The Iconic Fiat Coupé – Chris Bangle’s Finest Hour?

By Andy Bannister


Last week’s news that Chris Bangle is leaving BMW to pursue a design career outside the auto industry once again raised the debate about whether his one-of-a-kind styling influence has helped or hindered the prospects of the German company.

Most commentators didn’t refer, however, to his work before joining BMW. Bangle started in a low-key way at Opel before transferring to Fiat, where he was heavily involved in the look of one of that company’s seminal products of the 1990s – its ground breaking Coupé, invariably dubbed a “baby Ferrari”.

A true one-off product which burst on the scene at the Brussels Motor Show in 1993, the Coupé was a glorious return to form for Fiat, which was once the master of this niche of the market, but had been effectively absent for well over a decade.

Emerging as it did at a time of conservative, me-too styling in the auto industry – typified by models like Fiat’s own utterly forgettable Tempra family car – Bangle’s Coupé was surprising – shocking, even – but ended up being almost universally acclaimed.

The car wasn’t entirely his own work by any means – styling house Pininfarina (which ended up building it for more than seven lucrative years) was also involved, and designers at Fiat’s Centro Stile productionised it and smoothed out many of the car’s unusual proportions.

However, the Fiat’s dramatic wheelarch slashes – looking like they had been inflicted by a latter-day Zorro – were unmistakably an early example of a Bangle trademark, and would feature firmly in his future career.

Specific design details of the Coupé were carefully crafted to surprise and delight by Centro Stile, and consciously evoked Italy’s sporting heritage. Instead of being hidden behind an anonymous flap, the huge fuel filler cap was made of alloy and stood prominently on a rear wing, near the circular rear lights which screamed Ferrari.

Up front, the traditional solution of pop-up headlamps was abandoned in favour of innovative polycarbonate lights, featuring a distinctive a curvaceous double bulge – which some commentators compared to a woman’s buttocks.

Inside, years of the industry gradually banishing the once-common practice of exposed cabin metal was turned on its head, with the Coupé featuring a prominent strip of painted metal right across the dashboard, crowned with the Pininfarina logo. This “retro” trend is quite common nowadays, but at that time it was radical stuff.

Traditional circular instruments and good quality trim – leather was a popular optional extra – made the cabin a far, far nicer place than most Fiats could boast.

It wasn’t anything like a conventionally pretty car, but it stood out a mile in a crowd – particularly in the vivid yellow and red shades early cars were painted – and it was a loud and proud four-wheel advertisement for a stonking return to form at Fiat. Enthusiasts adored it from first acquaintance.

Underneath, the Coupé owed quite a lot to Fiat’s utilitarian Tipo family hatchback, and engines were the best the company could muster. The Lancia Delta Integrale’s engine was modified to derive 190hp from the 16v Turbo version, later succeeded by a new 2-litre, 5-cylinder engine which developed up to 220 hp.

The car could do 0-60 mph in 6.5 seconds and was acknowledged as one of the best handling vehicles of its generation, so – unlike some rivals – its overall ability matched its concept coupé looks perfectly.

It went into series production at Pininfarina during 1993, with the company effectively hand-building up to 80 a day – enough to make it a serious coupé contender across Europe. Despite this it was still rare enough not to flood the market, meaning values held up well – another unusual development for a Fiat.

Over 72,000 were made before production ended in 2000, without the car being replaced. Ironically the Coupé’s existence had caused some furrowed brows at Alfa Romeo, Fiat’s sporty car division. Maybe it is just as well, though, that it died when it did – a longer, heavier Mark 2 would probably have failed to capture the brio of the original edition.

As for the Bangle design cues so central to the look of the Coupé, they were never attempted on any of Fiat’s mainstream family cars – perhaps fortunately for the Italian giant, in the light of public reaction to his work over at BMW.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Andy Bannister

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  1. The interior looks kind of cool, but the proportions on this thing are just terrible. The roofline is too tall, the front overhang is about a foot too long, and it looks like the unholy matrimony of a Saturn Ion coupe and a Pontiac Sunfire – neither one lookers in their own right, either.

    I never minded Bangle’s BMW designs. I thought the 2002 7-series’ best angle was, incidentally, its rear three-quarter view, where the large wheels nicely filled the openings. His surface detailing was always a little weird, the his BMW proportions were much better than in the Fiat Coupe.

  2. Chris, I think if you saw this coupe in person, you would not be so critical of the looks of the car. It is not great from every angle but it is great from a couple of angles. Certainly it is better than that Saturn or that Pontiac Sunfire.

