Ciao Bambino! [Part Three]

From Bambino to Maluch.

Image: FCA Heritage

In the normal order of things, the cessation of Italian production by mid-decade should really have signalled the end for the Fiat 126. Outdated in concept, outclassed by an increasingly sophisticated and capable cohort of putative rivals in the budget car sector – not least Fiat’s own Panda model – its residual appeal largely a function of its cheapness, compact dimensions and miniscule running costs, the rationale for continuing appeared marginal at best.

Whether it had been FIAT Auto’s intention all along, or simply a happy confluence of factors, but the wholesale shift of 126 production to Tychy, not to mention the ongoing demand for the Maluch[1] in its adopted Polish home, would facilitate the 126 remaining available to those amid Western European markets[2] for whom nothing but a 126 would do[3].

This state of affairs prompted FIAT to consider a series of revisions to the car, in effect the most far-reaching in its long life. Introduced in 1987, the 126 Bis arrived with another boost in power and for the first time, a rear hatchback; these two traits conjoined insofar as one facilitated the other.

The all-alloy 704 cc twin-cylinder engine was as good as new; now water cooled, it was installed on its side, with external access through a hinged trapdoor within the (rear) boot floor. The new (lighter) power unit developed 26 bhp at 4,500 rpm and peak torque of 34.6 lb ft at a much lower 2,000 rpm, making the little twin considerably more flexible in use. Quieter too, owing to the silencing characteristics of the water jackets and the engine’s encapsulated installation.

A rack and pinion replaced the previous worm and roller steering mechanism and wheels and tyres too were upgraded. Inside, the cabin received a makeover, with matters like cabin ventilation brought up to 1980s standards. The revised engine layout also allowed for the provision of a shallow load area, capacity of which could be increased considerably by folding the rear backrest. Externally, integrated polyurethane bumper shrouds now clad both extremities, with lower-mounted side rubbing strakes to harmonise, while flush wheel trims, new design tail lamps and that hatchback rear brought further visual distinction[4].

Image: autoevolution

In its December 1987[5] issue, Car magazine’s Ian Fraser sampled a 126 Bis (again in Italy) for no better reason it appeared but to reprise his 1972 verdict. Time did not appear to have mellowed his disdain – Fraser continuing to pour scorn upon the bambino, even if he had, grudgingly, to concede that it had some merit. Nevertheless, “More bovver than a hovver” would subsequently become the official GBU throwaway party line, to be replaced by the even pithier, “Are they taking the Bis?

Fortunately, at least one fellow scribe grasped the 126’s appeal. In the April 1990 issue, LJK Setright, having also essayed forth in a 126 Bis delivered an entirely different verdict. “The 126“, he admonished, “is simply not to be taken seriously. It is far too much fun.” Setright knew what he was about, driving the bambino as it ought – flat out at all times, employing the time-honoured principle of “circumventing the impossibility of going fast by simply never going slowly[6]“. Possibly shamed into submission by LJKS’ elevated logic[7], Car enacted a GBU volte-face in May 1990, elevating the Bis from ‘Boring’ to ‘Interesting’, with the sobriquet, “Gives you a buzz.

Special editions were part and parcel of the 126’s appeal. This is a 126 Bis ‘UP’. Image:

As the 1990s dawned, those for whom automotive Bis remained 126-shaped dwindled, FIAT UK ceasing imports of the model from around 1992[8]. With the Turin carmaker now pushing the new Cinquecento model, European demand was also fading – Mirafiori’s Panda standing in to maintain the entry-level flame.

Meanwhile in captive-market Poland, demand remained buoyant, the Maluch having become as much cultural touchstone as transportation tool. Such was the name’s prevalence that FSM badged the cars as such for the final years of production. With Poland becoming confirmed as a European Union member state in 1994, EU environmental mandates meant the 126 would require both fuel injection and a catalytic converter, both of which it received. Safety regulations too saw headrests being fitted front and rear. In 2000, the final Maluch ‘Happy End’ was built in Tychy[9]. Italian production of the 126 would conclude with in excess of 1,350,000 units, while over 3,318,000 cars were built in Poland by the time production ceased entirely[10].

