Dante’s Peak (Part One)

Remembering a highly successful car from a company that was once an automotive giant.

Image: Fiat Auto

It is generally acknowledged that the honour of producing the first true mass-market(1) European B-segment supermini is most equitably shared between Fiat and Renault. While the Fiat 127 was unveiled first, in April 1971, it did not initially feature that essential ingredient, an opening tailgate, but instead had a conventional boot lid and fixed rear windscreen(2). The three-door Renault 5 followed in December of that same year, but its front-wheel-drive mechanical layout, featuring a longitudinally mounted engine with gearbox sited out in front(3), would not be adopted by any other supermini and, when the second-generation Renault 5 arrived in 1984, it featured what had by then become the supermini norm, a transverse engine with end-on gearbox.

Today, however, we are recalling a Fiat that predated the 127, but featured the same mechanical layout, the 1969 Fiat 128. This was a car every bit as revolutionary as its smaller sibling in mechanical terms, but hardly at all in the way it looked. The 128 was a C-segment model that hid its modernity under neat but conventional looking three-box saloon(4) and ‘Familiare’ estate bodywork. The 128 was designed by Dante Giacosa, a brilliant engineer who laid down what would become the definitive mechanical layout for small and medium-sized FWD cars.

While Alec Issigonis is rightly recognised as the father of the transverse engined FWD layout, it was Giacosa who addressed the issues of refinement, gearchange quality and servicing difficulties that were inherent to Issigonis’ ultra-compact gearbox-in-sump layout. By simply displacing the engine to one side, Giacosa found space to fit a compact gearbox alongside it(5). This remains the industry standard to the present day.

Image: weilinet

The Fiat 128 was offered in two and four-door saloon and three-door(6) estate configurations. It featured a new 1,116cc engine designed by Aurelio Lampredi which featured a cast-iron block with a five-bearing crankshaft, aluminium cylinder head and a belt-driven overhead camshaft. It was very ‘over-square’ with a bore of 80mm and stroke of just 55.5mm. One particular innovation was that valve clearances could be easily adjusted simply by swapping one shim for another in situ without disturbing the timing.

Suspension was via struts all round, combined with a transverse leaf-spring at the rear and an anti-roll bar up front. The 128 sat on a 2,445mm (96¼”) wheelbase and had an overall length of 3,850mm (151½”). It was a light and efficient design, weighing in at around 760kg (1,675lbs) and featured the novelty of bonded-in front and rear windscreens, which Fiat claimed to increase the torsional rigidity of the bodyshell by as much as 92%.

The transverse FWD layout allowed for a roomy interior, while boot space was improved by mounting the spare wheel above and behind the engine. The cabin was spacious enough to embarrass its older and larger sibling, the rear-wheel-drive 1966 Fiat 124, despite the 128 being 180mm (7”) shorter overall.

The interior was neatly furnished, with twin circular dials beneath a hooded cowl, although the second dial was occupied only by a fuel gauge in its bottom quadrant and various warning lights. There were eyeball ventilation outlets at either end of the dashbord and two large circular grilles in the centre that could be directed either at the occupants of the front seats or at the windscreen for demisting. Perhaps the only dated element in the otherwise contemporary looking interior was the strip of imitation wood-effect painted metal beneath the padded top surface of the dashboard.

One unusual feature was a hand-operated throttle sited next to the choke, the intended purpose of which was, apparently, to keep the engine revs up after a cold start. It was not a proto cruise control as is did not disengage when the brake pedal was depressed!

Image: Fiat Auto

The qualities of the new 128 were impressive enough to win it the European Car of the Year award in 1970. It overwhelmed all its competitors with a score of 235 points. The runner-up on 96 points was another Fiat Group model, the Autobianchi A112, a B-segment supermini that was in essence a dry run for the forthcoming 127. (The Renault 12 occupied the lowest step on the podium with a score of 79 points.) Fiat was Europe’s largest motor manufacturer and, arguably, its most innovative, so the win was hardly unexpected.

In its March 1970 issue, Car Magazine devoted 22 pages to the new 128, which it also voted as its own Car of the Year(7), including six pages penned by renowned automotive journalist Leonard (LJK) Setright. His introduction set the tone for what was a highly praiseworthy assessment of the ECoTY winner: “The 128’s impressive roominess is the key to its design. Without it, most of the engineering features would be meaningless; with it, every single one of them plays an important part in making the whole thing workable and praiseworthy.” Setright continued, “The thing about the 128 is the completeness, the rationality of the design…it is just a car that works well without ever drawing attention to itself.”

Setright argued that the FWD layout was not “merely a modernised Mini” nor was it “a cleaned-up [Autobianchi] Primula”. Instead, it was the ultimate product of Dante Giacosa’s original thinking that began not long after the end of the Second World War. This resulted in solutions that might now appear logical and even obvious but took much time and thought to devise. Particular praise was offered for the gearbox: “One looks at the drawings of that neat and economical transmission and says ‘Of course – how else?’ forgetting the unholy rabble of existing front-drive cars whose transmissions consume enough power to propel the 128 to 35mph.”

