In Memoriam : Fiat Strada ES

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Mike Humble

The continuing series of features about cars on the endangered list in the UK, according to data supplied by the brilliant How Many Left? website based on DVLA data.

11: Fiat Strada 60ES

Fiat's answer to the Golf - fatally flawed but a brave try!
Fiat's answer to the Golf - fatally flawed but a brave try!

Yet another car from our series of seemingly extinct vehicles that rightly or wrongly have ended up as bean tins or razor blades. Often regarded as Fiat’s Allegro – The Strada/Ritmo promised so much and potentially could have been a world class car yet missed the mark by a country mile.

But wait! forget hybrids or Bluemotions, Fiat’s ES range was there years before.

Trends come and go, where once we were Cortina crazy, saloon cars have been given the boot seeing the market place flooded with people carriers and other dreary hunks of silly van like cars with sliding doors. How people ever managed to squeeze 2.4 children and a pushchair into a Hillman Avenger seems amazing, yet somehow we did. In a world of ever changing trends or fashions, one thing remains a constant, and that is the small hatchback in three- and five-door form.

Volkswagen legitimized the concept with the Golf in 1974 after a number of false starts, and other makers fell in line – Ford created the ‘Erika’ Escort MkIII. The Golf and Escort were joined by the Astra, and the three marques became the standard for others to follow here in the UK, selling handsomely. But socio-economic troubles were never far away – tales of strife and union unrest within our own British Leyland are of legend, but over in Europe, Fiat had the capacity to even more strikes than BL.

Bleeding money, Fiat went through its own shake up and re-organisation almost the same time as BL entered the Michael Edwardes era. Just the same way as Longbridge saw robots and huge capital investment, Fiat actually beat BL to the robot race as it introduced its own family-sized hatchback to battle against the ever conquering VW Golf. Wolfsburg’s world beater sold in huge numbers in Italy, and not wanting to be outdone, Fiat using all this new computer power and high-tech wonderment launched the Ritmo (Italian for rhythm) on the marketplace in 1978.

Here in the UK, the Ritmo was named Strada. This strange looking car, with oddly designed wheel rims and clothed in huge amounts of grey plastic, claimed to be futuristic and managed to sell reasonably well – for a short time anyway. Not long after launch, it became common knowledge that this all new Fiat was underdeveloped, poorly built, prone to rust and unreliable. So much money had been poured into the project that the car simply had to soldier on regardless, gaining Fiat a certain reputation for frailty that still lingers to this day.

In a bid to spice things up slightly, Fiat unveiled a facelift for the Strada in 1983 to coincide with the launch of the Uno. It offered a more conventional-looking looking nose, tidied up rear styling and a much improved facia. Two important newcomers were the rorty twin-carb 130TC and the Strada ES – the latter being a brave yet flawed Energy Saving concept. But it was not all doom and gloom for the Strada, the 130bhp 130TC for example was by far the best performing car in its class, with the 60mph sprint achievable in a staggering 7.7 seconds.

The revitalised Strada was well appointed featuring power windows, cord seat trim and other luxury touches, and unless you plumped for the 1100cc base model, it actually drove reasonably well offering a pleasant ride comfort and nippy performance. It was the terrible reputation of the earlier models that did the bulk of the damage to the car’s image and sales – and the class leading Uno was More than enough to steer any potential loyal Fiat customer away from Strada.

Competition simply pulled away. Ford’s marketing force made sure the Escort stayed at the top of the charts. Furthermore, the second generation Golf was a universal lesson in quality and brand perception. The poor dumpy looking Strada never stood a chance in the UK. This was a shocking body blow to Fiat, considering all the money invested into the car but it wasn’t just the Strada which failed to make the grade. The Regata fared better but also well below expectation in terms of units sold. The Croma failed to make any real impact either, despite the car being vastly better built than any Fiat before. But no one bought big Fiats – just look at the sales of the 130, 132 and Argenta…

The now-extinct ES model was based on the 1300cc model. Its larger saloon counterpart, the Regata, even had stop/start. Stradas were known for rampant rust and faulty electrics with questionable looks, some similarities can be compared with the Austin Maestro with product development, quality, styling and long term reliability all being well below par to guarantee any form of sales success.

Looking back, was it really that bad? Some would say yes, and if the Strada wasn’t bad enough for your taste, you could always sink to unheard depths of dismality by purchasing the Seat Malaga – a car based upon the Strada or Regata with hideous re-styling touches.

