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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.