Home » How Driving ‘The Ugliest Car In The World’ Helped Me Discover The Masterpiece’s Real Flaws

How Driving ‘The Ugliest Car In The World’ Helped Me Discover The Masterpiece’s Real Flaws

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I recently wrote an a surprisingly not half-baked brief design history of the Fiat Multipla, explaining how the car came about and the context that gave it looks only a designer could love, but a brilliantly practical interior. The Multipla is like that friend another friend is constantly trying to set you up with; don’t be put off by their appalling dress sense, take the time to get to know them because honestly, they’ve really got a great personality. Shallow aesthete I am, that would be an instant no-deal from me, but the Multipla continues to call out like a siren, attempting to seduce me with a combination of Italian Modernism (one of my weaknesses, if you hadn’t worked that out), design credibility and sheer not-giving-a-shit attitude about what anyone thinks. To really understand a car you need to experience it in the metal. For you monsters and for myself, clearly I was going to have to drive one.

I have to be honest, the subject of the last Damn Good Design wasn’t a coincidence. This is all part of a long gestating effort on my part to bring you the steaming hot Multipla content you and the car deserve. Unlike the other herberts who work here, I like a plan. Preferably a plan A, and then a plan B. But because this is the Autopian and it operates as efficiently as a Nissan Leaf with a degraded battery, I usually end up around plan Z. Not this time my friends, not this time.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

I came across this particular Multipla at the Classic Motor Show back in November. The owner, Glyn Hayler is a motor industry veteran, having spent most of his working life chained to a CAD system designing bodies-in-white and working out how to turn flashy interior sketches into functional trim pieces than can actually be made. Were I an interior designer (yuck), Glyn is the guy I would be constantly nagging to make sure he hadn’t decided an exposed bolt in the middle of the dash pad was an acceptable solution for securing it to the underlying structure.

These Multiplas Are Rarer Than You Think

Reflecting his time spent working for Daewoo, Glyn owns a Matiz and an Leganza. We’ve all got our crosses to bear I suppose. He’s also owns probably the largest collection of old Renault dross this side of the company’s HQ –  a Mk1 Laguna, a couple of Mk1 Clios (including the oldest one in the UK) but more interestingly a phase one Clio Williams – the original blue and gold hooligan machine (sorry Subaru). These 2.0 liter terrors were built to commemorate Alain Prost winning his fourth F1 title in 1993, although Nigel Mansell had given Renault their first F1 title the year before but that didn’t get a special car. Proof  the stupid beret wearers hate the British.

Glyn had been after a Multipla for a while, specifically the original one with more eyes than a spider as opposed to the boring facelifted one. Some back-of-cigarette-packet math and the help of the How Many Left website tells me there are roughly 220 of these left on Britian’s shitty roads. But Glyn, a man like me who enjoys life’s little luxuries, even more specifically wanted the upscale ELX trim, which bags you twin electric sunroofs, air conditioning, alloy wheels and child vomit proof wipe-clean seats. There are 41 of this variant remaining. Oh, and because he didn’t want the additional complexity of the oxymoronic Italian diesel engine, it had to be a petrol, shrinking the candidate pool even further.

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At the time of writing, the only Multiplas for sale on eBay are facelift models or wheelchair accessible conversions, demonstrating the car’s terrific versatility.

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After a few months of searching this 2000 1.6 petrol ELX popped up on Autotrader UK – exactly what Glyn was after. He paid three thousand of your English pounds (about $3820 as of Saturday afternoon when I’m writing this) for it. Despite the fresh blue green hue, it’s not mint – this is definitely a five yard car. There are a few scuffs and minor dents in the fender, the clear coat is lifting in a couple of places and some of the interior plastics are a bit scratched and grubby, But it’s mostly complete and most importantly not a stereotypical Italian rot box. We might live in a connected world but finding parts even for a relatively modern European classic is still a pain in the ass – the drivers seat lumbar knob came all the way from Poland.

It’s Basically An Italian Mercedes Pagoda

At the beginning of this review I said you need to see a car in the metal to really get it – this is why we use physical models in the studio – and up close and personal with the Multipla more interesting details reveal themselves. Normally when looking at a car from the front you would expect the high point of the roof to be the center line. Because the Multipla has to seat three passengers sitting side by side, it has a much flatter roof section than you would expect. Therefore to put rollover protection back into the structure the cant rails are the highest part of the car, just like a Mercedes Pagoda. This also means the glazing and door openings can be bigger and keeps passengers skulls from being opened up if spirited cornering makes the road and sky swap places.