Fiat deleted the Strada and replaced it with the Tipo in 1988 – Lest we forget!

Twin cam Twin Carbs and 130bhp - The shockingly quick Abarth 130TC

Video

You might enjoy the 1979 launch advert of the Strada – UK viewers loved it.

[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WaglhAA0nY[/tube]

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

38 Comments

  1. My dad had an Audi 80 with stop-start in 1982 or so; I think it was an X-reg, in burgundy metallic with gold coachstripes, ex CEGB or similar management.

    It was his exit from BL cars (the Ambassador was the final straw; oddly, I think he’d have been quite happy with an 800 or Montego Countryman) – but the stop-start system was something he remembered, and I’ve subsequently seen in manuals for other late ’70s/early ’80s VAG cars I’ve had. It’s interesting that the idea was tried, and forgotten, so quickly.
  2. My mate had a Strada Abarth 130 TC on an E reg (must have been one of the last ones; he purchased it for £1500 in 1996).  It absolutely flew.  Most hot hatches can sprint to 60 quickly – after all, that’s what they’re for – but the Abarth would sprint all the way up to 120 in one rorty, deep chested, twin carb fuelled burst.  The only downside was rust.  It was eight years old, only 50-odd thousand miles on the clock and had lovely shiny paint – with rust breaking through in the middle of the panel as if coming from the back!  I remember the boot lid actually had a hole in in, and you could feel the rust on the rear of the panel.  God only knows what it was like underneath.  He bought it from an enthusiast, kept it six months during which it nearly bankrupted him with its 20mpg thirst, then sold it to another enthusiast without losing a penny – they were sought after even then.

  3. Oh, and it had strange holes in the front seats which we couldn’t for the life of us work out what they were for at the age of 21 – I’ve since read that they were to fit race harnesses – that’s how hardcore they were.

  4. Fiat Strada  –  A great example of how a facelift can take away the innovative thinking behind the styling of the original car.Fiat Multipla  – Another example!

  5. May I point out a couple of errors in this article, otherwise very well written – as is all the stuff I regularly enjoy reading on AROnline.

    1) Fiat has never been State-owned – even though it has received, let’s say, some kinds of “favourable treatment” all along its 100-plus years history from the Italian State, both Kingdom and Republic.Alfa-Romeo was instead; it was part of the public owned IRI (“Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale”) roughly from the 20’s to 1986 when Fiat beat Ford in buying it out. And by then yes, Alfa truly was moribund and deeply indebted.

    2) The Ritmo/Strada, as well as the Uno, were offered in ES trim – but none of them had an automatic Start/Stop feature.

    Common to the “ES” Uno, Ritmo/Strada and Regat(t)a were:-electronic cut-off system on carburettor which would cut out fuel flow when the accelerator pedal was released (but not so as to turn the engine off)-digital Marelli Digiplex ignition system-special pistons-different cams-higher 5th gear and final reduction ratios-aerodynamic wheel hubcaps and front window and rear boot spoilers to decrease wind resistance-a fuel consumption meter gauge on the dashboard – instead of a classic analog watch or a rev-counter – with a yellow lamp advising the driver when it was recommended to shift to a higher gear.

    The Regata ES was the only one to have an actual Start/Stop system then named “CityMatic”. It’d shut out the engine when the car was at a standstill with the gear lever in neutral, and start it again when gear was engaged and clutch and gas pedals pressed.The following article reports, for anyone interested, the Regata ES’s story – unfortunately it’s in Italian, you can maybe give it a try with Google Translate:

    http://www.omniauto.it/magazine/17447/fiat-regata-es-la-prima-con-lo-startstop

  6. Oh – and by the way I’ve got some vivid Ritmo memories…When I was 4-5 years old (early 80’s) my uncles had a light blue Mk1 5dr 1.7 Diesel CL, at a time when oil-burners – even in Italy – were just beginning to come out on the private car market. I remember it sounded like a farmer tractor…More recently in late 90’s when my friends and me finally got our driver’s licenses, one of them had a MkII 1100 CL 5dr – which his family only scrapped a couple years ago for a new Sedici.We went for countless rides on that bronze-tinted four-headlamps Ritmo…

  7. Ah… this is the one with the memorable tagline…”Built By Robots, {Driven by Morons}” was the version I heard.Almost as good as the Nissan Almera’s “The car they dont want you  to have” – so no-one did.

