Tuesday 23 October 2018

How the Tipo put Fiat on top

The successor to the Fiat Ritmo, the original Tipo was an innovative car and a turning point for Fiat, writes Brian Twomey

The Fiat Tipo
The Fiat Tipo

The recent revival of Fiat's interest in the small family car market, the so-called C segment, marked the Italian's return to the cut-throat end of the market containing such household names like Golf, Focus, Corolla and Civic. So it is no surprise that Fiat chose to revive a name from its not too distant past in order to give the new family car some brand recognition. The new Fiat Tipo might have nothing to do with its ancestor but the company is hoping the lure of the Tipo name might give them a foot in the door of a segment they had all but abandoned.

So, what is this original Tipo? Well, it was launched 30 years ago to replace the popular but aging Ritmo. The Ritmo, Fiat's Escort/Golf fighter of the 1980s, was a common sight on Irish roads at the time due to a mix of good value and eager dynamics. The new car had to address the Ritmo's failings, namely crumbling bits of trim and harrowing corrosion problems, as well as giving Fiat something different to sell in a market clogged with alternatives.

Described by its own designer as resembling a sideways fridge, the Tipo was launched with a good degree of ballyhoo in January 1988. Like the original Ritmo a decade earlier, the Tipo brought something new to the market; namely lots and lots of space. Those blocky lines allowed for an interior of almost unprecedented roominess for its class. The compact exterior dimensions made it easy to drive but while it rivalled cars like the Escort, it actually beat cars from a class up, including the Ford Sierra, for interior room and boot space.

Being a Fiat, however, there were things that could be taken as a given. Behind the four angled slatted lines of the Fiat corporate logo sat a range of zesty engines that made the Tipo feel far livelier than it had any right to be. Like most Fiats, it was well equipped and well-priced too.

It was not all good news though. The car's chances in performance-orientated markets like the UK and Germany were hampered by the lack of a racy variant, the absence of a three-door also alienated some buyers, although Fiat were perhaps ahead of the times on that one. In certain markets Fiat even offered a 55hp 1.1-litre version, which was widely regarded as being utterly miserable. Upper-spec models also sometimes featured an unreliable and illegible digital dash which was widely panned by the press and avoided by buyers.

More promising were the smooth, clean diesel engines in 1.7, 1.9 and the rather potent 1.9 turbodiesel versions.

Initial sales were very strong and the car would remain popular in markets such as Ireland where value was important and we were less obsessed about where the thing was built. Despite the name Tipo being the Italian for the word Type, it sold well in Italy too. The basic platform would spin off into other Fiat group products like the Lancia Dedra, Lancia Delta, Alfa's 145/146, the Alfa 155, Fiat Coupe and, more closely, the Fiat Tempra which was a half-hearted stab at the Sierra/Vectra market using Tipo bits and even stranger styling.

Despite winning the European Car of the Year gong and Semperit Irish Car of the Year in 1988, the Tipo never sold in the numbers throughout Europe that Turin had been hoping for. In an effort to sustain interest, Fiat released the hot variant in 1991. The Sedicivalvole, Italian for 16 valves, was a 130mph riot. Using the engine from the base Lancia Thema, the 2.0-litre engine threw out 146bhp in typically bravado fashion. The light body shell and Tipo's basically sorted dynamics had many a Golf GTI owner scratching their heads and debating defecting to a Fiat.

A mild update of the Tipo came along in 1993. Visually, the changes were limited to smoked tail-lights, mildly restyled grille and slightly different lights. Major changes took place under the skin, however: Fiat finally offered a three-door version which broadened the car's appeal. Car buyers were starting to ask awkward questions about safety in showrooms too and Fiat responded by fitting airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners, side impact bars and improving the shell's rigidity. The Italians were not alone; Ford made similar revisions to the Escort in the same year and Opel introduced the safety-obsessed Astra in 1993 also.

Despite their efforts, the Tipo exited the market in 1995, replaced by the less innovative but far more successful Bravo and Brava. The Tipo had a short production life but it is worth noting that they were a huge hit in South America. It broke the Volkswagen's two-decade rein at the top of the Brazilian market. Popularity, space and solidity saw it continue in production in Turkey until 2000.

Sunday Independent

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