[Editor’s Note: Matteo Giacon has been working on perhaps the world’s most comprehensive history of the Fiat 1400 for some time and is ready to share it with us over the next few weekends. He starts the series this week with some background on his obsession and the development of the 1400.]
Why The First New-All New Postwar Fiat Was Maybe The Most Advanced Car In The World Back Then – And Why It Is So Important For Fiat History
Faithful Hemmings readers likely know that my first love in the classic cars world were (and still are) the typical American autos of those legendary years when chrome, fins, burly engines and enormous girth were the mandatory things to put in a car. But what led me to love American cars was, above everything else, an early childhood infatuation for an Italian car, albeit an Italian car of a far different sort than the average Ferraris or spiders one could initially think about. In my case, it was the Fiat 1400 that started everything.
In previous stories of mine I already made hints at the importance this car had , both for Fiat and for Italian automobiles’ world; I already mentioned that it was probably the best example of links and relationships of sort between the American and the Italian way of thinking an automobile; I already mentioned that it spawned a new era for Fiat, and without it, likely things in Turin would’ve been far different than what in the end happened. But like many other truly important milestones, different tastes, different habits and fast-changing times dictated it was put out to pasture in a very brief timing. So, I felt somewhat obliged to write something about it, as a further homage to its role in the automotive firmament; not that this hadn’t already happened before: thankfully, some Italian writers had time to make good texts about its story, its origins, its evolution and its legacy, whether this was done through magazine’ articles or proper books or booklets. But still, I think there was some precious space left for a proper story in English, and I hope to have been able to make something fit for the role, something good for the importance of the subject. In any case, I also felt it was about time to write something about what propelled me into the classic cars’ world. Yes, the humble Fiat 1400 was what lead me to become a fanatic of everything with wheels and some years of living. But before going deeply into the main theme of this text, a brief story, a story which began in mid Eighties, when I saw for the first time a 1400.
It all began when I spotted a model of this car, a car I was unaware it ever existed: I knew Fiat 500s, 600s, 1100s, 124s, 125s, 126s, 128s, 127s, 131s , 132s, Regattas, Ritmos, Unos, and the like…but, what was a 1400 ? I had never known anything about it ! It was in 1985, more or less, at the tender age of 8, and I began to become curious about that car. Time and resources avoided me from learning more about it with a just-in-time approach, and in family there were talks about an old Fiat larger than a 1100, but nothing more. The mystery continued, and I just loved that aura of mystical mystery…
Some months later, during a Sunday trip aboard my dad’s Uno, finally I saw one, for real ! It was a large car, parked low in a field, alongside some other cars, all of them for sale, all of them ostensibly for sale. The 1400 was unmistakable, what with its out-of-that-world lines, so different from a typical Euro Eighties affair, and also between other used cars it easily looked like a really old car. Its rounded lines, its far different shape, its strange proportions, all remained quite into my mind: it was a car impossible to forget, especially because it was so different than everything else on the road (and on that country field) back then. And finally, a year or so later, I was able to know more about this car which fascinated me since the first day I saw it, a car so rare, so different-looking I was beginning to consider some sort of mythical beast. This happened via a nice article on an Italian magazine, where a 1400 A was compared to a late-model Croma; this article, instead of satisfying my curiosity, caused further questions in me : really old cars were all like that one ? Really there was an era when chrome was used instead of plastic ? Really there was an era when seats were three-abreast affairs ? Really there was an era with radios covered in Bakelite, integrated with the dash shape ? Really there was an era when glass surfaces were so small ? Really there was an era when hubcaps weren’t integral, and wheels lacked round holes all around ? So, out of a curiosity for a single car, I became to want know more about other cars similar in concept and line to the 1400. No, a typical 500 or 600 weren’t in the same league: I knew well 500s, ‘cause my mom used one until spring of ’87, but the 1400 was a distant thing from the 500. And here and there, I began to see that certain American cars already 30 or more years old were what was closest to the 1400 in style – and charm. Sure, I already knew that American cars were large and very different things than typical Italian ones, but those closest in design to the 1400s were a far cry from the typical Impalas or Malibus spotted while being driven by G.I.s en route to Lake Garda coming from Vicenza, or those Monacos, Furys, LTDs, TransAms and the likes seen in every single Hollywood-made tv series. In effect, one had to watch old movies in order to become aware of what USA was building in the Fifties, if no other kind of material was available for search. And so, watching things like It’S A Mad, Mad,Mad,Mad World or The Love Bug, soon I knew what a Fifties Detroit car was all about; and soon, I became enamored of what I saw.
As the time went by, I acquired books where I found the rudiments of American cars basics, and also I read through articles describing the 1400: the more I took a look at both subjects, the more I knew it was only a matter of time before I became friend with some 1400 or American car’ owner. The question was ? What would be the first?
Then, in November 1996, I began a close friendship with some 1400’ owners, so much so that I started to participate at the 1400’ meetings even despite I wasn’t a 1400’ owner…and still until now, I have no 1400 whatsoever. The car is too delicate to be put in a field, and so far, I have 4 cars in family and only two narrow and precious garages…no, the 1400’ value deserves more tender little care than what I can delivery by myself. And thankfully, in Italy as well as abroad, people loving these somewhat obscure and almost forgotten autos are still there, just to keep them rolling down the road.
And now, after this “personal” declaration, back to the 1400 subject: a subject which can appear interesting to look at also for American readers because, as anticipated, there is more than a simple superficial resemblance between it and some postwar Detroit cars to explain why it was a very important car, and not only within the Fiat hierarchy. In effect, I think that the Fiat 1400 is the very symbol of the Italian cars heavily influenced by American autos: others will follow, and automobiles like the Fiat 1800/2100/2300 and the Alfa Romeo 2000 (the one built in the Fifties). But no one will ever beat the 1400 role as the quintessential Italian reinterpretation of Detroit’ facts and thoughts. One last note: some of the various photos accompanying this story are original vintage pictures taken directly from some Italian magazines of the time, like Auto Italiana and Motor Italia, photos maybe already visible elsewhere on the web and in some books, but clearly originating in their totality mostly from those two Italian magazines, among the most revered ones of their era: this also add some knowledge to the type of materials then available to typical Italian motorists, in that era before mass-production of both cars and magazines changed the Italian automotive life forever. Remaining old-fashioned photos come from a rare brochure-like, fingertip facts booklet that I was fortunate to purchase some years ago, an item which had been written in a very American-like English language, with all the typical USA-born automotive nomenclature, with nouns like sedan, trunk, and the likes. I hope readers will appreciate this sharing of this rarely seen images, especially those of the booklet. I think they are a worthy addendum to this writing. And I sincerely hope that readers will appreciate the idea. Now, straight to to the car’ origins and analysis.
The 1400’s Origins, Deeply Rooted Across The Ocean.
When it debuted at Geneva, on March the 16th 1950, the new Fiat 1400 immediately caught the public attention thanks to its undoubt modernity and the pleasant styling : an acute observer could immediately see how the new mid-sized Fiat ( built on a 104,3 “ span) looked like a teenager Frazer Manhattan, and considering the fact that Budd, after the help given to K-F itself, made much work together with Fiat for developing the body and the relative production toolings also, this is not so surprising. Back in those late Forties years, Darrin-designed K-Fs were the most advanced cars in the world, with only Jeeps, Packards, Studebakers and C-body Buicks offering clear example of enveloping bodies in the 1946-’47 years, while Hudsons and Tuckers would be available slightly later, alongside the British Standard Vanguard , the Russian Pobeda and the Czech Tatra. More or less, this can be a very brief history regarding the origins of the peculiar 1400 sedan styling. But there is more to say about this, and I want to give it explaining how much American flavor was behind the 1400 – not that Italian and European experiences were ignored, either. But from a superficial point of view, American lines ruled the definition of the new Fiat’s styling, deftly tempered by Italian and European ideas.