Last of the line. The final Maluch built, now at part of the FCA Heritage Hub in Mirafiori. Image: FCA Heritage

Sales figures are hardly a reliable barometer of virtue or success, but they do tell a story of sorts. But as FIAT’s spokesman asserted in 1972, the true arbiter in the case of the 126 was the passage of time, rather than the outpourings of motor journalists, feckless or otherwise. Any car that carries the accolade of having facilitated an entire nation towards motorisation cannot be altogether reprehensible. To grasp the true nature of the 126 was to appreciate it – not for what it couldn’t do, but for what only it could.

Nobody took the 126 seriously – nobody, apart from FIAT themselves (who in Setright’s opinion took it very seriously indeed), not to mention those who owned and enjoyed it. History has yet to grant the 126 its due acknowledgement – living in such close proximity to the more vaunted Nuova 500’s outsized shadow will do that for you. But while the Cinquecento motorised an entire nation, the 126, so closely based upon its illustrious forebear, it could equally be argued, motorised two of them.

So perhaps the question does not centre around whether the 126 was a good car (it was), but whether it was a significant one. Because that, on the other hand, is entirely beyond doubt.

Not a bad epitaph for a little one.

[1] Maluch translates from Polish as child or little one.

[2] By the mid-1980s, around 40,000 126s found homes in Western European markets per annum. Not huge numbers, but not worth turning one’s nose up at either.

 [3] “In one respect, the 126 is a truly economical car. It costs very little to buy; depreciation, what is more, can be altogether ignored, for you should never sell it. You would only have to buy another (there is no effective substitute), which would be no better and no worse; better to keep it, and keep on using it, until it has been used up”. (LJK. Setright – Car: April 1990)

[4] A neat feature of the tailgate design was how Fiat designers employed a clamshell effect, utilising the pre-existing drainage channel as a shutline.

[5] By 1987, the 126 was Britain’s cheapest new car.

[6] This was the only way to get the most out of the limited power at one’s disposal. Driving it this way did little for fuel consumption, but even so, the 126 cost little or nothing to run. It also made driving the car an absolute hoot.

[7] Perhaps LJKS’ reference to a “feckless horde of motoring journalists” struck a nerve with Mr. Editor G. Green, Setting him upon the Path of Righteousness.

[8] At the time of writing it was unclear as to when exactly Western European 126 sales ceased. 

[9] The very last Maluch to leave Tychy was not a 126 Bis, but retained the older bodyshell with the bottom-hinged engine cover. This car has been retained in the FCA Heritage collection, along with a pre-production 126 from 1972.

[10] The 126 also sold in useful numbers in China.


Sources: FCA Heritage/ FIAT Publicity/ Car Magazine December 1972, December 1987, April 1990/ Autocar August 1973, 6 April 1974.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

34 thoughts on “Ciao Bambino! [Part Three]”

  1. Fiat 126p did motorize Poland, for long, very long. Too long. Before the start of it’s mass production in 1973, communist Poland also considered the start of production of the supermini sized Fiat 127. But it would cost in Poland one and a half times the Fiat 126p, which was too much, so in the end it was not mass produced. Later, however, the production of Fiat Panda, which could be powered by a Fiat 126p engine, was being prepared. However, its mass production was prevented by Martial law in Poland between 13 December 1981 and 22 July 1983 announced after protests when the essential goods were heavily rationed and the Fiat 126p was thus produced until 2000.

  2. Great article, made me smile and want a go in a 126 bis. Can’t do better than that. Bravo.

    1. +1. Many DTW articles have that effect, or prompt more research, at the very least.

      I love cars like this, because they are so unthreatening and have so much personality. I get the feeling that any trip would be an adventure and arriving would be a triumph.

  3. Wonderful conclusion of a series on one of my all-time favorite cars, Eóin. I hadn’t noticed that the Bis used the rear part of the side drainage channels as a way to hide the shutlines. Clever, although I’m not entirely sure how well the rainwater was drained with this feature. Chunky black plastics aside, the Bis was a step forward: the radio was finally moved in an ergonomically acceptable position, although this sacrificed half of the oddment tray’s capacity. Personally, I’d have ditched the speaker housing there, opting for door-mounted ones. As for the HVAC, it gained more modern controls only relatively late in the car’s career, and the single-speed fan was retained. The revised dashboard, however, had none of the earlier iterations’ charm, and the various new plastic parts didn’t look like anyone cared much for how they fit in with the other stuff, as can be seen here – the new dashboard had an air of FSO Polonez and, frankly, it wasn’t a patch on the new Cinquecento’s.

