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Fiat 126

The long-lived polyglot hatchback.

The Fiat 126 has the arduous task of continuing the success of the 500, allowing an ever wider public to get around in the city and beyond: agile and unbeatable in parking spaces, it continues the tradition of Fiat cars within everyone's reach.


Picking up the baton from the iconic Fiat 500 is no easy task, not least because, as is customary at Fiat, the transition takes place with a cinematic cross-fade. In fact, the Fiat 126 was presented at the Turin Motor Show in 1972 at the same time as the last series of the 500, the R, which would remain in production for three more years: on that occasion, past, present and future coexisted on the stand of the Turin manufacturer.

Repeating the same success was not easy, so the Turin-based company's management prudently decided not to change the car's structural layout, but simply to modernise the exterior and improve safety, while retaining the same mechanical architecture. The aim was to create continuity between the 500 and the 126, offering the same content that was appreciated and demanded by the general public: from displacement to compact dimensions, from low running costs to low price.

To bring the new hatchback up to date, the designers were inspired by the sharp, squared-off lines of the Fiat City Taxi, a 1968 project in which Pio Manzù envisaged a safe, modern taxi, thus also creating a stylistic link with the recent Fiat 127, also the brainchild of the creative designer from Bergamo.

The Fiat 126 is a hatchback similar in appearance to the City Taxi, especially at the rear. Equipped with two doors and four seats, it differed from the concept car designed by Manzù, mainly in the modern rectangular front lights that recall those of the 127. Mechanically, however, it followed the technical layout of the very popular Fiat 500: air-cooled twin-cylinder engine and cantilevered rear end. An evolution, therefore, not a revolution, with the twin-cylinder engine slightly uprated and the four-speed gearbox made more comfortable by the inclusion of synchronisers on the final three ratios.

Safety was improved by moving the petrol tank to a more central and protected position under the back seat, leaving more space for luggage in the front compartment. The new external lines retained the wheelbase of the 500, with no changes, but allowed for a little more space in the more refined interior. Overall, there was greater attention to safety: in addition to the new position of the fuel tank, the steering column was also made with discontinuous segments designed to collapse and not re-enter the passenger compartment in the event of a frontal collision.

From January 1973, continuing the tradition of the Topolino and then the 500, the Fiat 126 was also available with a canvas sunroof. At the beginning of November 1976, the Fiat 126 "Personal" and "Personal 4" made their debut at the Turin Motor Show. They were recognisable for their resin rather than chrome bumpers, which continued stylistically along the sides in the rubber bumper strips inherited from studies of E.S.V. (experimental safety-oriented) cars. In the cabin, the steering wheel was new and the dashboard was revamped, covered in carpet like much of the interior. The mechanics were also updated, with more comfortable suspension, more effective brakes and an alternator to replace the dynamo.

Fiat 126 - 1972
Fiat 126 - 1972
ENGINE
2 cylinders in line, rear, longitudinal, overhead valves, side camshaft 594 cm³
POWER
23 HP @ 4800 rpm
SPEED
over 105 km/h
WEIGHT
580 kg
DESIGN
Centro Stile Fiat
TYPE OF BODY
City car 2 doors

The Cassino plant was completed in 1972 to produce Fiat's new small car, but it was not the only one. The 126 was also built in other Italian industrial plants, such as Termini Imerese and Desio, and in Poland, where it remained in production until 2000.


The Fiat 126 was initially produced at the Cassino plant in the province of Frosinone, which was opened in 1972 specifically to host the production of the new small car. Fiat then designated other complexes to expand production and meet the numerous market demands: for special models, with right-hand drive or a sunroof, part of the production was moved to Termini Imerese, in the province of Palermo, and part to Desio in the Autobianchi plant, which had recently joined the Fiat galaxy.

But as early as 1973 part of the production also took place in Poland involving, over the years, two factories of Fabryka Samochodów Małolitrażowych (FSM: small car factory): Bielsko-Biała and Tychy. The Polish production was mainly absorbed by the domestic market, but from May 1985 all the 126s were produced in the Polish plants, including those marketed in Italy, which in fact took the new name "Fiat 126 - Made by FSM". Zastava in Yugoslavia also assembled the Zastava 126 for the domestic market using the components produced in Poland.

From July 1977, the engine capacity increased to 650 cc and as an evolution of the Personal equipment, four special series were created: first Black and Silver and then Red and Brown, with more refined interiors in which the tartan seat covers and adjustable headrests stood out. Adopting the "sole" version of the engine, as had happened in the past with the 500 Giardiniera and Bianchina, the 126 Bis was born, with tailgate and a real luggage compartment. It was the only 126 to require a water radiator to cool the engine.

In the last decade, the 126 was only produced for the Polish market under the name 126P 650 "Maluch", meaning “child”. The mechanics were adapted to meet the ecological regulations, up to the adoption of fuel injection and catalytic converter, while the other slight changes concerned the interior more than the bodywork. Production ended in 2000 after more than 1,350,000 units had been built in Italy and over 3,318,000 cars in Poland.

The Heritage HUB in Turin preserves the first and last units of the glorious utility car: the first one, produced in Cassino - exhibited for many years in the hall at the entrance to the factory - is characterised by a number of aesthetic and technical features, such as the "provisional" chassis number and the different location of the engine air intake compared to normal production cars; and the last Maluch to leave Tychy, a plant that became Fiat property and is now used by Stellantis for the production of the 500. The continuity between the Fiat 500 and the 126 continues to this day.

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