Fiat's penetration of the European car market dropped from a peak of 13.7% in 1971
to 11% in 1973
, figures which were worrying at the Turin HQ. The reason many believed, and which the company promoted, was that the 124 was now very long in the tooth, it being introduced in 1966
That's not to say the 124 was not a popular car, with over two million being manufactured. Still, the 131 could not have come at a better time, it slotted in the Fiat range between the 128 and 132. The 131 was given the Mirafiori name after the Turin suburb where the cars were produced.
Naming the car in this way marked a break with the former Fiat convention, established in the 1960s, of naming their mainstream models only with a three digit number, and it set the pattern for Fiat to adopt Anglo-American style car naming practice, with carefully chosen names for subsequent new models. Other models to introduce a name at around the same time were the Panda and Strada (Ritmo)
Built of very conventional construction, the 131 retained fairly boxy lines that were markedly more attractive than those of the slab-sided 124. Panicked by the fuel crisis at the time, Fiat decided to leave the twin-cam engines out of the options offered when the car was first launched.
Fiat did admit to the motoring press however that early prototypes had run in twin-cam form and that if the European economy sorted itself out this option would be made available. Few doubted this would be the case, although enthusiasts had to wait for the release of the Supermirafiori.
At launch the range consisted of three basic versions: two-door and four-door saloons and a five-door estate, each of which was offered with the option of a 1297 c.c. 65 b.h.p. DIN engine or a 1585 c.c. 75 b.h.p. DIN engine, both with pushrod operated valves. The engines may have been new, though they were obviously based on the 132 block; the single camshafts in the crankcases were driven by toothed belts, and operated the parallel inclined valves in the alloy cylinder heads via a new design of tappet and very short pushrods.
The strokes were the same in both versions, the bore being 76 mm. in the case of the 1297 c.c. unit and 84 mm. in the case of the 1585 c.c. engine. Both had twin choke carburetors. A maximum speed of 93 m.p.h. was claimed for the 1300 and 99.4 for the 1600. Exceptional thermal efficiency from a patented design combustlion chamber resulted in excellent fuel economy.
The four-speed gearbox was carried over from the 124, however the 5 speed box was a new, improved design. A General Motors automatic gearbox was available on the 1600. On the suspension and steering side the most noteworthy improvement was the incorporatlion of rack-and-pinion steering. An adjustable steering column was fitted to the Specials. Front suspension was by McPherson struts, coil springs, with very long suspension movement, and an anti-roll bar, a similar design to that of the 128. At the rear the live axle had indlined coil spring/damper units and was located by four longitudinal arms and a Panhard rod. Nine-inoh front disc brakes and 9 in. drums were fitted, with servo assisstance and a dual system.
Innovation's on the car included a centralised electrical control box in the front passenger compartment, to which three separate looms simply "plugged in". Underbody protection included wax treatment inside the box sections and a covering of PVC. The wheelbase grew by 2.8 inches over the outgoing 124, it providing an extra 3 inches of interior width. The flow-through ventilation was excellent, as were the seats, particularly the reclining cloth-covered ones as fitted to the four-headlamp Special, which also featured a higher grade of trim and better instruments. The conventional shape allowed for a very roomy boot, too.
Handling was very predictable and generally very good, though not exceptional. The ride was smooth and the brakes more than adequate for the performance of the early pushhrod models. The reduction in wind-noise compared with the 124s and 125s was particularly noticeable, making the on the 131 Mirafiori comfortable and relatively quiet when cruising at high speed.
The Fiat 131 Mirafiori, smart styling but still very boxy...
The 1600 Mirafiori On The Road
While the Mirafiori 1600CL might be put down as "just another car", it had a distinctive flair and feel to it, something that was always uniquely Italian.
The Mirafiori was a very straightforward package. The four-cylinder overhead valve engine shared the same cast iron block as the 1300 engine, with a common 71.5mm stroke. By increasing the bore from 76.0 to 84.0mm, the capacity went up from 1,297 to 1,585 c.c. Carburetion was through a twin choke Weber or Solex carburetor, and with a 9.2 to 1 compression ratio, the 1600 engine developed an unremarkable 75 bhp at 5,400 rpm.
