Memories : Turin, April 1978

Turin motor show, April 1978

It’s April 1978 and the doors are about to open to to the first bi-annual Salone dell’Automobile di Torino or Turin Motor Show. This is easily the most exciting time to visit any auto show – the news crews have yet to pitch up, the crowds haven’t invaded, and the cavernous motor show halls echo to the beautiful sound of silence. It’s a lovely place to soak up the atmosphere cast by the troubled and wonderful Italian car industry.

This one’s going to be special. Fiat is about to pulls the covers off its exciting new Ritmo – its first entrant into the fiercely competitive family hatchback market. It will effectively be a radical-looking rebody of the groundbreaking Fiat 128 – one of Dante Giacosa’s finest creations – but it also ushers in a new-era of fully robotised production for Fiat. It would go on to be launched with the most fantastic advert.

Since the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974, the template for this market sector has been set – smart two-box styling, front-wheel drive, a wide-opening hatchback and three- and five-door options. It’s not surprise that the Ritmo was very much the same. It would go up against the aforementioned Golf, the Renault 14, the Talbot Horizon (which pipped it to the 1979 Car of The Year award) – and, later, the Vauxhall Astra Mk1, Ford Escort Mk3 and Austin Maestro. Arguably, the family hatchbacks of today still follow the same formula. But for how much longer?

When the Ritmo went on sale in the UK in early 1979, it was marketed as the Strada and made quite an impact. However, its early promise translated into poor sales on the back of its indigestible (for many buyers) industrial styling penned by Sergio Sartorelli and uninviting interior. That’s a shame, because there was a lot to love about the Strada – and it would go on to sell 1,790,000 copies in its ten-year production run.

Fiat Strada

So, tell us about the cars

Oh, to be strolling through this picture now…

Our picture’s been taken at the other end of the main hall to Fiat’s big splash, and it’s the pride of Milan – Alfa Romeo – that dominates. In the foreground, we’re treated to a selection of Naples-built Alfasuds including the recently-launched Sprint. A sectioned bodyshell is there to show you the lengths Alfa Romeo went in ensuring the best rustprooofing. Also at Alfa Romeo are examples of its newest car, the wedge-shaped Nuova Giulietta, and the Alfetta saloon it’s so closely based on.

For AROnline fans, the Nuova Innocenti stand will be a delight. In 1978, memories of BL ownership and Geoffrey Robinson’s starry-eyed promises will be a fading memory. Instead, under the ownership of Alejandro De Tomaso, the company is concentrating on its excellent 90/120 hatchback range, including the recent new Innocenti Mini De Tomaso, which takes pride of place on the stand.

Further back, we can also see Lancia’s stand – Gammas and Betas form the backbone of its offerings – and we’d have to wait another year to see the lovely Delta. You can also see Autobianchi, which is signposted as Lancia-Autobianchi. Fiat is to the rear of that, where you can just see a Ritmo behind the Nuova Innocenti sign. Ferrari is there, too, while the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz are tucked away to the side – interesting, as it’s the first time that the new W123-series would be seen in Italy in estate car form.

If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments and, if you have any pictures you’d like featuring, drop me a line via any of the links below.

Keith Adams
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  1. As far as the UK was concerned the Strada was probably ahead of its time. In 1978 we thought a sticking a vinyl roof on a Cortina was avant garde. If it had launched a few years later when we had become accustomed to FWD hatchback Escorts and Astras it would have received a much better reception.

    • @Paul, very true, never understood why GM and Ford were so late with their antiquated RWD live-axled Escorts and Kadett/Chevette. Ford Germany had tried FWD with the ill-fated 12M P4 and just stood back, as for the UK the big error was the ADO16 replacement. The Allegro lacked a 5th door and a decent design. I remember my Scottish teacher driving a … Renault 6 (terrible styling too !) and telling how comfortable and practical it was compared to his father’s 1100 Allegro.

  2. The Ritmo/Strada was certainly different and much more distinguished looking than the COTY winner the Horizon.I remember well the Handbuilt By Robots ad campaign which was also very memorable as well;some of the posters had the addition Driven By Idiots added . I always thought the name Strada was far better for the English market than Ritmo ,as that made it sound more like a hover mower than a sexy Italian hatchback.In the Strada range there was the smart looking Cabrio convertible and the hot Abarth TC version which came later The saloon version the Regata didn’t sell as well as the Strada but the estate car was a pretty good effort. Forty odd years later it’s strange to think that FIAT don’t build a car like the Ritmo in Italy anymore, the 500L is built in Serbia and the Tipo is built for FIAT by Tofas in Turkey

  3. DIsagree with this sentence “Since the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974, the template for this market sector has been set – smart two-box styling, front-wheel drive, a wide-opening hatchback and three- and five-door options” . It was already widely pioneered since 1967 with the SIMCA 1100 which was number one in France several times, good seller in Spain and even in Germany, Italy and UK in the seventies before being reshaped as the Horizon (without 3 doors and estate variants then). The Ado16 just lacked a 5th door which had been adpoted on the preceeding A40 Countryman. So did the Primula, but Autobianchi did not have the image and network BLMC, SIMCA or FIAT had.