In fact, while the role of quintessential American design was preponderant in this car’ life, we must not forget that other experiences, in Italy as well elsewhere, brought new ideas and spurs in order to suggest the right way to be followed by Fiat engineers and execs while devising the original 1400. As an example, we must acknowledge that many German pre-war examples of aerodynamic all-enveloping bodied cars can be cited as precursors of the all-envelope bodies, but most of them saw negligible production numbers – like the Horch 930 S, or the Adler 1500 Rennwagen or some well known BMWs and some racing VWs– or they remained in prototype form – like the Hansa Windspiel –or they were purpose-built for speed records – like the 1939 Hanomag Diesel Rekordwagen-; in addition to all of these, of course, the renowned Czech marque Tatra must be cited, because of its 77, 87 and 97 models which were among the most advanced cars worldwide, bar none; also some Skodas can be remembered, or the little known Praga Super Piccolo and the Zbrojovka Z6, but in general, all these European models owed much both to the ideas expressed by notable Europeans like Paul Jaray (the Tatras especially) or Wunibald Kamm, and both by a general trend first seen through some famous Detroit efforts – the Phil Wright-designed Pierce Silver Arrow and the Stout Scarab among them, especially the former predating and suggesting many ideas later used on these aforementioned European cars. In effect, the most successful among all these prewar aero European cars were the Tatras, notable for their striking personality and in effect not so prone to American influence as some might expect, (in reality I think that the contrary was somewhat closer to the truth), and also the German efforts became negligible when numerically compared to these Czech masterpieces.
However, large numbers of production notwithstanding, even Italy had its notable share of interesting and modern aerodynamic all-enveloping cars, such notables as the same Fiat 508 C Mille Miglia, or some splendid Lancia Aprilia Aerodinamica bodied by Pinin Farina, or the stellar Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B Touring used in the 1938 24 Hours of LeMans . Fiat itself was already well accustomed to modern all-enevlope design once the 1400 development went full steam ahead, because the prewar 508 C Mille Miglia had been handsomely redesigned in the less quirk 1100 S (albeit it still had a rather strange shape back there, as shown in pictures).
But still they were built in such a small number as to not be considered the one and only one example to follow when drawing an all new car for the postwar years. Remaining in Italy, one must obviously remember the importance of all those coachbuilt postwar cars which brought nifty novel designs where “bathtub”-like pontoon bodysides, flush fenders and neat trucks began to appear, so much so that all of a sudden, around 1948, every Italian carrozzerie had something tuned with the latest trends to be offered for perspective buyers. Sadly, perspective buyers were still a precious minority in the war-stricken Italya, but at least the coachbuilders were trying to move out of the doldrums. Among the most active of them, Savio, Bertone, Pinin Farina, Stabilimenti Farina, Castagna, Viotti, Zagato and Touring, just to name the most glorious firms; and some newcomers, like the “reborn” Ghia (after Mario Boano had taken the lead role in the firm following founder Giacinto Ghia’s death in 1944), or the Alfredo Vignale’s atelier, where soon a promising talent named Giovanni Michelotti would’ve been busy at devising really novel designs. And naturally, the granddaddy of Italian designers, Mario Revelli DeBeaumont, wasn’t tired of sorting out problems linked with cars, not even in those beleaguered postwar days. Naturally, thanks to a bit of evolution here and some revolution there, also standard production cars brought to Italian market by Italian firms began to show some interesting stylistic differences with what had been proposed before 1940. In this case, Alfa Romeo was quicker off the line than Lancia, and Freccia D’Oros were arguably the most modern looking Italian cars of the Forties (1100 S aside), but Aprilias and Ardeas were already technically advanced, somewhat daring one could say. Just what most of the Fiat production wasn’t, relying more on astute but mild updates and modern but conservative designs. In sum, Fiat sooner or later would’ve needed a newer car, something more in tune with the fast changing times. And this in Italy alone: let’s try to see what was happening in the rest of Europe.
In fact, we cannot forget that during the 1400 development many other flush-fendered cars appeared in Europe, and their heritage cannot be denied : the first postwar Tatra’ new car, the T600 Tatraplan (and what a beautifully advanced car it was !), the Saab 92 and most importantly, the British models Hillman Minx MKIII Standard Vanguard, , Rover 75 and Singer SM 1500 and the already cited Russian Gaz Pobeda were watershed designs of their own, albeit even in some of these cases the American inspiration was obvious: maybe this was less discernible in the case of the Tatraplan, because they once again followed the pace set by Paul Jaray and his shapes, but when it entered production following its introduction in October of 1947, some of its more radical frontal features were somewhat toned down, resulting in a shape not so distant from many an American car of the day (its front end is quite similar to what was used by Hudson, but this seems pure coincidence rather than something else); also the Saab had a peculiar shape, very much in tune with the European aerodynamic ideas of the just before the war, but from some point it somewhat reminded some fastbacks already seen in USA – and in this case, I cannot help but sit and take notice that the peculiar 92’ rear profile was molded in the same tones of so many Italian prewar and postwar cars, mostly special sporty cars (Touring anyone ?).
On the other hand, other cars had distinct American-looking traits : the Pobeda looked like a contemporary GM Torpedo with continuously running fenders, (alongside the K-F likely the first production sedan to sport them), the British cars were heavily influenced by Studebaker efforts, with the Rootes group car even created with Loewy’s team help and both the Rover and the Singer proportioned like smaller scale Champions and Commanders; the Standard Vanguard origin is also intriguing and I will talk briefly about it later. So, it was clearly obvious that the role of teachers, even leaders, for the Italian designers and engineers as the “inspirators” for their new car could well belong to many, but in the end, considering where the newest designs were originating from, the role of American cars and American designers was unquestionably the most important one, the one to follow, the one to reckon with; in sum, also Fiat men clearly knew that America had set the pace. And at this point, it wasn’t impossible to ignore the American industry manufacturing experience and power, either. Nor Fiat could ignore who had money back then, in order to make the Turinese firm move again its assembly chains.
Story has it that exactly in those years Fiat needed funds for its reconstruction effort-this because the Turinese plants and factories with their toolings were badly hurt during WWII- and it looked like only American funds could be both the most viable and the fastest way to do so. The funds available through the European Recovery Program, aka Marshall Plan, were quite effective to reinstate production again but in order to obtain American banks financing, Fiat’ chiefs initially thought that it was better focusing on smaller cars, so not to “worry” American car makers in proposing something which could later be a competitor against typical Detroit products ; but, surprisingly, American authorities suggested Fiat to develop something bigger and more in tune with the American tastes, should they had to repay their debt in the same manner British were then doing: exporting cars, which by default would mean exporting in the U.S. of A. This automatically meant the development and consequent production of a car somewhat larger than the typical 500s and 1100s which were the backbone of the Fiat’ production . American authorities also saw the enormous potential of the Turinese marque, because the Italian automaker could be a viable partner regarding a future crucial defense role, let’s not forget how deeply involved was Fiat in the aeronautical industry. An important note: among the various American personalities interested in giving new life to the war-struck Fiat plants there was Amadeo Giannini, the famous Italian-American banker who founded the Bank Of America; he visited Fiat’ plants, together with some other important key figures, and what he saw convinced him of the high importance Fiat’ reconstruction could have for both Italian industry and Italian political life. The reawakening of Fiat had to be considered as a fact of primary importance, and whatever suggestion and advice could come from renowned American business and political personalities was held in great esteem. But Amadeo Mancini’s role in the birth of the 1400 could also have been a bit deeper than expected. More on this a bit later.
To all this, we must also add that during some months before the Italian 1948 elections, there were serious thoughts by CEO Vittorio Valletta and other Fiat executives to move the entire assembly plants overseas should Togliatti’s Communist Party. Some pundits think that there was a bit of irony regarding these thoughts by Fiat’ head honchos, especially on part of Dante Giacosa, and there was no serious thinking about doing such a deliberate gesture, but surely, if the Commie would have won the elections, what kind of American-sourced help could arrive to rebuild the Italian factories? Fiat saw the opportunity to follow the American “suggestions” and the hypothetical “transplant” towards America as both a viable way to obtain the much sought after money and to modernize both its technology and its mentality, so they could build a modern, a-la-page product, because the traditional body-on-frame formula was still bread -and-butter mode both at Lingotto and Mirafiori. Of course, in the 1948 elections the DC won and the Communist party lost, so any concern about the would-be fate of the Fiat was rapidly forgot. After bringing in consideration all this facts, and paying attention to some things I’ll further explain, a car with a distinctive American flavor became almost a necessity, instead of being simply fashionable.