Even the novel valve clearance adjustment caught Setright’s eye: “One notes the simplicity of tappet clearance adjustment beneath the overhead camshaft and says ‘Perfectly obvious!’ – but we had to measure, strip, rebuild and remeasure our overhead camshaft apparata for more than half a century before Fiat came up with this system.”

Image: motoimg

Setright applauded the passenger space available in the 128: “So much room in something so sprightly and small in size and appetite – how could it be done, save by clever tailoring and fitting?” Regarding luggage space, “the 13cu ft boot is huge for such a car, despite the minimal overhang.” He also approved of the 128’s clean and unfussy styling: “I have felt moved to commend Fiat for its refusal to pander to the fashionable and irrational. They thus postpone the obsolescence and retard the depreciation of their cars, which in turn enables them to go on marketing each model that much longer and hence more cheaply.”

Presciently, Setright also identified the single most important feature lacking in the 128: “…but where are the tailgates, the folding rear seats?” The conservative choice of a three-box saloon rather than the more avant-garde hatchback configuration would ultimately prevent the 128 from becoming the definitive C-segment car for a generation. That honour would instead fall to the 1974 Volkswagen Golf. However, the 128 would still go on to become a highly successful model for Fiat in its many guises, as we shall see in further instalments of this series.

(1) Fiat first tested the FWD supermini concept with the 1963 Autobianchi Primula which was only produced in relatively small numbers.

(2) The hatchback version with a folding rear seat was launched in March 1972.

(3) A layout carried over from the Renault 4 and 6.

(4) There was also an Autobianchi saloon launched simultaneously, the A111, which featured similar (but smarter?) looking bodywork that shared nothing externally with the 128.

(5) Issues of ‘torque-steer’ caused by unequal transmission of power resulting from having different length driveshafts to each of the front wheels were largely irrelevant in small cars with limited power output. In the case of the 128, it was addressed by making the longer driveshaft much thicker than the shorter one, to give both shafts equal torsional stiffness.

(6) There was also a five-door 128 estate called the ‘Rural’ produced by under licence in Argentina.

(7) Car’s runner-up was the VW-Porsche 914 sports car, with the Ford Capri in third place.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

87 thoughts on “Dante’s Peak (Part One)”

  1. Fiat 128, the first car of the Modern Age as we know it with all the defining features.
    FWD, transverse engine with end-on gearbox, belt driven OHC, independent suspension all round and four disc brakes.
    Lampredi’s stroke of genius for adjustment of the valve clearance and the belt drive made possible the proliferation of OHC engines over the following years.
    That the 128 didn’t have a hatchbach was logical from its cultural background. Tre volumi cars were popular around the Mediterranean for a very long time and cars like the VW Derby/Jetta or Opel Corsa TR didn’t exist without reason.

  2. I know the ‘great men’ approach to history is supremely unfashionable these days, and not without reason, but I think there remains some value in it in certain instances. The post-war Italian automotive industry strikes me as one of those. I was recently re-reading a period obituary of Giacosa from 1996, who for all his plaudits I still consider underrated, at least in the Anglophone world. Once his influence faded at Fiat, the company’s fortunes began to fade too – I’ve always thought it a little ironic that 1996 or thereabouts was arguably the last real high point for Fiat as a mainstream automotive manufacturer. When you look back, the Italian industry was unusually overburdened with some serious heavyweight talent in the post-war era – between Agnelli, Giacosa, the prominent coachbuilders, Jano, Lampredi, Hruska and Ghidella… you could lead an army with that lot. Once Ghidella lost the power battle with Romiti, that was the beginning of the end really…

    1. The combination of people like Ettore Cordiano, Sergio Camuffo and Aurelio Lampredi under guidance of Dante Giacosa was a pool of considerable engineering knowledge.
      It’s also fascinating that people like Lampredi weren’t afraid of working on humble projects like 124 or 128 after they’d designed race engines for Ferrari.

    2. I was thinking the same thing, Stradale. The Italian industry did great things but seemed to be dependent on great men to accomplish that. Something similar can be said about the British industry, although opinions on someone like Issigonis are a little more varied. French and particularly German industries seem less dependent on individuals, ticking over nicely with or without a certified genius at the helm. Or am I just seeing stereotypes here?

      Daniel: thanks for the article, I look forward to the next installments. The 128 is a pretty thing, but the wheelbase seems a bit too long for the rest of the car, not unlike an Issigonis design (although the rest of the design is much more accomplished than Alec’s fare). It would look a little better perhaps, with a slightly shorter wheel base (although that would also negate a few other aspects of the car). As is my wont, I played around a little, original on top for comparison:

      The Autobianchi A111 was even prettier in my view:

      I hope the digging went well!