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At nearly 66” (1670mm) tall the Fiat is 2” (50mm) higher than a Megane Scenic (shown below).

Scenic Multipla Compare

Unbelievably for all that verticality it’s a bit short on headroom. Upon clambering into the driver’s seat my stupid hair brushed against the headliner. Glyn explains that on the continent a bi-fuel petrol and compressed natural gas model was available, which crammed the high pressure tanks under the floor, pushing the passenger cabin up. So while there’s lots of room to the side and front to back, there’s rather less top to bottom. It is bright and airy though – with huge windows and slim pillars the view out is amazing. Pulling away is like driving an airport control tower. Very slowly.

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There’s a reason the majority of Multiplas were purchased with the 1.9 common rail turbo diesel – because this 1.6 petrol would struggle to pull the dick off of a warm gummi bear. Not only does the Multipla look like a big un-aerodynamic metal box – it goes like one as well. Summoning a mighty 102 bhp and 107 lb. ft, the motor is smooth and makes the right Italian noises but struggles to get the 2900lbs (1300 kg) bus moving with much conviction – and this was with just myself and Glyn on board. What it’s like with a full platoon of sullen teenagers and crying babies and all the paraphernalia they require on an outing god alone only knows. You could probably measure the acceleration with a sundial. There’s no rev counter, but it’s a Fiat and they thrive on being driven foot to floor until the valves start bouncing.

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[Ed Caption: My god it’s the center stack from an alien planet! -DT]
Despite the barstool in a bathtub driving position and lack of guts driving the Multipla is surprisingly fun. It doesn’t roll much and the steering is responsive and accurate. Really, it just feels like a completely normal hatchback – just a bit taller and wider.

It uses the suspension of the contemporary Brava hatch so that’s not totally unsurprising. The control layout is supremely logical – it might all look strange but everything is roughly where you expect it to be and when you’re not changing gear, falls easily to hand. The gear shift, spouting up from the little central pod containing the instruments and HVAC controls is quick and accurate despite a no doubt convoluted bio-mechanical linkage. Good job too as it gets lots of use keeping the Multipla rolling. You need to drive it with one hand on the wheel, the other on the shifter all the time. On a rural  mountain road you’d just build up a head of steam and never lift, enjoying the Italian countryside rolling past in Cinemascope.

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What about that legendary practicality? The middle seats in both rows fold over to make central tables complete with cupholders for your vermouth aperitif. The outer seats in the back row can also be folded, and with some flummoxing about be removed entirely. There are storage bins on the dashboard upper for driver and passenger, as well as a traditional glovebox, another small lidded compartment below the gear shift, and a round hole next to it for your Nokia 6210, provided you haven’t lost it in one of the other compartments. The huge trunk space is accessed via a tailgate opening that extends right down into the rear bumper. The door trims are thinly padded to maximize elbow room, which means there’s no real estate for the mirror controls, so hilariously they’re relegated onto an aircraft style overhead panel with the courtesy lights.

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There’s plenty of fun details as well. You can imagine the design team chuckling away to themselves as they injected the Multipla with a sense of humor. The reflecting surface of the side repeaters have a turned finish like the dashboard of a second generation Firebird. The rear light clusters have a bubble pattern in the lens – presumably the lighting guys were amusing themselves with all the things their new fangled CAD workstation was capable of.

The body color Mutlipla word art on the back riffs on the 600 Mutlipla badging. The door handles have a rubber nubbin that sticks out when the ginormous doors are open to prevent them damaging adjacent cars. The front and rear bumpers are unpainted polypropylene – if you’ve ever witnessed Italian parking you’ll instantly clock why this makes sense.

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Strangelove

That low beltline and large daylight opening means none of the side windows drop fully into the doors. And that devotion to slimline door construction that forced the mirror controls overhead? That also means there’s no room for rear window witches for the driver. So your kids or the dog sitting in the back can lower their window, stick their head out and there’s nothing you can do about it. But the driver can open or close the rear electric sunroof. Even by Italian ergonomic standards, an area I am familiar with, this is bonkers. Being right hand drive, the Multipla’s width forces a lot of the interior pieces to be sided – that is LHD and RHD require completely different parts – something you would normally try to avoid as much as possible on a mainstream car because it means more cost. That overhead panel is mounted off center to the right, which means the passenger side sun visor is much bigger. The rear view mirror is closer to the driver, necessitating a different windscreen because of the obscuration band (the black masking around the edge of the glass). In the overall conversion for the UK, god knows how they made any money.

