Fiat has had a patchy history with facelifts. Here we have one hit, one miss and one meh.
Half a century ago, the European automotive landscape was considerably enriched by the presence of a variety of coupés from different mainstream manufacturers, all offering their own take on this style-led format with varying degrees of success from a design perspective. The best of these offered, for a relatively modest premium over the price of the saloon on which they were based, the opportunity to sacrifice a degree of practicality in exchange for something that was considerably more attractive, both to look at and to be seen in. It is a moot point as to whether the presence of such coupés enhanced sales of their more workaday siblings, but they certainly made the showroom environment more interesting and inviting for potential customers.
The Italian manufacturers were notably successful in imbuing their coupés with style and desirability, none more so than Fiat. The 1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé was based on the resolutely boxy saloon with which it shared its numerical designation, but was a delightfully pretty thing, so much so that it could easily have been penned by Carrozzeria Pininfarina. It was, however, the work of a team under Felice Mario Boano(1) at Centro Stile Fiat.
Wisely, the Sport Coupé shared no external body panels with its saloon sibling. Instead, it had a low waistline with smoothly curved unadorned flanks and a glassy DLO with slim pillars(2), decorated with just the right amount of brightwork. The front end, with its single round headlamps perched above the low-set bonnet and slim grille, might have dated the car a little, but it did not compromise its good looks at all.
After two years, Fiat decided to update the Sport Coupé’s appearance, which was now beginning to look just a little passé. The revised bodywork ahead of the A-pillars was all-new, with a raised bonnet now flush with the tops of the front wings and a full-width rectangular grille containing twin round headlamps with chrome bezels. At the rear, the slim tail lights were replaced by larger rectangular units(3).
The 1969 facelift was remarkably accomplished in that it successfully updated the Sport Coupé’s appearance, lending it a more assertively sporting demeanour, while still blending perfectly with the car’s unaltered mid-section. That restyling could easily have seen the car through to the end of its production run in 1975 but, inexplicably, Fiat felt the need to tinker with it again in 1972.
This time there was no alteration to the front-end bodywork, other than to the valance behind the bumper. The grille opening in the centre was made much deeper and filled by a rectangular plastic frame, while the headlamps were now surrounded by separate nacelles. The enlarged front grille necessitated a step in the new three-piece deeper section front bumper, covered by new vertical over-riders.
At the tail, the previously recessed rear panel was replaced by a boot lid opening extended down to bumper level. The tail lights were again changed, this time to vertical units that looked very similar (but were not identical) to those on the contemporary Mk1 Lancia Beta Berlina. A large triangular air vent was inserted into the lower corner of the C-pillar, to improve interior ventilation, while a poorly placed side rubbing strip disfigured the formerly sheer flanks.
Other than the practicality of the lower boot lip, the changes, especially at the front, were most unwelcome. The disjointed nose and clumsy bumper really spoilt the car’s previously elegant styling. This was very much a case of change for change’s sake and did nothing to arrest the slow decline in sales. A total of 113,000 of the first series cars were sold between 1967 and 1969, followed by 98,000 of the second series between 1969 and 1972 and 75,000 of the third series between 1972 and 1975.
Fiat also offered a second, smaller coupé in its range, based on the FWD 128 saloon. Launched in November 1971, the 128 Sport was a two-door four-seater coupé that, like its larger sibling, shared no external body panels with its saloon stablemate. It was a pretty and pert fastback design with an upswept rear side window and sharply truncated tail, giving it something of the fashionable coke-bottle look in profile. It looked ideally suited to a hatchback format, but instead had a separate boot opening down to bumper level, which limited its practicality somewhat.
After four years, Fiat revised the car and gave it all-new bodywork aft of the B-pillar, including the increasingly popular liftback rear hatch. The upswept rear side window was replaced with a longer item which introduced a straight waistline. The new car, called the 128 3P(4), was perfectly pleasant, if perhaps slightly plain for a coupé, with its wide triangular C-pillars and fussy rear lights, comprising three separate hexagonal-shaped lenses set into the rear panel either side of the number plate.
The 128 3P was certainly a more practical proposition than its predecessor but, to my eyes at least, was somewhat lacking in the style that is an essential ingredient of all coupés. Volkswagen’s 1974 Scirocco and Alfa Romeo’s 1976 Alfasud Sprint, both styled by Italdesign’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, were rather more convincing expressions of the same theme. Even if the Alfasud Sprint lacked the expected folding rear seat, it sold on its great looks and superb driving experience.
The 128 3P remained on the market for three years until 1978. At least both it and the 124 Sport Coupé avoided the ignominy of being caught up in Fiat’s truly lamentable late 1970’s fixation with plastic cladding.
(1) Boano’s previous work for Centro Stile Fiat under Dante Giacosa included the Fiat 600 and the design that would be used for the Simca 1000. The 124 Sport Coupé was his final work before retirement.
(2) The B-pillars were slim enough to give the impression at first glance that it was a pillarless design, but it was not. Instead it had rear side windows that popped out on an over-centre catch to improve ventilation.
(3) The 124 Sport Coupé’s tail lights found other, more exotic applications: the original lights were used on the 1968 Lamborghini Espada, the first facelift units on the 1970 Lamborghini Jarama.
(4) For Tre Porte, or three-door, a rather practical and unglamourous name for a coupé, which might give a clue to the thinking behind the revised model?