    3. Tom: I might suggest that André Lefèbvre played a similar role at Citroen’s Bureau d’Etudes. He was a hugely inspirational figure with an almost unique vision of what the Citroen motor car should be. Certainly, they were never quite the same again after ill-health forced his early retirement from what was a pivotal role in the creation and development of new double chevron automobiles.

    4. Hi Tom. I agree that the 128 has slightly unusual proportions with its long wheelbase, but I don’t mind that at all and it certainly was a factor in it having an exceptionally roomy interior. I do agree that the Autobianchi A111 looked a more classy and expensive car. It would be my perfect ‘Fiat 128’. Here are a couple more images of an example in a great teal colour:

    5. Great men of the German industry were Ferdinand Piech, Wolfgang Reitzle, Ulrich Einhorn and if you go further back Rudolf Leiding, Ernst Fiala, Bela Barenyi, Ludwig Kraus.
      Equally influential but in the wrong direction were Jürgen Schrempp, Chris Bangle.
      The latter two show that it not only takes a great man but also one doing the right things.
      Does this leave Greek Al in the middle, a great man doing lots of things right but just as many things wrong?
      As a friend always says: the problem is not that they are how they are, the problem is that they are let do what they do.

    6. Daniel: thanks for the pictures. I don’t mind the proportions that much as well, I was just musing about them.

      Eóin: good point, I would certainly consider Citroen an example of the Great Genius Theory, but Renault and Peugeot had their Great Geniuses come and go. They had their ups and downs, certainly, but not to the devastating extent that BL or the Italian industry had.

      Dave: great point you friend makes, thanks! Maybe that is the difference then: that there is a stronger management structure in place for the marques that survive the Great Genius period as opposed to those who don’t. The story of BL and the Allegro featured here a while ago really brought that home for me: BL wasn’t strong enough to resist Issigonis’ more destructive urges (as they turned out to be). Strong in the sense that management is able to extract the best from people without letting them run amok. That is a game of nuance, which requires a strong set of values and the mental capacity to sit and consider things before making a decision as opposed to continually firing off new plans and grandiose announcements. It is a great irony, I think, that what makes a person of organisation strong (and thus effective) is often diametrically opposed to what is perceived as such by the general public.

    7. Looking at the Autobianchi A111 and being aware they originally wanted to have the 127 as an Autobianchi before settling for the A112, wouldn’t it have made more sense from Fiat’s perspective to apply the A111 exterior onto the 128 on cost grounds instead of using a dusted-off 123 E4 prototype?

    8. Tom: Fiat 128 with your shorter wheelbase looks much better. But now that I think about it, more like a RWD.

      The shift from Italian in character, with sharp handling to French rather than Italian in the way it drove in the 128 successors may have been the change in driving style of most motorists after the 70s oil crises. Perhaps this slowly buried Fiat.

    9. True, Martin (and thanks). The shorter-wheelbase 128 has an even stronger family resemblance to the 124 like this, as does the A111, by the way.

      I’ve never driven one myself, but I have heard that Fiat’s Twinair engine can be economical when driven slowly, but needs to be thrashed to get any kind of performance out of it (in the sense of moving along with the rest of the traffic) at which point its economy tanks. Sounds quintessentially Italian in character and as you mention, at odds with a more frugal market, much like Fiats of old. I doubt it was the only factor in Fiat’s decline, but it might well have contributed.

      Bob: perhaps the A111 exterior was more expensive to mass produce? Viable for the kinds of volume Autobianchi managed, but not for Fiat.

    10. “perhaps the A111 exterior was more expensive to mass produce? Viable for the kinds of volume Autobianchi managed, but not for Fiat.”

      I think that’s exactly right, Tom. The A111, with its separate chrome-capped door window frames, looks rather more expensively wrought than the 128 with its one-piece door skins. To my eyes, the A111 actually looks like a pocket-sized version of the Fiat 130 saloon:

    11. Tom: I’ve also never driven Fiat’s Twinair. Its “economy” is probably heavily influenced by EU emissions regulations along with the marketing-friendly reference to Fiat’s small car past.
      There will also be multiple reasons behind Fiat’s current state. But one of them, I think, may have just been a change in the majority of drivers for whom Fiat mass produced cars.

    12. Daniel and Tom

      It is understandable that the A111 exterior would have likely been expensive to apply on the 128, that said surely that would have been offset from an economy of scale point of view and the fact 128 production in Italy lasted until 1985 (followed by the A112 soon after) as opposed to using since obsolete Primula aka E123 E4 underpinnings for the A111 until 1972?

      After all the A112 already shared much with the 127 and 128 family, with Fiat going on to integrate Autobianchi with Lancia and creating a situation where a posher 128 derived A111 could have had a longer production run by some 7 years before being replaced by the Delta.

