Curbside Classic: 1972-77 Fiat 130 Coupe – Bill Mitchell’s Regards

(first posted 10/4/2017)      The Fiat 130 Coupe is one of the most attractive cars ever built. It took an emerging aesthetic and set a benchmark never to be equalled. And it’s probably the single most influential thing in the history of the downsized B-body. There, I said it. So did Bill Mitchell.

An outgoing Mitchell discussing the incoming B-bodies with Motor Trend in 1977.

Ok, maybe I was overstating it a bit, but can you think of another model he cited for the B-car shape?

The Fiat 130 Coupe was originally on track to look like this.

In effect, the 130 Coupe was to replace the already gone 2300 Ghia Coupe. Though the 2300 two-door had been a mild success, this six-cylinder space was not Fiat’s forte. The Fiat Dino range had been stuck in a perceptual rut; no-one really wanted a Ferrari without the prancing horse adorning the badge, let alone one with Fiat written on it.

The 130 Coupe’s initial shape took reference from the Dino; a hippy low slung three box coupe with faceting introduced. Pininfarina had prepared some fixed head versions of their production spider, the short cabin coupe bottom left being the closest to the proposed 130 coupe’s shape.

The man responsible for the Fiat’s shape was Paolo Martin.

Martin had begun his styling career with peripatetic freelancer Giovanni Michelotti, learning to render in the master’s style before earning his own signature on the work. Bottom right is the Hino Contessa which saw production.

Martin then did some work for Bertone under Marcello Gandini. The young Gandini was in the process of culminating the immediate past with the Miura before ushering in the future with the Marzal.

One offshoot of the Marzal was the 1967 Fiat 125 Executive concept above – the ur-shape for the 130 Coupe.

By 1967 Paolo Martin, right, had a desk at Pininfarina.

Some of his early work involved the highly influential BMC aerodynamic saloons. This concept had emanated from another recent Pininfarina recruit, Leonardo Fioravanti. While Fioravanti had been studying under Professor Fessia (of Lancia FWD fame), he had come to a streamlined solution for the four-door car. However, Fioravanti was more of an engineer than a stylist, and required assistance with his concept.

In this case, it was Martin’s hands intermediating.

Martin himself created Pininfarina’s showcar highpoint for the period – the Modulo.

This superb entry in the origami wars was one of the finest to demonstrate the use curvature with wedge. The arc describing the profile is pure circumference, but the section is masterfully positioned so as to create the forward dynamic. The wheel treatment stands out, particularly at the rear with the top flare adding crucial solidity to the form. The top-and-bottom shell with gap would make its way onto the Ferrari road cars.

The Modulo was Martin’s second-best shape, marred only by a knock-kneed headlight treatment.

His third best shape would be the Lancia Beta Monte-Carlo, a nifty nugget in a handsome 2-box treatment that was first envisioned for Fiat.

It wasn’t all sunshine. The Pininfarina NSU Ro80 – yep, looks just like the drawing. He only has himself to blame for that one.

The Mercedes-Benz 6.3 Coupe commissioned by a private customer had more going for it. The proportions were right, but the surfaces were bland and the detailing off.

In 1968, an industrialist named James (subsequently Lord) Hanson called on Pininfarina seeking a Bentley Continental. The car was for himself, however he also had plans to show it to Rolls-Royce with hopes of reinvigorating a much cherished but sadly lapsed model. Pininfarina agreed to the project at cost price, £14,000 – double that needed to get one’s hands on the very desirable Mulliner Park Ward Two-door Coupe (subsequently Corniche).

Martin was assigned the task, grafting Pininfarina’s 365 GT 2+2 greenhouse over a crisper interpretation of John Blatchley’s Silver Shadow. It was not unattractive, but no match for Blatchley’s MPW two-door. Hanson’s proposal was declined.

In 1969 John Blatchley quietly yet abruptly left Rolls Royce, leaving a gaping hole. Eventually, Fritz Feller would be brought in to take over styling, but in October of that year, Rolls-Royce also approached Pininfarina for a two-door car.

Paolo Martin got the brief.

From what I can gather, the subsequent Fiat shape came to him at the same time as the Camargue’s did. He drew his revised Fiat coupe at the top of the drawing board while standing, and then sat down and did the Camargue on the same board underneath.

I can’t locate the Fiat drawings, and these are the earliest Camargue ones I could find so I’m assuming it paired with these.

You can see how the personality of the car changed. Where the first option was attractive and sporting, the second was more adroit and assured in its demeanour.

In the metal, it was sensational. A faultless symphony of clean planes and crisp edging with a scallop running along the shoulder line to meet a fold at the leading edge of the hood – an almost subliminal use of curves to give the shape more solidity. The over-square headlights were commanding and distinctive, but for me, the keystone element is the taillights.