  3. C’mon. This thing is a horrid mess. Bangle did some very quality work in his time, but this ain’t it. It reminds me of Picasso’s 1970’s stuff: terrible, but nobody wanted to say so because it was Picasso. Each design ought to stand on its own merits and not on the reputation of the designer. Allow me to repeat: this thing is a horrid mess.

  4. This is one of those cars that never quite looked right in the photos. But in the flesh……really quite distinctive. I saw quite a few in the UK in 1998 and wondered why these attractive litte cars weren’t available outside Europe. None of them appeared to be built to go anywhere fast but they were quite handsome to look at. At the same time, I was also impressed by a couple of the early kinetic Ford Europe designs, notably the tiny Ka and the Puma….

  5. For such a small car there’s a lot of attention and fuss being given to the 500 Abarth So why all the fuss for what essentially looks like a Fiat 500 with a red stripe and some flash alloy wheels?

  6. Very interesting article.

    As for the comments, Chris, take a look at one in the flesh, a comment was made that “almost any part of the Coupe’ Fiat (it’s proper name), could be placed in a design museum”.

    Fiat’s Press advertising and a great TV advert (it’s on Youtube if you look), made mention of the fact “In Italy no one grows up wanting to be a train driver”.

    The car looks stunning in the flesh, yes I think Broom Yellow is the best colour and as an owner you have to get used to people asking you about the car. It does look like a small super car and the performance and handling are sublime.

    For a 16 year old design it has aged remarkably well.

    Let’s face it a hand built Italian Coupe’ produced in the Pinifarina factory (it proudly wear the badges on the dash and on the rear flanks), with classic sportscar styling and evocative engine note together with performance and handling that always puts a smile on your face, as a press report said at the the time:

    “Divorce the wife, sell the house, move in with your parents and beg, borrow or steal the cash, this is a car you need to own”.

    Seano, “Not buit to go anywhere fast”? With 155MPH performance and a 0-60 in the low 6 seconds as standard, I would be interested what you consider built to go somewhere fast? I do agree that the Ford “New Edge” (for that was it’s name Kinetic is the new styling regime at Ford.) produced the KA, Focus and Puma was interesting, I know someone involved with the styling of Puma and he told me an interesting story regarding the rear lights/rear suspension. Apparently the lights didn’t meet some legislation so they were placed higher up at the rear than originally designed and the rear springs were lengthened slightly, look at the rear quarter view of Puma and the line the lights should have taken is obvious.

  7. To the detractors – view this car “in the metal” and then tell me it’s not a beautiful car.

    You won’t be able to do it.

  8. given the examples of past and current american design I think that design appreciation must be a genetic thing – clear that certain individuals just simply don’t get it.

  9. Chris, you could be right, it’s unusual to find an American that likes the styling of the Citroen DS, while it is considered a design masterpiece in the rest of the world.

  10. For more info on the design etc of the Coupe Fiat then I would recommend here as a good starting point:

    it’s interesting to see how different Bangle’s original design was and how Pininfarina and Centro Stile.

    Ironically while most coupe’s from the early 90s now look dated the Coupe Fiat still looks fresh and modern and drives sublimely.

    Having driven more than a few American cars from “muscle” cars to “Compacts”, the Coupe outclasses them all, it grips tenaciously, in gear acceleration is breathtaking and the sound of that 5 pot engine is totally intoxicating.

    This is a car that rewards an enthusiastic driver, you have to experience one to understand, there is little point trying to explain it. Even at y most eloquent, you will only be getting 5% of the feeling that driving one of the recent classic Italian cars has to offer.

    My advice is to snap one up quickly and be prepared to fall in love.

  11. Mick, it’s funny, but I feel the same way about another Fiat – the Fiat 130. I took a drive in one owned by a friend, and that was it. I had to have one. And I still have it.

    It makes me almost afraid to drive this car, even though I’ve been admiring one for some time.

  12. Sam,

    Might I recommend you visit its the owners club, well worth dipping your toe in to find out what the coupe is like.

    I can remember the Fiat 130 Mbut the 131 Mirafiori was a classic too. Evocative engine noise.

    If you admire the coupe you have to test drive one, I promise you it’s junior supercar territory as standard. Where else can you get a Pininfarina made coupe with a genuine 155 MPH performance, (In a recent Auto Italia magazine, they tested a tuned 6 speed Coupe at 175MPH in fifth gear when it ran out of road and they had to brake at Bruntingthorpe).

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