A Quick Look at Fiat

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And I mean a quick look. A BEA Trident 1 (600 m.p.h. at 29,000 ft.) got me to Milan rather before midday one Monday morning, on my way to see a few highlights at one of Europe’s biggest producers of motor vehicles, in the year of its 70th Anniversary. (We will not argue whether Fiat or VW make the greater number of cars; last year Fiat turned out 1,452,297 vehicles, in which 158,445 employees were involved, produced 1,950,000 tons of iron and steel ingots, and their sales totalled 1,335-billion lire, which is good enough to be going on with!)

Tipo 130

At Milan Airport I was met by Giorgio Bonous, a Fiat Press Officer, who deals with publicity for a Company making 6,000 cars every day with an efficient nonchalance which belies his youth. He hardly left me during the two days of my visit, in spite of his many heavy commitments. I was driven from the Airport in a 130, Fiat’s new Rivalta-built business-executive model and the biggest of their current range, which was announced last March, at the Geneva Show, will be at Earls Court, and available here sometime next year. It is a handsome car on account of its simple but effective styling, which causes it to look smaller than it is. We were soon cruising at a quiet 112 m.p.h. along the autostrada towards Turin, the 96 x 66 mm. 2,866-c.c. 60º V6 engine, with a single o.h. camshaft above each bank of cylinders, spinning effortlessly at 5,600 to 5,700 r.p.m., where the marked areas on the 7,500-r.p.m. tachometer dial begin. Indeed, as the warm day wore on and lunch was behind us, I was to appreciate that the Tipo 130 will keep up this speed indefinitely.

The styling is typically Fiat, enhanced by the tumblehome of the waistline. The seats, cloth upholstered, are notably comfortable, in the big five-seater, and the facia is discreet, with ribbon 220-k.p.h. speedometer, a small tachometer, an ingenious radio tuning plan, a combined water thermometer, oil gauge and fuel gauge, and a separate clock. There are the usual Fiat triple stalk controls extending behind the steering wheel, facia air vents, those extremely useful short-period screen wipers/washers, a lamps’ switch on the top of the steering column casing, choke and hand-throttle controls on the central console, which contains the other switches, etc., and a steering wheel which can both extended and set up or down to find the best driving position. The Borg-Warner automatic gearbox is controlled by a central T-handle with the conventional positions, giving hold-1 and hold-2, behind which lies the hand-brake. The engine starts with the lever at “P”. A 5-speed manual gearbox is offered as an alternative.

It was in this fast luxury Fiat that we set off towards the foothills beyond Turin. Discipline is good on the two-lane motorways and having satisfied myself that the Fiat will run all day (and all night if required) at an indicated 180 k.p.h., producing its 140 DIN b.h.p., has very good dual-circuit duplicated brakes (with ventilated discs all round), light controls with well-contrived power steering (3¾ turns, lock-to-lock, if you include some springiness), and, incidentally, net rear-window blinds which keep out heat and glare from the Italian sun without impairing vision behind, we tried it up the Gressoney Valley. On-coming traffic prevented too great a display of driving ambition but a fast ascent proved that the all-independent suspension, which had given such a level ride on the straight, coped with hairpins without roll, the cornering to be neutral, and the engine not to raise its voice appreciably or lose its outstanding smoothness when taken to the limit in the indirects, which means some 88 m.p.h. in hold-2. There were times when, even on kick-down or in hold-1, I wanted more power out of the corners. But on the whole the big saloon, which was not conceived in a sporting image, very upwards and round the climbing turns extremely well. It had Michelin XAS tyres on its cast-alloy wheels, which resisted breakaway, did not sequel, and are highly spoken of in the Turin factory. I had time only for a short inspection of this promising new Fiat, with its suspension by McPherson-style struts with the coil-springs divorced from them at the back, where the suspension is of trailing-arm type, and with torsion bars at the front, its shielded belt-driven camshafts, electrically-driven thermostatic cooling fan, and its differential unit bolted to the chassis structure instead of to a sub-frame, in spite of which Dr. Giacosa has achieved a high degree of hush for back-compartment travellers. Conceived as a replacement for the 1800, this Fiat 130 has been well received and will obviously be a significant addition to the high-grade multi-cylinder market. It is too early to say whether or not it will be a Mercedes-eater, as some folk rate it. The Mercedes-Benz, is after all, a big car and Turin is unlikely to risk indigestion by competing too directly with it, nor do I see the 130 as in quite the same bulky Teutonic category as a Type 250 or 280. . . .

