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.
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.
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