    1. I forgot to add that the 126 enjoyed a cultural reference in 1980s Greek rock music.

      The second bridge of this song below (titled “Chicaboom” – don’t bother making sense of the title, after all it’s just about girlfriends) says:
      “Chicaboom and I hit on Vicky
      I got ya, ya two-timin’ thing
      I have a girlfriend with a studio by the Stadium
      And she’s got a Fiat Personal with a radio”

  4. Great series, thank you Eóin. The 126 was one of those cars that just made me smile, without being self-consciously cute or retro. It was gratifying to see LJKS putting his “feckless” Car Magazine colleagues straight on it. As you say, nobody can argue that it wasn’t a highly significant car too.

    For anybody tempted, there’s just one RHD example on sale in the UK at the moment:

  5. “To grasp the true nature of the 126 was to appreciate it – not for what it couldn’t do, but for what only it could.”
    What a perfect, lovely comment.

  6. What a lovely conclusion to a great story. Thanks, Eóin. Like S.V. said, it makes you want to go out and thrash the living daylights out of one on a sundrenched Italian road (sorry Poland). Then again, most small Italian cars have that effect, since that’s how they’re intended. As you say, it’s nigh on impossible for it to escape the shadow of the nuova 500, but even within the shadow it stands proud.

    That hatchback is really clever, too, just the sort of utilitarian intelligence you want from a maker of small cars.

  7. I wasn’t on DTW yesterday, but I still have to thank you for this Series, Eóin. The 126 is a true childhood memory, it wasn’t far from rare here in Switzerland, probably due to a significant Italian diaspora. Finally, my maths teacher (a lady from northern Germany, actually) had a 126 when I joined the school, but it was soon replaced by a Lancia Y10.

    I’ll be on a trip to Florence next weekend, so chances are I’ll get to see one or two of these cars…

  8. In spite of disliking the front of the 126, do in fact like what was achieved at the rear of the 126 Bis with the horizontal engine and hatchback.

    Horizontal mounted engines were not that unusual for rear-engined cars. That said even though the rear-engine layout was falling out of favour during the 1960s, it is surprising the horizontal mounted layout was not more widely adopted or discovered earlier on rear-engined cars in order to liberate some space at the rear (e.g. Beetle with say a single-carb Type-3 Pancake engine, etc) against the rise of the FWD layout.

    1. Maybee the rise of the FWD layout was favored by an larger undivided luggage compartment too.

    2. It would have been of limited benefit against the FWD layout beyond a temporary delay into irrelevance, yet it could be said only a few were truly capitalising on the latter’s better space efficiency before it became widely adopted.

    3. The TA was alrady known for its good space efficiency resulting from its FWD design, DKW/Audi made a big thing from the fact that the F102/103 did not have a propshaft tunnel and the FWD breakthrough cars Mini and 128 were known for their space efficiency, if anything.
      That space efficiency was not the biggest point of interst in Buccialis or Voisins is a different story.

    4. Now I remembered that the modified Fiat 500 was manufactured with a horizontal assembly engine of Austrian design like the Puch 700 Combi. The rear engine and rear-wheel drive have their advantages in the mountainous area.
      I never had a Type-3 Pancake engine, but in the hot summer months there was supposed to be a problem with its cooling under load.
      Fiat 126 Bis had no problem with cooling. The engine was also accessible after unloading, but for children’s fingers.

    5. The Puch 650 was something completely different from the small Fiat. Its boxer engine provided it with the proverbial sting in the tail and wasn’t simply mounted horizontally like in the Giardiniera but a horizontally opposed engine

      All air cooled VW Boxer engines had thermal problems because their oil cooler sat atop the third cylinder, blocking the air flow to it, resulting in overheating under heavy load as in mountain driving.

    6. The Simca 1100 can be defined as being one of the first truly space-efficient FWD designs available in the lower segments IMHO, featuring both a transverse mounted engine and hatchback alongside the Primula and Yugo Skala.

      Not disputing others have come close in making space-efficient FWD designs, only that they were flawed in one form or another from what would become the universal FWD layout as it were, which did not prevent carmakers from seeing the writing on the wall for the rear-engined layout.

    7. Thanks, Dave
      Yes, Puch had a boxer engine

      Yes, the universal FWD layout did not prevent carmakers from seeing the writing on the wall for the rear-engined layout. Poland also planned the Fiat 126p as a Combi with the original air-cooled engine at the rear. And then the Fiat 126p with the same engine in front. But their production would be too expensive.