    The MG world nowadays would be much better if BL/AR/MGR’s advertising had worked half as well.Thankfully my family was spared the indignity of one of these – although my mother did have a Uno 45 for a while, with the weird Trandoshan sized paddle switches for everything and atrocious brakes (even that didnt prepare me for my GF’s Polo Breadvan, I would swear on a pack of bibles that my pushbike had better brakes than that thing).

    The Uno’s highlight was dropping its entire exhaust from the manifold back onto the road at speed – at which point it sounded something like a flypast by the Italian AF, went better though, for a given value of better. I think it got called the ‘Oh-no’ after that. My mother inherited my dads Renault 25 after that (it took her 2 years to figure it was a 5 speed, the detente against 5th didnt help matters, seemed designed to dump you into 3rd when you really needed 5th). Reminds me of an event in my youth – school trip – three busses. brand new black coach, air-con, toilet, TV the works (imagine if Blade went into European Tours), middling dull looking school run special, and one of those heaps that have seen better epochs let alone days.

    You can guess which one my form ended up in..The brand new coach got half way to the Isle of Wight or wherever we were going, and barfed its entire exhaust onto the motorway, the average joe boiled its engine and was last seen sitting on the side of the A303 in a cloud of steam. Yup, the geriatric dinosaur was the only one to get there in one (sticky,sweaty, where the hell are the loos) piece. The way the mechanical gods were on that day I wouldnt have been surprised if the sole survivor was running a Leyland 500…

    Getting back to the Ritmo/Strada – I don’t think there is another car I have known that deserves being an ‘ex-parrot’ more. It had all the charisma of a tabletop, and about half the utility. Although its true, for all its horribleness at least it wasn’t a Seat Malodorous…

  8. Pity they altered the styling so much for the mkII – the original was fresh, perhaps even iconic. That ad is a classic!GM were thinking along vaguely similar lines with the Cadillac Seville V8-6-4, which switched off 2/4 cylinders when they weren’t needed. Made an awful lumpy drive though, apparently!

  9. The Mk1’s also had that big vent on the bonnet – which didn’t seem a bad enough ‘feature’ that it stopped Peugeot doing similar on the 206!

  10. My father had a brief affair with Fiat during the late seventies/early eighties after a string of Vauxhall Vivas, first he had a brand new Fiat 128 Estate – must have been one of the last sold in the UK, he then traded it for a brand new Strada 75CL in light met blue with racing stripes. What a awful car it was, seriously within 6 months it had a new tailgate and various body repairs due to rust perforation, he dreaded washing the thing as he always found more rust – on a car that wasn’t even a year old!

    My dad bit the bullet and traded it for one of the first mk2 Golfs sold in the UK, he lost a tremendous amount of money on the Fiat, but the VW was worlds apart and he hasn’t even looked at another manufacturer since. The Strada – 

    CUB248Y can’t have made it to it’s third birthday – the body was that bad!

    We since heard a tale that many early RHD Stradas had been caught in a flood at Fiats UK storage compound, I don’t know if this is true or simply automotive folklore.

  11. “people carriers and other dreary hunks of silly van like cars with sliding doors” – bang on! Why do people buy such dull vehicles these days?

  12. My parents drove a Fiat Ritmo 60 (2nd gen) for a while. It was not a bad car, but it did not stand out either, like the Uno we had before it. Now, the Uno, that was really a nice little car: crisp styling, short on the outside, big inside, with some very practical and nice touches. It was the first car I drove after getting my drivers license…Getting beg to the Strada/Ritmo. A neighbour and a friend of me both had a Abarth 130 TC. Nice cars both. Lots of poke, good ZF gearbox, and the great sound of the Webers sucking in. And not to forget the fruity parp of the exhaust. Strangely, we never ran into Golf GTI’s while driving it…

  13. I learnt to drive in a Fiat Uno mark 2, a 45 Formula 91 if I remember rightly.  It was a lovely car to drive, really responsive in the first two gears despite only having 45bhp.  Plenty of torque, too.  My uncle was a driving instructor and bought it brand new in 1990, by the time he’d decided to finish being a driving instructor in 1996 it had done 160k and was still on its original engine and gearbox (it had had quite a few clutches as you would expect though!)

