UK’s rarest cars: 1981 Fiat 131 Mirafiori, one of only three left on British roads

The Mirafiori 1600 CL was an excellent choice of mechanically simple family saloon fare for those fed up with Fords and miffed by Morrises

The 1600 CL cost only £4,695.54; a Ford Cortina 1600L would set you back £5,335

One of the pleasures of archive television is seeing the many vehicles that are now almost extinct. You are more likely to encounter Fiat 131 in the background of The Sweeney, The New Avengers or The Professionals and Ian Musk’s 1600 CL is one of only three that remain on the road. Yet, four decades ago, the Mirafiori was as familiar a sight as a high street branch of Woolworth.

Fiat introduced the 131 at the 1974 Turin motor show as the replacement for the 124. Motor praised the performance, ride, transmission and equipment levels when British imports commenced. Autocar regarded the 131 as “practical and entirely conventional”, and Motor Sport complained about the over-assisted brakes but thought it would “float Fiat on a new wave of prosperity”.

Meanwhile, Richard Hudson-Evans on Thames TV’s Drive In referred to the Mirafiori as an “Italian Marina”. The 131 indeed appealed to British drivers who required transport with slightly more flair than the Morris could offer. The line-up received a facelift in 1978 and another upgrade in 1981, two years before the saloon ended production. The estate version, badged Panorama, lasted until 1984, although versions of the Mirafiori were made in Turkey until 2002 and in Ethiopia as recently as 2010. 

Today, it seems you stand more of a chance of seeing the high-performance Mirafiori Sport – or even the Abarth Rally homologation special – than a 1600 CL. As with many standard production models, their owners often regarded them as an automotive ‘white good’, and corrosion was another issue. Fiat intended the 131 to fulfil a demand for relatively cheap and durable cars, but the latter quality was often absent. 

The 131's 'interesting' dashboard styling and layout. This brown hue perfectly complements the exterior paint, while the automatic gearbox was a £387 option

When Musk bought his X-registered example for £460 in 2004, the Mirafiori was already an unusual sight. But, he remembers: “I’ve been an enthusiast of the 131 ever since my father bought his Series 1 131 1300 in 1977. 

“I had seen this car for sale on Ebay. It had covered a mere 19,000 miles from new, with one lady owner and came complete with a full service history and a folder containing all previous bills, tax discs and MOT certificates.”  

Fiat GB’s television adverts of 1982 targeted Cortina owners and dealers could point out the 1600 CL’s adjustable steering column and the Voxson MW/LW radio despite a price of only £4,695.54. By contrast, the equivalent Ford in 1600L form cost £5,335. The 131’s specification also included a five-speed gearbox, unusual for a family saloon of that era, although this car’s original owner spent another £387.46 on the optional automatic transmission. 

Musk's Mirafiori was an Ebay bargain. Unlike most CLs, this one had been fastidiously maintained

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the 131 is its interior. The glovebox features a horizontally opening lid, the dashboard layout is “interesting”, while the upholstery is reminiscent of a mid-price department store armchair. The CL may bear an X registration suffix, but its stylistic tropes belong to the previous decade. 

As Musk notes: “Surrounded by beige cord fabrics and brown plastic trim, the Fiat transports me back to the Seventies.” 

Time machine: beige cord fabrics and brown plastics transport the owner back to the Seventies

As for road manners, Musk says: “Driving the Mirafiori is a really pleasant experience, but when in town, you really do realise you are at the wheel of a 40-year-old car. The steering is heavy [a criticism raised in road tests at the time] and the turning circle isn’t the best. 

“But get the 131 on the open road and it becomes a very different animal. The steering becomes light and the ride comfort is excellent, aided by the very comfortable front seats”. 

What is hard work in town becomes a joy on open roads

The typical reaction to his Mirafiori is one of disbelief. In Musk’s words: “People are amazed to see a Mirafiori that has actually survived and is in remarkable condition. They often share their fond memories of their own 131s, many of which they wish they had hung on to.” 

Indeed, the 131 is now a more exclusive sight in the UK than a 1960s Maserati Ghibli, as well as a reminder of the days when motorists craved a Fiat with an ultra-beige interior. 

Thanks to Ian Musk.

For new and used buying guides, tips and expert advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

A-Z Car Finder