Back in its day, the Fiat Ritmo (known as the Strada to Her Majesty, the Queen’s subjects) dared to offer cutting-edge product design to the average Joe. Somewhat unfairly though, it failed to reap in the rewards for it.
As there is little point in trying to circumnavigate the plump elephant in the room, let’s make one thing clear from the beginning: the Fiat Ritmo is not a pretty car in the actual meaning of the term. Standing, in somewhat ramshackle fashion, on a wheelbase of dubious proportions, and shod with very narrow wheels indeed, it utterly fails to convey much of a sense of solidity. Its crude silhouette similarly fails to create any kind of planted stance, which the Fiat would need, were it to wear its huge, loose-fitting plastic bumpers front and rear with proper conviction.
It is most unfortunate that these failings in the Ritmo’s execution distract from the fact that what we’re actually dealing with here is a true pioneer here - a car that deserves genuine respect, and not just because it has become one very rare sight indeed (north of the Alps, that is). No, those open-minded and willing enough to view it as a design object, rather than a car, are actually rewarded with a plethora of surprisingly delightful details. So while the car as a whole may be less than the sum of its stylistic parts, those parts are actually good enough all by themselves to warrant a pleasing examination.
If Olivetti, design leader in the field of business machines back in the 1970s, had decided to style and produce an automobile, the resultant product would probably not have been too dissimilar to the Ritmo. So, despite Olivetti designer, Mario Bellini, not having had a hand in its creation, the Ritmo’s cockpit, what with its rounded buttons and controllers and colourful small accents, turned out to be perfectly in tune with Italian product design of the time - which happened to be world-leading.
It is rather baffling to see Pac-Man style door knobs, delicately grooved column stalks and the cutting-edge graphics of the Ritmo’s Veglia instruments side-by-side with crude lids and decidedly dreary door cards. It is as though some particularly coarse captain of industry had chosen to sprinkle some mock Victorian accessories across an office full of Mario Bellini furniture. Which may sound damning, but only as long as one decides to ignore the fact that a Golf I’s cabin was lacking even the faintest whiff of the avantgarde at the time and could hardly be described as being styled at all.
Obviously, the Ritmo’s body is dominated, if not overwhelmed, by its enormous front and rear plastic bumpers. It is not just with cynical hindsight that this feature comes across as being rather clumsy indeed; indeed, upon its launch in 1978, the Ritmo may have been considered a pleasantly futuristic addition to the automotive landscape, but by the beginning of the 1980s, it had already begun to date. Which is a bit of a shame, since the radical application of plastics (which was considered quite an avantgarde component) as a stylistic device appealed for its boldness alone. And that may well have been the very problem.
The plastic bumper’s asymmetrical air vents are, by the way, not just fully functional, but aerodynamically shaped. Which probably wasn’t the case with the round door handles, but those again do fit in with the overall product design approach that shaped much of the Ritmo’s appearance. As do the Vitaloni Turbo rearview mirrors, which were typically used to spoil the looks of Italian sportscars of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. But (and only) when attached to the Ritmo, they all of a sudden make aesthetic sense. Now that’s quite some feat.
Apart from those features, the Ritmo’s body is rather practical and sensible for its time, which means it’s not too dissimilar to a Golf I in this regard - apart from the copious plastic cladding and subtle spoiler lip on its roof. And this incidentally wasn’t the Fiat’s only VW connection, for the man in charge of the Ritmo’s styling at Centro Stile was none other than Sergio Sartorelli, who had penned the Karmann-Ghia Type 34 on behalf of the Lower-Saxonians two decades previously. The similarities between those two end, however, with the somewhat naïve frontal aspect they happen to share.
Even the steel wheels of early (and nowadays Dodo-like) Ritmos have been lent a strong graphic appearance - the downside being that they make the car appear as though its wheels are not correctly balanced when moving. This wasn’t enough though to deter the competition - mostly from France - from trying out similar tricks during the following decade.
On balance, the question needs to be asked why - even taking its blatant shortcomings into account - the Ritmo’s obvious stylistic qualities are not recognised to this day. Why does this car, which enabled the ‘common man’ to own a design object for everyday use, remain the butt of jokes, rather than the cognoscenti’s choice? And why hasn’t it turned into the wet dream of hipsters from Shoreditch to Kreuzberg, despite being in possession of all the right ingredients (including the requisite quirkiness) for this to happen?
Brittle, reportedly Soviet-sourced steel is only part of the answer to those questions. The waywardness of fashion is actually much more significant a factor, for the Ritmo aged in stylistic terms just as quickly as its sheetmetal. Exactly like all those housing estates that had been erected in the 1970s - with their idealist concepts and utopian projections - were turning into ghettos, the Ritmo, that plucky champion of style for the masses, turned into a pair of flared trousers, soon to be relegated to the lowest drawer of desirability.
With the help of a fair few apologetic facelifts, Fiat eventually dragged the RItmo’s production across the ten-year-line. During its course, the Ritmo gradually lost most of its character without gaining any kind of extra appeal. This kind of blatant insecurity and volatility (which would become a hallmark of Fiat’s future attempts at tackling the compact class) didn’t remain unnoticed by the cars’ owners, who were thus reminded of their automobile’s short-term-only attractiveness. This resulted in Ritmos changing hands particularly swiftly, before it was time for them to either meet their fate inside the crusher or be sent southwards in the belly of a freighter.
This kind of sobering fate obviously wasn’t restricted to the Ritmo. But it appears all the more unjust, the more one concerns oneself with this pioneer of design democratisation.
It is about time to start appreciating the Ritmo.
Thanks to Andreas Hellmann, www.ritmo-world.de, for supplying the Fiat Ritmo.
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