Tipo 128

Returning briefly to the Excelsior Grand Hotel Principi di Piemonte to unload the luggage, we set out again in a small Fiat which I did not at once recognise. Indeed, I drove it with some abandon up the twisting roads which lead up to the Basilica (and where I’m told the last speed hill-climb was held in 1948) before appreciating that it was the new Fiat 128, with transverse o.c.h. engine and front-wheel-drive. If this is a frank admission, at least it proves that this little Fiat, with its crisp styling, big windscreen (which dispenses with rubber sealing) and spacious boot, does not suffer from traction avant cornering drama, and emphasises the lightness of the rack-and-pinion steering. Indeed, it is a surprisingly neutral-steering, quiet, refined car, with an 80 x 55½ mm. 1,116-c.c. engine which, developing 55 DIN b.h.p. on an 8.8-to-1 c.r., is full of eagerness and response, aided by a fine, if clonky, floor gear-change. There are good seats, plenty of leg room, and road-clinging assured by Michelin “X” tyres. The spare wheel is carried near-horizontally behind the engine, so much space does the east-west lay-out conserve, leaving the luggage uncluttered. The plugs and distributor are inaccessible until the plastic grille, looking like a giant honeycomb, has been removed, but water and oil fillers are satisfactorily placed; the dip-stick, however, is rather buried in the interesting mechanism. There is a quick means of altering the headlamps’ beam.

The 128 we tried was a four-door saloon, distinguishable from the two-door saloon in front view by a central strip on the grille; an estate version is eagerly awaited. There is something of a Volkswagen vendetta in Germany at present, where the Fiat 128 has been dubbed the Beetle-crusher. To me it seems rather to be a very attractive small car, with great potential from its o.h.c. engine, which, naturally, has a belt-driven camshaft. It is certainly a welcome successor to the recently-revised “conventional” 1100, production of which has ceased. The 128 is 5 in. shorter, 100 lb. lighter, while giving more speed and space. It is interesting, with Issigonis’ Knighthood a recent happy event, that his form of f.w.d. application is now used by Fiat for their newest small car, by Autobianchi for the Primula and the promising new A-III, Peugeot for their 204 and 304, Simca for their 1100, Honda for an air-cooled 1300, and may well figure on the forthcoming Baby Alfa Romeo. It is also the expected layout for the rumoured Autobianchi Mini and B.M.C.’s next six.

The Fiat 128 has a front radiator and the clutch and gearbox are mounted in line with the engine. One pair of gears steps down the drive to the differential. The engine-cooling fan is driven separately from the engine by electric motor, as on the 130. Driven in heavy rain, the apparently unprotected, forward-protruding ignition distributor proved immune from the effects of dampness.

Fiat’s Centro Storico

The next item on the agendas, and one which I would not have missed for all the 500s that still issue from Fiat’s assembly lines, was a visit to their Centro Storico, or historical centre and archives, situated in what was once the two-storey body shop, opposite to the original Fiat factory, where these days the Giovanni Agnelli Central Training School operates. The magnificence of this splendid collection almost defies description, and when it is remembered that Turin also possesses a great public Automobile Museum and that a new Aviation Museum has recently been opened there, this is surely the most comprehensive automotive museum area in Europe? The Fiat aspect of this alone is enough to make any British motor museum Curators give up in black despair!

In fact, Fiat prefer not to call their contribution to history and posterity a museum. It is not open to the public except on written application for some special research project. But it forms a stupendous source of information and visual confirmation to students, authors, engineers and others who are fortunate enough to visit it, and it justifies itself in other directions as a place where new Fiats can be released to the dealers and the World’s Press.

You enter a fine hall, guarded by a uniformed commissionaire, and immediately you are in another world, fascinating, highly-impressive, almost overwhelming in the wealth of its exhibits, which are displayed with the best possible instructional technique. Here Fiat’s illustrious past in the automobile, aviation and marine fields unfolds, fantastic in its very comprehensiveness.

