There was a motoring ‘baby boom’ in the 1970s, says Simon Charlesworth as he picks his favourite of the original superminis. Photography Tony Baker. In the 22 May 1982 issue of Motor, a reader put the argument for BMC’s 1100/1300 range being the pioneering supermini. The magazine’s staff replied: ‘While the term “supermini” has never been exactly defined, it is generally accepted as describing a car designed to fill the gap between the still-unchallenged Mni and what could loosely be described as the “Escort” class. While there is room for argument, in our view the BMC 1100/1300 range – unlike the Metro – was designed to compete in the larger category and could not be true “superminis”.’
Compact, practical, economical and fun – this European trio from Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen showcases the pioneers of the supermini movement.
This type of car is clearly easier to point out than accurately define, but in the modern idiom – in addition to questions of market and physical size – a supermini is expected to feature a hatchback and front-wheel drive. Our featured trio isn’t merely from the class’ founding generation, they were built by three of Europe’s automotive big-hitters, have each won a place on the European Car of The Year (ECoTY) podium and have been plucked from the start, middle or end of their production runs.
They represent the continental riposte to Issigonis’ 10ft wonder; equally egalitarian, they are certainly bigger, more refined and arguably better developed than the Mini. The prize for the first of the breed, however, is a contentious one. Replacing the Fiat 850, the 127 was launched in April 1971 – but initially it made do with a conventional saloon-type boot, whereas the Renault 5 that was unveiled in December 1971, and launched in early’72, came to the market ready, willing and able with front- wheel drive and a hatchback.
‘THE FIAT BROADLY DEFINED SUPERMINI UNDERPINNINGS, BUT THE RENAULT CRYSTALLISED ITS BODY DESIGN’
The 127 shared chief designer Dante Giacosa’s layout with the larger 128-transverse engine installation with end-on gearbox, offset final drive and unequal-length driveshafts. It was a configuration that he first trialled on the lower- volume Autobianchi Primula and which – unlike the Issigonis system – was already being utilised by rivals, such as the Simca 1100.
From right: brown interior is period-perfect for well-specced TX model; 1397cc four-pot; you’re better off staying in the green zone of the rev counter.
The 1972 Renault 5, though, was not one of them. Instead, it borrowed from its older 1961 brothers, the Renaults 3 and 4 – successors to the 4CV that, in turn, had been inspired by the Citroen Traction Avant’s installation with the gearbox ahead of the longitudinal engine. As on the 3 and 4, the rear transverse torsion bars were mounted behind one another, resulting in a wheelbase longer on the offside than the nearside.
If the R5’s engineering owed much to its 1960s predecessors, then its design certainly did not. Fiat broadly defined the underpinnings of the ’70s supermini, but the R5 would be the car to crystallise its shape. Penned by Michel Boue, the three-door, two-box hatch with sloping rear was the first car to feature integrated plastic bumpers – and should have been the first to have full-height rear lamps (think Volvo 850 estate). Regrettably, the R5’s good start in life was slightly marred by the Audi 80, which beat the Renault to the 1973 ECoTY title.
Starting with the only car here in launch trim, Luke Herbert’s stunning 1976 Polo L is thought to be the earliest known Mk1 survivor in the UK. The Polo was introduced in Europe in 1975. In essence, it was a rebadged, lower-specification Audi 50. This NSU Prinz replacement had been styled by Claus Luthe and was polished by Bertone to become the new Volkswagen.
Like the R5’s Spanish-built brother, the 1974 Renault 7, the Polo was joined by a booted sibling – the Derby – in 1977. Yet unlike the R5 and the 127 (via Seat), the Polo did not evolve to include a model with rear passenger doors, but it did undergo plastic surgery in 1979.
From far left: cabin is mix of the bland and the colourful; flexible ‘four’ is a delight; the door- mounted ‘man bag’ is a very continental touch.
Next – and despite spending nine years languishing in someone’s garden and thus confounding cynics – is Gavin Bushby’s unrestored 1978 Fiat 127 1050 CL. As an early Series II, which made its debut in 1977, the major changes include different front and rear lights, plus a straight rather than rising shoulderline. The Series II lasted until it was superceded by the mutton-dressed-as-lamb 1982-’83 Series III – a model blighted by the uninspiring plastic corporate nose as worn by the 1982 Strada. It was something of an anti-climax for this founding father and 1972 ECoTY winner.
