Hatchbacks : the forgotten generation

Keith Adams

The Autobianch Primula - is this the true forerunner of the modern car?
The Autobianchi Primula - is this the true forerunner of the modern car?

I’m sitting here feeling a little sorry for myself, suffering from a pair of cracked ribs and a dented ego (yeah, I don’t practice what I preach when working on my cars) and, between bouts of writing for Octane, I’ve found myself going on a few car-related tangents. This one’s actually about the forgotten generation of small family hatchbacks that sit in what – since 1974 – we’ve called the ‘Golf class’.

This thinking’s been sparked by my placing the Simca 1100‘s development story on this website (without World War Three breaking out, either) and the consequences of front wheel drive on the mass-market. In the UK, we’ve traditionally tended to think of the Mini and 1100 as the true precursors of the modern car but, in reality, as successful and influential as they both were, they were evolutionary dead ends.

The Mini and 1100 were both beautifully packaged and desirable but the compromises (in terms of cost and production engineering) inherent with their transmission in sump layout and rubber suspension meant that, when rivals came to producing their own facsimiles, they’d go their own way.

Here, then, are the most important small family cars that followed the BMC 1100, but pre-dated the Golf  – each, in their own way, vitally important in the evolution of the mass-market automobile. You’ll notice I’ve not included the Austin Maxi and Renault 16 and that’s because they were aimed at a higher market segment; nor have I included the Citroen Dyane and Renault 6 as they were much, much cheaper and they all had weird mechanical layouts.

1964: Autobianchi Primula

Autobianchi Primula
Autobianchi Primula: looks like a BMC 1100 doesn't it?

Dante Giacosa’s engineering genius is legendary and he was easily the equal of Alec Issigonis. Giacosa’s primary legacy is that he motorized Italy with the creation of the Fiat 500 but it’s his later projects that are arguably more influential.

His first front wheel drive hatchback was the Autobianchi Primula and, as much as he believed that FWD was the way forward, Fiat wasn’t confident enough to take the plunge, deciding instead to go down this route via its subsidiary. Technically, the Primula was a masterpiece: it was powered by the 1221cc ohv ‘four’ from the Fiat 1100D mounted transversely, which took its drive through an end-on four-speed transmission (the first four-stroke application). Rack and pinion steering (a Giacosa first) and unequal length driveshafts with Rzeppa CV joints added to the package.

Mind you, although it is correct to acknowledge the Primula’s role in automotive evolution, it wasn’t quite in the modern idiom thanks to its column gearchange and suspension set-up: wishbones and transverse leaf spring at the front and a dead axle with half-elliptic springs at the rear. However, that aside, the appealing Pininfarina-styled hatchback was influential enough for Fiat to have faith in the concept and that encourged Giacosa to continue with the project.

1967: Simca 1100

Simca 1100
Simca 1100: five doors and compact.

What makes the Simca 1100 so special is that it had been conceived in response to customer research in France which showed that buyers expected FWD in their small cars  – and that it was designed to meet that demand. The Simca 1100 could, then, be described as the world’s first second generation FWD hatchback.

Development started in 1962 and, unlike Fiat and its faltering beginnings, Simca put its rescources 100% into the project –  once, that is, the company had decided it was going with the new concept. Like the Primula, Simca ignored BMC’s transmission in sump layout, going straight for an end-on arrangement that aped Giacosa (and, of course, unknown to both – Issigonis’ design based on a FWD Morris Minor-based mule from the 1950s), although this would not have been unexpected given Fiat and Simca’s ties at the time.

Although the 1100’s engine was new, it was based on the Mille’s ohv power unit and was therefore something of a known quantity for Simca engineers. When Chrysler took a controlling stake in Simca in 1963, it gave the project its blessing – and Simca pushed for a 1967 launch, some seven years before the Golf.

However, the 1100’s suspension layout was at variance with subsequent industry practice, featuring an independent front (double wishbone) and rear (trailing arm) suspension using Chrysler-style torsion bars. Advances included the canted engine (not uncommon these days) for a lower bonnet line and a muliple range of body options, including three- and five-door hatch, five door estate, panel van, and a ground-breaking lightweight SUV version (the Rancho).

How modern does that seem now?

1971: Zastava 101

Zastava 101: the first true modern hatchback?
Zastava 101: the first true modern hatchback?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking – it’s just a Fiat 128 in drag, built in an command economy country  but the genius of this car is that, in many ways, it improves on the car it was based on. Once again, Giacosa showed his mastery of engineering with the Fiat 128, taking the best points established with the Autobianchi, and moving them on several stages.

