Keith Adams considers some of the earlier hatchbacks which hit the market before the Volkswagen Golf Mk1 arrived and created a legacy that’s lasting to this day.
Had history been different, any one of these cars could well have been as famous as the Golf. But which of these was the best, and which was the cleverest?
Who built the first modern small family car?
For years we’ve all blithely talked about the Golf-class market sector. You know the sort of thing – a two-box medium-sized hatchback, with front-wheel drive, and perfectly sized to fit in a European garage. However, there’s actually a forgotten generation of small family hatchbacks which sit in that class and were doing the same job an awful lot earlier than Volkswagen’s eight-generation juggernaut.
In the UK, we had the BMC 1100/1300, which was the national best-seller for the best part of a decade. This had front-wheel drive and was launched in 1962 – some 12 years before the Volkswagen burst on to the scene in 1974. So, were these really the forerunners of the Golf-class car, the first modern family cars?
Who got there first?
In the UK, we’ve traditionally tended to think of the Mini and 1100/1300 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 1100/1300, 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 Citroën Dyane and Renault 4/6 as they were much cheaper and had mechanical layouts that you can no longer buy in a modern car.
1964: Autobianchi Primula
Dante Giacosa’s engineering genius is legendary and he was easily the equal of Alec Issigonis. Giacosa’s primary legacy is that he motorised 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 front-wheel drive 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
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 front-wheel drive 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 front-wheel-drive 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 front-wheel-drive 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 Simca 1000‘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 multiple 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
Yes, I know what you’re thinking – it’s just a Fiat 128 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 front-wheel-drive 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 BMC Mini? You tell us.