By on December 23, 2013

latUnoGrazieMille

Another victim of government meddling in Brazil’s auto market is dead. Fiat’s venerable old Uno, redubbed the Mille a while ago, will not receive airbags and ABS, as per a newly mandated law, and thus will go into history’s dustbin alongside VW’s Kombi. As a farewell, Fiat has unleashed into the Brazilian market its own last edition, the Grazie Mille (“Thanks a Thousand”  a clever pun on the car’s official name, Mille, though the market still calls it Uno). It can be had for slightly over $13,000, and it’s the most well equipped Uno Mille of recent times. A nod back to when this car had the panache to dispute middle class families’ hearts.

1stUno1

Launched in 1983, (in Cape Canaveral to underscore its modernity), the Uno had been penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro for Fiat’s luxury arm Lancia. Seeing great potential in the car however, Fiat took it for itself and turned into its first world car. Italy ended up producing over 6,000,000 little Unos. Production there stopped in 1995, as did sales in Western Europe, but production continued in places, like Brazil, Argentina, Poland, Morocco, South Africa, India and Pakistan. In Brazil, production started in 1984. In many ways, the Uno introduced Brazilians to modern motoring and was the gateway for Fiat to become a key player in Brazil, taking its consumers seriously at a time when most OEMs did not.

1stUno2

At first, many Brazilians did not understand the car. It was ridiculed and nicknamed “orthopedic boot” due to its unusual design. However, it offered Brazilians modern suspension systems, passive and active safety systems like crumple zones(a rarity at the time), a comfortable ride, excellent seating and visibility and modern ergonomics even by present standards. Its greatest attraction was the inordinate amount of space due to its boxy shape and taller height (a trick many later emulated). The first engines were 1.0 and 1.3L, 52 and 59 hp, and there were gasoline and ethanol versions. For the time, performance was pretty good. Top speeds were 140km/h and 150km/h combined with very low consumption.

premio1

In 1985, the Uno’s sedan version, called Premio in Brazil (and Duna in other markets) made its first appearance. It came with a larger 1.5L engine with 71hp. In 1986, the station wagon, called Elba, made its debut. With a pleasant design, it offered incredible trunk space, about 600 liters.

uno1.5R 2

In 1987, the sports version. Called the Uno R, it offered sporting decorations. No matter the color of the rest of the car, the back hatch was always matte black. The seats belts and other details came in a bright red. I remember a friend getting a yellow one. Boy, were we envious! Though it used the same 1.5L engine as the tamer versions, many alterations were made such as double carburetion and a higher compression ratio helped the car produce 86hp, good enough for a 0-100km/h run of 11 seconds. As a comparison, it was faster in that measurement than the Brazilian Ford Escort XR3, probably the most desired car of the time, but that cost almost double the Uno. Another first then, real performance for the “masses”.

elba1

In 1987, another “sort of” first. The Brazilian Premio and Elba (the wagon shown above) were being exported to Europe (as was the Uno a bit later). In those markets, 4 doors were obbligatorio. As a result, Fiat re-introduced 4 door cars into the Brazilian market. The story goes that Brazilians confused 4 door cars with taxis. As a result, for private use, people rejected 4 doors. This insanity was compounded by makers only offering cars with 2 doors, be them hatches or family sedans and station wagon. When Fiat re-introduced these cars with 4 doors, and offered the Uno hatch with four doors, sales grew and grew, eventually forcing everyone else to catch up.

workFiorino1

In 1988, the family was complete. The Uno Fiorino van and pickup were introduced. The pickup was a hit in urban areas. It soon became a craze and young people specially loved to be seen in one. Other makers were compelled to follow. However, the pickup never really lost its work roots. It soon became a very flexible line with very basic versions for work, and ever more luxurious and decorated versions for play.

uno turbo

In 1990, the cars got bigger engines. The 1.6L was introduced. That same year, another first. Following a government mandate to reduce fuel consumption and bring car prices down in yet another effort to mass-market the automobile, the government created special tax treatment to the 800cc to 1L engine class. Taxes on these models were of just (!) 20 percent, half of what was charged on larger engines. In 60 days, Fiat had its version ready. At first, the 1.0 Uno, now called Uno Mille in allusion to the motor, only had 48hp and took over 20 seconds to get to 100km/h (and eventually its top speed of 135km/h). However, it was a very refined engine in its functioning and gained RPMs very quickly and satisfyingly and, thus, didn’t eliminate all driving pleasure. The competition could only muster any opposition almost a year and a half later when the Chevette Junior and VW Gol arrived. Using engines that were even more inadequate and being the cars heavier than the Uno, it would take a whole new generation of cars to really give the Uno Mille some opposition.