In came a wonderful new belt-driven ohc engine (which was incredibly advanced and long-lived), as well as a contemporary sounding all-independent MacPherson strut suspension layout. Architecturally, the modern car had truly arrived, even if it was packaged in a three-box body that did all it could to disguise that ultra-modern envelope.

However, Fiat’s long-standing partners, Zastava, took a 1968 hatchback version that Giacosa had penned, but which Fiat management was too conservative to manufacture, and put it into production. Either way, the Zastava 101 can probably lay a genuine claim to really creating the Golf class –  it was the first FWD mid-liner that had all of the ingredients of modernity. Not bad for a car launched at the same time as the Morris Marina and produced in a Communist country…

The question that we may not dare ask, but will do anyway is… was the Zastava 101 more of a ground-breaking design than the Mini? You tell us.

Zastava 101: all the benefits of the Fiat 128, but with one vital extra
Zastava 101: all the benefits of the Fiat 128, but with one vital extra
Keith Adams
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  1. Very thought provoking! I can’t help thinking that the Mini contained more original thinking. Would the 128 have happened without the Mini coming first? Maybe not. Ditto the Autobianchi and Simca.

    I think, then, that I’ll say the Mini was the more ground-breaking. The Zastava came late to the UK and had to be sold at a bargain price – mainly because of poor image and build quality – but, if it had been launched in 1969 as a Fiat, that would have been a different story. The rear styling of the Zastava was also poor but it did pre-date the Golf, a ground-breaking car for the market.

    Not launching a hatchback Fiat 128 in 1969 stands as a real missed opportunity now.

  2. Keith – sorry to hear that you are wounded (did you forget the axle stand?). Regarding the influence of Mini/1100, don’t forget that one major manufacturer also copied, very rapidly, the gearbox in sump approach – Peugeot with the 204 and its derivatives. My abiding memory of the 204 was the wonderful ’round the corner’ fan belt run.
    Ian Elliott

  3. Keith – a valuable treatise on the cars that shaped the orthodoxy of our times. Neither Giacosa, nor Grundeler and Scales were first with the transverse end on configuration. DKW, Saab and Lloyd had been using it with two-stroke twins for years before . Of course if Issigonis had stayed at BMC from 1953 to develop the front wheel drive Minor, and Giacosa had overcome his innate “arrangiarsi” and persuaded the Fiat board to go for a fwd transverse engined Seicento, it all could have kicked off a decade sooner.

    I have an enduring fondness for those who “backed the wrong horse” in the front wheel drive stakes, the V-fours, flat fours, various longitudinal permutations from Triumph, Toyota, Renault, Saab. The motorcycle-inspired Honda 1300 layout with the gearbox behind a transverse engine, linked by a Hy-Vo chain looked to have potential but is now long forgotten.

    Only Audi and Subaru defy convention now, and I wonder for how much longer. “Arrangiarsi” would inevitably win, and the inelegant asymmetrical configuration which overcomes the need to take power to a gearbox behind or below the engine through expensive chains or idler gears, or indeed the requirement for a costly crown wheel and pinion to turn drive through 90 degrees, has become the world standard.

    As is inevitable when so many minds are at work on one technology, some clever things have grown from the end-on transverse system, such as Volvo and Daewoo’s improbable in line sixes. I still find it inelegant, and yearn – surely in vain – for a return to the days of technological diversity.

    “Arrangiarsi” – a not quite translatable Italian expression – closest notion are “thrift” and “to make do and mend”.

  4. A yugo!.. I had one of thses back in the early 90’s it was a 513, highly underated, although it was probably the newest car I have owned (at 6 years old I recall) the drivers seat was falling apart, rust was rampant and overall it was a bit of a shed. But it was a very good car to drive, and more than a match for equally aged fiestas and novas, although I will admit to removing all the zastatva badging and putting fiat 128 badges on! I also fitted a 5 speed strada box to it

  5. my dad had a A111, that looked like a fiat 128 but with big rectangle headlamps, it was quite spoty, but being a 8CV road-tax was double than that of the peugeot 204 break 6CVwe had before.It was dully changed for a GS 1220 there was more space at the back for us as well, but no-one at school asked about the car!!

  6. To answer Jonathan Carling, I’d say yes, Giacosa would have developped a front wheel drive with a transverse engine, for he had first begun studying such an architecture as soon as 1947.
    Would the first Autobianchi or Fiat have been released as early without the Mini ? No, because the Mini prompted Fiat engineers show their management (ingenieri Bono and Valetta) that this was the way to go, which they had been extremely reluctant to admit.

  7. @tryphons
    Yes, you#re probably right. There was also a mini-sized fwd Alfa prototype in about 1960 which could have had an impact if it had made production

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