All this is presided over by ex-pilot Augusto Costantino, who suffered as a prisoner of war in Germany, but who has survived to cheerfully and competently occupy the envious position of Curator. It took me almost an entire working day to inspect briefly all the exhibits. Throughout, Signor Costantino accompanied me, fluently explaining each one, answering every question promptly, with never a book or reference notes to aid his memory. To say that his grasp of Fiat history is encyclopaedic is an understatement. And when you pause for a moment from listening to his lucid explanations, he ushers you into a fine cinema to show a film of a particularly interesting aspect of it, and has tea served while the picture is in progress . . . .

It has been possible to cover a great range of Fiat history by augmenting the real cars and vehicles with models. What models! Whereas commercial car models vary in scale (to my oft-expressed disgust), those in the Turin Centro Storico are all to one-fifth scale. Commercial vehicles and aeroplanes are presented in one-tenth scale, to conserve space. It is only the ship models which vary, because they include some found discarded in shipyards and forgotten shipping offices and because those made for the museum would in many cases extend beyond housing scope if made to a large scale. Any one car model may take a year to complete, by a commissioned model-maker, and the average cost is in the region of £1,500 per model. If you think I exaggerate, let me describe the model sports Fiat Balilla, a car which they associate in Turin with kilted George Liston Young, that was taken out of its showcase and which I was allowed to hold. (It was like holding the Crown Jewels, but I would prefer the model.) Everything is there. The tiny doors are opened by pulling the release cords, when the minute locks slide back, exactly as in the real car. The instruments are calibrated, even the switch on the old-style screen-wiper is there, and so is the red ignition-warning light. The wheel spokes have nipples, the boot catch levers over correctly, the stop-lamp is correct in every detail. Superb! Yet all the many models on display are like this. There is a superb Fiat railway coach in which, because it is a stipulation that the same materials as on the real vehicles be used for the models wherever possible (no messing about with celluloid and Bostik!), the window frames are tiny pressings. When it came to securing them a Swiss watchmaker had to be approached for the screws. . . .

There are models like that of all the significant Fiat cars, commercial vehicles, ‘buses, tractors, railway equipment, aeroplanes and ships. I could scarcely wait to look at the racing-car models, over which it would be easy to break not just the Tenth Commandment but to commit murder! Incidentally, at this point the Curator apologised for the fact that just a few of the tractor models are to one-sixth scale, as they were made for a Verona Show. The trains and trams were made before the museum was mooted, and are to one-fifteenth scale. But all are comparable, in their respective sections. The agricultural models have correct control rods, tool-box clamps, finger-grips on filler caps, even scale fan-belts! Look for the tiniest item, and it is there. The aforesaid railway coach cost 2-million lire and took four men 2½ years to make.

The hall, spotlessly clean, as restful as a reading library, is by no means all models. The full-size exhibits are much in evidence but are too numerous for me to describe them all. As you enter you encounter a 1925/6 Fiat 501 tourer, the Series II which had the enlarged starter, etc., beautifully restored to the order of Fiat’s present Chief Engineer, because it is of the same type as his very first car. It is in running order but Dr. Giacosa says sadly that nowadays he never has time to drive it. Front-wheel brakes are fitted and the body was restored by Fiat’s Styling Department. Another outstanding exhibit is a 1912/13 Fiat Zero tourer, that excellent 70 x 120-mm model of which about 2,000 were made. It had a top speed of approximately 62 k.p.h. and this one has the original gas lamps, converted to electrics for rallies, in which it still sometimes engages.

There is an 1899 3½-h.p. Fiat, found in Turin, restored, and gives a replica body. Only eight of this breed were made, of which four have survived, one on England. The 600-c.c. rear engine can be said to be in a more recent Fiat tradition! It has a belt-driven lubricator and exposed wipe ignition, replaced, however, as a precaution when the old car had to be driven in procession through the St. Bernard tunnel. This veteran is accompanied by a sectioned model of its primitive engine, made in 1967 by Fiat apprentices.