In 1992, due to new emissions regulations, Fiat was forced to give the Uno and its siblings fuel injection and digital ignitions. This of course resulted in more power, better economy and easier starts. For the Mille however, fuel injection was deemed too expensive. So, Fiat came up with a genial solution, it added only the digital ignition and a double carburetion to that 1.0 engine. The result? The fastest 1.0 L car in the whole world at the time. And I can attest to that, I had one.

This Uno Mille sported many firsts for 1.0L cars. It was the first to offer 4 doors, a “smart” air conditioner that turned off under hard acceleration in order to not penalize performance too much, power steering, metallic colors even for the basest cars. It offered dignity to buyers of smaller cars. Yes, you did sacrifice some performance, but on the other hand you had a car with decent finishing, high content at a fraction of the price of higher cars.

In real terms, the 90s was a decade in which Brazilian cars did become cheaper, even while they were becoming more comfortable. Touches like Fiat’s development of an AC that would actually work rather well with the smaller engines were the icing on the cake. Other makers, at other times, had added extra equipment to their smaller cars. It never worked as this equipment was not originally developed for these cars, but rather adapted. Fiat was the first to understand this and offer the Brazilian consumer a well integrated and rounded off small car that could compete in content and performance with cars the next level up. The strategy ended up working so well, that there were years in the 90s were 1.0L cars made up 75 percent of the market. Only different taxation schemes by the government would change the panorama.

uno turbo2

In 1994, another first. The first Brazilian factory turbo. Equipped with a 1.4L engine and a Garrett T2 turbo, that little pocket rocket produced 118 ponies. It could more than hang with naturally aspirated 2.0 engines of the times. Top speed was close to 200km/h and the 0-100 run was done in a breath over 9 seconds. Not only that, the brakes were better as was the suspension re-worked. Internally it offered a degree of finishing that only much more expensive cars had. In a publicity stunt (AFAIK, for the first time in Brazil), Fiat ministered a driving course to the first takers.

In 1996, the Fiat Palio arrived. A more modern project, it was also a world car, though a world car destined only for the Third World. In Western Europe, the Punto had taken up the place preciously occupied by the Uno. The Palio was supposed to be the death knell for the Uno but it never quite did it. Little by little the different body styles of the Uno died off. The Fiorino pickup was substituted by the Strada, the Elba SW ceded its place to the Palio Weekend, the Premio died off to give rise to the Siena. The Uno hatch and the Uno Fiorino van though lived on and on.

A new engine family for the Uno only helped extend its lifespan, despite Fiat’s plans for the Palio to take over. The Uno got only the 1.0L version and was rechristened “Mille” by Fiat (the market ignored the new name). The Fiorino would use larger versions of the new engine family, dubbed “FIRE”. Lighter than the Palio, the older Uno beat the young upstart in economy and performance. So the market continued buying the old horse, and it soon developed a reputation as the car that would not die.

uno lada

In 2004, Fiat gave the UNO a Lada-like restyle. It also simplified the interiors even more. The motor for the back wiper, for example, now had no plastic cover and sat there exposed to dust and baggage. However, as the Uno shared some bits and pieces with the Palio, some interior items improved. The instruments become more complete and the whole steering column was shared with the Palio.  Many started likening the Uno to the old Fusca (VW Beetle). It was past its prime, but the market still bought it. It was the most economic car in Brazil. Parts were cheap, plentiful, anybody knew how to wrench it.