And naturally, given the inputs “suggested” by American authorities, a viable candidate for the role of first postwar Fiat could well be the heir of the oldest car in the Fiat line up, the 6 cylinder 1500.
What’s more, rationalization studies made just before the war had shown what a possible 6C 1500’ heir could become, and those studies made in order to provide cars better fit for the already strangled Italian economy of immediate prewar days (days which followed the economical sanctions made as a retaliation for Ethiopia’ invasion, and which remained tough and poor even after the sanctions were peeled off), studies where the already existing cars were to be substituted for smaller, better engineered and much more modern autos, those studies in sum became pretty much useful while developing what would come to life as the 1400.
Knowing this, it is clear that the early development of what became the 1400 began during 1939-’40, when in Fiat it was decided to study a pair of mid size cars, with 1,3 liter four cylinder and 1,9 liter six engines. Those cars had to be the heirs of the 1500 and a smaller, more economical admiral in lieu of the large 2800.
Obviously the war stopped both projects, but with the peace a new coding arrived in Fiat : the 1,9 liter car did become the Project 101 (a name which would be applied to the project of what would become the 1400 during its entire development life, including the early postwar prototypes dubbed E1 and E2, where E means Experience or Experimental) but soon it became clear that for the time being a more modest displacement was de riguer, so the engine was demoted once again to a 1,3 liters four, while the initial proposed bodies ( penned in 1940-’41 and as late as 1945-’46) based their lines still on pre war ideas; they did bear a striking resemblance to the 1941 Plymouth and Dodge 4 door town sedans, incidentally showing both how Chrysler could also have some relations of sort with the same Fiat (and it is an interesting conjecture, as we will see later) and how interesting the early Forties Mopar designs appeared to European automotive men (as promised, the story about Standard Vanguard birth needs to be put into consideration here , because it was another example of how influential an apparently surpassed design like the one sported by early Forties Mopar could be at the time: sir John Black, British Standard’s CeO, ordered his chief designer Walter Belgrove to take a very close look at the ’42 Plymouths so admired by him and used during war time as official cars by the Us Embassy in London to gain “inspiration” for the first postwar Standard, although the well-known Vanguard in the end showed little resemblance to its “inspirator” thanks to the adoption of a super short wheelbase and thanks to the evolved ideas put by Belgrove himself). It is more or less in the late 1946 that in our story enters the Kaiser-Frazer.
Why can we consider the Frazer Manhattan as the definitive “inspirational” tool for the Fiat 1400?
As already stated, the K-F products were by all effect among the most modern things on wheels back then, alongside the ’47 Studebakers. After all, once again in Germany, in 1949 Borgward had followed K-F design ideas for its new Hansa 1500, or, at least- considering the aerodynamic features Germans were already set to use in case the war wouldn’t have interrupted regular production- the Bremen firm incidentally came up with quite a similar design, and in doing so they indicated once more that the way to be followed was the one already set by the Willow Run’ cars. So there is nothing surprising in seeing the more and more a general adoption of these lines by the entire automotive world. What’s more, Fiat already knew a thing or two about all-enveloping bodies, because in 1938 it was one of the few carmakers, and almost surely the only one in Italy, to make a pontoon-fenders car regularly available directly to buying public (the already mentioned Fiat 508C 1100 Mille Miglia – needless to say, this was a car rather close to the stylistic lessons brought to automotive worlds by that masterpiece that was the Phil Wright-penned Pierce Silver Arrow, incidentally one of the most influential design ever, for even the Czech Praga Super Piccolo had some striking similarities to this masterPierce, albeit in the case of the Italian car we have also a striking example of a small sports car developed after extensive use, for the times, of wind tunnel testing-); I need to say that up until then and even for some time after, all those fully-fendered European cars I cited at the beginning of this story were often rarer than the hen’s teeth, usually remaining in prototype forms, and while those quirky little Fiat Millecentos were by no means widespread, they likely deserve attention for being among the most numerous cars with pontooned sides back then on both sides of the Atlantic. I am not saying that Fiat was the first marque to have as a regular production model a car with such peculiar features, that first maybe belongs to the Hanomag Kommisbrott, but sure it was no surprise thinking that sooner or later something so radical would also appear on a normal Fiat sedan too.
The fact that the new Fiat owed more to the American proposals rather than to its own ideas, ideas that it had already developed before and immediately after the war wasn’t only a simple matter of politics and a way to fast obtain fund : it was also linked to the evidence that Kaiser Frazer themselves (more or less in mid-1946) did seem interested to make some sort of agreement with Fiat to enter the European market and/or to propose some smaller, Made-In-Italy alternatives to sell through their American dealers network (Do you remember? It was precisely at this time that literally every carmaker in American was thinking to introduce some sort of “compact” car) and it is worthy noticing that during the 1946-’47 there were talks about also a… Fiat take-over by K-F themselves ! In fact, in November 1946 one of the most important K-F executives, Hickman Price Jr., then VP and director of the Willow Run company and a man with important political connections, was invited in Turin to take a look at what Fiat could then offer, with the possibility to begin to market Fiats in America through Kaiser dealers; not only that, but during the Price’s visit even the Fiat’s aeronautical factories were shown to him, and likely this wasn’t lost to other American political authorities also. Clearly, for what we know, nothing like a direct agreement of sort followed . As for the supposedly tentative take-over by K-F, there was no further new development about it also (in following months, K-F’ men established their own Nekaf factory in Holland, to take foot in Europe like Ford and GM had done before them with their German, British, French, Belgian and Swiss facilities). As we know, the “compacts” penned by practically every American firm ended in a slew of retrenchment by the Big Threes (French Ford Vedette aside,) while some Independents proceeded full steam ahead, with K-F launching the Henry J among others. Knowing this, I suspect that in those weeks, Italian designers had almost the “necessity” to take a look closer than usual at the Willow Run’ Pride, and when Fiat’s chief engineers were sent in May 1947 to learn more about the American automotive industry, they had meetings with many engineers from various firms, including Chrysler, but I bet that the most profitable one could have been the one with Budd’ engineers, to learn the latest manufacturing techniques when applied to the most modern body design and assembly- surely they could closely inspect the best and most modern cars on the market back then, and so the Kaiser Frazer surely intrigued them one more time.
Naturally, the development of Kaiser-Frazer models was in itself a nice design story, and the fact that initially the Kaisers were conceived as roomy front wheel drive models was also another attracting item for whoever wanted to see the latest American techniques and engineering solutions related to automobile production. No wonder then, if the first new-all new postwar Fiat saw the light of the day as a scaled down Manhattan, given how the Fiat grille’ looked like. Yes, under its skin the Kaiser and the Frazer were far different from the Fiat, but the same slab sided appearance was easy to spot on the 1400 too. There is also another reason why the 1400 looked so much like the K-F’ early products, and this could again have an exquisite political origin. As previously stated, also Amadeo Mancini visited Fiat’ plants in the same period – maybe, if sources can confirm this, together with or in the same period Hickman Price also toured them . This is not surprising, considering how influential the legendary Italian-American banker was; but slightly more surprising can be the fact that during the war Mancini was one of the very key figures behind the Henry Kaiser’s brilliant wartime business upsurge, because he bankrolled the indomitable Henry J’s during the famous Liberty and Victory naval program’ relentless building-up. So, although it is a guess of mine, at least considering what few sources I found, I am induced to think that Mancini wisely “suggested” key Fiat men to deeply study what Kaiser’s men were now busy at producing an developing for the automotive industry. Surely, Mancini was in the right position to induce Valletta to consider what Kaiser (together with Joseph Washington Frazer) was doing back then in Willow Run, and maybe the two companies’ merger effort’ voices can have some foundation because of this relationship. So, this can be yet another viable reason to explain the similarities between the first new postwar Fiat and one of the first new postwar full size American cars. In any case, as we will see later, Italian engineers and designers’ team while developing the 1400’ external styling may also have followed paths marked by all-Italian companies and coachbuilders: so, while there are a lot of valid reasons explaining why the 1400 looked so similar to the K-Fs, there are also some reasons that can explain a slightly different story, a story where most of the design influence on the 1400 originated by Italian coachbuilders’ efforts and Italian minor automakers’ efforts. And to this, we must also notice that Fiat had contacts also with other renowned members of the American automobile industry.