A 1911 First-Series Tipo 2 Fiat landaulette makes a fine show. They were built from 1910 to 1914, I was informed, with the Second-Series persisting up to 1920. The particular car on show was found quite recently. It had run but 20,000 miles and stands on 880 x 185 Pirellis. It served as transport for the Italian General Staff during the First World War and is beautifully appointed, with folding occasional seats, each with a little folding arm-rest, self-contained Carello carbide headlamps, a telephone and a siren. The Fiat-made body has the original cloth upholstery and silk blinds. Not all the exhibits are ancient. A r.h.d. Export-model 570-c.c. Fiat Topolino is there, the First-Series version with ¼-elliptic back springs. Looking under the bonnet I was reminded of the alloy-head s.v. engine with the water off-take hose running directly up to the behind-engine radiator, and of how I scoffed at the Fiat 500 when it appeared originally at the London Motor Show—but very soon it was making us want to throw our Austin Sevens and Morris Eights over the nearest hedge . . . .

It is nice to know that there is a Fiat 500 still in mass production, for some 1,300 of the modern version are being made every day, including the new 500L de luxe model. A 500 is proudly displayed in Fiat’s Turin showroom, not far from Tipo 130 which is attracting much favourable comment. Paris may pulsate with 2 C.V.s. but Fiat’s home town buzzes with 500s . . . . .

To revert to things historical, I cannot possibly refer to all the multitudinous exhibits I saw, ranging from a 1915 Fiat 18P farm tractor through all manner of immaculately presented engines, some of them gigantic, like the six-cylinder two-stroke Tipo 2G116 diesel engine, giving 300 h.p. at 500 r.p.m., for the 1909 Medusa-class submarines, which was sunk off Venice in 1915 and not salvaged until 1955—not that it shows any evidence of this, today. “Babs” should be a mild restoration in comparison! There is a Fiat multi-fuel engine, all manner of marine engines, actual, model or in picture, including one which takes a year to assemble. If a spare piston is needed you have to choose between that and a Lamborghini, for they are fabulously expensive and require a truck to transport.

The aeroplane engines are especially interesting. Naturally, there is an A12 Fiat aviation motor, as used by Eldridge in “Mephistopheles”, of which racing car there is a model on show. The great record-breaking flights by Fiat aeroplanes and engines are depicted by maps, photographs and newspaper reproductions behind them. When we came to that incredible 1931 3,100-h.p. AS6 Fiat engine which, in an Idro Macchi C72 seaplane, set the Air Speed Record to 440.69 m.p.h. in 1934, the Curator asked me to look round, and there above us was a short film being shown of the take-off and record flight with the brave pilot, Agello, being chaired immediately afterwards. This was very interesting, because I remember reading long contemporary descriptions in The Aeroplane of this enormously lengthy but shallow V24 twin-engine, with its contra-props., and of the Rolls-Royce “R” racing engines.

Incidentally, aviation historians may be intrigued by details, which the museum contains, with the engine of course, of a Turin-London flight made by an S.I.A. 7B2, using a Fiat V12 engine, in 1917, when the war probably drew a mask over the achievement, and to learn that Fiat were making such engines develop 700 h.p. by 1919—there is one to examine, naturally.

Study of the car models brought to light some interesting facts, such as early Italian cars being most r.h.d., l.h.d. coming with the Tipo 520 in 1920, that metal bodies were an off-shoot of an airframe designer at Fiat circa 1926, and that the Tipo 519 Fiat Forty had vacuum servo brakes with enormous drums which required a central brake lever working in a gate to aid retardation below about 15 m.p.h., when the servo became ineffective and you moved the lever across the gate to gain better manual control, the ball-change gear-lever being beside it—or so I was told when I made the inexcusable suggestion that for once the model maker might have slipped up! As you go up the wide staircase to the aviation and marine exhibits you are greeted by some of the better Fiat advertising posters down the ages, one of which depicts a lady in a long but bottom-clinging skirt, publicising the original 508 Balilla saloon, which was criticised as rather too daring by the Fiat Directors of those days! Alfred Woolf, who was with us, was surprised to find a 519 poster which had been printed in London, E.C.4, by a firm he uses today.

It was pleasing to come upon many famous trophies won by Fiat cars, cased beneath photographs of famous racing drivers.

