SEAT – 60 years of history

When I left the main area of the Auto Retro Barcelona, and came out on to the road which bisects the Fira Barcelona site, I found a long line of SEAT cars, all in outstanding condition, everyone of them a different model. Closer investigation revealed that these vehicles all belonged to the factory, and they were indeed there not by accident, but as a special display in honour of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the marque. That seemed to make it worth writing a special report in celebration of “Auto Emocion”. The Sociedad Espanola de Automoviles de Turismo, better known as SEAT, was founded in May 1950.  In fact, the origins of the company can be traced back a further 10 years, when SEAT’s predecessor company, SIAT (Sociedad Iberica de Automoviles de Turismo) was founded by Banco Urquijo, a private Spanish Bank, with the objective of establishing a national Spanish car manufacturer. The creation of SEAT came 18 months after a consortium of six Spanish banks had signed an alliance agreement with the Italian giant Fiat, to help to establish a Spanish car manufacturer. This was the outcome of a bidding process, where the German Volkswagen company had also been in dialogue with the Spaniards. The objective of establishing a Spanish motor industry was to help to rebuild the Spanish economy in the post Spanish Civil War and World War 2 era. For Fiat, this was a chance to re-establish themselves in the Spanish market following the end to the short-lived Fiat Hispanica company, itself using the old Hispano Suiza plant in Guadalajara,  which had folded in the Spanish Civil War of 1936. It was decided to base the new company’s manufacturing plant in the Zona Franca area of Barcelona, and construction of the facility started later in 1950.  The plant was opened in June 1953, three years after the start of construction, and whilst it was still being created, SEAT had been working hard on building up an infrastructure of suppliers to support their new venture.

The first SEAT came off the production line in November 1953, and it was called the 1400. The car was very similar to the Fiat 1400 models which had been in production in Italy for three years at this point. The plant expanded rapidly, taking on more workers and increasing capacity, such that by mid 1954, local content of the 1400 cars was at 93%, which was quite an achievement given the next to non-existent local supplier base.