Drive was taken to the live rear axle through a five-speed manual gearbox (as previously mentioned, a GM three-speed automatic was available) - which in top gave a useful, but by no means super high-geared, 19.9mph/1,000rpm. The suspension followed the same classic lines, with MacPherson struts at the front, and the rear axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod.
Motoring journalists at the time noted that the engine was "...more lusty than refined"
, churning out the power eagerly. There was an automatic choke, which gave clean cold starts, with a smooth reduction in rich mixture as the engine warmed up. Warm-up was also helped by the fitting of an electric rather than belt-drive cooling fan. With the rev counter orange warning section starting at 5,800 rpm, and reaching the red line at 6,000 rpm, maximum speeds in the lower gears were 28, 51 and 78 mph; there was little need to look too closely at the rev counter needle, as your ears were made only too aware of the engine at very high revs.
The Mirafiori had a rather chunky, slightly heavy gear change, which while it cannot be called difficult, was by no means anywhere near the slick, silky changes available from cars being manufactured in the land of the rising sun at the time. The angle at which the gear lever protruded from the central control was also unusual.
If not exciting, at least the Mirafiori could take the fight up to its rivals. 50 miles per hour came up in 9.2 seconds, and 60 in 13.7, and still with the pedal to the metal you would pass 70 in 19.2 seconds. The engines flexbility was good, albeit with a degree of rather shuddering courtesy of the engine mounting rubbers.
A Little Nose Heavy
The steering was unusually heavy for a car of its size. Manoeuvering at low speed was fairly heavy work, despite the Mirafiori running on very ordinary 167 SR 13in. tires. Perhaps the reason for such heavy steering can be found in the steering rack, which was mounted in heavy rubber bushes, which did tend to
"work" under full load, giving a rather indistinct feel. But the faster you went, the better the steering felt, the 131 seeming to come alive. Only on the straight ahead position did a hint of vagueness remain. The 131 was also a little nose-heavy (54.0 per cent of its 2,268 lb unladen) balance lead inevitably to understeer, which could build up to a marked degree if corners were taken late and clumsily.
Ride quality was best described as "fair" on poorly surfaced roads, yet the Mirafiori was able to tackle really rough roads in a surefooted manner. Give the car a smooth road and the story was very diffferent, with a well-damped, reassuringly firm feel.
The turning circle was rather large for a car of this size, the average between-kerbs circle being nearly 35 ft, with a rather low-geared 3.4 turns from lock to lock.
Fiat used 8.9 in. discs at the front and 9.0 in. drums at the rear of the Mirafiori, with a direct acting vacuum servo. During road testing some motoring journalists commented that they felt that the pedal pressure was a little too biased towards the lower end of the range, so that
just 25 lb resulted in 0.5g stoppping. Initially, this could lead to some rather sudden nose-dive stops in traffic. This bias was far less noticeable the higher the speed, so that there was little or no tendency to overbrake when approaching a corner quickly.
Until the brakes had been fully faded and allowed to recover, they tended to show signs of disappearing when the car was being driven very hard. However, once the pad and linings had been' 'cooked", resistance to fading was excelllent. The handbrake, working on the rear drums, held the car eassily on the 1 in 3 test hill, and on the level gave a sensible 0.359.
Behind the wheel
The driving position did not suit everybody, most left feeling they would need long arms and short legs to get comfortable - this was despite the fact that the steering column was adjustable (over a limited range, for angle but not for reach). The two spokes sloped downwards to give a very clear view of the instruments. And right in the centre was the no-nonsense horn
button, where it cannot be missed in the heat of a moment - again very important for an Italian car.