In the last 10 years of its, Fiat caved in somewhat to the market and stopped trying to kill it. It was soon restyled, the interiors improved somewhat and it received the same alterations in engines that the 1.0L Palio received. Sometimes it even outsold its younger brother. It lived long enough to see its new incarnation.

In 2010, to great critical acclaim, Fiat introduced the Novo Uno. With the round square design theme, it would handily outsell the Palio, until the new Palio was introduced. Sharing almost nothing with the older Uno and Palio (as it’s the result of a new platform), the new Uno nevertheless took on the Uno name. This name is the name of the car that just won’t die, the Uno family was the basis for the Palio family, which was to take on all competitors and raise Fiat up to first place in Brazil, a position it has now occupied for 12 straight years.

The old Uno has sold around 3.5 million units in Brazil. Add to that the 1.3 million Uno-derived sedans, station wagons, pickups and vans. I helped them along. I had 3. I can attest to their robustness, modernity and adequacy to the conditions in our market. I lost interest in about the year 2000 as by then most competitors had caught up, if not surpassed it, in terms of dynamics, comfort and economy though few could touch it on price.

The Fiat Uno, and cars inspired, created and developed to compete with it, cars that took the Uno’s innovations and ran with them, are the cars that my generation grew up on. Much more than the Beetle, which sold in much more modest numbers, this is the car that put Brazil on wheels.

Hat tip: most of the numbers here were taken from Brazilian enthusiast site, bestcars.com.br, that has an exhaustive history of this car and many others. The opinions though are my own.

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27 Comments on “Dispatches do Brasil: Grazie Mille, Fiat’s Old Uno is Dead, Long Live the Uno!...”


  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    It didn’t look so completely rubbish before it became the Mille! I really like the Uno Turbo i.e., it’s pretty sporty and looks good in red. The front is a dead ringer for a similar gen Sentra.

  • avatar
    AlfaRomasochist

    As it turns out, I have a Brazilian Fiat Mille story too. :)

    Teresina, Piaui – early 1997 or thereabouts. I was teaching a lesson to a fellow named Barroso clear out in the Mocambinho bairro when an absolutely enormous thunderstorm hit. Barroso was gente boa (good people) – didn’t much care about religious lessons but he liked having the crazy Americans over to chat.

    We lived a good 30 minute walk from there, near the airport. Barroso insisted on giving us a ride in his brand new Mille. For the American readers you may think you know what a bare-bones vehicle is like but there hasn’t been anything like the Mille in the US market for years – if ever. One windshield wiper, one sun visor (for the driver, claro), one liter engine, two doors and a hatch. That’s it. We loaded up and headed out once the storm died down a bit – Barroso, his wife and two kids, and two Americanos all crammed into the little hatchback.

    We hadn’t made it very far when the main avenue through Mocambinho flooded. Barroso wisely stopped and watched the city bus push through the flood – the waters came to the top of the bus wheels, and the wave it pushed in front went all the way up to the windshield.

    Barroso was gente boa but he was also maluco. “Puxa vida!”, he said. “If the bus can make it through so can I!” He went for it.

    The mighty 999cc motor gave up the ghost right as the water reached the top of the doors. There was nothing for it – my companion and I got out of the little car and pushed it through thigh-deep water onto one of the side streets, bid a familia Barroso adeus and squelched our way back home.

    I was sure the car was dead as a doornail. To my shock the next time we stopped by Barroso’s house it was out in front looking none the worse for wear. Apparently all the mechanic had to do was pull the plugs and crank the engine to eject water from the cylinders and it fired right up. There’s a lot to be said for tried and true, stone-ax simple technology.

    • 0 avatar
      Dimwit

      Killer Nym!

      This is the appeal that most in NA have lost. The simple appliance. Few geegaws to break and when something does go wrong, simple to fix. It’s now up to the cheap imports to hold up that tradition like the mighty Lada but put head to head against the market they can’t sell even at a bargain price. Sad. We’re too damn rich for our own good.

    • 0 avatar

      That Barroso was very crazy indeed. I have been in similar situations though I always try to see just how up is the water. A bus is a good indication. usually, if the water is up to half of the height of the bus’s wheel, you’re good to go.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      We flooded a Palio like that in Venezuela. The engine died when we tried to go around a corner and speed fell too much. We pushed it out, cranked it a couple of times and after some coughing, it fired right up!

