Road Impressions - Fiat 131 Supermirafiori DOHC—but not much bite

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Don’t be deluded by Fiat’s current caged car advertisement for the Supermiraflori into thinking that this new twin-overhead-camshaft version of the 131 is a powerful wild beast trying to escape; there were times when I felt that this four-door 1600 would have had a struggle to escape from a cardboard box, let alone through iron bars. This is not the sporting car that Fiat have ventured to suggest, mistakenly, in my view. Looked upon more correctly, without advertising flannel, as a comfortable, appointed 1600 saloon, with the sophistication of a twin-cam engine, a five-speed gearbox and a 106 m.p.h. top speed for a realistic £3,595 it becomes a more attractive proposition. The sportiest thing about the test car was the rear window sticker reminding that the 131 won last year’s World Rally Championship, albeit in much-modified, 2-litre guise.

Fiat designed the 131 Mirafiori from the outset around both twin-cam and push-rod engines, but the tightened economy persuaded them to release cinly the 1300 and 1600 push-rod versions in 1975. The Supermirafiori twin-cam made its bow a few months ago, in more settled times, along with cosmetically revised push-rod cars.

In this application, the 1,585 c.c. 84 mm. x 71.5 mm., four-cylinder, in-line, twin-overheadcamshaft belt-driven unit so familiar in Fiats and Lancias produces 96 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. and 94 lb. ft. of torque at 3,800 rpm. on a single, twin-choke, downdraught Weber carburetter. The 1300 and 1600 push-rod cars give 65 b.h.p. and 75 b.h.p. respectively. Unfortunately, this usually willing 1600 twin-cam has nearly 22 cwt. of unladen weight to lug along, which shows up a deficiency of torque in certain speed and revolution ranges.

The McPherson strut front suspension, coilsprung live rear axle, located by four trailing arms and a Panhard rod, and the five-speed gearbox are Shared with the push-rod cars.

If the Supermirafiori has a particular selling point it will be the appearance and comfort of the velour-covered seats, reminiscent of the luxury of the old 130. The front seats are large enough to suit broad beams, have well-shaped, adjustable back-rests and neat head-rests. A fold-down arm-rest can divide the rear seat. Similarly plush, velvet-like material is used for the roof lining. With such luxury spread around it is a shame that the two sliding cubby-hole lids in the top of the facia should appear so crude and are so difficult to operate. The driving position is slightly Italianate, but not bad and overall I found this a comfortable car for a motorway trip to Donington to watch the Group 1 Historic Race. I did not like the single-spoke steering wheel. The usual Fiat steering column Stalks are as efficient as ever, but why only a single constant speed in addition to intermittent action for the wipers, which were well tested on that Donington run? The heating and demisting system is not especially efficient, although the door window demisting vents, ducted through convoluted tubes, Rover style, from the facia, are worthwhile additions to the 131 specification. The ventilation is powerful through adjustable side and centre vents.

An automatic choke helps instant cold starting, but the twin-cans unit is recalcitrant when cold and a manual choke would be helpful through these hesitant periods. The curiously shaped, long, slim. gearlever knob sprouts front the centre console at an angle not far from horizontal, much like my Alfa Spider. Its action has a metallic notchiness about it and first and second gears are sometimes an effort to engage. The gate is Alfa fashion, with fifth on a dog’s leg up to the right and reverse opposite. Occasionally a rattle from the gearbox or clutch release mechanism intrudes with the gearbox in neutral, that and the metallic change, but not the gear positions, reminding me of the ZF competition five-speed gearbox.  Whining in the intermediate and fifth gears is another poor feature of the gearbox.

That combination of weight, lack of low-speed torque and ratios that are not very well stacked for a five-speed gearbox means that the Supermirafiori needs rowing along to achieve a reasonable standard of performance. In real terms it is faster titan something like a 1.6 Cortina, but to get the best of a modestly hard-driven Cortina the Fiat driver has to work hard on the gearbox and throttle. Used thus the engine becomes a little buzzy and noisy, though quieter than earlier applications of this twin-cam, in the 124 Special T, for example. The tachometer is red lined at 6,000 r.p.m.; as that maximum corresponds with peak power, unusual for a modestly tuned road car, I assume that a few more safe revs lie in abeyance. Fifth is very much an overdrive ratio, soon exhausted by inclines, so that fourth, which gives a faster maximum, has to be brought into play to keep a constant speed. Acceleration in fourth in the mid ranges is not all that good, but in filth this Supermirafiori is quite gutless. Once charging along at 70 to 80 m.p.h. or more on the motorway it is a comfortable, reasonably hushed cruiser, but an enforced drop to sixty or so requires a gearchange to top up the speed in any sort of haste. It will be obvious from the foregoing that a fair amount of throttle is necessary to ensure decent performance and this is reflected in a fuel consumption in the region of 24 m.p.g. from the 11-gallon tank.

At moderate speeds on normal A and B roads and at high speed on motorways the ride of this Fiat is quite firm and taut, but good, much better than some of its predecessors. The seats do much to help the suspension in this respect. On bumpy roads the live axle becomes more obvious and cornered briskly there is a great deal of roll. Again driven modestly, it is quite a pleasant car to handle, largely by virtue of acceptably light and precise steering. Pushed hard it understeers; on tight corners the inside wheel tries to leave the tarmac and much of the speed is scrubbed off but on faster corners an allowance can be made for understeer by taking a later apex. Pushed hard enough it can sometimes be provoked into roll oversteer, which is quickly and not very smoothly Scrubbed off. Those sporting pretensions are certainly not very obvious.

For a change, here is a Fiat without desperately over-servoed brakes. A firm pedal operates 8.94″ diameter front discs and 8.94″ diameter rear drums in effective fashion.

This twin-cam Fiat is well finished and appointed and offers plenty of boot space in Its litur-disor, three-box accommodation, but the boot lid sheds all its surface water on to the boot’s contents when it is opened in wet weather. The latest, rectangular, halogen headlights are powerful, the large window area and low waistline give good all round vision and the square package is easy for placing and parking. It is something of a mediocre car generally, however, for its lack of torque will appeal to neither dawdler nor devil. – C.R.

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