By Stuart Grant with photography by Etienne Fouche
When Nissan/Fiat South Africa launched the Uno in May 1990, it brought a new angle to the local passenger vehicle market – a true lightweight that offered bang-for-your-buck motoring without relying on outdated technology. While we might see the small hatch as crude today, back in the days of permed hair, flop socks and MC Hammer’s ‘U can’t touch this’ blaring on the tape deck, the Uno was indeed a revolutionary. The product and pricing alone were enough to secure top sales but, in a moment of genius/madness, Uno upped the ante with the announcement of a crazy turbo version.
Before boosting into the Turbo, let’s take a minute to appreciate the run-of-the-mill Uno as I’m sure that many of us have long forgotten how good and popular it was. The Uno we got here in SA was in fact the second-generation version. This offering heralded a rebirth for Fiat, and so important was the car that its project number was called Tipo Uno (Type One) and so the name was born. Uno became a brand all on its own and very little mention of Fiat was made in the marketing material that followed.
Bucking the late 1990s trend of cramming in ‘high-tech’ gadgetry, the key to the Uno success was the combination of modern thought with clever simplicity. Sure, computer-aided design took place but the way in which design and manufacturing complexity was employed went a long way to keeping the selling price down, without keeping niceties from the end user. An example of this could be seen when comparing the number of body parts that made up the earlier Fiat 127 (267) and that of the Uno (127) or the fact that the entire side skin of the three-door model came from only two pressings.
Suspension was the old tried-and-tested MacPherson strut up front and a torsion bar at the rear but to best maximise boot space, the springs and shocks were separated from each other to stop any intrusions. Where technology did play its hand though was in the engine department, with Fiat’s latest units being fitted. South Africa got the 1108cc FIRE (Fully Integrated Robotised Engine) and 1372cc items in both carb and fuel-injected formats, depending on model. And both were available in three- or five-door versions.
While these models might have been exciting for style trend setters of the time, performance figures weren’t anything to get really heated up over (unless the 4.5-litres-per-100km fuel consumption ticked your box). Italian car makers by default seem to always churn out one passion-filled model that within a few years becomes cult.
Enter the Uno Turbo. A car that in one blow of its Garret T2 turbo upset the South African Group N racing and rallying establishment – not to mention the BMW, Golf and Opel faithful that could be found at Pure & Cool Roadhouse on any given Friday or Saturday night.
The Turbo was the talk of the town. Miss South Africa at the time, Suzette van der Merwe, got one. And so did the yuppie set and performance-hungry types happy to pay the R33 850 premium instead of trundling around in the base model Fire at R18 550 or the higher-specc’ed Pacer at R22 300. But who can blame them? After all, the turbo upped the 1372cc power output from the 52kW of the normally aspirated mill to 85kW and the torque figure jumped from 106Nm to 160. Combined with a mass of 925kg, local testers recorded a zero to 100km/h sprint of 8.25 seconds and on to a top speed of 206km/h.
It is no wonder then that Nissan South Africa took the little Fiat racing and rallying – although there was a fair bit of controversy surrounding this adventure. On track, Hannes Grobler and Nic de Waal’s Class C works Unos decked out in red/white/green would often outstrip the Class B and even A to the first corner with blistering acceleration. When De Waal won the 1991 Class Championship and Grobler came in second, not only showing the Class C Toyotas the way but also the Class B Volkswagen Golf and Opel Kadett GSi, the politics kicked in. Toyota threatened to pull the plug on its Class C racing programme and perhaps somewhat embarrassed, Volkswagen withdrew its Class B Golf GTi, with many calling for organisers to follow Formula 1’s lead and outlaw turbochargers.
Rule changes saw the Turbos moved to Class B and the works team was bolstered by privateers like Peter Lanz joining in on the point-and-shoot type driving style. It wasn’t all tar stuff though, with Paolo Piazza Musso piloting a Turbo in the rally arena. I say point-and-shoot type driving style at the risk of upsetting the Uno Turbo fans out there. But having spent lots of time in one circa 1996 and having read all the local tests, I can do so with my hand on my heart. Simply put, the Turbo is not the most confidence-inspiring machine in the corners, swapping from turn-in understeer to a twitchy rear as the large amount of body roll plays havoc with weight transfer and grip. Add some power to it and the front washes again.
Thankfully, likely in a move to combat the above, the regular Uno steering lock was reduced from 4 to 3 ½ turns, however testers all complained about the heaviness of it, especially when power was being put to the front wheels. Surprisingly the brakes (front: vented disc; rear: solid disc) didn’t get a hammering from the journos back then, with the only gripe being that they worked better when warm – perhaps indicating that the manufacturer had fitted the test fleet with race-style pads instead of regular road ones.
Negatives aside, a beautifully maintained Uno Turbo in original guise (it’s not easy to find an unmolested one today) is an impressive and thrilling drive, to say the least. Even by today’s standard, the acceleration is brisk and the spread of pull from 3500rpm pushes you back into the seat with gusto. It has the ability to deliver fuel consumption of around 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres, but the performance package encourages lurid pull-off and rev counter climbing, so 12 and a bit is the more realistic number.
Thankfully a Turbo is not too ‘windgat’ in appearance though with the addition of 13-inch Abarth alloy wheels, small rear spoiler, tasteful side skirts and sportier bumpers, red striping and ‘Turbo’ side panel script borrowed from the Nissan Exa. The cabin too is subtly sported with three-spoke Momo steering wheel, leather-sided seat bolsters and a range of circular gauges where the all-important boost gauge takes centre stage.
It’s here on the inside that the Uno offers the biggest surprise and proof of Fiat’s intention of raising the game for small B Segment cars – it is surprisingly well built. Despite having covered over 200 000km, and rapidly approaching the 30-year-old mark, the pictured car is crack- and rattle-free. There’s a solidness that the likes of the Mk1 Golf and Opel Kadett of the 1980s don’t have. Still-functioning electric windows made the grade and the only thing keeping this Uno from being a perfect daily today is the lack of aircon – which was never an option due to the cramped engine bay.
The Uno Turbo, thanks to indecent performance, rarity and motorsport success is already a firm favourite in cult car circles and has started the migration from future classic into must-have classic for many collectors. The little giant is once again the talk of the town.