Adjacent to the museum and cinema there is a library containing documents inconceivable, including bound volumes of British motor journals and a record of all Fiat competition successes, inclusive of short Brooklands races and even M.C.C. trials. If I use again the word fantastic, I trust I shall be forgiven. But then, this is Fiat. . . .

Interview with Dr. Ing. Giacosa

Reluctant as I was to tear myself away from the historical centre, I had been granted an interview with Fiat’s Chief Engineer, Dr. Ing. Dante Giacosa. To ask frank questions of the man who controls the motor engineering destiny of a Company as great and gigantic as Fiat was an opportunity not to be missed. So off we went in the compact but willing 128 to the dignified Fiat office block, with its lofty marble-floored corridors flanked with doors labelled with awe inspiring names, from Agnelli downwards.

Dr. Giacosa graduated at the Turin Polytechnic in 1927 and after doing his Military Service became a draughts man in the S.P.A. commercial vehicle factory. One of his tasks was to make an Italian copy of an English tracked vehicle, circa 1928, employing the Model-T Ford epicyclic pedals-controlled transmission. Having joined Fiat he continued working on military vehicles and, after a spell on diesel trucks, he developed water-cooled in-line aero-engines under the talented Prof. Fessia.

His opportunity came, a fitting sequel to all this varied engineering experience, when Fiat wanted an economy car. In their aero-engine section Giacosa created a Topolino, officially known as the OA. The “O” to commemorate one of Fiat’s most successful pre-war models, the Zero, the “A” standing for aviation. The engine of the Topolino, mounted ahead of the front-wheel axis, posed some problems and Giacosa evolved a method of pressure adjustment for the hydraulic brakes, whereby the driver could reduce pressure to the back wheels, but this was found to be unnecessary on the production Fiat 500s. The little car was an immediate success.

This achievement gave Giacosa promotion to Chief Passenger Car Engineer, a position he has held ever since. Today, he takes a keen interest in body engineering and styling, as well as in mechanical design and evolution.

My first question, remembering that Fiat now make many engines with single and twin overhead camshafts, was whether Dr. Giacosa would have been so keen on this system of valve actuation if belt drive of o.h. camshafts had not been posible. He said no, other methods had noise problems which could be serious and that belt drive was the solution. But, he added, Fiat had done four years’ research on things like the meshing of the cogged belt with the pulley teeth, the spacing of the teeth, etc., before accepting belts and that it was not until glass-fibre threads had been introduced that a sufficiently high degree of reliability form the belt drive was reached. He also emphasised the advantage of the clever Lampredi method of tappet adjustment, which must be the envy of all other designers on rockerless o.h.c. engines.

Dr. Giacosa would draw on a pad before him as he spoke, using alternately Italian and English, sometimes closing his eyes, often smiling at my questions. The Fiat model range is complex, I said. Would Dr. Giacosa reduce the numbers of different Fiats if other large manufacturers, such as British Leyland and Ford, did this? No, was the reply, it is unlikely. Fiat has always made a model for almost every purpose (for enthusiasts the four-cam V6 Dinos are made in small numbers) and as Fiat production methods make this economically possible the situation is not likely to change although somewhat fewer models might be listed in the future. This made sense, because I believe that considerable interchangeability goes on, even to the rear-engined Fiat 850 transmission being adapted to the front-engined f.w.d. Fiat 128.

To press my point I asked the Chief Engineer how he would choose between a Fiat 124 and a 128, if he could have but one car? A quick calculation on the writing pad and Dr. Giacosa said there were sufficiently great cubic capacity and weight differences between these two models to place them in different categories—the 124 was some 100 kg. heavier than the 128, for example, and that I must remember that the Italian taxation system affect these matters. He had begun to plan a replacement for the long-lived Fiat 1100 in 1953/4. He tried light-alloy engines, rear-drive, etc., but the transverse-engined f.w.d. 128 is easier to make, unlike the VW, many models of which were costly to build. He would have preferred to have used an air-cooled engine and considers that the heater can be effective with such an engine, without resort to a separate petrol tuner. But pollution problems arise on the 500 the head gasket has had to be isolated, air for the heater being drawn from head and cylinders independently, in case of gas leaks. This complicates matters but experiments have been done with oil-cooled cylinders (very distant shades of the Belsize-Bradshaw!) and air-cooled heads, using one cylinder barrel heat for the heater, which is effective. Military engines of this kind have been made by Fiat but, while space is saved compared with finned cylinders, the valves and pistons are difficult to cool effectively.

