If we look under the skin of various European family cars, we can see their basic engineering layout is mostly the same, and it has been for the best part of forty years
An inline-four cylinders engine mounted transversely at the front of the car, and a compact transmission unit right beside it delivering the power to the front wheels. Engineering legend Alec Issigonis is widely credited with pioneering this concept on the iconic 1959 Mini: correct, but at the same time, not entirely accurate. Why?
Well, it’s about time to introduce you to the Autobianchi Primula, the most important car you’ve never heard of.
Fiat’s engineering supremo, Dante Giacosa, recalled in his memoir:
“The release of Alec Issigonis’ Morris Mini in 1959 had been a reason for discouragement for us. I knew that the Morris car had been under testing for some time, but I did not imagine it being so small and so surprisingly well-conceived.”
While Giacosa didn’t like to be left behind, most of Fiat’s upper management remained skeptical regarding FWD. To get around this political issue, Giacosa cleverly involved Nello Vallecchi, the head of Fiat’s subsidiary Autobianchi.
Badged as Autobianchi, Giacosa’s FWD “project 109” became a low-volume product that, in case of failure, would not compromise Fiat’s image.
Just like Issigonis had to use the A-Series, Giacosa started from an existing engine, the 1.2 liters four-cylinder from the Fiat 1100D, modified for transverse installation. But the similarities between the two projects end here, as Giacosa did not want to place the gearbox under the engine as Issigonis had to do.
Having the gearbox beside the engine kept their lubrication separate and allowed the two groups to be manufactured and tested independently.
The new Autobianchi had a much wider track than the Mini, which made things easier. Still, the breakthrough that made the Primula possible is credited to engineer Ettore Cordiano, who designed a hydraulically operated clutch with a coaxial rod inserted in the primary shaft of the gearbox, thus shaving 4 centimetres of width from the drivetrain.
On top of its innovative technical layout, the Primula also offered the practicality of the three-door hatchback configuration, which was still very much uncommon in 1964, the year of its launch.
But why nobody remembers the Autobianchi Primula then?
Because it didn’t sell all that much, and neither it was meant to.
The Primula’s body design wasn’t optimized for high volume production, with many welds and joints that required hand-finishing before painting. As a consequence, the Primula wasn’t a cheap car, and Italians shopping in that price range still favoured the traditional saloon shape over the hatchback.
And that’s exactly how the powers that be in Turin wanted, as the Primula’s sole purpose was as a real-world test of the FWD’s viability, and could not be allowed to steal sales from Fiat’s mainstream range.
Around 75.000 Primulas were made between 1964 and 1970, and roughly half of them were exported, mainly to France, the market that perhaps appreciated the Primula the most. The first manufacturer to follow the Primula’s lead was the French Simca, which launched its successful 1100 hatch in 1967. By then, plans for the first FWD Fiat were well underway, but that’s a story for another time…