  14. I believe this was the last car model Fiat would sell in the USA (except for the 124 sports car). They were terrible, with 95% pre-rusted steel, reliability that only worse than Soviet cars. I believe they even used then in the 1980’s movie “Gung Ho” about a Japanese carmaker that takes over a USA car plant.

  15. Back in the early 80’s I worked with two guys who both were foolish enough to buy Stradas new! Needless to say they both began rusting extremely rapidly in the harsh Tyneside winters. One of their owners tried (vainly) to slow down the tinworm by filling everywhere with Waxoyl, including the doors. Imagine his surprise, upon removing a door panel, to find a half eaten pizza lying inside! I don’t know if BL ever sank this low, although presumably at Longbridge it would have been a packet of Pork Scratchings?
    Keep up the good work, David

  16. @LeonUSA

    The last Fiat. Only now are Fiat trying to get their foot in the door again with the 500, now that they pwn Chrysler.

  17. The Strada always looked like an interesting Golf alternative, though you had to be brave to take on the horrific repuation for rust and dodgy electrics. My first car was a Mk2 1991 Fiat Uno 45 Fire – J142RMO. Lovely little car, always liked the neat styling and it was a joy to drive, handled like a dream. Tiny 999cc engine was surprisingly responsive, probably because the car weighed next to nothing! Traded it in, in 1999 for a Fiat Bravo 80SX – not as much character or nearly as much fun to drive.

  18. @ David Walker

    Yes, Longbridge workers during their millitant 70’s period were partial to leaving bottle tops or loose rivets in door frames of Allegro’s.

    Keen eyed spotters would also notice the often fittment of an upside Austin Morris “wing” logo on the grilles of some Allegro 3 & Metro cars in the early 80`s.

  19. @Mike Humble

    Almost as irritating to the compulsive car spotter as the upside-down Citroen chevrons that seemed to adorn early Xantias.

  20. The Seat Ronda was a mildly warmed over (enough to shake off a Fiat lawsuit!) Strada, the Malaga was the saloon variant. The Montego to the Ronda Maestro.

    The 1st gen Ibiza was also built on Strada underpinnings, until the VW takeover changed it to be Polo based in the mid 90s.
    The mk1 production line was sold to China where it is sold as the Nanjing Yuejin Soyat today. Some (albeit by now, small) part of the Strada survives!

  21. @ Mike Humble

    We had for a while a FIAT 126 Bis, which was actually made in Poland. Trying to trace a water leak I lifted the front passenger carpets up and found Polish beer bottle tops, so looks like my car was made by a bunch of drunks 🙂

    I found some Japanese sweets in my jap-import Eunos Roadster but thought better of eating them.

  22. A girlfriend has one of these in grey plastic, dark blue and brown (rust). It went well enough and had quite a nice engine sound but it stuttered and spluttered when cold and the fuel shut off system was not always reliable leading to interesting experiences when using engine braking.

    The big downsides were zero charisma; an interior that had no style and was grey on grey with a grey background; poor reliability and copious amounts of rust on all metal surfaces. Even at 4 years old there were holes in the bottoms of the doors and tailgate! The seats sagged and the driving position was odd.

    On the plus side it was spacious inside and you could find it in a crowded car park because it would be the only one there.

    Here’s to the late and largely unlamented Strada/Ritmo!

  23. @23 – Glad it’s not just me that’s spotted the inverted chevrons – they stick out like a sore thuumb! How did they get sold like that?!

  24. I live in the North East of England and I remember passing with my Fiance a storage compound near Seaton Carew , Which is right by the North Sea and opposite Hartlepool docks .
    This was 1979/1980 and the ground they were stored on is known as Saltholme because it is Salt marshes and land reclaimed from the coast !!.
    Now can you understand why so many of these cars just rotted away

  25. Is is slightly at odds with my recollection of the Strada. Sure it didnt sell that well in the UK, but no Fiat did. As for being under developed, wasnt it effectively a rebodied 128? That car is considered the template for the modern European car. It may not have had a hatch back, but it did have an alloy OHC Transverse Engine with end on transmission and torsion beam rear end well before the Golf came along.

  26. Fiat tried the economy route again with the MK1 Punto with an EL model, same price as an SX IIRC but instead of power windows and central locking it got a six speed box.