For Fiat this was a big car. For the US, a compact – about the size of a 1960 Falcon.

Length: 190.63″, 4,842 mm. Width: 69.29″, 1,760 mm. Height: 54.33″, 1,380 mm.
Wheelbase: 107.09″, 2,720 mm. Track: 57.80″, 1468 mm. Weight: 3,528 lb, 1,600 kg.

The engine and drivetrain were made at Fiat, shipped to Pininfarina for body assembly, before returning to Fiat for finishing.

In 1972 the Coupe joined the 130 sedan in production. The four-door had been a house styling job, and in the words of one journalist looked like a 125 stretched two ways.

The sedan had commenced in 1969 with a 2.8 litre V6, but with the arrival of the Coupe this was enlarged to 3.2 litres. Aurelio Lampredi designed a completely new engine at the same time he was also developing the Dino V6. The Dino’s DOHC engine had to be modified from racing to road, but it would be too complex for the big Fiat sedan. So double-handling ensued and for a period of time people thought the 130’s engine was the same as that of the Dino.

The 130 received a SOHC arrangement and produced 165 bhp DIN. It was mated to a Borg Warner Model-35, though five Coupes made it to the road with a 5 speed manual.

The interior was nicely attended to, here’s one in my favourite colour and fabric – orange velour. The ergonomics were generally good, with a nice seating position and controls not too far away for a car from this period. The coupe received a different steering wheel to the sedan and standard were electric windows.

On the road, the bodies were too heavy for the engine. The car, independently sprung all round, drove reasonably well but wind noise at speed and lack of urge were serious shortcomings. Despite the gorgeous Fiat rasp from the exhaust, the engine was inadequate to the task.

The engine would eventually be enlarged to 3.5 litres, and inserted into a smaller 131 Coupe. The 031 Abarth put out 270 bhp and would go on to win the 1975 Giro d’Italia. But the engine was never used in the road cars.

One pleasing aspect of the 130 Coupe is that it looked like a Fiat. Maybe too much like a Fiat for some.

The origami wars were in full swing, dominating all the respectable automotive salons. Gandini and Giugiaro fought it out with beautifully-crafted razor thin sabres.

The house of Pininfarina had not distinguished itself during this period, the Modulo being its only real contender. There were some who murmured that the shape of the 130 Coupe was not the work of Pininfarina, that it had come from within Fiat.

It has been suggested Fiat stylist Pio Manzù created the final shape for the Coupe. He had recently come to the 127 hatchback before dying in a car accident. I have found the claim online that his drawings have subsequently disappeared, but in all honestly I don’t give this theory much credence.

Maybe Manzù did provide an alternative shape with a straight-through shoulder line, or maybe the idea was suggested to Martin by someone else, or maybe it was Martin’s idea alone.

However it got there, the final shape appears to be that of Paolo Martin.

Inside Pininfarina, there was much joy. The 130 Coupe had delivered a once-in-a-generation iconic 3-box for the carrozzeria. It followed in the tradition of the Lancia Florida, Battista Pininfarina’s personal favourite and a significant influence on the global scene.

It arrived within a flourish of similar coupes. The Peugeot 504 and Lancia Gamma each received handsome coupe bodies – both reflective of their respective marques, and both with the touch of Pininfarina. Neither as accomplished as the Fiat.

Comparisons with the 365 GT4 had the Fiat ahead. The Ferrari was rakish and attractive, but the plunging hood and chisel nose were out of keeping with the rest of the shape. It never seemed as cohesive as the Fiat.

The Coupe’s mastery is best demonstrated against the Pininfarina Peugoet 604, probably its closest related shape. Unfair perhaps but I’m using the four-door 130 Opera concept for comparison. The differences are minimal but worlds apart in execution.

It does go to a criticism made of the carrozzerie – that they peddle the same design over and over. To claim this is to not understand how the carrozzerie drew in business back then – a house style was the single most crucial marketing component.

But it was also one of the things that has led to the decline of the carrozzerie. The work they were themselves producing was becoming too generic.

When Rolls-Royce management saw the Fiat 130 Coupe, they were furious. While both shapes were conceived at the same time, Rolls-Royce didn’t get the Camargue into production until 1975. All they were able to do when they received the bodies was adjust spring rates to give the body more of a California rake. Apparently this change in stance helped the Camargue considerably.

Looking at Martin’s early sketch, it becomes clear the small things compounded as the shape transitioned to blueprint, and it changed the whole feel of the car.

Given the opportunity this brief presented, the result was a disaster.

