Fiat 127 the small car that led from the front

Our ‘Throwback Thursday’ series continues this week, raiding the vaults of FCA Heritage we find the Fiat 127…the revolution that led from the front.

The Fiat 127 was based on the innovative design scheme of the 128: front engine and front wheel drive, four-wheel independent suspension and front disc brakes. Before launching the production of the two cars, Fiat experimented the new architecture on the Primula, under the Autobianchi brand.

The transformation of Fiat’s compact cars into modern models began rather quietly in the mid-1960s. Until then, and for some years to come, the 500, 600 and 850 utility vehicles were characterised by a traditional technical architecture, with both engine and drive positioned at the rear of the car. The design scheme combining front engine and front-wheel drive was gaining ground among manufacturers, and in Italy it was introduced in 1960 by engineer Antonio Fessia on the innovative Lancia Flavia.

The Fiat technical team pushed for renewal, while managers feared that unforeseen technical problems might ruin the brand’s reputation: the risks involved in taking such a big step were daunting, both from an industrial point of view and in terms of the company’s prestige. Therefore, in 1964, the first front-engine, front-wheel-drive car launched within the Fiat galaxy was the Autobianchi Primula, introduced to the market as a “trailblazer”. Now that all barriers were down and, above all, every doubt had been dispelled, the innovative Fiat 128 was presented in 1968. It was a medium segment car that joined, and later replaced, the glorious 1100. In addition to a front engine and front wheel drive, it also had a modern four-wheel independent suspension and efficient front disc brakes.

Then, in 1971, it was time to present the successor of the 850 to the public. The Fiat 127 drew heavily from the excellent technology used in the 128: transversal engine coupled with front-wheel drive, independent four-wheel suspension and front disc brakes. The front-mounted engine was the same 903 cc four-cylinder one that powered the 850 Sport Coupé. With slightly less power than the latter, it proved to be strong, efficient and brilliant, also helping reduce the vehicle’s fuel consumption.

The great success of the Fiat 127 was not only due to its technical innovations: Pio Manzù’s design also offered modern lines and solutions, extra room in the bright passenger compartment and in the spacious boot. Produced in three series in many countries, from Spain to South America, the 127 played a leading role on the global market for twenty years.

Just as the 128 had paved the way for front-wheel drive at Fiat, the 127 introduced the innovative use of external design collaborators. Dante Giacosa, director of the Fiat Centro Stile, was the one who convinced the brand management team in Turin of the validity of this choice. The innovative design of the new Fiat utility car was the work of designer Pio Manzù, who had impressed Giacosa with the innovations proposed for the Fiat City Taxi. Manzù designed a hatchback with a slightly larger volume than the previous 850, but included a particularly spacious and bright interior. The new technical layout afforded more space, with four comfortable seats, and a larger boot, also due to the spare wheel being located in the engine compartment. In addition to its functionality, Manzù endowed the 127 with an original style, expressed in innovative solutions such as the “clamshell” bonnet that partially enclosed the mudguards and the rectangular front headlights, another Fiat first.

The market and the industry alike were immediately bowled over, and one year after its launch, like its big sister the 128, the 127 was voted Car of the Year. Just then, the three-door version made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. By replacing the rear bonnet with a large tailgate incorporating the rear window, the 127 became a real hatchback: the rear backrest could be folded down to significantly increase load capacity, making the new Fiat utility car even more modern.

The Fiat 127 became a major player in the compact car market, not only in Italy but also abroad. Notably, sales of the two “cousins”, the Fiat 127 and the Autobianchi A112, were mutually complementary. Similar in technical terms, they were differentiated not only by the larger dimensions of the Fiat, but also by the more sophisticated, refined and elegant trim levels offered on the A112. Closely related, the two utility vehicles would go on to share the most important slice of the market segment, especially at home. In Italy, the 127 became the ultimate family car, following in the footsteps of the 600, while the A112 attracted young drivers and the newly empowered female motorist, also becoming a perfect solution as a “second car”.

In 1974, the 127 Special was released, with a more refined interior and more accurate bodywork. The grille featured a new design and the bumpers were finished with a rubber profile. On the sides, to emphasise the lines, steel mouldings with rubber inserts appeared to protect the bodywork. In the interior, the steering wheel and the entire dashboard were transformed, with a bigger focus on the finishes. In terms of functionality, it featured a backup light, electric windscreen washers, intermittent windscreen wiper and a two-speed fan.

In July 1976, the four-door version – based on the Special trim – appeared in Italian price lists, produced by Spanish manufacturer Seat, which made Fiat cars under licence.

In 1977, the second series of the 127 broke on to the scene, sporting a number of new features that enhanced the model’s lines with an even more modern feel. These included the bonnet, radiator grille, front and rear lights and bumpers; the side window at the rear was aligned with the front one. Echoing the success of the Special version, the range of interior finishes was extended to include additional trims, and the collaboration with Seat also heralded the arrival of the 4 and 5-door versions. The glorious 903-cc engine was joined by a 50-hp 1050-cc engine manufactured at the Fiat plants in Brazil. In 1978, the Fiat 127 Sport was launched, with the 1050 engine increased to 70 horsepower. The sporty car followed in the footsteps of its ultra-popular cousin, the Autobianchi A112 Abarth: it was characterised by bold colours ranging from orange to black, two plastic spoilers – one under the front bumper and one at the end of the roof – and a sports steering wheel, dashboard and seats.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Fiat’s Brazilian plants, where a more spartan version for the local market was produced and reinforced to suit South American roads, exported the 127 Rustica, the Panorama family car and the Fiorino, a compact commercial vehicle, to Europe. A small Diesel 1300 engine with 45 hp was also fitted to the same body.

The great success of the Fiat Ritmo, which replaced the 128 at the beginning of the 1980s, influenced the styling of the third series, which made extensive use of plastic resin in the wraparound bumpers that also framed the headlights, and in the new side protectors. On the technical front, the engine of the Sport was boosted in terms of displacement and power (1300 cc and 75 hp) while a 5-speed gearbox was introduced for some versions. The European life cycle of the 127 ended in 1987, having been the best-selling car in Europe for six years in a row, from 1973 to 1978. Some argue that the 127 was such a huge success – with almost 8 million cars produced worldwide until the early 1990s – that Fiat had to create two cars to replace it: the versatile Panda and the innovative Uno, both of which became best sellers.

*Special thanks to FCA Heritage

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