Updated: Apr 1
It's the 26th of May, 1969. A Fiat 500 is cruising on the motorway towards Turin, where its driver is to participate in a crucial meeting. Its driver is 30-year-old Italian designer Pio Manzoni, but most call him Pio Manzù.
Pio is already a successful product designer, and lately, he's been doing consultancy work for Fiat.
That was quite exceptional, as Fiat usually did not hire consultants.
But Fiat's engineering supremo, Dante Giacosa, fought against the company's bureaucrats to have Pio Manzù working in Turin.
Pio Manzù enjoyed designing simple, honest cars for the people, and tackled the 127 with enthusiasm.
The project number 127 is a seminal one for Fiat, as it finally brought Turin's superminis into the modern age, with its transverse-engine FWD configuration. As Giacosa himself recalled in his memoir, Pio Manzù enjoyed designing simple, honest cars for the people, and tackled the 127 with enthusiasm.
The 127 was the replacement for the outdated rear-engined 850, which in itself was an evolution of the 600 from 1955. The 127's drivetrain and suspensions were mostly carried over from the successful Autobianchi A112.
Still, the new Fiat's more utilitarian focus demanded a larger bodyshell with a longer wheelbase to increase interior space.
The design of the 127 is simple yet endearing
The design of the 127 is simple yet endearing, from its front end that suggested a human face but without being overly "cute" to the gentle upward swing of the beltline at the rear. The 127 debuted in 1971, and it became a runaway hit the likes of which Fiat hadn't yet seen: it took only three years to see the millionth 127 going off Mirafiori's production line! Interestingly, the four-door version of the 127 was developed for the Spanish market by SEAT. Still, the Barcelona factory would also build the Fiat-badged four-doors exported to several countries, Italy included.
The 127 remained the most popular new car in Europe for several years, but in 1977 was subjected to an extensive redesign to fight off the increased competition. Most of the body was new, front, rear, and even the side, with its new rear window profile. All topped off by a modernized interior. In my humble opinion, this second series of 127 lost most of its charm, albeit it was very well received at the time.
The 127 remained the most popular new car in Europe for several years
Fiat's designers truly disfigured the poor 127 in 1981, though. The ham-fisted restyling that generated the 127's third and last series was intended to buy time until the Uno's arrival... But it probably made the 127 look even older than it was, removing even the last traces of the little design flair that was left from 1977.
Pio Manzù wasn't there to see all this, though.
On that 1969 day on the motorway, probably he dozed off, and the little Fiat 500 left the road and crashed. He never made it to the meeting that signed off his design for the 127. Neither Giacosa nor Gian Paolo Boano, the head of Fiat's styling studio, wanted to modify Pio's work. In the end, they just lowered the front end a bit, so Pio's 127 design could go into production almost as he had left it.