Here at ViaRETRO we love anniversaries. Especially big anniversaries like a 50th. However, while the car in question has only had the honour of celebrating its 40th, it still seems a little unfair to me that the whole world seemingly ignored it throughout 2018. So while a little late to the party, we at ViaRETRO shall now do our part in putting right what is wrong. In doing so, we will not just revisit the FIAT Ritmo – or Strada as it was called in the UK – but also look at a few other (mainly) Italian cars and subjects in general.
And… why did I choose this subject?
Well, not long ago my wife told me she had read somewhere that the introduction of the FIAT Ritmo/Strada in 1978 in Turin, took place roughly at the same time as the kidnapping of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, and that he was found dead in the trunk of a Renault 4, incidentally “4” days after the exhibition ended… Surely there’s a story there for you, she said… maybe because I have often said, that we ought to have a Renault 4L – a “Quatrelle” – as a second classic car, since the Renault 4L is such a no-nonsense classic car to enjoy pure minimalism in.
But the response from my wife has always been: No! Mainly because her family owned a “Quatrelle” at a time of great conflict in the family, and the narrow cabin often formed the framework of fierce quarrels and therefore remains a bad memory for her. When she at the same time realized that Aldo Moro had been found dead in that same model of car, it only finalised her decision: We will never own a “Quatrelle“…
But let’s get back to the FIAT Ritmo/Strada, which as mentioned above was introduced in 1978. Under the skin, it really didn’t bring much new to the table, as the platform was still based on its predecessor, the FIAT 128. Also the driveline remained much the same as they continued with the well-known engine developed by Aurelio Lampredi. The engine was actually not bad at all, but time showing its age for the rest of the chassis. It was on quite different parameters that the FIAT Ritmo/Strada represented anything new: Its design language, including the use of materials – primarily the use of plastic – and the way it which it was produced.
The FIAT Ritmo/Strada was created in 1970s Italy; a country afflicted by chaos and political extremism practiced by both right and left wing. From both sides, the goal – albeit with different motives – was to destabilise the Italian state. It was an era where assassinations and terrorist bombs were an almost regular part of the Italian reality. Albeit, the kidnapping – and later killing – of Aldo Moro was perhaps one of the most publicised terror actions in Italy.
On the 16th March 1978, Aldo Moro was on his way to a cabinet meeting, sitting in the back seat of his official car, a FIAT 130, with two “Carabinieri” in front – one to drive the car and another in the passenger seat, the head of the police team. Right behind the Fiat 130, was a civil police car – a white Alfa Romeo Alfetta – with three more “Carabinieri” in it. But despite the fact, that Aldo Moro was seemingly well protected by several “Carabinieri”, a fatal terrorist attack was carried out by the terrorist group known as the Brigate Rosse (The Red Brigades) that day. At the time, most of the founding members of the Red Brigades were actually spending time behind bars; therefore, the terrorist organization and of course this terrorist action was at that time led by Mario Moretti. The terrorists managed to stop the Aldo Moro motorcade using two FIAT 128s. They dramatically jumped out of the cars and opened fire with automatic weapons towards both the FIAT 130 and Alfetta. Reportedly, 91 shots were fired of which 45 shots hit the five “Carabinieri”. Unsurprisingly, none of them survived the attack. But Aldo Moro did survive (at first at least) and was kidnapped from the scene in a FIAT 132 as part of an extremist political blackmailing action.
Finally, all of 55 days later, the Red Brigades decided to kill Aldo Moro, due to their blackmailing plans not going as they had anticipated. According to the official reconstruction after a series of trials, the killer was Mario Moretti. Moro was placed in the trunk of a red Renault 4, covered by a blanket and then shot ten times, whereafter the car with Moro’s body in the trunk was left on Via Michelangelo Caetani at the Tiber River near the Roman Ghetto. It’s for good reason that this era in Italy is often related to as “Anni di Piombo” which translates into “years of lead”.
It was said that The Red Brigades with this attack tried to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, trying to arrange an exchange with Aldo Moro for the arrested Red Brigades members and, on the other hand, trying to eliminate him since Aldo Moro was considered a mediator trying to bridge the communist party PCI and the Christian Democrats – an “unholy” alliance between the proletariat and the capitalists.
In fact, it was actually such an alliance which had brought the Soviet Russian steel to Italy. During the mid-1960s the Soviet Union had realised, that a more modern “middle class” car was required for their home market and had begun to look for a business partner. The Italian Communist Party, PCI, was at that time one of the largest in Western Europe and within Italy it had a great influence on the unions, whereas the unions on their side were used to sit at the other side of the negotiating table, so to speak, with the Agnelli family from the FIAT dynasty. FIAT was at the same time in the process of replacing the Fiat 124 model, but… if the 124 model (as a basic principle) could be sold to a new emerging market like the Soviet Union, it was probably because there was money – or as it turned out – steel in the business case.
