A Most Rare Wallflower
The concept of exclusivity is far more complex than it appears - as proven by the exceedingly rare, noble, humble, generic Fiat 124 Coupé Eveline.
An open-topped Opel Zafira or a BMW 3 series with special handcrafted bodywork and an interior boasting the finest materials may sound like laughably absurd concepts today. And yet neither would be without precedent. For more than half a century ago, such truly bespoke automobiles, based on humble underpinnings, would not just be found at the motor show stand of some obscure customising outfit, but on the road. Mostly on the roads of Italy, to be precise.
The fuoriserie, the Italian concept of coachbuilding, may have started out in the same fashion as it did elsewhere (namely as an extraordinarily exclusive means of bestowing exquisite automobile chassis with bespoke bodies). But after the Second World War, in the wake of austerity and then a truly miraculous miracolo economico, fuoriserie’s products became relatively accessible. For rather than basing these vehicles solely on exotic underpinnings, the carrozzieri of Turin and elsewhere south of the Alps started offering handmade cars that were either drastically repurposed (such as the numerous takes on the Fiat 600 serving duties as roofless beach resort shuttles) or lending mundane mass-market vehicles a considerably more glamorous flair. Obviously, none of these bespoke automotive creations came cheap, but they were not completely off limits for the growing upper middle classes either.
To the carrozzieri, this business model acted as a new lifeline. For - Bertone and Pininfarina apart - even those companies that had managed the transition from body-on-frame to unibody construction (with all the complexity this entailed) had had to find a solution to the problem that there simply were not enough Hollywood moguls, East Coast plutocrats or (non-dispossessed) European gentry around to sustain this entire industry. Expanding and opening the Fuoriserie was therefore no luxury, but a bare necessity. Even if it meant that the heart of these artisan automobiles was quintessential run-of-the-mill fare.
Meanwhile, the Fiat 124, what with its unpretentious, compact saloon shape and ingenious engineering, turned out to be a dream come true to the Italian motorist with a whiff of affluence, and accordingly proved to be a runaway success. Of course, motoring was generally still an exclusive commodity in the 1960s, and in that sense the Fiat 124 was not the car that got Italy moving in the first place. But it was the car whose success proved that Italy had made it - in that a proper middle class had formed over a period of less than two decades.
On the surface, there was little middle class-like about Carrozzeria Vignale. Established after the war by Alfredo Vignale, the coachbuilder from Grugliasco (near Turin) was best known for cladding Ferraris, Cisitalias and Maseratis in automotive high fashion. However, unlike most competitors, Vignale also regularly offered special versions of a great many Fiat models, such as the Multipla Giardinetta (an ornate, compact MPV convertible), a string of roadster models and quite a few coupés, some of which bore lady’s names.
So after, Desiree and Sabina, coinciding with Samantha, Vignale unveiled Eveline. Based on that ubiquitous Fiat 124 berlina (whose appearance younger generations are most likely to associate with the Lada saloon), Eveline’s charms not only consist of that air of sophistication a coupé bodystyle brings about, but a considerable more luxurious cabin and an overall sleeker appearance. The latter was the work of Virginio Vairo, Vignale’s own chief stylist, rather than the industrious Giovanni Michelotti, who had collaborated with the carrozzeria on such a regular basis that he was considered Vignale’s unofficial head stylist.
Upon its unveiling in 1966, Eveline exhibited the crispness that had just become dernier cri in Turin. The creases on its bonnet and roof even anticipate the style Pininfarina would eventually adopt by a few years, whereas the slightly pontoon-like crease aft of the rear wheel arch appears lie a slightly staid mannerism. However, it is the very elegant slope of Eveline’s rear that literally is its most delightful aspect. Like a small-scale crossbreed between Giugiaro’s Fiat Dino Coupé and Brovarone’s Ferrari 365 GT 2+2, Eveline’s derrière betrays its sophisticated carrozzeria origins - as well as the sad truth that the Fiat 124’s compact dimensions do not afford a sense of inherent elegance.
This latent lack of true grace is one of the issues plaguing Eveline, its relative obscurity another. For Vairo saw fit to lending her a frontal aspect that - below that expertly modelled bonnet and those delightfully flush wings - not just bordered on, but embraced anonymity. The Fiat badge attached to that very rectangular, very ordinary grille serves as the sole marker of the car’s identity. So even though humility may be one of the more endearing traits, it hardly did Eveline many favours - and almost overshadowed that very pleasant rear, those pin-sharp creases and edges, the absence of visible seams and the ingeniously placed strip of stainless steel running along the sill, which almost succeeds at hiding its slightly pudgy basic proportions.
However, Eveline’s main issue turned out to be its younger brother. For just one year after Vignale had introduced Eveline, Fiat unveiled a 124 coupé derivative of its own, the Mario Boano-styled Sport Coupé. While lacking some of Eveline’s finesse, its Pininfarina-like front graphics lent it a considerably more assertive face, whereas its more blunt overall appearance would not have mattered to most in the market for the car. Certainly not given the price gap between the two coupés. Even Eveline’s fine interior, which combines proper wood and genuine leather on a great many surfaces with a clunky horizontal speedometer (and features the outrageous luxury of electric window switches) was not enough to sufficiently differentiate it from its more uncouth, common brother.
With 280.000 examples built, the Fiat 124 Sport Coupé turned out to be a significant success. In contrast, less than thousandth as many Evelines were built until Vignale ceased production in the wake of the company being taken over by the notorious Alejandro de Tomaso.
Cynics might question the wisdom behind putting as conflicted a proposition as the unassumingly refined Eveline into production in the first place. However, others might point in the direction of a Turinese superstition, which claims that any business including the city’s number one landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, in its logo is destined to fail.
An intricate badge on Eveline’s rear sills bears Vignale’s proud emblem, which features the company’s initials (as most carrozzieri’s logos did), a crown and wings. It is a noble, sophisticated badge, which just about avoids a sense of overly grandiose pomposity. At its centre, it depicts the Mole Antonelliana in delicate detail.
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Add a comment
Comment by Charles |
Very interesting article - thank you - and the photography’s superb, as ever. Your article prompted me to look at what other coachbuilders did with the 124 (Moretti, Scioneri, Savio, etc). It’d cost too much to do this sort of thing these days, sadly.
Reply by Christopher Butt
The bodywork would be prohibitively expensive, yes, but a recent, thorough look at a Fiat 500 customised by Garage Italia suggested that luxurious interior fittings for moderately sized/priced cars do possess quite some allure.
Comment by michael orlando |
Very informative and well written. I also like the 78 ritmo steel wheel on the page banner. I always thought they were clever
Comment by Chris A |
A significant point of difference between the Vignale and in-house coupes was that the Vignale was only offered, as far as I know, with the saloon's 1200cc pushrod engine while the in-house coupe got the 1440cc double overhead cam engine with around 50% more power. I can't imagine too many people would have been keen to pay a premium for a slower car.