The Fiat 126 has been an uncrowned icon for 50 years

Seemingly impossible task.

The Fiat 500 seemed like an unparalleled success. After the war, Dante Giacosa’s small round Fiat became the symbol of a motorized Italy and it had just as much emotional power internationally. But urbanized and increasingly mobile Italy was still just as hungry for small economy small cars almost 3 decades after the war, and even the legendary 500 had become an obsolete product after several updates. The advantage was therefore that the demand for a comparable type of product remained the same. The downside was that Fiat had to embark on a bold design revolution. Fortunately, Fiat had a lot of expertise in this area, but would it catch on? The transition would even be seamless. The 500 could therefore not be forgotten collectively. While the new 126 was presented to the public at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, Fiat simultaneously introduced the 500R, which would remain in production for another 3 years. Fiat therefore opted for a gradual transition.

Edgy but just as friendly.

For the design, Lingotto looked to Pio Manzù’s innovative conceptual lines. We wrote about this talented Italian designer who died too soon at AutoEdizione in 2013 already a special one in our La Grande Storia range. Manzù’s creative idea for a city taxi with the international-sounding title Fiat (850) City Taxi (photo above) from 1968 formed the basis for the new 126. The designer from Bergamo sought in his design of this concept the connection with the modern look of the new Fiat 127 .Also a style icon invented by Manzù, giving Fiat’s successes from the previous decades a nice follow-up. Underneath, however, no revolution took place. The small two-cylinder was admittedly more powerful and was now coupled to a more modern synchronized transmission with 4 gears (3 plus reverse gear). The 126 was safer thanks to the relocation of the gas tank to a more central position under the rear seat. Meanwhile, the luggage compartment at the front of the car became more spacious. The more angular shape of the 126 makes the car slightly more spacious despite the wheelbase being the same. The steering column is also no longer made of one rigid piece, which also increased safety.

Also in many varieties.

Fiat, meanwhile, did not forget what made the 500 so successful, something for everyone, and produced the 126 in many variants and guises. In 1973, the open version with a leather roof debuted, continuing an old tradition that had already started with the pre-war Topolino. In 1967, Fiat again modernized the 126 with the introduction of the ‘Personal’ and ‘Personal 4’ (pictured below) at the Turin Motor Show. This could be recognized by plastic bumpers instead of chrome. In addition, the side of the car now had plastic moldings to protect the body. These were the result of the extensive experimental ESV models to promote safety thanks to new innovative bumper technology. These striking ESV models are still on display at the Heritage Hub in Turin. The interior of this perhaps best-known series of the 126 has been completely redesigned and modernized, as have the suspension and brakes.

Climax thanks to production.

As mentioned, the 126 has grown enormously in popularity over the years and so has production. After a start in the purpose-built new factory in Cassino (photo 1), part of the production is transferred and expanded in Termini Imerese in Sicily, and they also start in the recently Fiat acquired Autobianchi factory in northern Desio. But the climax was only really reached when the 126 in Poland started a second life in Bielsko Biala (from 1973) and eventually also Tychy’s FSM factories. The Polish 126 remained a fixture in Fiat’s range until the start of the new millennium.

Icon status in Poland.

From 1985 every 126 sold in Italy also came from Poland and the small city cars were given the designation ‘Fiat 126 – made by FSM’. In the then Yugoslavia, the Zastava 126 was also assembled thanks to the supply of components from Poland. From 1977 the 126 had a 650 cc engine. The interior became more luxurious and versatile. Thanks to a flatter and twisted engine arrangement (which was already used on the 500 Giardiniera and Bianchina), the 126 got a real tailgate with luggage space and was nicknamed the Bis. This version of the 126 even has a water-cooled radiator. In recent years, the 126 has only been produced and adapted for the Polish market, where the little Fiat is perhaps most recognized as a historic model. It is no coincidence that a group of enthusiasts from this country drove to the Heritage Hub this month (photo below) with a column of 126s in honor of the half-century anniversary of the Fiat 126. The Polish enthusiasts were warmly welcomed by Roberto Giolito. This is no coincidence, because in the end 1.3 million 126s were built in Italy and no less than 3.3 million in Poland.

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