The last of our threesome is a Renault 5 TX, a model launched in 1982 with a generous specification list. The TX, along with the Alpine Turbo, represented one last hurrah for Boue’s R5. After a mild facelift for 1974 and a five-door model coming on stream in 1979, it was replaced by Marcello Gandini’s ‘Supercinq’ in 1984.
It’s tempting to be distracted by a well-practised diatribe about the contradiction of modern ‘small cars’ that are vast – but these models, like the original Mini, certainly understand the term minimus. The question is, are they sufficiently ‘super’ or is this hollow hyperbole?
Inside, only the Renault 5 TX subscribes to national stereotype. The improved later dashboard is perfect ’70s a la mode and resembles a large stale bar of chocolate brimming with a comprehensive range of chic instruments. Being a TX, this bourgeois R5 comes with a 1397cc engine (the largest here), a five-speed gearbox, power steering, a radio-cassette, deep carpets, seats with side bolsters akin to giant sponge fingers, velour trim and six-spoke alloys. Clearly some R5s are more egal than others.
As the miles pass, questions arise about the dynamic progress of modern cars. Like the Fiat, the Renault boasts independent rear suspension, and has the rare combination of luxuriantly fluid ride quality and light, swift, informative hydraulically assisted steering with ardent turn-in.
At urban speeds, the snake-hipped and glassy R5 is pretty much faultless – it totally ignores speed humps – but on open roads, the chassis’ double-act does translate into marked body roll through faster corners. At first, it is somewhat startling because you expect to scuff a door mirror on a cat’s eye – but somehow the Regie ignores physics and holds on.
Main and above: nippy performance, but the soft ride means that there is plenty of body roll in the corners. Left: funky six- spoke alloy wheels.
Due to the engine location, the footwell is a little cramped and the pedalbox is offset to theright. The five-speed ’box is quite stiff and clunky- almost begrudging – to operate. As with the others, only the lackadaisical brakes could be better and date its dynamics, for the pedal feels like a blustery councillor – there’s lots of travel and it appears to be doing something, but ultimately it’s largely ineffectual.
Then there’s the engine – a big fish in a small pond – which is initially responsive, with a good flex of accelerative muscle at 3000rpm, but its work ethic doesn’t last. Between 4000 and 4500rpm, its grumpy, tappety vocals start to boom and it becomes breathless – to the point where the protestations are such that only a mechanical megalomaniac would consider venturing near Land’s End at 8000rpm. It’s best to keep the revs down, make use of the torque and enjoy the trendy TX’s laid-back nature.
From far left: airy and ergonomic interior; smallest engine here struggles at motorway speeds; MW/LW radio; crisp Bertone shape.
I’m someone who mentally files away old VWs with items such as bricks, cabbages and dusters – things that cultivate neutral acceptance – so Luke Herbert’s Polo L comes as a pleasant surprise. Its pretty, light, delicate and attractive lines combine to form possibly the best-looking car here. Inside and out, this eerily original square-roof model, with four-hole front panel, manages to balance style and functionalism. Unless you’re some oddity who doesn’t appreciate its funky ‘Jason King’ crushed-velour seats.
The Polo’s airy cabin, tobacco-coloured trim and mock wood show that one of VW’s primary aims was making this interior a nice place to be. Everything is where it should be, with the exception of the seatbelt buckle – the belt is instead trapped under a latch that operates like a parking barrier. Beyond the two-spoke steering wheel is a clear 100mph VDO speedo with the in-gear maxima demarcated.
Presented with a stylish dashboard – Luthe had proposed something similar for the NSU Ro80 – aquarium levels of visibility and manual steering that is lighter than even the R5’s powered system, the Polo is showing off its ace card: its ease of use. Yet as the speed builds, this lightness translates into straight-ahead vagueness and a lack of consistency across the rack.
The four-speed gearbox, though, is the nicest here – the throw may be long but it’s light and fluid across the gate and engages positively. At anything above 60mph, the Polo’s 895cc engine feels brutalised, the low gearing making it sound strained, and it loses the sweet-natured temperament it has lower down the rev range. As Herbert says: “It goes reasonably well for 40bhp, but on motorways it screams.”
The Polo will do cornering, but it’s just part of its job description. It’s neutral enough at A-road speeds, but after the Renault it does come across as being disinterested. Loading up the lateral g is not its forte and, while its roll is better tamed than in the R5, it tends to magnify the lack of steering detail. Stable, predictable, secure and approachable with a tinge of understeer to keep you in check – the Polo is a wheeled manifestation of sense and sagacity.