    13. Thanks for discovering (for me) the A111. I think it´s a lot better proportioned than the 128 and prettier, too. It´s like a 80% scale version of the Fiat 130 saloon, but with the Coupé front. And the colour and wheels are great.

    14. My understanding is that the Autobianchi A111 (Fiat Project 123) was the car the Fiat 124 would have been if conservative forces, and probably the need to develop a more conventional car as the basis of the VAZ 2101, hadn’t dictated otherwise. It’s certainly a size up from the 128. Never seen in the UK, I’ve always admired the A111 since seeing them in 70s Italy, but couldn’t help noticing that the owners seemed always respectably dressed, and often fitted curtains or blinds to the rear windows. Possibly the car for people who felt a Lancia too left-wing and an Alfa too immoral.

      Yes, more money and surface area possibly allowed the A111 a bit more attention to the detail that the 128 lacked, yet (with great respect) I still regard the efforts of people here to improve the 128 as a sort of sacrilege. It is a masterclass in proportions and packaging reflecting the underlying engineering. A totally honest car. So where have cars like that gone now?

    15. Stradale,
      I have seen the power struggle between Vittorio Ghidella and Cesare Romiti referenced several times on DTR. Can you kindly point me towards any good sources of information on the topic?

    16. Thanks, intellectual property cases can be a nightmare, as Ed Sheeran is currently finding out. So much is down to interpretation, rather than provable facts.

    17. Good morning Bob, and thanks for sharing these images. I think that the 128 Smart is a neat update, but the 128 Star looks like something else entirely and loses the essential character of the car.

    18. It doesn’t only lose the character of the 128, the 128 Star loses its reason. It’s a small car but the Star (though competently styled) gives it huge overhangs. The rear supposedly gives more bootspace, but the front half metre or so, just exists to balance the rear. Why not start with as bigger car?

      Today it’s hard to understand the financial model of coachbuilders such as Lombardi and Moretti, who created full rebodies using cheap modest cars as a base. But post war there was skilled and cheap labour available, and these things could for a while be produced by companies at a profit.

    19. The Star gives me Audi vibes, frankly.

      Bob: some production methods (the ones that cannot be automated) only get more expensive when production volumes increase. The use of fibre glass is another (if unrelated) example of this.

    20. Was it Romiti or Ghidella who wanted to merged Fiat with Ford of Europe? What was the rationale, especially as recall Ford expressing interest in acquiring Alfa Romeo around the same time?

    21. On the one hand I can see the Fiat 130 resemblance, Daniel. On the other hand, the 130 gives me alternate-reality Mercedes vibes (in a good way, what a great but forgotten car it is) that the A111 doesn’t:

      The A111 is a lot squarer in its detailing, whereas the 130 has more rounded edges, doesn’t it?

      The 128 Smart reminds me more of the 130.

  3. Morning Daniel, another fantastic article thank you. What a great little car the 128 is. Kinda sad to see how diminished the Fiat brand is now, when they used to be at the forefront like this.

  4. Nitpicking aside, the 128 and smaller relations were Fiat’s small car peak that culminated with the Strada/Ritmo Abarth 130TC.

    It is sad to see Fiat being unable to follow up in the decades since with subsequent models lacking direction (being overly focused on space efficiency) and inexplicably forgetting what defined Fiat’s small cars, when with regards to driving dynamics and fun factor they should have really been up there against peak Peugeot followed by Renault and Ford.

    Fiat did though had their brief moments of temporarily stemming the decline into mediocrity with the Bravo/Brava and the Coupe.

  5. Brilliant car the 128, let down only by build quality at a time when the Red Brigade were stirring up social and industrial trouble in Italy.

  6. In short we may say the Simca 1100 defined the modern mass-market hatchback body, the Fiat 128 defined the modern hatchback mechanical layout and the VW golf married both 49 years ago.
    It’ strange to think that 49 years before, in 1935, the Citroen Traction Avant was using the mass market’s cutting edge technology…

  7. I’m sorry, 1974 minus 49 equals 1925.
    So, the Ford T was still being sold.

  8. We can look at today’s golf and relate it to the original.
    We cannot relate the original golf to Ford’s T model
    That illustrates, the way I see it, how automotive development lost momentum in the past decades.
    It reached it’s peak long ago

    1. Totally agree Gustavo. How little 20 years mean in todays auto history. When I was a teenager there was a 20th aniversary Ford Mustang special edition. It made sense, as the original 1964-1/2 Mustang already felt like a classic. Nowadays it’s hard to think of a 2003 car as a classic. Maybe an interesting youngtimer, but not yet a classic.

      I think the same is happening with popular music. We can routinely listen to 20, 30, and even 40 year old music on the radio without giving it much thought. But imagine a regular radio station in 1986 suddenly playing a 1946 tune.

    2. Interesting. Perhaps it has something to do with the growing and aging population.

      Fantastic article Daniel, thank you.