In effect, some sources state that also the meetings with Chrysler had some importance for future Fiat production’ developments: in fact, following them, Fiat’ management gained ideas and experiences (and a certain deal of entrance in the Marshall’s Plan lines of credit – some sources talk about an “alliance” of sort too). What’s more, these contacts looked also like a sort of “agreement” with Chrysler , where the American firm gave the aforementioned ideas, techniques and help to Fiat, also proper car-building plans apparently, in order to improve the Turinese firm’ cars production. There are some sources stating that Valletta was ready to make an even more important step: building cars in Italy using Mopar-sourced drivetrains; and if this sounds strange, let’s not forget that Valletta himself had apparently made contacts with Chrysler for an eventual Fiat-made diesel engines’ supply for Dodge trucks…
In reality, just like with the K-F “supposed” agreement, also in this case an idea of serious integrated co-operation came to nil, apart the Canadian Fiat-Chrysler relation, but it surely is important to remind it, because it shows how the Fiat main men were working in a 360 degrees situation, just to modernize both their products and the systems used to build them, trying to have contacts and help wherever they could, and always keen to accept them, especially if the firms involved looked like proper partners when the typical European and American markets situation, and the need to build a car good enough to compete on both sides of the Atlantic, were considered and studied. In any case, albeit from a purely product-development point of view the Chrysler-Fiat connection was short-lived, at least in Italy or USA (provided there was effectively such a kind of initial agreement with long-lasting hopes), the relationship between main Fiat and Chrysler men remained in good shape even in later years: Fiat sales and marketing manager Luigi Gajal De la Chenaye was in good relationship with the Chrysler export sales manager C.B. Thomas, and when the latter asked his good Italian friend some suggestions about capable Italian coachbuilders whom could be entrusted to work with Chrysler, the former immediately came up with the Ghia and Pinin Farina names. Also, as stated here, the early prototypes of what would become the 1400 looked like scaled-down Highland Park products, and this feature was present both in the pre- and early post-war prototypes. So, before the idea of exploiting the Kaiser Frazer experience began almost “imperative”, the American cars more “imitated” by Fiat during the 1400’ development were Mopar models. In this, I think there is no surprise, considering the possibility that before Budd and K-F, or even together with them, a certain role in the development of the all-new project could also belong to a Chrysler’ help of some sort, at least for a certain period. Albeit this can also be not totally true, it is undeniable that those early 1400’ prototypes had a certain Chrysler flavor, so dismissing the Chrysler-Fiat relationship as too far-fetched when the 1400 project is considered as a whole, must be avoided. Let’s say that it is another interesting conjecture about the development of the all-too-important first all-new Fiat of the postwar era. And let’s not forget that Chrysler was also busy at developing its own idea of a compact, using a circa 105’’ wheelbase, close to the final 1400’ one…
In addition, it seems that Fiat also had contacts of some kind with Nash – at least I found one Auto Italiana magazine info claiming about such a fact: these contacts were minor, maybe, but again, while I already said that Fiat execs and engineers literally toured the USA to visit a wide array of automotive plants and studios, that’s not so surprising to see that Nash was among those firms more interesting to study by part of Fiat’ men. It is always important to remember the interest famously shown by George Mason for all those “compact” European cars, an interest which led him to start the Rambler’ development and, later, to give the green light to the Metropolitan project. And Fiat was famous precisely for that kind of autos. As we know, the famous NXI proposition was done by Bill Flajole using Fiat 500 underpinnings, and while production Mets –the cars which resulted after the NXI study – were to be built in UK with Austin power (in Austin plant), Fiat was also contacted in order to see whether they could viably build the Met or not. Naturally, they couldn’t (otherwise, the Met would‘ve been powered by the same 1400’ engine…), but this shows how important was America for Fiat (and some sort of viceversa too, because as we will see, some Hudson leading men would’ve found rather interesting the 1400, while devising a certain compact. More on this later). And last but not least, please notice how similar the 1400 and the Nash 600’ body structure were. Reason enough to think that Italian engineers studied in depth what Nash was building at the time.
In June 1947, the European Recovery Act was approved and so the funds sought after by Fiat could begin to arrive. It was after this period that Vittorio Valletta, Fiat’ CEO, thought that if the first postwar Fiat car had to be funded by the Americans and had to like to the Americans, it would be better that it looked like the most modern one then available! In effect, the prototypes 101E1 and 101E2 , as mentioned still looking like early Forties American cars, were deemed as not acceptable from purely a design point of view by Vittorio Valletta, who was expecting now something much more in tune with the times. It is also useful to remember that the Budd experience was almost mandatory in those days to develop a modern unibody car, if for no other reason that they had the trademark on it and they had helped to develop the modern Nash 600 a few years before, but surely the idea of using American technology for a unibodied car instead of taking a look at some Lancia Aprilias or Ardeas down some Turinese street in the nearby of the Fiat design studios seemed very much linked to the need to have the much sought after Marshal Plan financial support, and the consequential need to buy American toolings and trademarks, instead of relying on all-Italian efforts, for the assembly plants renovation/reconstruction. The definitive look of the Fiat 1400 became locked during mid-1948, as well as its definitive displacement of 85 cubes, and this not much after the aforementioned Valletta’s and Giacosa’s “political” fears- the need to move the entire assembly plant to the other side of the Atlantic following the possible Commie win in the Italian elections, with Valletta likely being quite concerned about this and Giacosa likely being somewhat more relaxed, and speaking of the possible move in an ironic way – were superseded: Togliatti’s party lost, De Gasperi’s DC won, so Fiat stayed in Italy with no further problems; however, the idea of an American-looking Fiat remained, and now it was stronger than ever (thanks , no doubts about it , to the personal tastes of Vittorio Valletta and his aforementioned preference for a car with pontoon fenders and a distinct notchback shape; after all, the whole Fiat range of the time was restyled once more after the war and before the 1400 debut with a pronounced trunkback style, with the 500C and the last 1500E being the most prominent among them, and the 1100E somewhat more traditional) ! According to Dante Giacosa himself, the definitive drawings were done very quickly, in just 4 months, and the first prototype of the 1400 in its near-to-definitive look saw the light of day in October 1948, now dubbed Project 101 E3, after the initial abortive E1 and E2 experiences came to nil, with the definitive prototype being built in May 1949; important to say, it was the same period when some famous Carrozzeria Savio’ creations done atop the 1100 and 1500 frames saw the light of the day: those cars, courtesy of their slab sides with fully integrated fenders, their long and sloping down trunk, their turret-like roof, surely had many elements shared with the 1400. They certainly didn’t pass unnoticed, what with their sleeker Packardesque design, and just like the original Kaiser Frazer and another obscure Italian car were among the cars that in 1948 could exert a certain influence of sort …in any case, it didn’t take too time before 15 1400’ prototypes were tested up and down European roads of the time, to see how the model could cope with the worst possible driving conditions and behaviours.The idea of a larger-engined car based on the same structure also remained, albeit there was now the idea of developing, in typical USA fashion and following a strong marketing insistence, a V8 or eventually a V6!
We’ll study thoroughly this later, while talking about the engine and the 1900 variant.