  27. @29 Paul
    Yes, the Ritmo/Strada was based on 128 underpinnings – which at the time of Ritmo’s launch had been widely tried and tested and lived on some more years. Rumour has it that famous designer Giorgetto Giugiaro was brought in by VW to design what would ultimately became the Mk1 Golf, he was shown a Fiat 128 disassambled to pieces by VW techs – who told him, ‘we want you to make up something like this for us’. No doubt it must’ve seemed quite modern for its time.

    @30 Ben Adams
    Actually (at home, at least) the Mk1 ’93 Punto featured an ‘ED’ (Economy Drive) version based on the poverty-spec 55 S, no power windows, no central locking, no nothing. Only difference was a higher final gear reduction ratio fitted to improve fuel economy.
    There also was a 55 ‘6Speed’ version but the story behind it was a bit different – it catered to young, fresh-licensed drivers who at the time had (as again today) restrictions about how powerful were the cars they could drive.
    The 6-speed gearbox was meant to give a bit more get-up-and-go to a standard 5-speed Punto 55, with 1st gear being like a ‘normal’ 1st (maybe with a tad higher ratio) and 6th gear acting as a standard 5th.
    It had specific hubcaps, central locking, power windows and a rev counter.

    Towards the end of Mk1’s commercial life they were both withdrawn – the ED especially was a failure and sold in (very) tiny numbers.
    Both were based on the ’55’ engine (1108 cc – 55 bhp) and could only be specced with 3-door body.

  28. As a young lad, not too aware of quality issues, I rather liked the novel styling of the original Strada. Seem to remember dragging my parents round the shops in Harrogate(?) until I found the model I wanted. With the exception of the 130TC and the new dash I thought the facelift was naff!

  29. @31 – I used to own a FIAT Punto 6-speed – a nice little car – looked great, with a basic, but well-designed interior. It was certainly not fast, but given the amount of gear-changing you had to do to keep it moving, it was tremendous fun. I did wear the clutch out though! It was so eager that I used to rag it daily, which was fine until I blew the head-gasket! I think FIAT must have done something different with the exhaust too – it sounded more ‘Italian’ than a couple of 5-speeders I’ve driven! I eventually traded it in for my first Alfa.

  30. “It had specific hubcaps, central locking, power windows and a rev counter.” Hubcaps and rev-counter = yes. Leccy windows and central locking = no. Although it did have stereo controls on the steering wheel and body coloured bumpers…….

  31. So you think British Leyland were bad, this was far worse and looked like a golf ball on wheels. At least the Mirafiori looked good.

  32. I have just searched to find out how many Fiat Strada 60ES’s were left. I then searched Google and came across a mention of the car on my old haunt AROnline. What a coincidence that I should find mention of this old Fiat on here were I spent so much time in my MG/Rover days as the proud owner of their product from a Marina though the various models until I finally had to sell my aging ZT. The reason that there are no Strada 60 ES’s left is simple, rust. My dad bought a C Reg one with all of the economy feature on it, great can but before it had been given it’s first MOT the back door had rusted right through so much so that the door button came off. Remember this model was built out of the same iron that Lancia Betas were made. The Abarth I drive now is everything the British owned MG should have been building now if only they had been given the investment they needed.

  33. The car that could have destroyed Fiat over here, seeing they were reeling from the Lancia rust disaster at the same time. I was actually a big fan of the Mirafiori( twin cam engines did it for me) and liked the 128 as an alternative to the Escort with fwd, but the Strada was just plain horrible, made other Fiats look rustproof and sales went through the floor. Luckily the Uno saved the day, better rustproofing and typical low running costs helped, as I think a Fiat dominated by the Strada and the Regata would have died over here.

  34. I was driving past Bolam Lake in Northumberland and knew a family, very well off, who usually bought Volvos as their main car and small Japanese hatchbacks as their second car. For some reason the little and reliable Honda Civic was replaced by a V reg Fiat Strada 1.3 at the beginning of 1980, as the deal was good.
    I do remember the car having a very good three band radio, which was rare then, and being quite spacious, but it seemed to squeak incessantly above 40 mph and bits fell off, awful on such a new car even in 1980. It didn’t seem to last as by the summer of 1980 it had gone as they found rust on it and the Strada was replaced with a Volkswagen Golf. Never saw the family again as the person we knew who was their housekeeper moved down South and no doubt the Strada would have moved from Bolam Lake to some dodgy car lot within a couple of years as no one would touch one as the stories of rust and rubbish quality came out.

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