    3. Progress happens in leaps of innovation follwed by periods of refinements and improvements, until the next big thing happens that turn society over. In the 20th century there were internal combustion engines and the oil industry leading to cars and planes and motorbikes and highways and gas stations and parking lots and whatnot. But we’re still trying to improve the same combustion engine? Just think of the time period from the Wright Brothers to Concorde, it’s only sixty years. And now it’s sixty years since England and France agreed to build the Concorde. On the other hand we’ve had the sexual revolution and personal computers and the internet and smart phones since.

    4. Perhaps the slow down of innovation in favor of iteration has something to do with increased regulation? If safety regs, for example, effectively dictate a certain scuttle height, that would be one more point of differentiation that is closed off(I’m think of the fabulously low slung scuttle on 1980s Hondas, especially the 3rd Prelude). I see the same thing in architecture; guidelines on allowable builds(set backs, floor to area ratios, etc) result in cookie cutter buildings only distinguishable by tacked on stylistic frippery.

    5. I wonder if we expect too much of cars. If one looks at trains, they followed a similar pattern of rapid development – from steam through to Maglev. Now they’ve settled down to being pretty much a handful of designs and power types.

      The point about regulation is a good one, too – not just in terms of safety, but speed limits, noise reduction and so on. Cars, like all multi-person transport are always going to have their limitations. I suppose they will be self-driving, one day and could be powered by nuclear fusion. Beyond that, other advances, such as being able to fly haven’t really, er, taken off, so to speak.

  9. Thanks Daniel for a great read about one of my favourite Fiats and the beginning of my favourite Fiat generation, the transverse rear spring era of the 70s and 80s (127, 147, Ritmo, Regata, Duna, Brazian Fiat Uno,…). Looking forward to the next installments!

  10. Another way:
    The other day I drove a friend’s new Hiunday something – not sure what it was, the glare of the screens and the sound off the bells erased my memory.
    But One thing I remember, the overall feeling was not very different if I was driving a 1993 Honda Civic.
    But in 1993, if I was driving a 1963 ADO 16, the difference would be certainly bigger.
    Likewise if, in 1963, I was driving a 1934(?) Traction Avant 7CV

  11. As Setright said “The thing about the 128 is the completeness, the rationality of the design…it is just a car that works well without ever drawing attention to itself.” To me there has always been something so perfect about the total package that is the 128. It is so many ways no more car that you’d need. Of course to 21st Century eyes it must seem frighteningly basic. No assisted steering (Gustavo, I think that’s the one single factor that really separates the 93 Civic from a 63 Austin), no ADAS, not even ABS, no extraneous creases, in fact nothing at all to make you feel good about yourself. And of course no rust proofing and only rudimentary occupant protection. If I could, I’d buy a new one tomorrow.

    1. The 128 has enough to make you feel good about yourself.
      An engine that’s willing to rev and has eager throttle response, sharp steering, good brakes (four discs in a car of that class at that time!), it begs to be driven hard and has a general ‘Italian’ feeling to it.
      It’s light hearted and it’s fun despite of being so utterly practical.
      All good Italian cars were that way but that time is gone which is a pity.

      Last weekend I had the opportunity to drive an ex-Lancia Corse Fulvia 1600 HF, an ex Balliestrieri/Manucci rally car. Then I started to honestly look for an Alfasud and ended having a look at a Tipo 166 Giulietta. Am I mad?

    2. Dave. What I mean is the 128 was designed to make you feel good about the car, not yourself. It has nothing to do with status enhancement like today’s vehicles. PS : You’re not mad.

    3. They were pretty proud of their rustproofing – as the strap-line says in this advert, ‘We’ve addressed the problem of rust’.

    4. Hi Bristowfuller

      I would add a decent, smooth engine, VTEC, fuel injection, catalyst converter, a decent gearbox, airbags, ergonomic seats, a bit of crash-resistance, integated and color coordinated bumpers, non-round headlamps, no grille as such, air con, electric windows roof and mirrors, glued DLO glasses, etc.
      Just like in today’s cars…

      Give me a decent one and I will drive it everyday and cross Europe (again, I went to Turkey and black 10 years ago)

  12. I think the fact that Fiat was at the top of its game even shows through things like the company’s graphic design and advertising. It’s modern, stylish and confident (and a bit avant-garde, based on the example, below).

    My father bought a Fiat 125 in 1970, so it’s a period I recall well in terms of Fiat products.

  13. Hello all. Thank you all for your interesting comments and apologies for my inattentiveness today. (I spent the day in a hole with a shovel!)

    It’s great to read that the 128 is still so well regarded. It truly was a masterclass in design and engineering. Moreover, it was properly Italian in character, with sharp handling and an engine very happy to rev.

    I remember some bemusement on the part of reviewers when its replacement, the Ritmo / Strada was launched. Fiat had moved the dial significantly towards improving ride quality at the expense of handling, to the extent that the new car was thought to be more typically French rather than Italian in the way it drove.

