Fiat May Revive Innocenti as Budget Brand
by Andy Bannister
Following Renault’s success with its low-priced Dacia brand, reports suggest Fiat is looking at getting a slice of the growing budget market by reviving a defunct brand, most probably Innocenti.
Whilst not exactly the most universally famous deceased Italian make, Innocenti (pronounced Inno-chen-ti) will always be remembered for two things. One is as the maker of the iconic Lambretta scooter, and the other is for producing intriguing versions of the classic British Mini with some extra helpings of Italian brio.
In fact, the company founded by Ferdinando Innocenti had a long and successful association with the manufacturer of Austin and Morris cars, British Motor Corporation – later the ill-fated British Leyland. Innocenti built various Italianised models of the Austin A40 Farina and Austin 1100/1300 saloons as well as its own unique little Ghia-styled Spyder (a rebodied Austin-Healey Sprite). Although never huge sellers, these cars gave the giant Fiat concern a run for its money in the home market, then almost entirely dominated by Italian-built cars.
Innocenti Mins were by far the company’s biggest success story. Exported to some parts of Europe they were often faster and better equipped than their British equivalents, particularly the Cooper 1300, which lived on in Italy after the UK version died in 1971.
In 1974 a disastrous departure for Innocenti led to the launch of the Regent, a locally-made version of the underdeveloped Austin Allegro, which proved unsaleable in Italy. Soon after, the company was taken over by Alejandro De Tomaso, best known as the manufacturer of the Pantera sports car. He later also owned Maserati, another then-struggling brand.
The company’s British partners, however, were less impressed, and the newcomer was destined to remain an Italian-only product, although sold through Leyland dealers in some European countries until after the belated arrival of the BL’s own small hatchback, the 1980 Austin Metro.
A sporty version of the 120 hatchback was a particular trend-setter with lots of black trim and prominent De Tomaso badges, inheriting the Mini Cooper’s mantle for the 1980s. Later Innocentis acquired Japanese Daihatsu 1.0-litre three-cylinder engines, including a turbo model and a frugal diesel.
Other derivatives included smaller-engined 650 and 500 models, by which time the body design was getting very long-in-the-tooth. They were running out of marketing ideas too: the final version of the hatchback rejoiced in the name Innocenti Small.
It was in the late 1980s that Innocenti was finally acquired by Fiat, which already owned most other Italian makes. After that, the company’s own designs were soon phased out, and remaining exports ceased.
For a few more years, the Innocenti badge was applied to the Yugoslavian Zastava Koral on the Italian market, as well as to the Fiat Elba, a station wagon derivative of the Fiat Uno made in Brazil, and to a Piaggio-built Daihatsu microvan.
None of these rag-bag of models proved a great success, and in 1996 Fiat laid Innocenti to rest.
Despite this rather inglorious end, however, it now seems that the name could be dusted off the shelf to adorn a new low-priced “world car” to be built in India, Brazil or China. This will probably replace the Fiat Palio, a basic design sold in a number of developing markets.
If it comes to fruition, then, the new Innocenti is unlikely to owe much to the sprit of those long-ago Mini derivatives, which seems a shame. Instead, it will be a riposte to the global phenomenon which is the Dacia/Renault Logan.
After the ecstatic reception accorded to the retro-inspired new 500, the reigning European Car of the Year, Fiat clearly has ambitions to shed its image as a bargain-basement manufacturer, even if its range is still overwhelmingly based on smaller cars, including the Panda and Punto.
Innocenti isn’t the only possible name from the past which is being considered by the Italians for this project. Autobianchi, another small car marque which gradually got absorbed into Fiat’s Lancia division before disappearing altogether in the early 1990s, is also a possibility to make a comeback.
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