service in the armed forces, I could visit the discos scattered around the county for little petrol money.

    The 126 could do everything that was necessary.
    And as Daniel already wrote, the first series was a beautiful piece of industrial design.

    The BIS did have the advantage of a practical tailgate, but nasty tongues claim that the BIS used more cylinder head gaskets than petrol.

    1. And the 126 had the right engine for someone living near Weissach: air cooled and in the rear.

  9. Here’s a rather nice 126 spotted in Athens today by DTW reader and commenter gpant, who photographed it and kindly forwarded the image to me:

    Nice wheels and, although I’m not normally a fan of stick-on stripes, these look very appropriate in the colours of the Italian flag.

    1. That car is so fast that the stripes are blurred even at stand stil.

  10. Even though the short-lived 850’s 4-speed Idroconvert / Idromatic semi-automatic with torque converter was said to have made the 850 particularly slow, did Fiat ever consider equipping it for the 500 and 600 where speed would not have really mattered?

    Was an automatic or semi-automatic 126 looked by either Fiat or FSM?

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