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.