The history of four world-leading Italian motoring brands
From the most emblematic models to the most successful, revolutionary people, and the most significant events, this section illustrates and celebrates the cornerstones of Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia and Abarth.
With a vision that goes beyond electric mobility, the Fiat Downtown overturned conventional wisdom with its original, practical and functional solutions. Other features were so technically advanced that they anticipated mass production by decades, in a three-seater micro-car focused on liveability and on the driver.
In January 1993, Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States of America, took office in the White House. Once again in the US, Los Angeles inspired the concept car unveiled by Fiat at the Geneva International Motor Show that March, named after one its best-known neighbourhoods – Downtown.
In Clinton's time, in big US cities and elsewhere, life was very complicated and pollution levels were rising higher and higher. Local governments were running for cover to discourage private traffic with prohibitive parking fees; it is common knowledge that more and more cars in LA, and elsewhere, will soon be turning towards zero emissions.
With this wider picture in mind, way back in the late ’80s Fiat was already thinking up a three-seater electric micro-car. The two electric motors located in the rear wheel hubs delivered 9.5 hp, enough to run the Downtown at up to 100 km/h. A special sodium sulphate battery gave it a range of 300 km at an average speed of 50 km/h. The car had an aluminium chassis and body, resulting in a weight of only 700 kg.
These figures – which were already great for the time – were only a starting point; the decisions directed on one hand towards sustainability, but most of all towards overturning the concept of functionality and habitability, overrun conventional thought, then as now.
The Fiat Downtown was only 2.5 metres long but was almost 1.5 m high (1.49 m, to be exact). The passenger compartment had three seats, with the driver in a central forward position and the two side passengers slightly behind. The unusual position of these two seats had the backrests positioned towards the outside of the car to leave room for the rear wheels, while the passengers’ legs – with their knees at the same level as the driver’s backrest – broadened towards the doors. From the three seats, the passengers had a wide view of the outside world, with nothing to support their backs or heads so they could see the horizon in front of them.
Access was gained via two large doors forming part of the floor; the unusual shape let the driver put their foot down while still sitting, so they could easily get up into an almost upright position while still remaining within the car. Safety was thought out to the minutest detail: the driver's belt was fixed directly to their seat, which also offered other new solutions such as a child seat with side headrests, fully built into one of the two passenger seats.
Roberto Giolito – designer of the Downtown with the guidance of Chris Bangle (then Head of Fiat Design, now in charge of the Stellantis Heritage department) –tells us more, not only about the fascinating details of this concept car but, most of all, about how every component of the three models produced -two complete cars and a “mule” to test reliability and battery range- really worked and were not just an exercise in style.
The first detail Roberto Giolito gives us considers the choice of length, of exactly 2.5 metres and not a centimetre more. This peremptory requirement for its measurements relates to the option of train transport: 2.5 metres mean the Downtown could be placed sideways, loading it as a mule but being able to stow a greater quantity than in the conventional position lengthways. The economy of large-scale distribution of the city car was already on the cards in the design phase.
The external shapes are obtained by subtraction, as if on a beach with a sandcastle: thin portions were removed from a “box volume”, to create curves starting from the roof, descending towards the windscreen and eventually to the small front bonnet. The passion for three-seater cars, or those featuring the number 3, was also the signature of the Italian designers in subsequent models: the Trepiuno concept car on which the current New 500 is based, but even earlier the Fiat Multipla, where two rows of three seats and other details but more generally the approach to the concept of habitability were taken directly from the Downtown.
The ergonomics and versatility of the passenger compartment were looked at in the minutest detail, mainly because of the limited space. All the dashboard controls were clearly visible and intuitive, as was the “shoulder blade” and its copious space inside the doors, featuring air vents, window buttons, a lever to unlock the car and a protruding handle for an easier grip from the central driver’s seat.
The design of this final detail would later be taken up in the doors of the Fiat Multipla.
The multiple functions in the passenger compartment were also facilitated by the backrests of the side seats, which could be removed individually and fixed one behind the other, to leave room for bulky items such a cello in its case, or just for shopping bags. Giolito notes that the shape of the seats was designed with the advice of an authoritative physiotherapist; the apparently simple ergonomics of the driver's seat were guaranteed by the form of the backrest and how it pushed the lumbar forwards.
As well as a navigation system using the then highly innovative GPS satellite network, the high-tech components included LED position lights in the front and rear, together with the use of poly-elliptical headlights. This sophisticated optical technology reduced the dimensions of the lights, resulting in a very precise and homogeneous cone of brightness. The same headlights would later be used in sports cars such as the Fiat Coupé and Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione.
In Giolito’s words, the most fascinating memories involve the experience based on the GPS network to create an unprecedentedly futuristic navigation system to map the city of Turin. Invented by the US military, the GPS system had recently been released for public use. Its capabilities remained restricted to companies that supplied systems and services for their army; to develop its maps, Giolito says he travelled to a specialist facility in Turin and had to be blindfolded – for obvious reasons of military secrecy – to be taken into a room to work on the GPS software for the Downtown.
One of the three models produced is now kept in the Eco & Sustainable section of the Heritage HUB exhibition space, having long been used for experiments and studies in the field of electric mobility.
The model painted green is also on show in Turin, at Mauto, Italy’s national automobile museum.
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