A thick, long-wearing cord trim was used on the seats, the general level of support being good. The driver was faced with three square instrument windows. On the left was the speedometer, with trip and total mileage recorders. On the right was the rev counter, with the clock, fuel and water temmperature gauges in the centre space. The warning lamps were along the lower edges of the three windows, the only other warning lamp being on the left, alongside the speedometer, for the rear fog lamp, which operated only when dipped headlamps were selected.
Flanking the column were four switches, those on the right being for hazard warning and heated rear window while those on the left cover the main lighting and rear fog lamp. The lighting was a little different from most other cars; when the switch was in the normal posiition, the lighting worked only when the ignition is switched on. To use the parking lamps, the switch had to be put to the opposite position. The headlights, which could be adjusted from under the bonnet to compensate for load, had a reasonnable spread and range.
The various air flow and temperature controls for the heating system tend to work in an illogical direction for those used to Australian, American, British and Japanese cars. But to those outside Italy, that was just one of those things that would be a constant reminder as to the origins of the car.
A two-speed fan, noisy even on the slower setting, gave a reasonable supply of air. Fresh, unheated air, was fed through vents in the centre of the facia and at either end; the facia-end vents could be adjusted so that heated air was bled from the screen demister to be ducted into the doors to clear the front side windows.
Unusual, even for the 1970's, was the single speed windscreen wiper. It did have an intermittent action, but at high speed the visibility was less than good.
All Fiats of the era were fitted with Voxon radios as standard, the unit fitted to the 1600CL also including a cassette player. Unusually (although we would expect it these days) the whole radio could be quickly slid out from its carrier
and removed to a place of safety when the car was parked.
The stylists imagination went a little awry when it came to the glove locker design. Instead of the usual drop down or lift up lid, the Mirafiori had two sliding lids, which were prone to damaging items, particularly service books and the like, if they were left beneath them. Thankfully there were elasticated pockets in both front doors for maps and so on.
Living with the Mirafiori 1600CL
Open the forward hinged bonnet of the Mirafiori you were presented with an object lesson in neat layout. The engine sat well back towards the bulkhead, with the radiator offset slightly to the right (strangely this did not help with the weight distribution of the car). The battery and screen washer reservoir were on the right, with the radiator header tank on the left. All had translucent plastic cases to make level checking quick and easy. The
fuel pump, with the sump dipstick alongside, were very open. Headlamp bulbs could be easily replaced from under the bonnet without using any tools.
There was neat and well-fitting tough plastic trim on the floor and back of the boot space, which could be quickly removed to get at the spare wheel which lay flat in a well under the floor. However, the boot sides were only single skinned meaning care needed to be taken when loading up.
Release Of The Series 2
The 131 got a minor facelift in 1978. New DOHC, or "Twin Cam" (TC) engines arrived, and these models were badged as SuperMirafiori. The Supermirafiori had the 95 bhp twin overhead camshaft version of the 1585 c.c. engine, and in its four-door saloon form cost £4,990 in the UK, or some £525 more than the 1600CL. The biggest change exterior wise was the introduction of larger rectangular shaped front lights, new bumpers, new bigger rear lights and new interior trim. In 1978, the 2-door sporting version Racing (Mirafiori Sport) with 115 PS (113 hp/85 kW) DOHC engine, was launched. This car had four round headlights (the inner headlights being smaller than the outer ones, a different grille, spoilers and extended wheel arches, and a short-throw 5 speed gearbox. The Racing had top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph). Diesel engined versions also had four round headlights (equally sized). The Familiare (wagon/estate) was renamed as Panorama
The final iteration would appear in 1981, with the release of the Series 3. The 2.0 liter twin cam engine went to the SuperMirafiori, and all models received a slightly updated interior including revised instruments and, thankfully, a single-piece glovebox lid. The SuperMirafiori also received larger lower door cladding. In 1983 the production of saloon version was discontinued, but the estate named now as 131 Maratea was produced with two engine choices 2.0 TC (115 PS) and 2.5D (72 PS) until 1985, and replaced then with Regata Weekend. These last versions featured 4 round headlights and the by-now familiar 5-bar grille.