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The Mutipla’s compromises are just a bit more visible than usual because of its devotion to doing one thing brilliantly, and to hell with everything else. Commitment to an impossible brief of carrying six people and their luggage in a car less than 4 meters long was always going to require a lot of creativity and a little bit of improvisation.

I remember when the Multipla hit the market the only competition was the five seater Megane Scenic. No wonder Fiat felt emboldened to try and one up it in the small family car stakes – a market they knew inside out. If the Multipla appeared today we’d wonder if the Stellantis AI mainframe had suffered a meltdown, but the fundamental idea is extremely sound and even now twenty five years later still incredibly relevant. Not for nothing did MOMA exhibit one in 1999.

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To be an Italian car brings with it certain expectations: spine tingling to hear, look at and to drive. The Multipla is none of those things, so by that measure against a Lanica or an Alfa Romeo it fails. But as a piece of logical Italian design in the spirit of the original Multipla, and the 1980 Panda it’s a flawed masterpiece. It’s great to drive and easy to use, but now after having a go in one there’s something else I’d like to add to the changes to the shut lines and pillars I suggested in my previous article: there’s got to be room under that low line hood for a rorty sixteen valve engine.

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Many thanks to Glyn for letting me have a go in his Multipla, and helping me out with useful background information when putting together this article. And for commenter Iain Tunmore, I did ask but it’s not for sale, sorry.  

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BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
23 days ago

I’m just here to deliver the Multipla orgasms.

AircooleDrew
AircooleDrew
25 days ago

Ugly as it may be, this damn thing oozes with charm. I actually have to say that the more I look at it, the more I like it. Would love to see one in person at some point, but as I live in the midwest, I doubt that’ll be anytime soon.

Speaking of rare euros, I did see a Renault Clio V6 on Purdue’s campus when I was in college a little over a decade ago! I nearly rear-ended the car in front of me when I saw it in the parking garage that day!

Last edited 25 days ago by AircooleDrew
Iain Tunmore
Iain Tunmore
26 days ago

Thanks for asking! It looks in great condition, despite being a 5 yard car, it must be one of the nicest ones out there. I’ll keep looking and let you know when I get one.

Great article, that hasn’t diminished my desire nor persuaded me I should compromise style and just buy a facelifted one or a Honda FRV.

A ropey looking one appeared and immediately sold the day after your first article, so when you told me to watch this space I did wonder if you’d actually bought it.

Ben
Ben
26 days ago

Dear Titanic haters:

The kneejerk reactionary hate of anything popular got so large in Titanic’s case that it stopped being edgy to dislike it at least a decade ago. In the words of another movie with an equally silly amount of haters: Let it go.

Joshua Christian
Joshua Christian
26 days ago

That MOMA article gives a fascinating new insight: There was gonna be a Multipla Hybrid??

Last edited 26 days ago by Joshua Christian
Steve Balistreri
Steve Balistreri
26 days ago

Love this article. Living in the US we just see Multiplas as a butt of meme jokes, never in the flesh doing what they were designed to do. It’s great to get a deep dive on one and have a chance to appreciate their quirky goodness.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
26 days ago

This car is just begging for an LS swap.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
26 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Daaaaaang son!

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
26 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Viz. Engine swaps: can one not simply stuff one of Fiat’s more exciting lumps under the bonnet? An Uno turbo engine, or one of the fancier Brava ones?

I do like the period-specific cassettes in that storage cubby. The one that appears to say Hardcore-Terror is just what you need for that ‘borrowed mum’s car, and is now driving round ring roads calling a chain of callbox numbers to find the rave’s location’ vibe. Aaaaah, memories.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
26 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Some days it’s Batcave time, some days it’s disused aircraft hangar time. Depends on the vibe.

Bram Oude Elberink
Bram Oude Elberink
26 days ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

What about the best V6 engine … in the world, the Busso. Somebody already did that… https://youtu.be/HVrqs_SE4cs?feature=shared

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
26 days ago

The taillights with the bubbles is such a fun design choice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a closeup photo of them.

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