L J K Setright: Happy birthday to a remarkable, but long-forgotten Fiat

The little car's virtues were all in matters of engineering, not styling

If a lifetime is 70 years, should we look for mid-life crisis at 35? Front-wheel drive has been with us (ignoring a tiny number of cars of historical interest but no commercial significance) for 70 years, thanks to the genius of Andre Citroën; what was critical half-a-lifetime later?

If a lifetime is 70 years, should we look for mid-life crisis at 35? Front-wheel drive has been with us (ignoring a tiny number of cars of historical interest but no commercial significance) for 70 years, thanks to the genius of Andre Citroën; what was critical half-a-lifetime later?

The motoring world was swithering in doubt. There seemed to be a lifetime of authority behind the traditional front-engined car driven by its rear wheels, but for the past decade the only successful racing cars had been rear-engined, like the VW Beetle, and like many other cheap, small cars flourishing in France and Italy.

The pre-war Citroën had earned respect, but was nevertheless judged odd, and few people outside France had experienced the marvellous rationality of its 1955 successor the DS. Only the tiny, quirky, nimble and affordable Mini of 1959 had ruffled motoring pundits.

The Mini was a marvel of packaging -- 20 per cent machinery, 80 per cent people-space -- but flawed by the BMC bosses' insistence that designer Issigonis use an old engine and do everything to make it cheap. One consequence was that he had to put the gearbox in the engine's sump, which was bad for the oil. Another was that, although the roadholding was good, its handling involved some surprises that many drivers found too sudden for their liking.

If Citroën had made front-drive practical, and Issigonis had made it affordable and fun, it remained for somebody else to make it good.

That somebody was Dante Giacosa, who had risen to be chief engineer at Fiat. Ever since his car-design debut creating the original Fiat 500, the Topolino of 1936, he had wanted to produce a small, front-drive car. In those days that was like preaching heresy, but after three decades he had more authority and his bosses had fewer objections.

Giacosa saw a need to replace Flat's classic 1100, and decided that it should have front-wheel drive. Under him were three brilliant engineers: Montabone was good at everything, Cordiano likewise, but particularly good at suspension, while Lampredi was the greatest engine-designer of his times. The result promised to be extraordinary.

It was. Fiat launched the 128 on 29 March 1969, and it scooped Car of the Year awards in seven countries. The remarkable thing was that the little car did not look remarkable: its virtues were matters of engineering not mere styling.

Lampredi had given it an entirely new engine: it was light, it had a belt-driven overhead camshaft, it was very strong and sweetly imperturbable. Cordiano gave it his new steered-strut, independent rear suspension, ensuring some infallible handling.

The rest of the detail was fascinating, too. The wheels were not simply held on by nuts, but located on a central spigot to guarantee the concentricity that the new generation of radial-ply tyres demanded. The springing kept the car on an even keel without the need for anti-roll bars. The gearbox, parallel to the engine, enjoyed its own oil. The drive-shafts were identical in torsional stiffness. And so on ...

Nearly all these features are commonplace in the front-drive cars that populate today's roads. The Japanese were the first to see the merits of the Fiat; next came VW and Ford with their Fiesta.

In the numerous new standards it set, the Fiat 128 was quite exceptional. Like so many noteworthy Fiats, it was also utterly commonplace. That is part of the paradox which has made Fiat from time to time one of the greatest names in the industry. When next you climb into your Vauxhall or VW, your Renault or Rover, remember where the principles originated, just half-a-lifetime ago.

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