The countries of the Soviet sphere were experiencing a lack of currency which led to many trades being carried out as barter transactions instead. In this particular case, it was the “plug and play” car project which saw the FIAT 124 transform into the Lada, and in return vast amounts of Russian steel was duly delivered to Italy. However, the steel was not of the best quality and there were many rumours that it was merely recycled from old ships. Some suggested that the steel might even have been recycled from old Whiskey-class submarines. Truth be told, none of these stories have ever been thoroughly verified. An altogether different theory works on the supply chain being miserable flawed during the handling process, with the consequence that the corrosion of the steel had actually already started before the surface treatment had even begun.
But thus far all this talk about car materials has focused on steel. There’s no denying that many cars at that time experienced rot problems – not least cars from Italy. But simultaniously, the 1970s and 1980s also symbolise the era where other materials made their entrance into automotive production – especially plastic. Plastic itself was of course not unknown at that time or in the years prior, but plastic was not just plastic. New types of plastic, which were processable, were weather-resistant and had sufficient mechanical strength, gained ground. Designers embraced the new plastic material – not only in cars – but equally in homes, where plastic found its way to almost everything from smaller household appliances to interior decoration and modern design.
At the same time, a minimalism in both form and color was sought which was illustrated in multiple and extremely varied products right from the Olivetti Valentine typewriter to the music system Brionvega RR126. Both these items came from the estate of David Bowie, and were sold at an auction after his death, and they probably correspond quite well with the predominant style of his home during that time.
Many car designers were searching for more of this minimalistic style in their own designs. One of them was Sergio Sartorelli, who had come to FIAT’s Centro Stile from Ghia, where he had been responsible for the design of the VW Type 34 Ghia.
Sergio Sartorelli was given responsibility for the design of the FIAT Ritmo/Strada, and although the car in its hatchback layout was very similar to many of the other hatchbacks of the seventies – with the VW Golf undeniably leading the way – it nevertheless “drove” its own path in many of its details and in the extensive use of plastic. The overall design language aimed to deliberately emphasise the function of each individual detail and/or part, probably best exemplified by the vast expanses of plastic in the resilient bumpers and the vents, which were completely visible wherever they were placed. This was in contrast to how designs of earlier car models had typically strived for symmetry; a fake grille or tube here and there was (and is) the most common method, as long as it was done in an attempt of creating symmetry in the design.
The FIAT Ritmo/Strada had a decidedly boxy, sharp and crisp appearance, but at the same time, several round design elements were incorperated as a contrast. Most obviously, those highlighted round headlights broke up all the straight lines, but the round design elements continued in the door handles. Even the steel wheels managed to combine the rounded with the edgy.
We have now arrived at how the FIAT Ritmo/Strada was produced… and this too brought something new to the table. The FIAT Group fought with the communist dominated unions and pondered how to reduce their influence and eventually reduce costs. The solution was completely in the spirit of the time, as it is of today – industrial robots.
“Вотвойслуга, ятвойработник” (ya tvoi sluga ya tvoi rabotnik) as Kraftwerk sang in “The Robots”… it translates to: “I am your servant, I am your worker…”
It wasn’t entirely popular, and FIAT didn’t dare to shout too much about it in Italy, but in other markets they were much more daring. Back then, the world was a “bigger” place, so what happened in e.g. Great Britain was not necessarily discovered back home in Italy. In the video below, the FIAT Strada being hand-built entirely by robots is promoted, accompanied by music from “The Barber in Seville”.
The commercial excels by being very rather long and really brings home its point. All the while we are left to ponder: Why was the car called FIAT Strada and not FIAT Ritmo in some areas of the world? The answer is not quite clear, but the name ended up being FIAT Strada in the Anglo-Saxon part of the world. The word “Ritmo” means, as you may know, “rhythm” in Italian, and this combined with the fact that Ritmo supposedly also was the name of a brand of condoms… well, some speculations have been that this combination could have given cause for certain unwanted associations. Perhaps that’s why it was deemed better to simply name it after something from the car’s more natural environment, thus naming it after the Italian word for “Street” aka “Strada”.
Fast forwarding to current day, many classic enthusiasts dislike excessive visible plastics in old cars. Therefore many cars from that era seem to struggle in becoming fully excepted in the classic car community, where many still prefer veneer wood and fragrant leather on the inside with chrome and polished stainless steel being the preference on the outside. Some even go as far as claiming that the “plastic cars” were an expression of the decline of the respective brands utilising plastic in their designs. Personally, I see it more as a direction of style from a certain period, which (as with many other things) very well might become popular and even collectable again at some point.
Dear ViaRETRO reader, how do you feel about the Ritmo/Strada? About its styling? About its excessive use of plastic? About the robots that built it? And about Russian steel? Perhaps we might even give a shout out to other “plastic cars” which deserve a mention…