Curbside Classic: Fiat 127 – A Tad Over The 50 Mark

Fiat 127, with Yugo hubcaps, shot in early 2021. The 50th anniversary since launch in 1971 few weeks away.

 

Finding the precursor of the now ubiquitous front wheel drive-traverse engine layout is an exercise not too different from delving into biblical genealogy. For there are many to claim the origin of the concept, each actor playing a small role in the long winded story; and the Austin Mini begat the Fiat and the Fiat begat the Golf…

In order to delve a bit into that lineage, we’ll take a quick detour in the land of Nod. As the European car-making Levant had many tribes duking it out, working innovative ways to sort out reasonable human transport in the tiny packages preferred in the continent. German two stroke specialist DKW was first in line, starting in 1931, to use a transverse FWD engine, albeit in the form of a 2 cyl. 2 stroke.

Rosetta stone? Ancient scroll? The Saab 92 power train.

 

Staying in the two cylinder two-stroke tribes, more examples of lineage evolution; Saab joined FWD in 1950, as well as Goliath with the GP 700 and the Lloyd LP300. Tidy efficient packages that proved the concept was ready for further refinement.

And the 2 stroke FWD begat the 4 stroke FWD…

In the form of the Austin Mini in 1959, British Leyland brought 4 cylinder into the mix to FWD, that along with some quirky engineering solutions by chief engineer Alec Issigonis. Selling slowly at first, the Mini made inroads overseas in ways that DKW or Goliath could only wish for.

 

A112, from the Cohort by Benoit.

 

And the Mini begat the Primula…

Starting in 1960, British Leyland started production of various Austin models in agreement with Italian manufacturer Innocenti. Among these, the Austin Mini variant -the Innocenti 1001- started a steady sales increase in the Italian market. Fiat, and chief engineer Diante Giacosa, took notice. Set on correcting the engineering and unreliability quirks of the Mini, by then rather obvious and known. Giacosa took with his team the task to improve the concept.

Whatever posessed Issigonis to think that a common sump for transmission and engine oil was a good idea we’ll never know. Did he sketch after a few shots of Gordon’s Gin? Most likely, in the spirit of the time, a mix of wishful thinking and a desire to attend engineering aspects he preferred to deal with. In any case, it was up to Giacosa and team to clean up the mess and develop a transmission small enough to place besides the engine (no small feat). Then new McPherson strut technology was added, clearing space in the engine bay for this effort. Finally, through suspension and chassis geometry, to attend the formats’ drawbacks of parts wear and torque steer (issues that weren’t completely solved, but didn’t seem to matter much with the engines of choice and the small forces that would be induced).

And so, in 1964, in the form of the Autobianchi Primula, the transverse transmission/front engine appeared in much closer form to what the world now knows. Lineage becoming clearer.

Autobianchi at the time served as a ‘technological’ test bed for Fiat (follow Tatra87’s excellent take on Autobianchi). With somewhere around 75K units sold and reliability being reasonable, the Primula proved the concept could be of further use in the company’s roster. And so, the Primula begat the A112, using the same layout, now applied to a small city commuter that was space efficient and fun to drive, taking aim directly at the Mini.

The A112 would be the foundation block for Fiats 128 and 127.

The 128, Fiat in FWD form, European Car of The Year, 1969. From the Cohort, by Hannes.

 

Taking on FWD, producing it in large numbers, while also maintaining a full roster of multiple traditional engineered models, Fiat took a decided but cautious investment on the novel technology. Fiat, purveyor of cheap transport across the world, was churning out all engine/driveline configurations; from the proven Front Drive/Rear Engine, to Rear Drive/Rear Engine, and now, Front Drive/Front Engine. This across the production line, from mini cars, to family sedans, to midsize vehicles. (Unthinkable, in the current age of platform commonality).

Heydays for the company indeed, as the foray into FF layout was vindicated with the 128, selling in large numbers, and winning European Car of the Year in 1969.

Parallel to these developments, work must have been ongoing on the 127 as the 128 was hitting dealers across the world.

I came across this rather pristine Fiat 127 in the midst of the current pandemic (Did I mention biblical times?), a vehicle that hasn’t graced the pages of CC enough, mostly because of its scarcity. I almost did double take when coming upon it on my way to work. It had been decades since I remember seeing one, much less in this condition. And what’s the deal with those Yugo hubcaps?

A rather pretty shape to look upon, the car was result of Pio Manzu’s work, son of Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu. A product designer by career, already a possessor of an impressive portfolio in spite of his brief career, the 127’s shape is the result of his skillful hand, a then unusual collaboration with Fiat’s Stilo Centre. The 127 was Fiat’s effort to make the FF layout family friendly, being larger than the A112 and the Mini. The car avoided looking mundane, thanks to Manzu’s hand, and offered some style in the best of Italian -cheap- car tradition. Manzu brought a clever use of line and proportions; straights, diagonals and curves meeting in pleasing and unsuspecting manners, creating a dynamic shape, with delicate detailing, bringing an aesthetically pleasing package.

And talking about cheap, Autobianchi’s factory was regarded as having better build quality than Fiat’s. Something personal experience would seem to support, as I’ve come across more A112’s in my life than 127’s, in spite of the latter selling in much bigger numbers. Were Pio Manzu’s delicate lines foretelling? Was the 127 even beyond delicate; frail indeed? Or did the car became scarce as Fiat left markets and parts became unavailable?