  • avatar
    Garak

    I had a Uno once, long ago. The main things I remember are constant repairs, brakes that never worked properly, tail lights that got filled with dirt, a thoroughly gutless but incredibly thirsty engine, cardboard interior panels and the ridiculous door handles. If you removed the gear lever boot, you could actually see the road. The car basically disintegrated at 150000 km.

    It was one of the flimsiest, noisiest, least well-built vehicles I’ve ever owned, rivaled only by the likes of first-gen Seat Ibiza or Skoda 105.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Garak! Was yours an Italian Uno? Maybe Brazilian Unos were built with more care. Like I said, I had 3, and the tail lights never got filled with dirt for instance. Then there’s the question of personal taste, I for one loved those door handles.

      As to durability, well you see lots and lots of them on the street here. In all kinds of conditions. I have recently been in a friend’s Uno, that he uses as a delivery van for his washing business. The paint on the hood is gone, the shocks are shot, but the engine ran strong and true. About 280 000 km.

      Here the car’s reputation is that, though yes it’s a simple car, it’s a very durable car. It needs to be maintained from time to time, but if you do, it’ll last forever.

    • 0 avatar
      Molotovio

      Garak,
      I only had it for 30000 km and indeed had my fair share of problems, but for me it was more of a ‘romantic’ experience than a real car one.
      Mine was made in Brasil but you could see how the quality of the original ones made in Italy was far superior.

  • avatar
    mr.cranky

    Government meddling? I LOL’ed.

    So, you’d rather people drive deathtraps that can kill them in a crash because they’re cheap?

    • 0 avatar

      Hey mr.cranky!
      Not at all. That paragraph was written with a healthy dose of sarcasm, that apparently didn’t get through. If you’d read the recent Dispatches do Brasil on the VW Kombi, you’d see that I’m all for government intervention in these cases.

      The Uno was a solid little number that lived too long for its own good. Brazilian society seemingly has reached an agreement that this kind of car no longer cuts it. Good for us.

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        Yep, an interesting crossroads between the traditional “free-for-all” of many third-world countries, and the inevitable safety and emissions mandates that come with so much development. I like to see this as a positive sign for Brazil — a side-effect of all the recent progress and advancement rather than an sign of excessive regulation.

        Even though many states in the US don’t require annual inspections (for safety or emissions), there is generally a sense that most cars around your are safe — and sometimes the only way to achieve this collective safety is to force it at the national level — or even international level, if current trends hold.

        • 0 avatar

          Yep, +1000.

          That’s how things are going now. We see things going forward and sometimes we see a step back, but the “free-for-all” is inexorably on the way out. The whole VW Kombi back and forth shows how difficult it is and how some resist the changes, but it all ended in a step ahead.

          One of the reasons I like to follow the auto industry, it does seem that many of the going ons in it are a reflection of the larger things happening in society.

  • avatar
    NMGOM

    Excellent article, Marcelo.
    The third photo down here in this post (the light gray car) reminds me of the design of a VW Rabbit that seemed so ubiquitous in the US in the early 1980’s.

    ———————

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks NMGOM!

      Both were designed by Giogetto Giugiaro, so yes, they come from the same tree. These are the cars that built Mr. Giugiaro’s fame. For most of his career, he just penned variations of his original idea, boxy, kamback cars, that were designed from the inside out.

  • avatar
    Molotovio

    Farewell Querido Uno!!
    My first car was a mighty UNO (white, 2 doors, 1.6 engine), much like the the one shown in the third picture. It served ‘well’ and it was a champion in the snow and mud of the Patagonia.
    Didn’t have anything but the basic, but since was our first car we loved it and remember it kindly.
    It was made in Brazil, and the engine had to be rebuilt (something very common on these cars) around 40000 kilometers. The doors were too heavy for the hinges. In winter the defogging didn’t work very well and in summer didn’t have AC (not a problem in the Patagonia, but a real pain if when we decided go on vacation up north).
    All in all, fun memories of a great little car.