    1. The problem with the Ritmo was that we expected Italian cars to be stylish, and the Ritmo just wasn’t.

    2. Mervyn: I would suggest that the Ritmo was stylish in a ‘different’ manner to how most people viewed style. And while the 128 could equally be considered a piece of ‘product design’, that of the Ritmo was more studied, more of a Design Statement. As such, it was a car which was admired or reviled in equal measure.

      Personally, I thought it marvellous (before FIAT’s inevitable botched facelift). Still do. But I think I’m in a relative minority on that one.

    3. Didn’t Fiat let architecture students design the Ritmo or at least its interior?
      Maybe that’s an explanation why it looked so different.

      The probem with the Ritmo was that it was too large and too heavy for the available engines and never felt as light footed or agile as the 128. Not even the Abarths were a match for a Golf GTI with their big and heavy large Lampredi four. An Abarth 125 or 130 TC is neither as fast nor as agile as a comparable Golf and that’s not what makes an Italian car.
      Fiat forgot to update their engines when the cars grew bigger. 128, Ritmo, Tipo all had to use the same basic engines which were fast in the 128 and slow in the Tipo.
      VW always updated their EA827 lump when the Golf grew in size to keep performance levels.

    4. I’ve read about that shift towards ride comfort before and makes me wonder. I drove its saloon sibling, the Regata, for a few years and my impression of it was that it was rather stiffly sprung, not only in ride comfort (not much of it and with terrible harshness), but even in how hard it was to compress the suspension by pushing down on the car.

      Speaking of Ritmo, I love the mk1 with its big plastic bumpers and even like the Mk2 and Mk3 (this last one is but a tiny restyling, yet in many parts of the internet it’s considered a new “Mk”).

      By the way, my favourite aspect of Spanish SEAT’s Ronda is its cool 1980s interior:


    5. From the ‘Secret Classics’ website:

      “Fiat tried to prevent the official type approval of the Ronda. In the end, however, SEAT succeeded in doing so by sending the Belgian importer to Luxembourg with the corresponding cars.

      As a result, Fiat took the matter to the court of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. For this trial, SEAT produced a specially painted Ronda as evidence. All components that had been changed in comparison to the Fiat Ritmo were colored bright yellow, while the rest wore glossy black.

      This car is still part of the SEAT Heritage collection today and quickly convinced the judges that enough changes had been made. As a result, SEAT was able to exhibit for the first time at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA).”

  14. I am in the same relative minority.
    First time I saw the Ritmo, my heart skipped a beat.
    It was futuristic in a ‘space 1999’ way, it was the mass-market expression of some early seventies show cars.
    On the other side, the 128 was well proportioned but not much more – in the interest of economy I guess (the Autobianchi A111 had basically the same shape but more expensive production solutions, like the door frames, head and rear lights, interior furnishings, etc)

    1. Exactly, Gustavo.
      The Ritmo was stylish in an avant-garde sense, with funky detailing you either liked or you didn’t. Polarising.
      The 128, at the time, was stylish in more of a “Why haven’t we seen one done like this before?” sense.

    2. I’m another huge fan of the original Ritmo, which was a superbly coherent design, and very forward-looking, at least before Fiat butchered it in what has to be one of the worst facelifts ever. Here are a couple of images of it in a great period colour:

      Fiat’s terrible facelift was all the more inexcusable when you see how much better a job SEAT made of it with the Ronda. Here are: the two for comparison:

    3. Arriving late to the ‘all new models’ party, I have another question.

      How many of the ‘all new models’ presented gave no parts to following models? (the NSU RO80 and Citroen GS are the ones I can remember)

      How many proved completely independent not only from their predecessors but also from their successors?

      And what did it mean?
      They were dead ends, for sure.
      But if the reasons of their uniqueness were noble (I guess their were), what wete the reasons of their lack of descende?

      Has you all see, I’m being more emotional than I should. But I can’t help seeing a bit of romance, glory and tragedy in this topic

    4. Dave

      I beg to differ somehow
      In the 80’s and 90’s VW had some bellow par engines: Polo’s one litre; golf’s 1.3 and 1.4 barely moved themselves for the best part of two decades.
      Even the Golf II Gti carried over the Golf I’s 112 hp engine in his belly to move a car some 250 pounds heavier.

      But VW had other strenghts…

    5. Gustavo: yes, the basic engines available in a Golf often were slow turds. I always wondered who bought a grown up car like a Golf Mk4 with 1.4 litres and 75 PS which was barely able to move under its own power.
      But there were always engines with sufficient power and enough customers who bought them. And with their TDI diesels, particularly the pump jets with their stomp pulling torque they brought power (or torque) to the people.