      • Thanks Keith, but no comparizon between the Primula and the SIMCA 1100, the latter made 2 million sales, flooding at leasbutt the French and Spanish markets while the 1st one was rather confindential. But for sure both Giacosa and the French SIMCA team were Issigonis inspired – with a different gearbox layout though. Then Peugeot would reivnent the ADO16 – a little smaller, missing the point with the 104, till it finally got the 5th door but … too late.

  4. Fiat made the Strada’s styling a bit less radical during it’s two facelifts, though I don’t think many of the last restyle were sold in the UK, especially after the Tipo went on sale.

    In spite of the robot assembly it still seemed to suffer from poor build quality & rust proofing was as bad as the other Italian cars of the era.

    Supposedly the change of name to Strada was late in the day, so some press cars still had Ritmo badged.

    • I much preferred the Strada’s original look. The facelift obliterated all the unique and intriguing touches and ended up being much more Golf-like. I remember Noel Edmonds on Top Gear giving the original a bit of a kicking though. He described as looking like it was wearing National Health specs.

      • I heard he was banned from Fiat’s stands at motorshows for a few years afterwards.

        The round heardlights were a little against the flow at the time when most new designs had rectangular ones, though the integrated front bumper were ahead of their time,

  5. Lucky you! I was never fortunate enough to go to Turin in those heady days – the nearest I got was evocative, romantic and atmospheric words written by those wonderful writers at CAR magazine.
    In defence of the Simca 1100 – the van version was a phenomenal hard worker and looked ‘the business’ with wide wheels, lots of lights, rally seats and a tiny steering wheel. We never actually lifted the bonnet to make it go faster of course – we were young! Prefer Strada styling but then I’m not a Golf fan anyway.
    Brilliant article – any more reminiscences
    like this Keith – bring it on!

  6. The Delta was a very neatly styled car, but I once saw one which hit tree near Gloucester. The engine and frontal bodywork went one way, the car went the other. Although the bulkhead and passenger compartment were hardly damaged, i could never look at a Delta again without seeing that image in my mind’s eye.

  7. The Fiat Strada, if you overlook the rust problems, was actually quite a good car to drive and economical and looked distinctive. Yet when Vauxhall launched the Astra and Ford introduced a fwd hatchback Escort, it faded away and never came back, even with better rustproofing and a facelift in 1983.

  8. Replaced in 1988 by the Ritmo which was really targetting the Golf but with a strange look. Renault 19, Citroen ZX, Peugeot 306, Fort Escort and VW Golf were giving less room in larger bodies.

      • The Tipo was a much better car and had galvanised panels that prevented rust for several years and deserved to do well as it was a good car to drive and spacious inside. Also a revised Uno with better rustproofing arrived at the same time to add to this car’s appeal( this was always the best Fiat in the dead end era of the Regata and Strada).

  9. I always thought the original was weird. As a kid I had a Burago model in 1:24 scale. I liked the face-lift but the Seat Ronda was nicer. It was a good car, as the Delta proved using the same underpinnings. The Lancia Gamma that can be seen mid picture was weird with those strange flying butresses that made the xjs look OK.

    • Yes, the Gamma was one of many Italian cars where the “saloon” version was either dull or plain ugly, but the coupe looked far better.

      The previous Flavia was a really boring looking boxy saloon, but lovely in coupe form, and the same applies to the Fulvia and indeed the Fiat 124, the Alfa 2000 and Alfetta.

  10. The Gamma was derived from the Pininfarina proposal for Austin/Morris 1800 landcrab replacement whic looked far better, this quarter window cut killed the profile. The Pininfarina-inspired Citroën CX was much smarter. In the end the worst was the Wedge Princess anyway. I disagree with the Alfetta very nice looking saloon, even though the coupé was a fine design too.

  11. Love the photo. Italian style almost everywhere – how many of those Alfas and Lancias do we drool over today!
    And meanwhile in a far-flung corner of the hall would have been a stand boasting an Allegro, Maxi, TR7 or some other aesthetically-challenged offering from BLMC.

  12. I agree, just look at those funky looking Innocenti Minis, meanwhile in the UK dealers were supposed to steer people wanting a hatchback to the Mini Traveler.

    Why BL never took the Innocenti reskin as a stop gap model to replace the then 5 year old Mini Clubman had they given it hydragas(which Molton had ready to go for the Mini, running his own Mini with it for many years) and you have 9/10 of what the got with the Metro 8 years later.

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