Equally noticed were also certain further American cars: just when the basic final rendition of the 1400 were locked, the ’49 Ford was already making inroads in the automotive world. Needless to say, similarities in design between the Ford and the 1400 are evident, especially between the respective open versions. And how could we forget the Studebakers ? Naturally, they too had a certain resemblance here and there with the Italian car. But surely, most of Detroit creations back there could brag some inspirational detail here and there in respect to the 1400’ final design development…from Hudsons to Lincolns, all the way through Packards, Cadillacs, Buicks and Olds, most of the cars born during the 1948 solar year had some details in common. That’s a natural, considering where Italian designers and engineers were looking at, but the final result was more than a simple sum of various parts. Among them, it is interesting to see that the slab-sided ’48 Packards –yes, the (in)famous Pregant Packards – had some traits in common with the Fiat 101 project: again, more because of the adoption of similar trends rather than because of a sheer copycat attitude. But from some angles, the 1400 had many details in common with the East Grand Boulevard latest cars. The same could be said about the similarities between the 1400 and the Senior Lincolns, which debuted some time before the definitive Italian car’ design was locked: here is two pure notchback sedans with perfectly slab sided body contours and a nifty curved windshield…Ok, I know, proportions here are far different…but I always thought that the Cosmos were among the best looking Forties cars, regardless of country and maker: so, I think it could have been a natural for Fiat designers and engineers to include the Dearborn’ Finest in the list of the cars that had to be carefully studied – albeit the enormous flathead V8 and the massive separated frame construction were a far cry from what Italian technicians were busy at study while trying to devise the 1400’ definitive project.
And as anticipated, with a bit of further research, we can also see that yet another very important Italian car had a nice resemblance to the 1400. Important but sadly obscure, for it was a here-today, gone-tomorrow auto; but its place in the Italian automotive heaven is still granted.
Coming back to speak about Italian cars again, then, there is still room for surprise while mentioning what else could have influenced the final shape of the 1400: if we can understand that a coachbuilder like Savio could somewhat have been involved in the definition of a styling so close to the one seen in the definitive 1400, it remains surely surprising to see that another really iconic Italian car of the time bears a striking resemblance, especially in the front end, with our story’ hero: it was the Cemsa Caproni F11, the first front wheel drive Italian car to be built in more than just one or two prototype ( although the 9 –nine ! – built in pre-production before the firm went in receivership is hardly a huge number ). The appearance of both cars, especially the profiles and the aforementioned front ends, is very much alike, and it is not difficult to see another K-F “influence” , albeit the Cemsa is even more graceful and svelte than the Fiat. Early Cemsa prototype was bodied by Bertone , and the famous coachbuilder –in those late Forties years still a relatively local one, not worldwide known- worked also to modify such car into the “definitive” pre-production cars which have a distinct 1400-flavour and a much different look when compared to the first one; when compared directly with the 1400 it is difficult at this point saying which one was “more” inspired by the other; although I cannot be certain and so I say this as a hypothesis, it is useful to remember that the definitive Fiat versions were in 1948-1949 at obviously advanced development stage, (some early 1950 1400 used for example glasses made in 1949), so maybe Cemsa designers –and the most important of them was the renowned Antonio Fessia, later of Lancia Flavia and Fulvia fame- were well aware that the most important new car in their creature’ market segment would look very American, very K-Fesque. In itself the Cemsa front end looks close to concepts already seen elsewhere, like the one offered by the Tatraplan just to name one car, but its personality was clear and neat. As for the association of the Cemsa F11 styling with that of the 1400, also an opposite version than what I just said about could work : once it became clear that the K-F could be the “inspirational” muse, maybe someone into Fiat approached some coachbuilder to collect some more “suggestion”, and the experience lived by Bertone while developing the abortive Cemsa was taken in good consideration; after all, some traits of the later 1900 B Granluce were decidedly a Ghia “suggestion” – or more likely, a Boano’s trait – and just like Detroit executives and designers, in Turin then as now it is quite impossible to keep a secret in really a definitive way. After all, at the time, many works were also subcontracted, and so certain body development works could well be more the merit of outsiders rather than in-house won Fiat efforts. And let’s not forget also some Savio creations were close in spirit to future 1400. So, if an unexpected great deal of obscure cars appeared in that period clothed in shapes so similar to the 1400, it was still something perfectly tuned with the times and what practices were done back then. In effect, to be precise, what really made the 1400 so different to what else was on Italian roads back then lurked behind its lines: that unibody structure was revolutionary enough for a Fiat, and even the Cemsa used a platform-type of understructure in order to mount its body, albeit with the famous front wheel drive feature.
Speaking of the aborted Cemsa-Caproni, it was also the kid brother of another famous Italian tentative postwar car, the Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa, and it is interesting to notice that while an early prototype of the Monterosa looked very much like an even more graceful rendition of a Tucker Torpedo, Preston Tucker in person manifested interests for the lil front wheel drive Italian car : needless to say, even this grand plans soon were put to oblivion ; a nice history in itself, but let’s go back to our star from Fiat.
The Production Life
So, enter the 1400, first proper foray into the “future” for the Turinese marque, which was from the beginning offered in a nice droptop model and after 2 years, with the debut of the larger-engined 1900 model, also in a neat 2 door hardtop, looking almost like a mini Olds Super 88, Buick Special Riviera, Dodge Coronet – or Aero Willys . This 1900 , known as Granluce, 2 years later, adopted a distinctive wraparound trisected back window, becoming a nice example of another Italian car following the Vignale-Pinifarina-Nash fashion of inverted C-pillar for the hardtop. One of the most stiking features of the original sedan was its curved one piece windshield , still a rarely seen novelty even in America and elsewhere in Europe, at least regarding the production cars: the Nash Airflytes’ drivers, the Lincoln Cosmopolitan’ owners and the C-bodied GMs passengers could already see the road with no central bars, while those driving an Olds 88 begun to do so more or less in the same period as the Fiat 1400’s buyers, while just a month later than the 1400’ debut this privilege was given to those buying a Rambler; clearly, those owning an Airflow Imperial since the mid Thirties could already brag about this, but in the spring of 1950 this was still a real avant-garde touch, while some Studebakers as early as ’47 offered neat vision with no central bars of sort. In Europe, this detail was again a novelty, being seen on precious few cars, like the Rover P4s and the Hillman Minx – and not in the wide curvature used on 1400. Proportions and rear doors’ shape aside, the curved windshield was likely the most peculiar design difference between the K-F cars and the 1400. Speaking of proportions and dimensions, the K-F was quite unlike the Fiat: in this the latter one owed much to the aforementioned Cemsa Caproni F11.
Then, the most modern engineering feature of the 1400 was its monocoque body, akin to what used by Nash, then, and not too far from the peculiar Step Down Hudson’ method. Despite the unibodied design, the car soon became to be used as a palatable basis for a plethora of unique or small-series offerings made by the most renowned carrozzieri in Italy – and some from foreign countries too -, this because the structure itself was fundamentally simple. Obviously, a proper separated body-and-frame layout was still considered, back then, as the ideal solution for almost all coachbuilders to work upon, thanks to more economical and less complicated engineering techniques to be applied, but all in all, the 1400 was too important a novelty to be not included in the lineup of any self-respectable carrozziere, and also the idea that the same coachbuilding art was an endangered species because of the advent of “modern” unibodied cars was also a bit exaggerated: it was a complication, sure, but nothing really insurmountable, and all in all, the Italian coachbuilding scene was suffering more from a lack of continuous work (much of the orders were done during the spring-summer days, leaving ateliers in winter months often inoperative) rather than from a move from tried-and-true ways to work toward unexplored worlds. Sure, there were cases of traditional-minded coachbuilders who suffered from the newest automotive developments, and in the end they pulled the plug, but those who were already using what new platforms the Italian auto industry was offering them, often suffered more because of a lack of attention by those very same firms, and from a lack of Italian patrons, what with them being in a relatively low number to maintain a sufficient flow of orders for a still thriving industry. So, for many of those carrozzeria firms, it became unavoidable to seek foreign “help”, both through the adoption of simple separated frames, and most importantly, via a research of as many potential customers as possible: in this case, it is easy to understand that the various Italian firms participating at those various foreign car shows (Geneva, Paris, London, Bruxelles, Frankfurt) were often more interested in physically selling their creations rather than show in a sheer manner their ability. The latter would become a mantra of later decades, but in the early Fifties, when an atelier could build dream cars with license plates, practically everything was brought to be shown was also brought to be sold. And, as we will see later, the 1400 had a very important role in helping to promote the image of Italian Style.