Successor to the 1400 model was the 1500. Launched in 1963, it was based on the Fiat 1800, a car which had first appeared in 1959, looking not unlike both the Peugeot 404 and the Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford, all of which were styled by Pininfarina. The 1500 was joined by an estate (Familiar) model in 1965, and continued in production until 1972. 134,766 of these cars were produced, though once the more modern 124 arrived, demand did fall off, and SEAT responded by producing a diesel version of this car, and although the 0 -60 acceleration time was nearly 50 seconds, this car became particularly popular among the taxi driver community. At this time, Fiat were not producing diesel powered cars, so the engine came from Mercedes-Benz, showing how SEAT were quite prepared to go to whichever partner they needed for their products.   
The 600 first appeared in 1957. This car was perfectly timed for what became known as the Spanish Economic Miracle, a recovery from the Civil War of 1936 and subsequent European hostilities of World War 2, and was the first car that many Spanish households were able to afford. Accordingly, it quickly gained a nickname, of Pelotilla, meaning “little ball”. Just under 800,000 were sold before production ended in 1973, making the car more successful than  the Fiat 600 on which it was based.  The car was exported to Argentina, Mexico, Poland and Finland, though sales were strongest in the Spanish domestic market. Initial models, the 600 and 600D featured “suicide” doors, but these were replaced with front hinged ones for the later 600E. During the final months of production, a model called the 600L Especial was produced, and this is one of those cars, identified by the black air vent on the C pillar.  
The 800 was unique to SEAT, having no Fiat equivalent. Reflecting the Spanish preference for four door cars, it featured just that, with an extended wheelbase. It was produced from 1964 to 1967 and approximately 18,000 of them were made.
Based on the Fiat 850, the SEAT version appeared in 1967, available initially as the same two door saloon as its Fiat namesake. SEAT then added a  slightly longer model, with 4 doors, called the Especial to their range, and these cars both sold well. In addition, there were SEAT badged versions of the Coupe and Spider. These were never exported, whereas once production of the Fiat version of the 2 door saloon ended, the SEAT cars were sold across Europe, badged as “FIAT produced by SEAT” for a couple of years.  Production ended in late 1974.
Thanks in no small part to its long production run, the 124 is one of the biggest selling automotive designs of all time, with over 15 million cars made. SEAT launched their version of the 124 in 1968, and it was produced until 1980. Just as with the Fiat, this car was offered as a 4 door saloon, an estate, and a particularly attractive Coupe. A subsequent SEAT variant was the 1430, which was closely based on the 124, but had four square headlights and other design differences. Over a quarter of a million of these cars were produced, before it was replaced by the 131 in 1974.
It did not take long after Fiat’s 1971 introduction of the massively successful 127 for a SEAT version to appear. Instead of the familiar 903cc engine, SEAT installed their own 1010cc motor, which produced 50bhp. A four door version was also produced. The SEAT evolved much in the same way as the Fiat car, but when the licence that SEAT held for producing this car ran out in 1982, they made some more significant changes, and produced a car called the Fura. The 127 was hugely successful for SEAT, with 1,238.366 cars sold in a 12 year production run.
The Spanish version of the 132 played an important role in the local taxi market, as it was usefully larger than the 124 model, which was by that time, the biggest SEAT in production. Accordingly, it was available not just with 1.6 and 1.8 litre petrol engines, but a  Mercedes-Benz supplied diesel as well. The 132 was updated like its Fiat relative, and over 100,000 of these cars were sold, but when Fiat replaced their 132 with the Argenta, SEAT ceased production of the car, and vacated the market for this class of vehicle.  
The 133 was SEAT’s first completely in-house styled car. Looking like a cross between the 126 and 127 Fiats, it retained the rear engine of its predecessor, the 850, on which it was based, clothed in a more modern body with better (relatively!) safety features.  Initially sold only in Spain, it struggled, not least because it became known for having overheating problems. Late in 1974, the car was exported to Germany, where it enjoyed moderate success, and it appeared in the UK, with Fiat badging, in July 1975. By the time production ceased in 1979, over 200,000 cars had been made in Spain. In addition, a number were made in Argentina, and it was also produced from ckd kits in Egypt where the car proved particularly popular.  This is one of the later cars, by which time it had received a mild facelift.
The SEAT version of the 131 appeared in early 1975, a matter of months after the launch of the Fiat model. Initially it was offer as the E and the L, which were 1438cc four speed and 1585cc DOHC five speed cars respectively. An Estate model followed soon thereafter, and indeed SEAT built the estate car bodies for the Fiat badged models. The Spanish 131 evolved in the same way as the Fiat car, until production ended in 1984, at which point there was no direct replacement.
The 1200 Sport was launched in 1975, and was a stylish 2 +2 coupe, based on Fiat 127 mechanicals, but with a unique to Seat body design. With just 1200cc and 67 bhp, and a low compression engine needed because of the poor quality of Spanish market fuel, it was not that fast, which is why a 1430cc version appeared in 1977. The car was christened the Bocanegra (black mouth) as a reference to the black plastic surround to the grille. The majority of the cars were sold on the home market, though some were officially imported to Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. It was deleted in 1979, having achieved total sales of just 19.332..  
SEAT continued to grow during the 1970s, reflecting the growing prosperity in Spain in that time. In 1976, it was announced that they would build the Lancia Beta under licence. A small number of Coupe and HPE cars, with simpler suspension were constructed there before this deal ended in 1979.  In the early 1980s, there were a lot of discussions about SEAT’s future, and how to be able to inject the significant sums of capital into the firm to allow it to continue to compete and expand. Fiat proved unwilling to make the sort of investment needed,not least because they had suffered during the 1973 Oil Crisis and subsequent recessions, and also because of the ending of market protectionist policy against General Motors in Spain. In 1982, Fiat announced that they would end their relationship with SEAT. As if this was not bad enough, when SEAT then presented their next new model, the Ronda, Fiat sued, alleging infringement of copyright. Much to Fiat’s annoyance, SEAT won the case. SEAT clearly was not large enough to be able to survive for very long without a new partner, and this is where – in a return to those initial discussions which led to the founding of the company in 1950, they responded positively to approach by the chairman of Volkswagen., whose expansion plans called for the need to expand beyond their Germany corporate base. An agreement was signed in 1983, in advance of the purchase of a 51% stake in the company in 1986, Later that year, the stake increased to 75% and by 1990, VAG owned 99% of SEAT, making it the first non-German subsidiary of the Group.

