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The Fiat 127 was basically road furniture in its 1970s heyday.
It was the fastest-selling car Fiat had ever made, shifting 2.1m by 1976 and 3.7m in total, and a truly international car of its time that was assembled in countries as diverse as Spain (where a special four-door version was built), Poland and Indonesia.
Today, the only place you will likely see a 127 is at an Italian car day. Back in the ’70s, it seemed like almost everybody had one.
The Fiat 127 spearheaded the beginning of an invasion of similar cars from Germany and France, the Renault 5 being perhaps the strongest contender for top supermini honours.
As the first supermini from Europe, the 127 – like the R5 – was a prime example of exactly the sort of car the Leyland Mini should have evolved into: slightly bigger, much more refined and designed from the beginning as a hatchback, although you could also buy a booted, two-door version.
However, I am not sure its shape, with those square headlights and rising beltline, has aged as well as the Volkswagen Polo and the aforementioned Renault 5.
It was by a young designer called Pio Manzù, a rising star at Fiat’s in-house body-design department who was killed in a car accident months before the 127’s launch.
With rack-and-pinion steering and front discs, Fiat’s 127 set new standards of driver appeal in a car that was not really in the Mini go-kart class in terms of handling, but rode much better than the British car.
Naturally cautious, Fiat was late to the front-drive party, having been long wedded to rear-engined designs that were rapidly falling out of favour with the buying public, on the grounds of both versatility (hatchbacks and rear engines are not an easy combination) and handling.
For those still partial to rear-engined cars, there was always the baby 126 and the Spanish-built 133, the latter basically an 850 rebodied in the style of the 127, for which it was effectively in-house competition.
Spain had the 133 for six seasons between 1974 and 1980, but British buyers were only offered this oddity in 1975 and ’76.
Launched in 1971, the 127’s claim to fame was packaging.
It was front-driven, of course, but with its gearbox fitted to the side of the engine rather than underneath, BMC style, with the less-than-ideal scenario of shared transmission and engine oil.
Fiat’s breakthrough had been on the Autobianchi Primula several years earlier, when engineer Ettore Cordiano created a hydraulically operated clutch with a coaxial rod inserted into the primary shaft that shaved a crucial 4cm off the width of the Primula’s drivetrain.
The now somewhat forgotten suspension specialist Cordiano also designed the Fiat Dino chassis and was later responsible for getting the Lancia Beta into production in record time.
As usual with Fiat engines, this high-revving pushrod motor punched well above its weight on 47bhp with an 82mph top speed, 0-60mph in 17 secs and 34-40 to the gallon, which was about the most you expected from an economy car in the ’70s.
Get an example like the lovely one pictured above, with its 1049cc overhead-camshaft unit, and expect greater refinement and pace, and up to 100mph, where permitted.
The space-saving rear suspension featured MacPherson struts with a transverse leaf spring doubling as an anti-roll bar.
The result was a flat load area with minimal suspension intrusion and plenty of room inside the 141in-long car for four full-sized adults – Fiat’s claim of five seems a bit ambitious, but the 8cu ft of luggage space was impressive.
Spot one in 2023 and you will be amazed at how small a Fiat 127 seems next to today’s supposed compact cars.
Drive one and you will appreciate how far we have come in refinement and comfort, with a noisy if willing engine and a rubbery gearchange that are from another world.
The 127 was built through to 1983, during which time it was facelifted twice, becoming, to my eyes, uglier each time in an effort to disguise its early ’70s origins.
The late, shovel-nosed cars look the worst, but by that time the bigger overhead-camshaft engine had supplemented the 903, plus you could buy a 100mph Sport version and even a 127 delivery van, the Fiorino.
The Fiat 127 had been a deserving Car of the Year winner in 1972, but by the early ’80s it was well past its sell-by date, in a range that had lost the ambition and promise of the early ’70s.
An underrated classic car, though? Most definitely.
Images: Tony Baker/Fiat
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