The initial 1400 had also some peculiar features in the drivetrain too, because its engine was a robust short stroke OHV 4 cylinder, this at a time when only a few well known American cars could brag about a stroke shorter than the bore: in our case, bore and stroke were respectively 82 and 66 millimeters. The crankshaft was mounted on three main bearings. The engine gave the model its name also -1400 means 1,4 liter displacement, and the same would be applied for the 1,9 liter 1900 two years later- but despite its revolutionary concept, with a compression ratio of 6.7:1 and an output of 44 net hp it was somewhat on the poky side; however, for the Italian roads of the time its performances were more than adequate, although contemporary tests showed also that it wasn’t all too happy in the fortuitous case of high or over-revving, becoming somewhat rough. In any case, the engine –code named 101 – was a good engineering item, and it was a modern design both inside and out. In any case, the fact that the original engine’ output and torque numbers would’ve seen significant gains in future models means that it was originally a bit underrated, but surely not because of inner design faults or deficiencies. To the contrary, it was a versatile engine, so much so that it was also mounted on the glorious 615 truck in a slightly detuned variant, and using it as a starting point, it became also a larger unit to be used as the engine of choice for the 1900, the Campagnola, and also as the basis upon which the first modern Fiat diesel was produced. More on these soon.
Despite this, or more correctly thanks to this – the fact that the engine wasn’t exploited to its limit – the 1400’ gasoline powerplant soon became famous as a strong and durable unit, perfectly suited to the businessman covering many miles daily; of course, those were the days before the much coveted Italian Autostradas began to be common (more or less, there were only 300 miles of them in 1950) and the idea of a high average speed was less important than durability and maintenance ease. However, for those desiring some more pep, the same Fiat was already developing something quite adapt. Those desiring more from their original 1400 engine could always take a look at tuners like Siata and Abarth, with, for example, this last one offering a two carb manifold good for 65 horses. Tuned engines were often used under the bodies of the specialty models offered by Italian coachbuilders, as we will see later. All in all, the need for more power could seem obvious, given the fact that here Giacosa had wanted to stay on a conservative figure: 44 horses weren’t a special number even back then; and when one considers that the car was often, as per Italian habits of the day, used close to or well beyond its nominal capacity, 3285 lbs, when loaded with six people aboard and some luggage. One pundit could say that also dry weight – 2558 lbs – was a tad much for so few ponies, but on paper the car’ speeds appeared to be satisfactory. In fact, in 1st gear, max speed was about 18 mph (and a 27% gradient ); in 2nd, respectively, 31 mph and 15 %; in 3rd, 50 mph and 9 %; in 4th, 75 mph and 5 %; reverse as 1st gear. Axle ratio was a high 4,445:1, evidently chosen because of the typical hilly and twisty Italian roads where the car had to live most of its driving life.
In any case, competition could brag similar or worse results, and as said, a rugged car good for not-so-special Italian roads of the time was preferable than an all-out high speed cruiser, so the 1400 couldn’t be blamed for being a downright slug in 1950. However, like many ads of the time show, further alternatives were available for whose desiring more oomph, some every bit as interesting as the ones offered by great names like Abarth and Siata.
The initial ideas concerning the 1400’ powerplants availability included the possibility of offering the new model with a sophisticated OHV V8 as a prestige updated version, all this because while developing the 1400’ project, the idea of building this car with American market among its main destinations was again very much alive in Fiat’s corporate minds, especially in those of some all-important marketing men. Fiat also thought about a V6, just when Lancia was developing its revolutionary own engine destined to the Aurelia, but Dante Giacosa, Fiat’s technical mogul and the chief man behind 1400’ engineering thought that a V8 would be simpler to develop; he also thought that an engine with more than four cylinders wasn’t in reality all that necessary all things considered, because he thought that a proper truly modern four could work as well as a larger and a costlier powerplant, yet he was at least happy to work on the V8 solution. As we know, both proposals came to nothing as far as the 1400 was concerned and for the upmarket model of the 1400 the solution was far simpler than both a V8 or a V6. As we know, in the end the V8 came to light, but it was used under the engine bay of the spectacular V8 coupè, and the successive six cylinders would be inline units not offered until the 1959 successors to the 1400/1900 made their debut ( it must be remembered that the 1400 in itself was the direct successor of a six cylinder car, the almost mystical 6C 1500 already cited here, first Fiat with a OHV six and independent front suspensions, “blessed” with a revolutionary style also, so there was a perceived need to use at least a six for prestige purposes. When the “luxury 1400” debuted, it didn’t have a six again, and many think up until today that this hurt somewhat the 1900 itself).
The 1400’s 1395 cmc engine was mated to a simple four speed stick shift, with non-syncro first, and so the car could be fitted with two wide bench seats, becoming a real 6-seater, just like the very roomy original Kaiser Frazer – the advantage of moving the shift lever from the floor to the column had already been explored by Italian cars some time before the 1400, and for a while the stick shift was applied to whichever kind of mid size or full size family car was offered by the Italian industry, Alfa Romeo included.
This roominess caught the attention of Ed Barit, then head of the Hudson, that for the similarly dimensioned compact soon to be introduced by his firm asked to follow the internal measurements of the Italian car ! However, once the Jet appeared, it was immediately criticized for the cramped rear seat : clearly, passengers of typical Italian appearance had then a different size than the typical American passengers, and of course those used to the StepDown roominess found the Jet way too smallish for their tastes. As for other 1400’ details, also the live rear axle, using both “cantilevered” semi rear leaf springs and coil springs had some originality, what with the two torque-resisting arms and the special rear bar, a patented system for a time exclusive to the 1400; the front axle was somewhat more traditional, despite being of the independent type, normal in its concept but thoroughly modern for the time, and effective too.
Speaking again of underpinnings, the transmission shaft , apparently a normal shaft, was divided in two sections and mounted in a manner not so different from the method used for the peculiar cable system on ’61-’63 Tempests.
The brakes were hydraulic 10’’ drums, with lining areas equivalent to 40,3 square inches , done following the Fiat-Baldwin method, but the tires they had to stop were of a never-seen-before dimension : 5.90-14, apparently the first such application in the automotive world (later 1900s and Diesel models used 6.40-14s). In later years, Michelin would also promote its radial Xs as fit for the 1400, via modifications. But in 1950, the measure alone was more than enough to make the 1400 a revolutionary car, even if, as seen, radials were already becoming their successful lives and even smaller wheels, with the fall debut of the Ford Consul and Zephyrs, were soon to become a part of the equation. But in the case of the 1400, the 14 inchers were just what the doctor had ordered, lowering the center of gravity and improving stability and roadholding as well.
The electrics were a modern 12V system, which helped in the application of the radio (the 1400/1900 were among the first Italian cars to be offered with a proper possibility of radio installation, and the radio offered by Fiat was, back then, a sophisticated item in itself), while, last but not least, the heater/defroster system was standard ,this at a time when practically every American manufacturer still offered this as an option- and not only American firms. Steering system was classic for the time, worm and roller type but made for a precise feeling, and not-too-heavy maneuvers, thanks to a 16.4:1 ratio. Part of the merits owed something to wheels themselves also, the 5.90-14 on 4’’ rims being a technological achievement expressly studied to enhance most of the single aspects of driving this car. Quite a steering studied for long effortless cruising ! But what was the car’ most appreciated feature, by the public, at least?
Well, it was likely the roominess of the interior, and some detailed illustrations made eloquent why. Here we have not only a wide six seaters, this at a time when for most Italian drivers it was already more than enough a simple 500 C, nominally a two seater, but often with two more adults in the rear too; thus, a real six seater, and with room to spare for luggage – albeit the location of the fuel filler cap was still somewhat strange, what with its placing well inside the same trunk, on the driver’ side.
