The story of the Fiat 130 is one of corporate hubris overpowering good judgment, of proud but ultimately pointless engineering achievement. It may have been the answer to a question nobody was asking, but the 130 is possibly the finest car Fiat has ever made.
Fiat’s engineering supremo, Dante Giacosa, did not hide his reservations about the 130 project. He did not particularly enjoy to design luxury vehicles and firmly believed Fiat shouldn’t make one. But those were the 1960s: Fiat’s upper management believed they could do everything, and it seemed they actually could. After all, Fiat was the biggest manufacturer in Europe and enjoyed an almost monopolistic position in a booming Italian car market. The 1960s Fiat was a confident company, so, understandably, Fiat’s top brasses felt entitled to a slice of the luxury car market. They wanted a flagship saloon to rival the best because Fiat could do everything and don’t you dare forget that. The Fiat 130 debuted in 1969 at the Geneva motor show and, boy, what a car it was. No half-measures taken, no resources spared: everything on the 130 was new, bumper to bumper.
Its chrome-laden body measured over 4.7 meters in length, under its vast bonnet laid an all-new 2.8 liters V6 engine designed by ex-Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi. Power went to the rear wheels via either a five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic transmission.
With the 130, Fiat built a car aimed squarely at the Mercedes 250S: perhaps too much in regards to the styling, as the 130 got criticized for looking somewhat derivative. One thing was sure though, the big Fiat’s specification, finish, and presence was more than a match for the German saloon: no excuses needed to be made.
But the best was yet to come.
In 1972 the two most significant criticisms made to Fiat’s flagship up to that point, derivative looks and lack of power were addressed.
Pininfarina designed an utterly glorious coupé derivative of the 130, equipped with a 3,2 liters version of the V6 good for 160HP, which was extended to the saloon too.
The shape of the 130 Coupé is commonly attributed to Pininfarina’s Paolo Martin, and it’s perhaps his finest hour: it strikes a unique balance between drama and elegance. A true design classic… Yet a regrettably useless one.
The coupè did not save the 130 from being a complete market failure: only about 20.000 were made between ’69 and 1977, a quarter of which were coupès.
Punitive taxation for the engines above 2 liters of displacement meant that few Italians bought such big cars. Those who did, generally sought the distinction of a prestigious foreign brand like Mercedes or Jaguar. Today the Fiat 130 stands tall as a symbol of a bygone era when Fiat ruled and had the guts and resources to try beat Mercedes Benz at its own game.