I now put to Dr. Giacosa the fact that Alec Issigonis had been Knighted for his Mini design and asked him whether he regarded the B.M.C. engineer as a pioneer of the Mini-form of front-wheel-drive? Although praising Sir Alec for a splendid car, Giacosa remarked that while the Mini may have been the first production car of its kind, he had patented a transverse-engined f.w.d. car in 1947 and as far back as 1935, while planning the Fiat 2800, he had thought up a transverse engine which was intended to go in the back of a rear-drive car. Indeed, a prototype 1947 Fiat small car had been made, with a 500-c.c. engine of die-cast alloy, having an o.h. camshaft acting directly on the valve stems, the camshaft being driven by a vertical shaft. It gave 18 b.h.p. but was too advanced for production 22 years ago.

This led me to ask if Dr. Giacosa had any objection to using engine oil in the gearbox, as Issigonis was forced to do, in view of the separate gearbox, with its own oil, on the Fiat 128? He did not object greatly, he said, if the engine ran clean, but he wasn’t keen, mentioning synchromesh cone wear as an oil contaminant. Automatic transmission might also pose problems. But the real reason for using a separate engine and gearbox in the Fiat 128 was a production one, different factories being thus able to manufacture these units. Giacosa thought the Mini could be revamped with such a layout; there was sufficient room. He is obviously conversant with the B.M.C. cars, for what looks like Minis and 1100s in Italy are, of course, Innocentis. Thus Issigonis rushed in where Fiat have been long in treading.

Would competition activities sell Fiats? Giacosa excused himself from answering in detail, although whether to spare my feelings, in view of the title of this journal, or to avoid criticism from Monza-keen Italians, I could not decide. Competition work must be dedicated, he said, and if done properly would leave no time for more important work appertaining to production cars. He was happy, or would be if it were his problem, to leave racing to Ferrari (now half-owned by Fiat!).

Having experienced the smooth ride of the Fiat 130, allied to its quiet running, I asked the tall, quietly spoken engineer about i.r.s. Would Giacosa be introducing it on the smaller Fiats? He replied that the rear suspension of the 130 has proved extremely satisfactory and the system adopted for the 128, which is naturally more simple because of front-drive is equally successful. (Incidentally, the rear-engined small Fiats naturally all have i.r.s.) The next Dino model will have i.r.s., he explained. Pressed, all I could get out of him was that maybe some time in the future, more Fiat models will have independent rear suspension.

Having found Michelin tyres on both the new Fiats, I wondered what had happened to Pirelli, whose tyres used to be synonymous with Fiats. Difficult to answer, perhaps, the Chief Engineer explained that tyres are improving all the time, that there is the closest possible co-operation between Fiat, Pirelli and Michelin. But at any one time they use the best tyre available, and at present Michelin provide it for some models. Incidentally, all Fiat cars in production in Italy are now being turned out on radial-ply tyres. Fair enough, and as I had taken up much time with a man who appears to have nothing pressing to occupy him and to have not a care in the World, but who must be exceedingly busy, I put the final question. As the new Fiat 130 has a V6 engine, albeit an o.h.c. alloy-head one, did Dr. Giacosa expect to be accused of copying Ford in this respect? The smile returned to the sun-bronzed face, “No, I wanted a compact engine for the 1800’s replacement and the V6 was the obvious solution. It was conceived quite a long time ago.” Clearly, Dr. Dante Giacosa, whose Company builds probably more cars than any other European manufacturer, some 70% of the total British output, and whose range of models is about the most all-embracing of any, has never relinquished his august position to become an industrial espionage spy in the depths of Dagenham. . . .

And that was all I had time for, before returning to the typewriter and the office. So, on the Tuesday evening, 15 minutes behind schedule, an Alitalia DC9 returned me to Heathrow.—W. B.