  • avatar
    Zekele Ibo

    Ahh, my first car! I didn’t know they were still being built somewhere in the world. Mine was a 60S (1.1 litre), black, five-door. It came from Scotland so the steering wheel was on the wrong side. I bought it to get to Switzerland for a job, and in the year I had it I travelled across Europe, including taking it “home” to Italy on a few occasions. The gearbox was so loose you had to push the front passenger seat (left-hand side) fully back otherwise you couldn’t get it into second gear. You could get it up to an indicated 170km/h if you waited long enough.

    Great car, but not safe by any modern metric. I’m not sure if they used steel or reconstituted pasta for the body panels. :)

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Zekele!

      That gearbox sounds like it had a problem! The first Uno’s gearboxes were bad, but that was too much! That problem was solved after a couple of year after they changed to the Tremulino (?) boxes. And the steel, not really. I think the fact was that at the time Fiat was using the crumple zones and had started using lighter, but high quality steel in the rest of the body. People like you and me, used to older cars that used thicker steel at first had that impression. Nut the fact was that in that case Fiat was pointing the way and nowadays the thin steel is the rule.

  • avatar
    Beerboy12

    I have good and fond memories of the Uno.
    This car is also credited as Fiat’s savior. Fiat learned how to make a reliable car with this model and has not looked back.
    The Fiat Uno, in South Africa, was built in the Nissan factory. I believe it was the first truly successful “small” car that was not a VW. It competed with the 1st gen VW Golf (know as the City Golf) that was older and, by then, not as dynamic. As you say, it was ridiculed at first but it earned respect the hard way. It was on sale with the 1.1 liter and 1.4 liter originally. The 1.1 liter FIRE engine was the motor to have, super reliable and easy to work. The 1.4 was troublesome and only good with the legendary turbo.
    The 1.0 liter motor was sold briefly but it was way to underpowered for South African roads, especially in the interior with the super high altitudes and very fast (120km/h – 75MPH… never obeyed) highway speeds, BTW the turbo ruled there :-). The extra 100cc was just right and the 1.1 liter was able to manage (just)
    Great little car, a classic and a real game changer.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey beerboy!

      Glad to see here someone else “gets” it. I mean, that’s about the reputation they had here, in Brazil, too. Tough little bugger, that was very hard to kill. But even if you did kill it, oh so easy and cheap to get back out on the road. The main thing here was always, watch that timing belt and change the oil. In Brazil the first engines were Fiasa engines. Derived from the engine in the 127 or 147. As interference engines, lots of damages could be done if the timing belt went. In Brazil it became standard practice to just change it at 30k km. Later, with the Fire engines, oil changes became more of an issue as the timing belt problem was minimized. The timing belt now is routinely changed at 40k km though many say it’s only necessary to change at 60k km. However, that may have been due to Fiat’s adoption of synthetic oil and belief that it’d last longer. To be on the safe side, just use mineral and change every 5 or 7.k km. If you do lots of highway, 10k seems to be doable.

      BTW, we now get the Fire 1.0 and 1.4 on the Novo Uno. The old Uno got Fiasa 1.1 and 1.3, later 1.5, Sevel 1.5, 1.6 and Mille Fiasa 1.0 and Fire 1.0. The Palio also got the Fire 1.25 16v and HiToruqe 1.6 16v. So I didn’t know the Fire 1.4 was trouble-prone. What people here say it’s that it’s gruffer than the 1.0. Question of it starting life smaller and 1.4 being the maximum for it. The 1,25, always called 1,3 by Fiat always seemed to me the best compromise.

      Also agreed that it saved Fiat’s bacon and that after it, to talk badly of Fiat reliability is to be going on old wives’ tales. Simply not the case.