    6. Nice to see a Seat Ronda, which was a rather succesful Tom Tjaarda redesign (while he was working for Rayton Fissore) of the Ritmo. The sporty Crono looked mildly attractive with its Cromodora alloys, and there was even a 2.0 120 bhp version

      But probably the most famous Seat Ronda was this…

    7. After the rupture between Fiat and Seat in 1981, the Italians allowed Seat to manufacture and sell the Ritmo in export markets if Seat restyled the car to differentiate it from the Ritmo, and the result was the Ronda. But Fiat pleaded that the Rayton Fissore restyling wasn´t too different and sued Seat.

      To show the Ronda was distinct enough, Seat displayed to the court this black and yellow Ronda. The black parts were the original ones used in the Ritmo and the yellow parts the new ones. Seat won at trial and avoided a very costly fine and compensation to Fiat (and could sell the Ronda).

    8. Hi David:

      That was the car presented by Seat’s defense team in the court case brought by Fiat attempting to prevent European type approval of the Ronda. The highlighted changes helped convince the court that Seat’s changes were sufficient to distinguish their car from the Ritmo.

    9. It almost makes you wonder if Seat stole Fiat’s thunder in redesigning the Ritmo: the Ronda seems the most “logical” way to modernise (and blandify, sadly) the Ritmo’s most avant-garde trappings while the Fiat redesign seems a bit contrived. One could imagine a scenario where Fiat saw Seat’s redesign and thought “damn, WE were going to do that… now we’ll have to come up with something else”.

      The Ritmo facelift and the Ronda seem to have been developed around the same time, however, so it’s unlikely. Moreover, Fiat famously was eminently capable of ruining any good design all by itself.

    10. “Moreover, Fiat famously was eminently capable of ruining any good design all by itself.”

      So true, Tom, and well put. You made me laugh!

    11. In defense of the devil:

      SEAT was masterfull on presenting to court the black and yellow Ronda, but Fiat’s lawyers were not the best.

      If bumpers, hood, grille, door pulls , headlamps and rear lamps are obviously new features, other’s are not: the rims are not per se caractheristic of a given car, and the same can be said of several pieces of trim /accessories – position of side repeators, badges or windscreen surround should not be yellow.
      The same with interior upholsthery (unless seat frames were diferent).

      Fiat should have heavily fought said itens being allowed yellow colored in court. In black they would have been much more on tune with the truth: front and rear were novel, the rest was the same.

      If they did, and their claim was not accepted, them the court was biased.

    12. Thanks, Daniel. In truth, the Fiat facelift does carry over more sheet metal (particularly at the front) than the Ronda, so it might well have been cheaper.

  15. I owned a 79 Fiat 128 from 1989 – 95. Although an updated version it really only meant 1300 engine and slightly different grille.
    What amazed me that, even towards the end of that time and nearly 3 decades after it launched, although the interior was dated it was still as good (or better) to drive than much more modern cars.

  16. How many completely all new cars, (engine, transmission, chassis/body all new at the same time ) cars like the 128 have there been since 1960? Very few that I can count.

    1. Fiat had a tendency to develop cars with most or all of the components being new. To compensate their development costs these cars had to stay in production far too long until they were no longer competitive.
      Other manufacturers re-use old engines, suspensions or even whole platforms with only around thirty percent of the car being actually new. This way they can use much shorter model cycles and keep their products competitive.

    2. If you go back to 1960 there are a sizeable number of completely new cars because the Sixties and Seventies were an era of fundamental change – rear engines to FWD, end of air cooling and many more.
      NSU Ro80
      NSU Typ 67/77 (1000 to TTS)
      BMW Neue Klasse
      BMW E3
      Peugeot 204
      Peugeot 104
      Citroen GS
      Audi 80 Mk1
      VW Polo Mk1
      Opel Kadett A (even such an antediluvian car was completely new)
      Renault 16
      Saab 99
      Porsche 911
      Porsche 928

    3. I thought that would bring some comments! But don’t forget the Brits, Rover P62000, Austin Maxi, Hillman Imp. Any others?

    4. Lancia Gamma, Ferrari 308, Lamborghini 400, Lamborghini Urraco, Citroën SM, Jaguar XJ40, Peugeot 605, Mercedes Benz W201, NSU/VW K70, Maserati Biturbo

    5. Very interesting. What amazes me is that the vast majority of models performed very well from the start, with few problems (I know that there were one or two very notable exceptions).

    6. Arriving late to the ‘all new models’ party, I have another question.

      How many of the ‘all new models’ presented gave no parts to following models? (the NSU RO80 and Citroen GS are the ones I can remember)

      How many proved completely independent not only from their predecessors but also from their successors?

      And what did it mean?
      They were dead ends, for sure.
      But if the reasons of their uniqueness were noble (I guess their were), what wete the reasons of their lack of descende?

      Has you all see, I’m being more emotional than I should.
      But I can’t help seeing a bit of romance, glory and tragedy in this topic…💕

  17. I remember what Dave wrote about.

    I remember seeing the Ritmo as underpowered, the the tipo as underpowered and heavy, the bravo/a as underpowered and heavier than the concurrence.