Above: it generates less lean than the Renault, but the Polo is still not a car that you can hustle through bends. Left: basic L spec means steel wheels.
If logic lies at the heart of the Polo experience, then on a flowing, twisty road the Fiat 127 feels like a little devil perched on your shoulder, whispering sufficiently wicked goading to make your driving licence sweat. Or the encouragement could just be coming from serial 127 enthusiast Gavin Bushby: “My first one – which was my first car, in fact – went off the end of the clock with five-up and a bootful of cricket kit. And it was still accelerating!”
Two-up, this 1050 CL will merrily zing past the national limit – this SII clearly not giving a damn that its gearbox lacks a fifth ratio, such is the gleeful nature of its flexible 1049cc over- head-cam ‘four’. If only the rather sombre dash housed a rev-counter to accompany its 100mph speedo and quench my curiosity.
Aside from having a man-bag attached to the driver’s door – cosmic! – golden interior trim and multi-coloured steering-column stalks, the 127’s interior isn’t particularly remarkable. There is less room than in the Polo and the small pedals are close together and offset to the left, while the long gearstick looks as if it has come from a BTCC racer’s sequential ’box.
The ride is the firmest of the three and, while I’m being critical, my left hand had several disagreements with a ponderous gearchange that has a rubbery engagement. It becomes more familiar with mileage, but even then it can and will occasionally catch you out.
Moaning over. The 127 really is Fiat at the top of its game. The manual steering may require marginally the most effort, but it is still light, swiftly geared and easily transmits the most detailed information to the driver. Having such an eager ally at your command incites you into hurling it through corners – revelling in the 127’s neutral balance, well-damped ride, controlled roll and ample grip.
Hunting for curly-wurly tarmac becomes a mission – the peppy Adriatic Blue Fiat fizzing and growling excitedly as it accelerates through sober modern traffic in the manner of a mischievous toddler getting under the feet of a bench of dusty old judges.
Above: Fiat is by far the best-handling car of the three, attacking corners with great enthusiasm and encouraging a press-on style. Left: simple steels.
So, which is the best all-rounder? The Polo L is the only car here to successfully predict the future of the supermini: a front-wheel-drive hatchback powered by a transverse Giacosa drivetrain, MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion-beam axle at the rear. It is also the sole survivor of our trio – its great-great-grandson carries on the tradition by championing ease of use, a very middle-class understanding of style and ‘classlessness’, with obedient controls that, while obeying the letter of dynamic principles, somehow manage to sidestep their spirit.
The Renault 5 TX, meanwhile, features all of the tools that are necessary to cope with – and even enjoy – today’s congested and holier-than- virtuous roads. Even now, it makes for a very tempting proposition as a daily driver.
Yet, for me, there is only one unforgettable supermini here – the characterful Fiat 127 1050 CL. It may be the smallest of the three but, such is its superb connection and responsiveness, it even makes driving a Mini feel a little, well, unfinished in comparison.
Thanks to Gavin Bushby; Luke Herbert; Mike Gale and Lisa Haworth-Langford at Renault UK; Anna Angelini at Fiat UK; Neil Birkitt and Rich Gooding.
Renault 5 TX
|Fiat 127 TL
|Volkswagen Polo L
iron-block, aluminium-head, ohv 1397cc ‘four’, Weber carburettor
iron-block, aluminium-head, sohc 1049cc ‘four’, Weber carburettor
|iron-block, aluminium-head, sohc 895cc ‘four, Solex carburettor
|63bhp @ 5250rpm
50bhp @ 5600rpm
|40bhp @ 5900rpm
|76lb ft @ 3000rpm
|57lb ft @ 3000rpm
|45lb ft @ 3500rpm
five-speed manual, FWD
four-speed manual, FWD
independent, at front by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar
rear trailing arms, transverse torsion bars; telescopic dampers f/r
independent, at front by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
rear transverse leaf spring, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers
front independent by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar
rear torsion beam axle, trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
discs/drums, with servo
power-assisted rack and pinion
|rack and pinion
|Wheels and tyres
11ft 5in (3480mm)
|11ft 9 1/2in (3594mm)
|11ft 6in (3505mm)
Width 5ft 1in (1549mm)
Width 5ft (1524mm)
|5ft 2in (1580mm)
Height 4ft 7 1/2in (1410mm)
|4ft 6in (1372mm)
|4ft 5in (1350mm)
|nearside 7ft 10in (2388mm) offside 7ft 11in (2413mm)
|7ft 3 1/2in (2223mm)
|7ft 8in (2330mm)