    8. Puch even made the 126 in small numbers. That wasn’t too much of a problem as the engine was still in production anyway for the Haflinger.

      The Puch’s had real tuning potential and the cars much better brakes than the Fiats as standard.
      650 TRs were serious contenders in uphill racing

    9. Martin Pravda

      What is perplexing about the FWD development of the 126 would be the fact that rather than managing to retain its dimensions, the changes required for the FWD 126 prototype ended up being slightly longer than the 4-cylinder A112. Which is a shame and as you have mentioned could not be justified cost wise.

      Do like the Puch Boxer motor, did wonder if there was anymore viable stretch beyond 643cc without affecting reliability. It was also doubled up by Puch’s engineers into a 45-56 hp 1.0-1.3-litre 4-cylinder Boxer for the 1959 Puch Roadster S prototype, which despite not reaching production was said to have been relatively cost-efficient to produce due to Puch raiding its parts bin to complete the project (it notably installed drum brakes from the Haflinger off-roader).

    10. It is possible to enlarge the Puch boxer to 762cc for racing engines.
      But a road going standard 650 TR2 Montecarlo already has 45 PS which is pretty mad in such a tiny car. What else do you want?

    11. Was thinking more a 726cc Puch version of the later standard 31 hp 704cc Fiat engine, notwithstanding the latter being water-cooled.

      Giannini did pretty well to increase the regular 500/126 engine to 38 hp 794cc for the 126 GPA 800, not to mention develop a 16.5 hp 390cc motor for the 500-based Giannini 350 EC. –

    12. The increase of dimensions, that were required by the changes for the FWD 126 prototype had to be concept thing. And that it was not foreseen at the very beginning of 126, i think.

    13. The air cooled 126 flat engine in the Fiat Panda doesn’t look small too.

    14. Here’s a fun fact regarding the original Fiat Panda: there was an easy external recognition point as to whether an example was powered by the air-cooled twin or water cooled four. With the former, the air intake grilles were offset to the left, with the FIAT badge on the right (as you looked at the front of the car). With the latter, the grille was on the right and badge on the left. Cleverly the steel pressing could be fitted either way up, so the same panel fitted either model.

    15. If you look at the Panda’s front panel you see a circular air inlet for the air cooling fan abd an angular one for the radiator. You want the air inlet at the right place.

    16. That was the genius Giugiaro’s Panda. Mechanical parts made from 126 and 127, everything has been done to keep costs down.

    17. Daniel O’Callaghan & Martin Pravda

      A typical 2-cylinder FWD Kei Car like the Honda N360/N600 later Honda Life and Daihatsu Max Cuore were able to be much smaller than the rear-engined 126 (let alone the 126p NP), even the classic Mini was able to be equipped with a larger 4-cylinder engine within a similar space as the rear-engined 126. Was the air-cooled later water-cooled Fiat 2-cylinder really that large against the 4-cylinder 100 Series engine?

      As for the Panda, would it be correct to place the Type Zero platform as part of the overall A112, 127, 128, Yugo Koral, etc family? In the case of the Yugo Koral, it is interesting to note it shares a similar wheelbase as the Panda even if they differ in other respects.

    18. The rear-engined 126 had the technical layout of the 500, which was aimed at microcars like the Isetta or Vespa. And everything was done with the aim of keeping costs down to compete with them through very large-scale mass production.
      The classic Mini was aimed at larger cars because of the lower consumption.
      The Mini and the 126 or 500 were in a similar space, but differently engineered and focused cars. You can’t compare the two. Neither can the Kei Car.

  9. In Australia we got the FSM Niki in 1989, at $7,990 it was the cheapest car on sale by a margin. I don’t know how many were sold, but it can’t have been many. It’s most infamous moment was probably Wheels magazine putting their test car on its lid.

    I suppose they might work if you only ever drove around the inner city, but a Japanese kei would surely be better.

    1. Wind on to June 1992 and the Niki 650 is still in there, now down to A$6990. An 850cc Daihatsu Mira can be had for A$8907, a base Charade for A$11,491, a Hyundai Excel started at A$11584 for the four speed 1.5 Sprint.

      The only other car remotely close was the A$10,990 Lada Cevaro 1.5, the VAZ-2108 to the rest of us.

      For comparison, the Australian dollar was worth around 0.35 to 0.4 Pounds Sterling at the time.

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