SEAT had launched a version of the Fiat Panda, which they produced from 1980 to 1986. With the ending of the licensing arrangement with Fiat,  it became necessary to make a number of modifications to the car to produce something that was uniquely SEAT. The Marbella was the result, The most obvious differences concerned the front and rear styling. Underneath, the Marbella did not adopt the changes that Fiat made to their Panda, which meant that the car remained somewhat primitive, though this did not preclude it from selling strongly until production ceased in 1998.  Indeed, this was the doyen of the Spanish Islands vacation rental car for many people for over a decade.
The Ronda was the restyled version of the preceding Ritmo, and it appeared in 1982. Fiat were furious with the design of this car, as rumour had it that it was very close to their proposed facelift of the Ritmo. They went to court, claiming that the differences were not significant enough. The court found in SEAT’s favour. External changes were largely confined to the styling details at the front and back of the car. The engines that were used in the SEAT cars were completely different from those in the Fiat Ritmo/Strada. A small number of these cars were sold in the UK in 1986, but the model had a short life once the Volkswagen acquisition was in place.
By some measure, the Ibiza is SEAT’s most successful car, with total production now having exceeded 4 million. The first generation car was premiered at the 1984 Paris Show, and made much of the fact that its design was by Giugiaro and its System Porsche engines, This was the car with which SEAT started a significant push for export sales, and when it appeared in the UK, the press were not completely positive. One of the challenges was that it was rather awkwardly sized half-way between the traditional supermini and the medium hatchback classes. Nonetheless, 1.35 million of these cars were made by the time the second generation car appeared in 1993. Among these were the warm hatch SXi model as represented in this display. The second generation model was the first SEAT developed under full Volkswagen ownership, and as such the car was built off the same platform as the Mark 3 Polo, a practice which continues even today with the latest fourth generation car. A massive number of individual models has followed and the Ibiza has become one of the most successful cars in its class, selling strongly.   
Taking its name from an Andalucian town, the Cordoba badge was used for the saloon and estate car versions of the Ibiza, with the first models appearing soon after the launch of the second generation Ibiza. An SX Coupe version of the first generation car represents a body style which has not been repeated on the second generation car.  
The Toledo first appeared in 1991, and was a mid-sized five door hatchback with a particularly commodious boot. It was sold for 8 years before being replaced with a four door saloon model. The third generation was something of a short-lived oddity as it had an awkward-looking bustle rear end which made it neither saloon nor hatchback, and it offered less practicality than the otherwise very similar Altea.  
The Leon first appeared in 1999, based on the Golf platform, but intended to be a sportier and cheaper car than its VW relative. It was immediately praised as one of the best cars in its class, and the launch of a number of very competent performance models, culminating in the 225 bhp Cupra R only helped to further its reputation. The second generation car appeared in 2005, very clearly related to the Altea and Toledo models which had been launched some months earlier. Although still very competent, something of  the appeal of the first generation car is missing, and it has never quite captured the hearts of the enthusiast in quite the same way, despite the presence of the Cupra and Cupra R models in the range. Nonetheless, over 1 million Leons have been made.  
Completing the SEAT story are a couple of other recent models, the Altea and Exeo.
This was a fascinating display of a marque, only some of whose history is well known outside Spain. SEAT clearly have the cars, and I understand they do have the plans to build a museum in which to display them. Although I have not seen any definitive plans, let along an opening date, I do look forward to being able to visit it in due course.
2010-12-11 10:14:56

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