Marques of Distinction - Fiat

fiat 500 fiat 500

From the archives: The return of Fiat passenger cars to Australian roads rekindles an 80-year relationship with Italy’s longest-surviving vehicle manufacturer.

First published in Unique Cars #269, Jan/Feb 2007


Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino was founded in 1899 and began producing a range of twin-cylinder cars with front and rear engine layouts. Competition success played a huge role in Fiat’s rise to prominence and by 1905 the company was terrifying opposition with a team of 16.3-litre monsters.

Most famous of the mega-engined Fiats was ‘Mephistopheles’ – an aero-engined giant that briefly held the world Land-Speed Record and set time and distance records at several European circuits.

Australia’s first serious contact with Fiat came via the advanced 501 and 509 models that sold here in sizeable numbers during the 1920s. While renowned primarily for its small cars, Fiat also dabbled in ultra luxury with a short-lived series of elaborate V12-engined models.

Worldwide appeal came via the tiny Topolino that appeared in 1936 and sold more than 500,000 units before being replaced by the vastly more successful 500 Nuova. Pitched into an Australian small car market against the Morris Minor and VW Beetle, the rear-engined 500 was popular with economy-minded owners.

Fiat’s role as a giant of Italian industry wasn’t simply reliant on car production. Trucks, tractors, aircraft engines and ship-building all contributed to rapid growth. So did establishment of subsidiaries in South America and Portugal and joint car-manufacturing ventures in the USSR and Poland plus part ownership of Ferrari. As of 2005 less than half of Fiat’s corporate revenue came from passenger car production.

Fiat -badge

Providing a 1960s alternative to small, open-top sports cars was the Fiat 850 Coupe, which invited local buyers to ‘Have an Italian Love Affair’. The love grew stronger with the arrival of Fiat’s sophisticated and very elegant 124 coupe and the boxy but brisk 125 sedan.

One model this country didn’t see but that sold strongly in the US was the very attractive 124 Spider. Most familiar to Australian enthusiasts will likely be the mid-engined X1/9 sports car that came here in 1978.

Fiat’s fortunes soured during the 1980s and the brand disappeared from Australian roads in the wake of buyer ambivalence towards its Regatta and Croma offerings. Europe continued to provide the brand’s major sales base and new models produced during the 1990s included a strangely-styled Spider Turbo.

Models like the newly released Punto received rave reviews and Fiat passenger car sales to European Union countries were up by more than 25 percent on 2005.


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