Many of us have personal preferences for various types and fashions in the styling of a car. Some like the fins of a 1959 Cadillac, some admire the simple but well executed aesthetic of a 1990s Audi, others have a special link to Pininfarina’s elegance. I can admit to all those, in varying degrees, but also for the characterful, the courageous and the deliberately distinctive. Think Citroen DS, Rover 3500 (SD1), 1998 Ford Focus hatchabck or the Citroen Ami. These were all examples of using styling to raise a product’s profile in a crowded and competitive marketplace, of the manufacturer’s confidence in the product, and of styling being a USP.
The 1970s were perhaps the high point for distinctive styling being used as a USP. You only have to think Renault 15 and 17, BL Princess and Citroen GS to acknowledge that. But the Fiat Strada (or Ritmo outside Anglophone areas) was perhaps one of the most striking examples of this “art”.
Prior to 1978, Fiats were always conservatively and usually competently styled. No one was going to run away from a Fiat 127, 128 or 124 because of the styling. You might not run to it, but you wouldn’t be able to cite styling as the reason for buying it.
The Fiat Strada was Fiat’s 1978 answer to the gauntlet on the floor that was the VW Golf (Rabbit) Mk1, which came complete with sharp, attractive Italian styling. Fiat chose to respond with Italian styling, by the Fiat Centro Stilo in Turin. For Europe, in 1978, this style was quite a shock, with the dramatic juxtaposition of flat surfaces, sharp angles and round shaped inserts, such as the headlights and door handles. The polyester front and rear bumpers, while not innovative in Europe as they had been fitted to the Renault 5 had had since 1972 and the larger Chrysler Alpine (Simca 1307/1308) since 1975, were striking too.
But neither Renault nor Chrysler cut the head lights into the bumper, put the grille into the bumper or fitted the rear lights and number plate entirely into the rear bumper.
The door handles were among the most distinctive ever and the Wheels very also prize winners. The shape of the rear window and little flick up at the tail end of the roof are all noteworthy as well, as was the functional bonnet airscoop.
This car had a tough gig to face. Not only the Golf but also the Chrysler/Simca/Talbot Horizon beat it to market by a year, the first front wheel drive Vauxhall/Opel Kadett came in 1979, the front wheel drive Escort came in 1980 and the Renault 9 (Renault Alliance) in 1981. It was also following one of the great front wheel drive cars, perhaps one of the truly great front wheel drive cars, the FIAT 128, some of whose key components it shared. In this company, you needed more than styling to stand out, and unfortunately for Fiat, the Strada stood out for its styling.
Mechanically, the Strada had a lot of Fiat 128 in it. The engines ranged from 1.1 litre to 1.5 litre overhead cam engines, linked to four or five speed gear boxes or a three speed VW automatic. Also featured were rack-and-pinion steering and a strut-type front suspension with an antiroll (sway) bar, with independent rear suspension using a transverse leaf spring, something that was unusual in Europe. Although this set up had worked well on the Fiat 128, it was not fully competitive on the larger, heavier Strada 10 years later, with below par handling linked to only passable ride comfort. The times had moved on, with the Golf. Size wise, the car was 155 inches long on a 96 inch wheelbase, and weighed just under a ton. The feature car is a 1982 Strada 65Cl, so mid level trim with a 1.3 litre 65 bhp four cylinder engine.
The strong style extended to the interior also. The instruments had a deliberately modern and clear graphic but were set in a pretty basic plastic moulding with perhaps a few too many Italian twists. The heater controls were in the centre, but for right hand driver cars the booster fan was controlled by a switch on the driver’s side of the column; the lights, rear wiper and other ancillaries were controlled by unusual two part switches; the clock was only visible to the driver. Having said that, it was probably a better and certainly more attractive interior than Chrysler’s effort in the Horizon, a car which beat the Strada to the European Car of the Year. 1978 was not a peak year.
Fiat attempted to address the style issues in 1982, with a revised four headlamp arrangement in a more conventional grille, a more conventional rear bumper and lights and losing the little flick on the rear of the roof, and many other smaller aesthetic and significant under skin changes. But in reality Fiat had bigger issues than the style of the car.
The 1970s had not been kind to the reputation of Italian cars, with the collateral damage from the Lanica Beta rust scandal spreading the image of the rust prone Italian car. Add to this the reputation Italian cars had attracted for reliability (not entirely unjustly by the way) and you can see Fiat had to work hard to sell 1.8 million in 10 years, despite advertising that tried to build on the contemporary aspects of its design and build.
There were some more interesting later high performance editions though. The early 1980s were the start of the true hot hatch era, as the Golf GTi led a trail everyone had to follow. Fiat followed with a 2.0 litre twin cam version of the car, known as the 125TC and offered in left hand drive only from 1981. The later (1983) 130TC came in right hand drive as well with 130bhp and 120 mph, but still ran with twin Weber carburettors rather than the expected fuel injection. The fixed bucket seats hit the roof when tipped, making the rear seat all but inaccessible to any one over 12 years old. A flatmate of mine had a Strada 130TC, in red obviously, whilst I drove an Austin Metro. Let’s just say I gave him more lifts to work than he did me.
Bertone produced a Cabriolet version of the second series for Fiat, and there were saloon and station wagon versions as well, known as the Regata and Regata Weekend.
There are now perhaps fewer than 50 Stradas on the roads of Britain, and outside Italy, precious few others elsewhere. This striking and beautifully kept example is, aside from a Cabriolet in southern France last summer, the only one I can remember seeing for many years. It is actually unrestored, having been well cared for and then stored when the owner retired from driving.
So, distinctive styling is not enough to overcome other issues. The Triumph TR7 is perhaps the ultimate proof of that.
But it did give us what is perhaps still the best car TV advertisement ever, directed by Hugh Hudson of Chariots of Fire fame. He had to run a gauntlet, too, of strikers behind barricades outside the factory.