May 26, 2008
Road test: 1974 Fiat Campagnola
Written by Ronan Glon
While Fiat was trying to market its small 850s, 126s and 500s, it was also trying to sell this thing: the Campagnola. The original Campagnola was smaller and was sold from 1951 to 1973. Meant to compete against Land Rovers and to a lesser extent Land Cruisers and Jeep CJs, it never really caught on outside of Italy. It was never exported to the U.S. In its home country, however, it gained a loyal (though not very big) clientele, particularly amongst the Carabinieri and Polizia forces. The redesigned and bigger "Nuova" Campagnola was built from 1974 to 1987. One of its most loyal customers was the Pope who used one as his Popemobile. Unfortunately this was never used to transport the Pope but it's interesting nonetheless.
When I was offered to drive this 1974 model, I had just gotten out of my 1997 Fiat. I climbed into the Campagnola and transcended into a completely different world. Vinyl seats, a steering wheel big enough to put a W123 Mercedes’ steering wheel to shame, and a surprising amount of room, both front and back. One doesn’t get just how big this car is by simply looking at it. A huge gearshift pokes out from under the dash and the 4WD shifter is between the vinyl-upholstered front seats which are split 2/3.
An interesting aspect of this particular one is that it’s equipped with a 2.0 liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine (hence the Bz nameplate, "benzina") that puts out 80hp. These were also available with more powerful diesel engines which I imagine are a much better fit. It goes without saying that a vehicle this heavy powered by a mere 80hp is far from fast and mated with a 4-speed manual transmission, top speed is around 110km/h. That's a good thing since early Campagnolas didn't come with seatbelts, although I suppose they would be useless since they don't seem to be commonly worn in this part of Sicily. I didn't try and measure 0-100km/h times but the car felt as fast as my old 1971 850 Spider. You'll see later on that it's not the only parallel between the Campagnola and the 850..
As with most cars like this, basic comfort wasn't the number one priority in the design stage. The independent suspension is firm and the ride is overall bouncy. The windows slide open a la Renault 4, door panels don’t appear on the equipment list. I don’t believe any Fiat in the early 70s came with power steering and this is no exception. The rear seats are two benches on either side of the car, fashioned after the back of a Land Rover. One could easily cram ten people back there.
It’s downright scary to drive on narrow Sicilian streets. This is a huge car and if you’re not used to it you never quite know where the front of it is. To add to that, the steering is not only hard but rather wavy.
After a couple of minutes and a couple of interesting encounters with oncoming cars it becomes easier to drive and very enjoyable. Even finding the gears with that flagpole of a gearshift becomes a breeze. It’s a predictable car, it responds solely and directly to the input you give it, it’s all in figuring out how much throttle/clutch/etc to use.
Fiat wasn’t joking around when they built this: it’s a serious off roader. Once you put it in 4WD mode it becomes more capable than most new SUVs on the market today. It’ll go up or down just about anything you can throw at it.
I have to be honest here: while it's a a brute of a car that's made for off roading, it's still a 34 year old Fiat and the drivetrain didn't feel as solid as I'd like it to. Truth be told, while the motor was cold it reminded me of my old 850. Maybe it was the "shift fast before the rpms drop and the car dies" syndrome that both cars experienced, even when using the choke.
So, a combination of its age and its increasing rarity means it just doesn’t feel right to beat it up off road. Buy this for the collector’s value (and occasional trip) and a beat up Mercedes G for your off road duties and you’ll be unstoppable.