The spare tire was also nicely hosted under the trunk lid – something still relatively new for Fiat – and there was only a lever on the parcel shelf in order to unlock the lid (later first series cars gained a pair of them); such a solution had likely been adopted to limit door locks use on the car, but it was strangely a very forward-thinking item; also convertible version had this quirky way to open the lid, but the lever was located under one of the rear lateral armrests. Later models would’ve count on a more simple handle-cum-lock.
In any case, here we have a car whose advanced design and engineering provided real advantages above the cars of previous generation. It was in fact somewhat roomier than the already good 6C 1500, and the modern engineering did mean that also passengers accommodation was very good : the floor was low and with not so invasive transmission tunnel – an advantage of the two-piece prop shaft; seats were ample, comfortable, with good back supporting, courtesy also of a good backs’ height – albeit, being of the bench type, side support of the type we are accustomed to nowadays, was nowhere to be found; doors were wide and had a very good open angle, with generously-sized winding down glass panes; and last but not least, greatly improved glass area meant that passengers and driver alike could count on both a nice light’ feel and rational road visibility. And naturally, the standard heater/defroster unit was a real bonus for all-weather, modern kind of driving: while full integration of ancillaries used for conditioning work was still some years in the future, certainly the 1400’ unit as a whole did a good and effective job in providing passengers with right amount of ventilation and heating. The dash was both functional and stylish, with everything on hand for a relaxed driving. Modern and sturdy too, with main structure being a solid part of the car’ same body. And the instrument cluster intergrated in one unit ahead of the driver was a relatively new item for Fiat. Last but not least, also the sun visors were a welcome touch for who was inside the car, thanks to their adjustable positions. For those requiring even more sun barriers in Italy’ hot summers, accessory metal “cadet” sunvisors became also available, just like a self respecting American car.
In sum, for a while , the Fiat 1400 became one of the most advanced , (if not the most advanced car in the world, although there can be some debate about it), because in my humble opinion it was among the first automobiles that in the same body had all the following features:
-unibody monocoque body
-fully pontooned body with no hints of fenders or running boards
-one piece curved windshield
-short stroke , oversquare, valve-in-head engine
-4 speed ‘box
-12 volt electrics
-Standard heating and defrosting unit
The droptop model which debuted alongside the sedan was a nice car, quite elegant even with its top up, and one of the first proper unibodied modern convertibles: clearly, some reinforcements were applied to structure –for example, the gear box external bell housing was welded instead of being screwed – but all in all the result was one of the most elegant 1950 cars worldwide, bar none. Sadly, the convertible didn’t enjoy much success, so much so in fact that after official production ceased, droptop bodies were fitted with the larger 1900 engine with 65 horses ( instead of the stock 60) but sans fluid coupling and 5 speed ‘box (apparently there wasn’t enough room under the welded bell housing of the droptop for them !) and given as the 1900 Torpedo Veloce to Italian Police . This was surely one of the most intriguing Italian postwar cars ever. And its interior was every inch as elegant and classy as the exterior. The creation of Fiat ‘ Reparto Carrozzerie Speciali, which assembled the car after the bodies made by Milan’ Carrozzeria Colli were put on the Mirafiori-born platform (in other words, a Turin-Milan-Turin tour de force, and one of the reasons why the car was costly and rare), the Cabriolet lasted for only a pair of seasons and it would’ve been the last Fiat convertible to be directly derived from a mainstream sedan model until the Ritmo/Strada. But its superb looks alone makes everybody guessing who ever created this car: funny to see that one of the most elegant 1400 ever was, simply, the in-house brethren to the otherwise stand-alone sedan.
Naturally, as with every other Italian car of the day or before, the 1400 became the basis upon which most coachbuilders of the day created a whole lot of special variants, ranging from all-out dream cars or pure concept (or at least, sort of ) to spiders, ragtops and coupés, all the way through six windows sedans, ambulances, wagons, limos and publicity vehicles –and hearses…
But the theme of the coachbuilt 1400 deserves an in-depth look, and despite the fact that most of them debuted within the first 2 years of 1400’ commercial life, with a slight upsurge after the 1900’ debut, their number and the importance of some of them means they deserve an all-inclusive chapter near the end of this story. And the same 1400’ life was, for a while, quite interesting and successful, harvesting a good international success – if not from a commercial perspective, at least from a critics and enthusiasts’ point of view.
And, as anticipated, the Fiat 1400 was important for the Turinese firm also because it was built using new assembly plant’ tools and methods, new improved techniques and machinery, all this made possible by that aforementioned Marshall Plan which was a real blessing for Fiat. The various pics of the era show 1400s being produced along a modern assembly chains, with some old-school methods, sure, but mostly optimized for the new American-style engineering techniques used in order to put the 1400 from drawings to reality. And those USA-derived toolings and plants really helped Fiat: without them, not only there would’ve been few, if any, chances regarding the feasibility of the 1400’ birth, but also future development of cars like the 1100/103 and the 600 would’ve been in serious doubt. Without Detroit, likely Turin might not be with us as we know it.
The press accepted enthusiastically the new Fiat sedan, and in 1952 it seduced the French journalists of the Auto Journal magazine, so much so that it won the Coupe D’Europe award, beating such competitors like the Borgward Hansa, the so-similar Simca Aronde and the Ford Consul. This competition was conceived like a real sport-type tournament, with a final where the two best cars had to show their abilities. The cars selected for this trophy (dubbed Coupe D’Europe 1952) were in total 16, coming from 6 countries: 7 from Great Britain (Austin A40, Jowett Jupiter, Ford Consul, Morris Oxford, Vauxhall Wyvern-Velox, Hillman Minx and Singer 1500); 4 from West Germany ( the Borgward, then the VW Beetle, the Ford Taunus, the Opel Olympia); 2 from France, the novel Simca Aronde and the Peugeot 203, and one each from Sweden (Volvo 444), and Czechoslovakia (the Skoda). For “special reasons”, both the Singer and the Skoda didn’t compete together with the rest of the bunch. Cars were thoroughly tested in a 1200 miles open road and some Monthlery racing course challenges, in pairs. The 1400 beat in this way both the Morris Oxford and the Jowett Jupiter, both modern-world members of the then most powerful European auto industry, the British one. In semifinal, together with the 1400, there were the Aronde, the Borgward, the Consul: more or less, the most dynamic and modern of the bunch, and the most innovative cars of their type in Europe as well.
Final antagonist to the 1400 was the German Borgward. Out of the nine categories used to test and value the cars, the Italian sedan was the best in 5 out of 9 confrontation, and was on pair in 1; Borgward was best in 3 categories. To be more precise, the Borgward and the 1400 were judged equal in the chassis and drivetrain category, where the slightly larger and more powerful Borgward engine could hold its own against the more modern Italian unit and the 1400’ monocoque body was on par with the traditional body-on-frame structure of the German auto.
Then, Borgward won the performance test, where it had a slight advantage above the 1400; ditto for the fuel consumption test; from the 4th test, however, it was almost a Fiat triumph: safety test was handily won by the 1400, which was considered far better than the rest ; 5th test , suspensions, was again won by the Hansa, albeit with a very slight advantage; on the other hand, 6th and 7th confrontations, accommodation and ventilation tests, saw the 1400’ slight victory; but the 8th challenge, this time the one involving noisiness, was again won by the 1400 with a large margin; and the final verdict, the 9th, dedicated to fit and finish evaluation, saw the 1400 winning again, albeit by a small margin; small, but significant, if the Turinese car could win also against the best Carl Borgward could build. In sum, what made the difference was the 1400’ ability to be an effective sum of a whole array of basic important qualities, and its sober nature voted to be more a balanced car offering something good for almost every aspect of an auto’ life was certainly what won the Auto Journal’ editors’ hearths. Beating the Borgward was certainly a good news; beating the Consul and the Wyvern was maybe even better; but beating the almost new Simca, a car which could easily be considered as a 9/10th scale copy of the Turinese original, was surely something surprising enough to write home about, especially because in those days an Italian car which could beat some modern French cars wasn’t exactly an expected thing: even more so if this did happen directly on French ground.
