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Being a lover of the orphans, misfits and pointless barges of the automotive world, the Argenta ticks more boxes than most for me.
Like the Fiat 132 it was based on, the 1981-’85 Argenta was a car that never lived up to the promise of its specification, which included a Lampredi twin-cam engine, a nifty five-speed gearbox and a well-located live rear-axle.
If the 132 was a vehicle that proved curiously immune to improvement – it had more facelifts than an ageing Hollywood star – the grim fascination of the Argenta, the final instalment of an essentially indifferent design, is understandable.
The very first 1972 132s were so widely knocked by the press for their stodgy handling that Fiat saw fit to have a mildly improved Mk2 version in the showrooms well within two years of the original launch.
Then, for 1977, there was a new 2-litre model which boasted yet another new dashboard, new grille and moulded bumpers – plus power-steering, electric front windows and Pirelli P6 tyres. The 1981 Argenta was therefore probably the car the 132 should have been in the beginning.
The fact that Fiat thought the concept of a three-box, rear-drive, live-axled ‘traditional’ saloon still had an audience in the early ’80s shows that buyers don’t always take much notice of what the press has to say.
The truth is that almost 1million 132s were sold, and it had quite a solid following in its home territory among traditional buyers.
Cynically, when it decided to make the Argenta, Fiat had no problem squeezing the last ounce of potential out of what was basically a decade-old design. It also managed to make it worse looking than it was before, so that it could almost have been a new Volga rather than an ’80s Fiat.
The changes went well beyond the obvious ones of rectangular headlights, new rear clusters and wrap-around bumpers. Outwardly, only the door pressing were as before: there were new wheels (P6-shod alloys on the 2-litre cars) and stainless-steel brightwork all round.
Mechanically, the 1600 and 2-litre engines were joined by a 77bhp diesel. Borrowed from an Iveco truck, it didn’t do much for the handling, but was quite a popular buy in Italy. Fortunately, we only got the 2-litre petrol models in the UK.
Even so, the Argenta was greeted with barely concealed mirth in the UK in 1982, and sales were negligible.
Its chances weren’t helped by its new name; Argenta means silver in Italian but also sounded rather similar to a certain South American country with which the UK went to war around the time of the car’s UK launch.
Sales were so poor, in fact, that Fiat GB declined to sign up for the (yet again) facelifted version in 1983. However, the more uplifting news was the availability of a Supercharged VX version (also known in Italy as the SX) in the 1983-’85 Argenta line-up.
Its 135bhp at 5500rpm was not to be sniffed at, giving it a top speed of 115mph, plus benefits in torque and smoothness – although you have to wonder how many buyers were happy with the idea of having to check the oil in the (difficult to get to) blower sump every 200 miles.
Whatever form it came in, the Argenta floated and wallowed in traditional 132-style when pressed hard in a corner. To its credit was a good ride, head- and legroom to spare inside, and a huge boot.
The Italians seemed to have been specialising in wacky dashboards at the time and while the Argenta can’t quite match the Alfa 90 (with its fitted briefcase) or the Swiss-cheese look of the Lancia Trevi, it did offers distractions such as an econometer and a Citroën-like ‘system check’ panel, as well as over-styled speedometer and rev-counter displays, while perpetuating the ’70s Fiat love affair with sun blinds, even for the front-side windows.
A poor effort by any standards, the Argenta added fuel to the idea that the Italians struggled to make luxury saloons anybody wanted to buy. The rarity of the thing lends it a certain charm – total extinction is close at hand in the UK – but, in the same way that anthrax is a rare disease, ownership of this rare Fiat is not necessarily a desirable thing.
Still, unlike the Chroma that replaced it as Fiat’s flagship, the Argenta at least failed to commit the ultimate sin; it was never boring.