Delicate detailing abounds in the 127; the round reverse light, the thin curved tailpipe.

 

And the 127 begat the Golf…

According to Giugiaro’s telling, VW had a dissected Fiat 127 (or 128, accounts vary) on its grounds as they were developing the Golf. While the 127 can’t claim to be first in line of the now ubiquitous layout, it’s true that it brought it forth to the world, selling -along the 128- in the millions. It got Fiat more accolades, winning once again European Car of the Year in 1972, and by the end of its run (and variants) over 5 million units in sales.

The 127 also begat its own subspecies, with factories around the globe creating variants and options; the then obligatory sports version (the Sport-what else?), also a 4 door variant in Spain, through subsidiary SEAT. In South America it became the 147, with versions like the Panorama (a station wagon in Brazil), and Rustica. This latter, an improbable match up, that according to Italian sites, was even assembled at Lamborghini’s Sant Agata factory in the doldrums of that company’s late 70’s days. An approximate number of 8,000 was put together of the exotic little 4×4, keeping Lamborghini workers busy.

Fiat Rustica, 1979. Ready for Lamborghini.

 

The 127 was an incredibly common sight in El Salvador in the 70’s, along with its Spanish twin, SEAT. Both companies had a strong presence in the local market, confusing my young mind as to why the car had two parent companies. The simple concept of badge engineering didn’t fit into my tiny mind. The past is a foreign country, and in the 70’s, European brands still had a decent hold on cheap transport in the 3rd World, even as reliable Japanese were taking over. Fiat, Peugeot, Seat, and Alfa were still common sights in Central America with their lower-end models, a past of which there’s rarely any evidence nowadays.

I’ll admit to somewhat of a cheat, the corner where I shot this 127 has become my easy to go CC spotting place. Located about 2 blocks away from my workplace, someone seems to enjoy purchasing unusual vehicles, fixing and selling (I suppose), for every few weeks some new old car appears. I’ve yet to know who this individual is. Streets are unusually solitary in this upper class neighborhood of San Salvador, complicating the usual information-rich-gossiping common in these lands. The area reeks of old money (upscale enclave in the 60’s and 70’s), so I assume some hacendado’s son is playing with some leftover family money.

A face to love. Pio Manzu, the 127’s designer, passed away tragically in 1969, not long after completion of the car’s design.

 

Mechanically the 127 was a tight package. With independent suspension, and rack and pinion steering, the car had gentle mechanic precision, it was tactile, responsive and swift. Driving was nimble, with reactions to inputs occurring in immediate fashion. Tossable as only small packages can be, the car could take with eagerness the narrow roads for which it was designed. The A112 was a good platform to build upon on this regard.

Engines ran in the tiny range, 900cc and 1100cc being the most common, growing as large as 1300cc. Eventually, South America would get its own diesel version. Talking about foreign markets, while in Europe production ended in 1983, variants kept being produced in Brazil ’til 1986, while in Argentina all the way to 1996.

Later day 127 from the Cohort by Yohai Rodin.

 

The 127 had a number of facelifts as the years progressed, sometimes keeping the car’s lines more or less intact, and others polluting the design in an attempt to keep up with current trends. An additional rare variant; the pick-up, is occasionally found in South America. I’ve a theory that for every car model ever sold in Central America, there’s at least ONE survivor still running (and on that pick-up, yes there’s one still barely running in this city). Usually mechanically altered, with engine swaps pollinating with other brands for repair parts, keeping the vehicles running. Originality goes out the window, instead, the priority is for the object to keep running. Local mechanics are incredibly resourceful on that regard.

This is my long winded way of saying I’ve no idea what’s on the engine bay of our 127, although I doubt the original mechanics are still running. So, what could be in there?

And the 127 begat the Zastava Koral…

 

Unbeknownst to me, the Yugo hubcaps were more apt than imagined, as lore tells the infamous Zastava Koral (Yugo’s name in its own country) was originally designed in Italy on a shortened 127 chassis. Leave it to an ex-USSR block country to make Italian vehicles appear as paragons of reliability. With much gone wrong in translation, the Yugo was mostly looked on as an outdated penalty box. Were lax socialist worker protocols responsible for Yugo’s dismal reliability issues? Still, regardless of how we feel in the rest of the world on the wretched little boxes, ex-Yugoslavia citizens seem to view it not as negatively. Being the only available transport at the time probably playing a big factor on such memories…

Keeping on the workers theme, this particular Yugo seems to be barely hanging in there, once again, thanks to Salvadorian inventiveness. Not a shining example of authenticity, the exterior belies more than one alteration to keep it -barely- on the road. Maybe a 127 engine could be there? Most likely something of Japanese origin, with whoever the driver is a more than willing beta tester.

The 127 still needs a definite post on CC. Some more immediate familiarity with the vehicle and its virtues and foibles would be a requisite, I assume. Unbeknownst to me, at the time I shot it, the car had just reached the 50th year mark since its launch in April 1971.

And Pio begat the 127….

A relevant exhibit and memorial of the 127 and Pio Manzu’s work took place in 2021. Going by the title “Che Macchina!” at the Turin Auto Museum (MAUTO), the exhibit focused on models like the Rustica, the Sport, the Top, as well as drawings, models and plans from the designer. A tad over 50, and me just reaching that age as well, on the same year. Much has changed in those 50 years, with FWD now being the norm in most car transport. It’s a whole different world out there… A lot of begetting has occurred in between.