Esame di Maturità
To understand certain automobiles requires a mature perspective. Particularly in the case of the conclusively modern Fiat 130 Coupé.
Thankfully, growing up isn’t all about disillusionment. There are also those odd enlightening moments illustrating the broadening of one’s horizon, the refined sense of perception of the maturing mind.
One such moment may be when one rediscovers All The President’s Men, Alan J Pakula’s movie depiction of the Watergate affair. Whereas one’s adolescent self is likely to have been bored by this thriller’s supposedly demure dramaturgy, lack of spectacle and emotional heft, the adult’s perspective is an altogether different one. What came across as dry and dull suddenly becomes a masterclass in elaborate precision. What may have been perceived as a lack of production values is more than compensated for by masterful cinematic craft. And a perceived lack of emotional drama in fact proves to be nothing but an inspiring case of narrative courage to focus on objectivity, rather than mere show.
This movie’s stringency cannot be properly appreciated by the erratically youthful mind. It requires a certain degree of education, in terms of both aesthetics and historical comprehension.
There simply is no more modern a film than Pakula’s sublime 1976 masterpiece. Just as there is no more modern an automotive form than that of the Fiat 130 Coupé.
This blunt statement doesn’t disregard the fact that these two progenies of the 1970s obviously are quite old-fashioned in a few instances. After all, flared trousers, wide, short ties and typewriters are just as antiquated in this day and age as 15-inch wheel rims, planar rooflines and velour upholstery. Yet these items are mere insignia of the technology and fashion of the time. The aesthetic substance of both remains quintessentially modern.
Such modernism obviously constitutes soberness, which renders the unadulterated simplicity of the 130 Coupé’s forms as envisaged by its designer, Paolo Martin, at least banal, if not blunt and dreary to the immature eye. Indeed, if one wasn’t willing to spend some time on this archetypical three box silhouette, one might almost come to the conclusion that it could have been drawn by a child.
But the reality couldn’t be any further removed from such a superficial impression. For Paolo Martin created a true masterpiece, whose clarity stresses its stylistic finesse in brilliant fashion. If one is willing to spend some time on it, that is.
The simplicity of its silhouette acts as the ideal canvas for a design that is hard to tire of, exactly because of the subtlety of its execution. Surfaces and folds are shaped with spectacular precision, tension and no hint of any gimmicks whatsoever. The Fiat 130 flirts with utter rationalism, but is actually all about a luxurious kind of simplicity.
This particular assessment may actually be taken literally, for this kind of metallic artistry mustn’t have come cheap. Such razor-sharp edges and creases, as well as the odd delicate curvature (for example alongside the flanks and at the bottom of the windscreen) involve plenty of dedication, craft and tin. All of which the 130 Coupé was generously bestowed with during its production run at Pininfarina’s Grugliasco factory.
Considering these factors, it is hardly surprising that the big, luxurious Fiat exudes an aura of substance, inside and out.
In stylistic terms, the cabin - preferably clad in decadent velours - cannot even hope to match the unique exterior of the 130 Coupé though. This isn’t terribly surprising, as it uses a fair few components of its more mundane 130 saloon sibling, but even so there’s still enough high quality details to maybe not surprise, but delight nonetheless - particularly in the case of of the sensational bakelite single-spoke steering wheel, which is exclusive to the coupé. Another leading role is attributed to stainless steel. The material features prominently and immensely satisfyingly on items such as the chromed automatic gear lever (a solid design with plenty of jet aircraft cockpit flair), the lush seat hinges, the two-part interior door handles (push at the front to close; pull at the back to open) and, certainly not least, the circular release apparatus of the front seats. When speaking of release mechanisms, special mention ought to go in the direction of the inconspicuous lever in the driver’s footwell, which actually remotely opens the passenger side door. This kind of civil, elaborate tool could well have originated from some company based in Untertürkheim, Germany, if it wasn’t so terribly chic at the same time.
Mind you, the 130 Coupé’s interior isn’t all about the good ol’ values of velour, metal and wood. As befits such a modernist creation, it unashamedly employs and exhibits plastics, as well. Both the door handles-cum-armrests (which also act as the most faddish element of the interior) and the traditional ribbed roof lining suggest that vinyl was treated with an amount of pride that surprises - particularly now, in an age when only few materials are allowed to be recognisable for what they actually are.
The 130 Coupé’s instruments are by Veglia, naturally, and of course they are pretty. But the overall flair of this Fiat’s design has the surprising side effect of casting the gauges’ fine graphics and typography in not quite as illustrious a light as with so many other Italian motors of that period. Il meglio è nemico del bene.
Plenty those other Italian vehicles of the 1960s and ‘70s had, of course, been greatly influenced by one of the 130 Coupé’s spiritual predecessors: Battista Farina’s monumental Lancia Florida II/Flaminia Coupé. Back in its day, Farina’s design emphatically heralded the eventual end of the era of post-War baroque. The 130 Coupé was both the logical progression and climax of this stylistic development. Shy master artisan, Paolo Martin, may in that sense feel entitled to be considered a worthy heir to Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina and his stylistic legacy.
Yet the heritage of the Fiat 130 Coupé itself isn’t quite as unequivocally acclaimed. In economic terms, it was actually an unmitigated disaster that cost Fiat dearly and resulted in the Torinese giant abandoning the luxury sector for good. This was also regrettable insofar as it meant that two variations of the 130 Coupé would forever remain bespoke concept cars, rather than end up in series production. We were therefore deprived of both the Maremma, a shooting brake built personally for Fiat owner, Gianni Agnelli, and the Opera, which could either be described in matter-of-fact terms as the 130 Coupé’s saloon version or a ‘four-door coupé’. In either case, Paolo Martin’s form language was adapted in most appropriate fashion, which resulted in two additional luxury concepts of outstanding stylistic value.
Despite these caveats, the legacy of the masterful 130 Coupé is clearer today than it ever was. As always, a movement was followed by a counter-movement. This currently results in our streets being littered with different variations on some kind of wild, frivolous, pseudo-futuristic neo-baroque. This in itself should constitute another good reason why Paolo Martin’s manifesto to simplicity is so relevant.
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