    I used to wonder ‘doesn’t these guys update their engines?’ and ‘doesn’t these guys know how to cut some weight?’

    That was the moment I felt Fiat was loosing it…

    1. Daniel,

      I guess the problem with the Ritmo’s aesthetics was that although it was the future in 1978, in 1983 the future was’t anymore what it used to be.

      But the Seat Ronda was a much better update, of course

    2. I had a Brava with the 103hp 1.6 engine. It was a sweet, revvy engine and propelled the Brava with sufficient enthusiasm to keep it interesting. A good middle of the range powerplant. But then you think that the same power in the Ritmo Mk1 105tc made it a sporty, semi-hot hatch, one step below the mighty 130hp Abarth. And the sportiest of the 128 family, the Rally, didn’t even surpass 70hp!

    3. Fiat was proud enough of the 128 rally and its 67 PS to give it different rear lights

  18. Hi Cesargrauf

    I’m sorry I wasn’t accurate enough: I’m talking about small displacements.
    In say, 1996, the 1.4 Brava was good for 80 hp.
    Renault’s 1.4 80hp was around since the 19; Ford’s 1.4 had 90; Nissan’s 86, Rover’s 103, Alfa 90, etc.
    The others also strugling with lack of power were PSA products, with 75.

    Also one might remember the generalisation of catalytic converters and monopoint fuel injection made older engines lose power.

    The thing is that If I remember correcty,
    Brava was heavier than Escort, 306, ZX, Sunny, 146 boxer, Megane, Astra.
    And his frontal area wasn’t among the bigger?
    But I may be wrong

    (I focus on the 1.4 because I guess even in Italy the 1.6 was in a higher tax step)

    1. Gustavo:

      Totally agree. I was just stressing the weight increase by pointing out that my old Brava with 1.6 with 103hp was merely average (enthusiastic when revved, but average nonetheless) while the Ritmo with the same displacement and power was a semi hot hatch. I guess at the lower levels you mentioned, the 1.4, 80hp Brava would have been equivalent to the Ritmo 60.


      Indeed!… and driving lamps, split front bumper,… The Rally was the cheeky little Alfa Giulia GT alternative 🙂

  19. I like to comment the two statements that Issigones can be considered as the ”father of the transverse FWD layout” and that it was…… Giacosa who found the space to fit a compact gearbox alongside it.
    I won’t go that long to say that Joseph Cugnot deserves that honour, but the SAAB 92 had allready in 1950 a transverse engine with the gearbox alongside, as can clearly be seen in this website/ picture:

    Interesting to note that its successor (with a three cylinder two-stroke engine) has the engine in N-S direction………

    1. Yes, it’s true that SAAB started out with a transverse engine – they wanted to mirror DKW’s design. SAAB weren’t very happy with the limitations which the layout imposed – not least on the suspension design in the 92, so they changed their approach.

    2. Good evening Robert and welcome to Driven To Write. Thank you for drawing my attention to the Saab 92’s mechanical layout, which indeed pre-empted both Issigonis and Giacosa. It is perhaps a shame that Saab did not persevere with the transverse engine layout and perfect it, but the company does deserve recognition for producing around 20,000 examples of the 92 over five years.

      (I have edited your comment so that the photo of the 92’s engine and transmission is displayed correctly.)

    3. It is wildly amusing that, of all genius things he actually discovered, people tend to credit Giacosa for “inventing” the Gearbox-alongside-the-Engine-in-FWD.

      It has been there since the 50s (Saab 92, Trabant 500, to name
      but a few…).

      Giacosa’s genius was in the way the 128 was profoundly groundbreaking in many levels, not just drivetrain, brakes
      or suspension layout.

      It was almost F1-levels of packaging genius, offered to the masses.
      (and thus making VW cancel in the last moment their intended Beetle replacement, and assigning their Ingolstadt (“brainiacs”) team to come up with a technical platform for a decent 128 competitor, and assigned Giugiaro for the styling. The Ingolstadt guys then took a 128, dismantled it, and the rest is (Golf) history.).

    4. Hi Alex. It is often the case historically that the honours accrue, not to ‘inventors’ per se, but to those who turn the invention into something viable for mass production and attractive to buyers. The Saab and Trabant might have shared the same mechanical layout as the 128, but they were both far from perfect exemplars the layout with their twin-cylinder two-stroke engines. Saab switched to a longitudinal engine orientation after five years and just 20,000 sales, while Trabant persevered with an increasingly obsolescent drivetrain simply because they did not have the funds to do otherwise.

  20. The 128 was a brilliant car. I had one in that familiar orange colour in 1980. Small point; the wood effect panel is actually a light weight metal, painted. Re: the wheel base, I would not say the proportions are wrong merely less familiar. If we only ever stuck with the familiar we would never innovate. Thanks for featuring this car.

    1. Hi Simon. Thanks for the information on that wood-effect panel. Text amended accordingly.

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