The Fiat 130 had defined a new idiom, a large 3-box two-door car with this spare, angled language. Frua tried to best it with their 130 proposal (top right), but no. Tom Tjaarda’s Lancia Marica from Ghia (middle left) is said to have been an influence. Its tapering ends certainly look more akin the first 130 coupe shape. The Momo Mirage (middle right) came in with nicely chiselled looks, but it was bony where the 130 Coupe was full-bodied. The Longchamp/Kyalami disasters were just that.

The 3-box short cabin was the prevailing shape amongst the prestige marques. The Corniche the most stately, the BMW the most dynamic, the Jaguar the most purely-bred and the Mercedes-Benz the most brutal (in a pedestrian-friendly kind of way). None was as good-looking as the 130 Coupe.

The prestige Japanese coupes were progressing well at this time. The 230 Cedric took the US idiom and shrank it perfectly, and the kujira Crown falls out of the scope of this critical review because it was a semi-fastback. Both Opel’s BMW-6-series-in-waiting Rekord and the Ford Granada had attractive coupes, although the Granada looked better in the fastback option.

For the next generation of Granada, Ford would take a closer look at the Fiat.

Only two other 3-box short cabins from this period really stand out for me after the Fiat.

The first was Giugiaro’s dynawedge Colt Galant. Shaped for Mitsubishi without credit, it became his most satisfying 3-box four-door ever. And the coupe was just as sharp.

Giugiaro had taken Gandini’s 125 Executive language, and returned the compliment with superior prose. Though the shape of the production Colt is more homogenised than the 125 showcar, it is also an improvement. Despite its diminutive size and lack of recognition, a standout from the time.

The other standout was Joe Herlitz’s 1971 Plymouth Satellite Sebring.

Coming in towards the end of Mopar’s glorious fuselage period, it was one of the finest shapes to emerge from the US. It shared a hollowed extrusion aesthetic with the Fiat, but where the Fiat was square section, the Sebring used curves. So very, very well.

There are lessons in this shape for today. Herlitz’s sparing (but masterful) use of body flare should be noted by the instigators of the insane flamewars currently blighting the automotive surfacing scene.

For the most part, though, the personal coupe in the US was either Bunkie’s beak or Iacocca’s snout. Or sometimes together like with the Grand Prix.

Then came the colonnades and baskethandles…

The 1971 B-bodies had been the largest in GM history. They started very attractively, but by 1974 they were piling on the crustiness with too much bro-ham. While everyone seemed to bounce back from the oil crisis, wiser heads were starting to prevail.

By day GM was adding the gingerbread to the production cars, but by night they were working to another agenda entirely. Whatever authority Mitchell had on the downsized generation, it was not him alone pursuing this new spare language. These magnificent renderings didn’t look exactly like the 130, but then again nor did the 1963 Buick Riviera actually look like a Rolls Royce in the fog.

The influence is obvious, but the Chevrolet shape’s progression towards its own thing is quite dynamic.

Some of Pininfarina’s post-130 shapes were following in a similar vein, such as this proposal for the V12 Jaguar. As with the 130/604 comparison earlier, putting this against the above B-body sketches and below clay leaves this a distant second.

It’s a shame Chevrolet didn’t keep the thin rear pillars – they were an attractive point of difference against the 130’s thicker set and they framed the greenhouse well. Instead we got this.

And these.

The Buick LeSabre was the best-looking of the coupes. But it was still fussy at the front.

The Impala sedan was the best-looking of them all. Less trim, cleaner fender edges, better greenhouse. The base model outshone everything above it.

The 130 Coupe never made it to the United States, surprising given how lucrative the market was, and how well-suited it was in theory. Fiat did have plans for that territory, a US-focused fastback body was in the works before the oil crisis put it on hold. And then the failure of the 130 series cancelled it.

Less than 4,500 Coupes came off the line. Pininfarina had hoped the Opera might be taken up for production to replace the four door, but despite the plaudits, Fiat demurred. The Maremma shooting-break never had a chance.

Fiat had overreached and missed completely. The body may have been something extraordinary, but the rest of the car was just ordinary.

Against the competition at this level, good looks aren’t enough.

We got these in Australia and I remember them since early childhood. I’ve seen a handful on the road recently, one I remember in particular being driven by a very attractive woman because it was black. Never seen one in black before. Red ones neither. Until this one.

Part of me want to get it off the road, and the other wants to just leave it alone. Restoring it is probably beyond the owner’s capacity, or the body’s condition. Let it sit there and catch its owner’s eye, so that they might bask in the memory of its magnificence.

I owned a Fiat 130 Coupe once. But that’s a COAL for another time.

Further reading: – a great online resource for the Fiat 130 Coupe

Motor Trend article on the B-bodies

Fiat 130 Maremma

Rolls-Royce Camargue

Lancia Florida