It was the early 1950s. The post war scars were still healing and the period had cast a tone of austerity over Europe. Legendary automobile designer Dante Giacosa was the head of design at Fiat at the time and already had successful creations such as the Fiat Topolino – the world’s first people’s car (far before the Beetle) – and the 508C under his belt. His next task would be to satisfy Fiat’s demands of making a family saloon that could carry a family of six with their luggage, be powered by an engine that was economical to run and be able to tackle the poor road infrastructure of developing nations – quite a daunting task. The 1953 Geneva motor show witnessed the premiere of this new car, called the Fiat 1100-03, and it was nothing short of revolutionary. That day, few would have predicted that this smartly proportioned car would have a colossal impact on the automotive sector of a distant country. This car will be solely responsible for kickstarting what would eventually be one of the largest automobile industries in the world – India.
For its time, the 1100 was extremely modern and immense development had gone into making the family-man’s Fiat. Fiat has always been an innovative company. The body was all-new and used a monocoque construction and it was even fitted with a heater to keep you comfortable and a radio to play your tunes on the go. It was powered by a 1089cc four-cylinder engine which, at the time, made a heady 36bhp and transferred all of that power to the rear wheels via a column-mounted four-speed gearbox. At just 810kg, this bantamweight Fiat sported an impressive power-to-weight ratio and was quick to earn the title of a ‘driver’s car’, becoming a common sight at the Mille Miglia 1,000 mile road race. The excellent chassis, with a well-placed rear axle and precise steering, meant that exotic coachbuilders like Zagato and Pininfarina used these as a base for some of their cars. In fact, the chassis and engine combination was so good that no lesser than Enzo Ferrari himself sent a telegraph to Dante Giacosa, congratulating him on his achievement! That gives 1100 owners some serious bragging rights down at the pub.
The Fiat chronology
In 1954, just a year after its debut in Geneva, the Fiat 1100 started trickling into India. ‘The new 1100 is not just a car with a history, it is a car with a future’, said the first print advertisement and in retrospect, they were spot on. Who would have guessed this car would go on to be one of the only few cars you could buy for half a century!
The first batch of the 1100s were directly imported from Italy and soon started being assembled at the Premier’s factory in Kurla, Mumbai. Now, when we hear Fiat, it is generally the Premier Padmini that pops up in our minds. But, the familiar Padmini shape didn’t evolve until 1964 and the Fiats before that went through a couple of generations too.
From its introduction in 1954 till about 1957, the first Fiat models were called the Elegant and colloquially called ‘Dukkar’ Fiats. The expressive name came from the fact that the rear of the car was rounded like well, a pig. These Fiats, with their rounded rear-ends, reverse opening ‘suicide doors’ and petite proportions look extremely charming, making them the most sought after. Between 1958 and 1962 came the ‘Select’ and ‘Super Select’ that lost the rounded boot but still retained a good deal of the curves. Presented in 1964 in India, the next generation of the 1100 was called the ‘Delight’ and it bid adieu to the bulbous body style for a sharply rectangular Padmini shape that we are all familiar with. This car had a good eight-year run and would be the last of the cars to be called a Fiat. From 1973 onwards, Premier Automobiles Limited licensed and manufactured the 1100 under its own name and called it the Premier President. The name ‘President’ was used just for a year, and 1974 onwards, it was called the Padmini till the end. In the early eighties, the Padmini’s engine was modestly uprated and the car produced about 44bhp. By the mid-nineties, sales had heavily depleted and in order to give it one last shot at attracting lost customers, Premier’s swansong, the S1, featured contemporary bits such as bucket seats, floor gears and a reworked engine head to produce 50bhp. But, it didn’t succeed.
The Fiat 1100 can be thought of as a car that offers a sensible entry point to the world of classic car motoring. It is one of the last of an era when cars were designed, not with scales, but by elegant strokes of a pen on a sheet of paper. Pop the hood and you will see an uncomplicated engine that you can proudly work on yourself. The great thing is you don’t have to break your bank (yet) to buy a classic like this and you can actually drive one everyday. That being said, unless you really are passionate about the car, Fiat ownership isn’t as easy as you may think. Spend a day with an ardent Fiat owner and you will hear countless interesting anecdotes and you will soon realise how serious and particular they are about their machines. And, owning one today isn’t that easy. Veteran Fiat collector Ronnie Vesuna voices his concerns by saying, “The sudden interest in Fiats has caused the spares to dry up and the prices of cars and spares have literally escalated tenfold over the last decade. Trim items such as hub caps that used to cost just about Rs 500 for a set have exponentially shot up to over Rs 7,500.”
Repairs and restoration aren’t easy or cheap either. Depending on the car, a full restoration can cost upto a good couple of lakhs, or even more. And parts are getting nearly impossible to find too. Areas such as Chor Bazaar in Mumbai and similar scrap markets around the country are your best bet to source parts from. It helps to stay in contact with the scrap dealers as you can stay informed about the arrival of parts and make a dash for them before someone else does.
It is a war out there!
Rebuilding the engine costs about Rs 20,000 but getting an experienced person to do the job is the real challenge. Even for a tune up, don’t expect to take your 1100 to a well-equipped garage and have it purring in a jiffy. Your best bet would be a grey-haired mechanic.
Driving a well maintained Fiat today has its own charm. The thin-rimmed steering wheel, the familiar whine from the transmission and the purely mechanical feel of every component evokes a strong sense of nostalgia. The world too looks a bit more interesting while peering through the windscreen of something old and characterful like the 1100. The 1100 was a great car during its time and is one of the most successful cars to have come out of Turin. It is a car that embodies a great balance between practicality and appeal that only Italians can manage. It may have been a car developed for an emerging post-war Italy and aimed at the slightly successful Italian man but, it found its true home here in India where it ferried around our families for over half a century. The 1100 particularly is a car that I will always cherish.
After all, it is the car I learnt to drive on.