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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'