      • 0 avatar
        Beerboy12

        I have a great story involving replacing a water pump before a long trip. Two 10mm bolts, some silicone and the job was done. Unfortunately one bolt dropped into the side of the engine, into the plastic timing belt cover. The bolt, as luck would have it, landed in such a way as to rest against the timing belt. The car stalled on start up, after filling up. The timing belt looked like a well used cat toy belonging to a feral cat! No fault can be placed on the car here. Fortunately a Nissan dealer was able to come to the rescue that time. There was much luck in this case as the damage to the top end could have been extensive. Most modern cars are this way now.
        Regular maintenance ensured these cars ran beautifully. Anti-freeze was critical to. The SA built cars had very poor materials used for the engine block molding plugs, they corroded through after less than a year with straight water in the block.
        The economy on long trips like this one was staggering.
        For me the car, while very safe for it’s size and the times, did not have a strong enough body. Side impact protection is non-existent and the body panels were prone to dents that could lead to rust. Hi speed accidents that are so common in SA tear these little jems to bits. It’s innovative “frame” was good up to a point. Defensive driving is recommended and it’s sharp handling could get it out of trouble.
        BTW I don’t think the 1.4 was that bad, it was just not as good as the 1.1 Fire ,Fully Integrated robotic engine? I think, it was the first engine that no human hands touched during manufacture, another Fiat innovation!

        • 0 avatar

          Agreed to everything.
          As to the Fire, in Brazil Fiat skimped on some part or another (I forget which) in the assembly process and there was some point that it did get a human touch. his was in the beginning of the its fabrication here and the press joked how it should’ve been called semi-fire here. Don’t really know if its still the case.

          Fiat has always been very innovative. It has too as it’s been playing catch up. Sometimes you bear the price for that. You can only be conservative and use age old tech when you’re the leader. Then you can wait forever and a day before changing. Part of how it is I guess.

  • avatar
    Magnusmaster

    Good riddance. It’s too bad the new Uno isn’t much better. You get some modern confort but the gearbox is trash, the plastics are way too hard, there’s no space to rest your arms and it’s not very safe anyways. The new Palio turned out nice but they cut way too many corners with the new Uno.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Still reminds me of the 74 Fiat 128SL that I had in 1982, and upon which the Uno was based, if I recall correctly. And the 128’s roots go back to 1969 or earlier, I think, so the Uno is almost Beetle-esque in its heritage and longevity.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    Oh Marcelo, that was like a Christmas gift. So sad to see this little bugger go.

    The Brazilian Uno was different than the Italian one. Looks were mostly the same, but suspension (and probably drivetrain) systems were different. I don’t remember having ever seen a LATAM Uno with a FIRE engine.

    I sat in my compadre’s one many times. A 93 base model, 1.3 lt, facelifted one. Great little car. I still remember the sound of that engine. Some family friends also bought one brand new when they launched it in 85-86 and kept it until the early ’00s.

    And BTW, Felis Natal. Hopefully the spelling is not that off.

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    Very interesting post, Marcelo. The Uno Turbo was a car I’d always wished I could’ve purchased in the USA. I have some friends with X1/9s who have transplanted the turbo motors into an X. As an aside, I never thought I’d be able to once again purchase a new Fiat in the U.S. and am absolutely thrilled to have been able to buy a 2012 Abarth!

  • avatar
    hawox

    the uno was the most sucessfull fiat in italy.
    back in the days other small cars were: citroen visa and ax, ford fiesta, opel corsa, renault super5 and 6, opel corsa, peugeot 205, vw polo, seat ibiza
    they were all common on the road.
    i think that only the renault super 5 and citroen ax were as light as the uno, but the renault engines were lazy and the citroen was small.
    ford fiesta was cheap and practical but i remember that the basic engine was very slow. the opel corsa sold well but it was eavier than the fiat (less performance), and parts were more expensive. the 205 and polo were more expensive, the seat ibiza was very unreliable.
    so it had the correct mix of price, economy, performance, versatility. it was one of the cheapest car to repair, i remember that parts were sold in supermarkets. it was also very easy to steal and became part of italian history with the “whithe uno’s gang”.
    but when it comes to buildt quality and safety i don’t think the small fiat was any better than the competition. i think the crumple zones were simply a conseguence of the fact that there wasn’t any kind of structure in front of the windshield. when you remove bonnet and wing there is nothing else. and also everyone i rode ratled and squized like a bag of screws.


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