At this point, in fact, it is clear that the 1400’ example had been followed by other firms in Europe: an advanced, roomy, comfortable mid-priced family car was the right ticket for most big-league makers back then, and also minor makes were part of the game, with firms like Jowett with its Lancia Aprilia-lookalike sedan (in reality a car with a distinct inner personality of its own, and a fortunate racing career to boot) and Singer with its Studebaker-Meets-Packard-Meets Kaiser lines, quite advanced in some respect and still anchored to old school solutions in others (speaking of the basic exterior design only: the Singer SM 1500 was quite traditional under its skin, albeit still a nicely competent car for its time, never too much remembered for its good qualities), just to name a pair of significant British example. But during the early Fifties, also cars placed just a step down the market ladder were developed following the same basic principles of the 1400: later, younger Borgward Isabella, Opel Rekord and Ford Taunus followed American-like design ideas matched with Continental pragmatism, doing in sum exactly what the 1400 had already done. And also cars where nothing seems to lead an onlooker to suspect some kind of American influence, cars like the later Austin Cambridges, the Morris Cowley/Oxford/Isis, cars like the Mg Magnette and its Wolseley 4/44, with its modern unibody structure – so similar in concept to the one used for the 1400 – had undoubtedly a good mix of 1400-like solutions about it. In sum, the 1400 seems quite like the real granddaddy of a whole new wave of modern European cars, even more so if we don’t consider the still rather important Hansa 1500/1800- as witnessed by the same L’Auto Journal’ competition, the only other European car which could counter the 1400 on all of its same paths.
But considering just the other cars mentioned above, it must be important to notice that the 1400 also was a very good car to use as a model, as a whole and not only as a reference car for internal measurements like Hudson did while designing the Jet, or as one of the various modern cars good enough to make Willys engineers and designers aware of what a similarly sized compact had to look like. No one can say that Toledo’ or Detroit’ designers used every single detail of the 1400 and then manipulated them. Not all of them, at least.
In Europe, at least one marque did exactly the contrary.
Using the 1400 as a model, and closely matching almost all single detail of it, is precisely what had been done by Simca while studying its Aronde. The Aronde was undisputedly the closest car to original 1400 that the auto industry ever saw. Under other circumstances, the best one could’ve been able to say about this operation would’ve been that Simca duly copied Fiat, and Fiat had been ingenuous enough because it let French managers to do all they did as an example of ill-placed flattery. But it is instead well-placed flattery what led Simca engineers to devise a car so similar in every basic respect to the 1400, and Fiat didn’t have to bother excessively about this: in fact, the Simca 9 Aronde was more of a sister rather than a tremendous competitor – and this since its very origins. It was in fact studied by a team led by Fiat man Oscar Montabone, and albeit it was the first “independent” Simca, it was also a car with deep roots in Fiat studios. No marvel then, if some traits of the Simca were carbon-copy iterations of the sound principles’ applications used on the bigger 1400. Bigger but not by too much, for the Aronde was a 1,2 liter car, with similar performances and ample passengers accommodation. Maybe more intriguing can be the Fiat ‘ own 1100/103, a car which debuted in ’53 (the Aronde was just two years older), a car which owed lots of concepts to the 1400, while also sporting a very personal nature of its own: few American cars can, this time, be called upon as the cars used for inspiration by the Fiat managers and engineers. More obvious, the 1100/103 is the car which demonstrated how Fiat took care of everything it had learnt through the 1400’ experiences, and while the Millecento would soon be seen as a within enemy for 1400’ own success (as we will see later on), it was sort of testament for all the efforts doen by Turin in providing again an acceptably advanced and economical mean of transportation in the still numerically modest automotive panorama of Italy. Quite an achievement for Fiat engineers to have produced in just 4 short seasons so many best sellers – although the best days of the 1400 would’ve also been its earliest ones, despite the rejuvenating program done with following restyled variants. At the time, maybe only Ford and GM could brag similar achievements in Europe, and in any case not with three very distinct models, which were not simple variants of each others.
Clearly, after two years on the market, the car was still a very innovative one, and aborted effort to sell it in the USA notwithstanding, despite being almost a car designed expressly for the North American market, also American motorists could have an idea about it : in fact, it was tested by renowned Road & Track magazine in their April 1952 issue. What the three writers of R & T found was a pleasant compact European car, logically lacking some verve ( but its performances could be compared to those offered by a Nash 600/Statesman or a Powerglide Chevy , so they weren’t so horrendous either), but blessed by a good ride and a more than good roadholding, all this plus the “expected” 25 mpg ability. So, it is a pity that Fiat couldn’t find a viable way to sell the car in the USA, because , as one can read through the Road & track article, if the car were to be sold for well under 2000 $, the success could be guaranteed.
Last but not least, the 1400, despite its peaceful inner nature, endured a good racing success: at least, in its early days and its almost expressly “dedicated to” categories: early Fifties Mille Miglia and a plethora of other road races saw brilliant class wins (and sometimes, also overall wins), most of them with gentleman drivers (and fully feminine teams too); as a whole, the crowded sporty or downright sportscars Italian panorama prevented the 1400 from becoming a full-fledged racing car, but despite the dominance of Alfa 1900s and Lancia Aurelias – and continuous strong competition by the still lively Lancia Aprilia – , up until the debut of the 1100/103 TV the 1400 was the sedan of choice for those wanting a Fiat in order to entry the Turismo category. And naturally, cars like the Siata Daina, with their well-known 1400 origins, were often seen in or around the winners circle wherever they entered a competition. Siata aside, we must also other 1400-based competition cars (one of which also with Siata heritage, sure, but nonetheless a bit distinct from an “average” Daina), and those 200-odd Touring-bodied Superleggeras which were as elegant as sporty and effective in racing, courtesy of expert drivers like renowned Milanese Fiat dealer Ovidio Capelli, who was the one who instigated the creation of such a good machine, the same Ovidio Capelli who some years later would’ve taken the Fiat 8V Zagato’ wheel and with some honorable mention too. In the hand of Capelli, the 1400 by Touring won a lot, and often was more than able to compete with prestigious machinery, like Maseratis.
The built-in sturdiness of the 1400 did fit nicely for certain kind of races, those where stamina and ride abilities could be as important as great acceleration qualities and quick-response road behavior manners. In fact, and we will see this more in-depth later, the 1400’ bigger brother was the star of a certain across-Africa competition, which, if anything else, showed that in order to tame the still wild roads of that Continent, a large and commodious sedan could be the winning ace. Later decades’ Africa-based competitions will show this in a spectacular manner, albeit most stars of those events will not be Italian-made cars.
In any case, the 1400 wasn’t exactly the kind of car one could use in the same manner as an Alfa 1900 or an Aurelia B22 could: too smallish the Fiat engine was, and while with the Milanese or the Borgo San Paolo larger-engined cars one could always hope for Turismo-category wins – or in some occasions, downright overall wins – this was almost always precluded to the 1400’ drivers; the inner nature of the car didn’t afford too much hope in doing nothing more than a honest race, and whatever souping-up trick could be used, there was again a significant gap in performances. Naturally, the Alfa and the Aurelia could count from larger engines, and this gap was impossible to close for the 85-odd cubic inches motor of the Fiat. Therefore, in order to gain at least some prestige of sort, if not some downright good performance numbers in order to compete with the flagships from Alfa and Lancia, something had to be done; and luckily for Fiat, the original plan for a larger-than-1400 car came in handy. But this is another story…
But before going to the 1400-based Fiat lineup flagship which debuted in ’52, one last word about the success endured by 1400 not only from a commercial point of view, but also as a fashion statement: it was such an example of modern car to be used as testimonial for many automotive-related products, whenever it was felt necessary to gain some sort of prestige with no excessive fuss, and it gained a following among those connoisseurs who desired tranquil yet satisfying driving hours while motoring down the road. And so, the fact that Enzo himself was quite satisfied by his own 1400 demonstrates that the 1400 was really a great car, provided one was acute enough to understand its main pluses.