SEAT 600: The car that changed Spain
The 600 was the car that finally put Spain in four wheels. It was a family car, a workhorse, a race car, a taxi... It was a true car of the people.
In 1939, Spain woke up from a three year long and devastating civil war. The country was severely damaged, and not only politically or socially. The economy was broken, infrastructures were destroyed, food was in short supply, and the beginning of the Second World War did not help at all to improve the situation.
General Franco government was seriously affected by the Axis powers defeat in 1945. Spain was left out of all the American help offered to rebuild Europe, and the Spanish government decided to close the economy in an move that only made the post-war era longer and harder.
In that context of autarky-economy, the government decided to create public owned companies with the mission of providing the country everything it needed to get running again. Companies like ENDESA (electric power), CAMPSA (petroleum and derivatives), ENSIDESA (metallurgy) and of course ENASA (trucks) and SEAT (passenger cars) were founded in the 1940's. All them were managed by the INI, the Instituto Nacional de Industria, a kind of "state owned companies" ministry.
1950: The foundation of SEAT.
SEAT is the acronym for Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo. Founded in May 1950, the mission of this company was to provide affordable automobiles for the Spanish people. Those were the intentions. The facts were that the first car, the 1953 SEAT 1400 was priced at 121000 Pesetas. In today money, 48000$ or 41000€. Not exactly a cheap vehicle for a country that still had to use rationing cards in order to get basic goods like food, petrol or clothing.
SEAT 1400: The first model built by SEAT, a licensed version of the 1949 FIAT 1400.
To start a company of any kind from zero is quite difficult, especially if circumstances are not exactly ideal. But to create a car company from zero, under those circumstances is likely impossible. The Spanish government knew that, and started to look for a technological partner for its venture. A partner that would license their products to be built in Spain, and that could teach the know-how and building techniques to the Spanish staff. After contacts with many car makers, finally FIAT was the chosen one.
FIAT was not a casual choice. Its mastery to build small affordable cars like the Balilla or the Topolino was exactly what SEAT needed. Also, FIAT tried to establish themselves in Spain for many years, first through a Hispano Suiza filial company, the Hispano Guadalajara, and just after the Spanish Civil War through an ill fated venture that would have been known as SIAT (Sociedad Iberica de Automoviles de Turismo). That failed enterprise was the seed that in the end, originated SEAT..
The SEAT 1400 was the first product launched, in November 1953. It was a very modern car, based on the 1949 FIAT 1400. While today may look very traditional, the fact is that a unibody car, dressed with a modern ponton style body and powered by an engine capable to do 120 km/h was quite a lot in the early 50's. However, while the car was a state-of-the-art product, it was not exactly what the people needed. Or more exactly, what they could afford.
1957: A star is born.
The very first SEAT 600 registered (chassis number 64) Analog picture taken in 2001.
While the 1400 and its subsequent evolutions were the first models launched, and helped to establish SEAT a reputation , the car that really needed the Spanish market was smaller and more affordable to buy and to run. In 1955, FIAT released the FIAT 600, a small rear engined, two door, four seater car, developed by the excellent engineer Dante Giacosa, and powered by a 633cc engine and capable to reach 100 km/h. Exactly the kind of car that would put the European masses on wheels.
The concpet was very similar to the one of the Volkswagen or the Renault 4cv. Rear engined cars were cheaper to built, as they used less mechanical parts and the interior was more spacious as there was not a transmission tunnel protruding in the cabin.
SEAT immediately imported some italian units during 1955 and 1956 for testing purposes, in order to build the 600 locally. Finally, in early 1957, production was ready at the Zona Franca factory in Barcelona. In April, the first units were finished and the first customers received their cars in June.
Priced at 65000 Pesetas, the car was way more affordable than the larger 1400, but it was not cheap. Those 400€ or 500$, in today money are around 21000€ or 25000$. The legend says that the 600 was a car for everybody, but the fact is that when it was released, only the upper-middle and upper class citizens could afford it.
The SEAT 600 was a carbon copy of the 1957 FIAT model, including the then new roll down windows and the 633cc engine. In fact, many of the first units were just assembled cars using Italian parts. With the years, the percentage of Spanish parts reached the 100%.
This first series of the SEAT 600 evolved a bit every year: new tail lights for 1959, a new carburettor for 1960 that gave the engine two extra horsepower, new hubcaps... small details that kept the 600 fresh until it's first restyling arrived.
While in Italy, FIAT launched a small MPV based on the 600, called Múltipla, SEAT only made an attempt. In 1959, at the Barcelona Motor Show, a prototype called "SEAT Multiple" was unveiled. While based on the Multipla concept, the Spanish Múltiple was different from its italian cousin. Full production never reached and number of units built is unknown, but very low.
SEAT Múltiple. An attempt to build a Multipla based MPV didn't go beyond the protoype stage.
1963: The 600 grows up.
In 1963 the SEAT 600 received its first facelift. The 600 D was born.
In 1963 SEAT refreshed its range. The SEAT 1500 finally replaced all the SEAT 1400 models, and the SEAT 600 was replaced by a newer version: The SEAT 600 D.
The 600 D was directly related to the first series FIAT 600 D launched in 1960. It introduced several improvements to the original model. The engine was larger, now with a displacement of 767cc, and a maximum output of 25hp. The front end was renewed, with the indicators now under the front lamps and new and sturdier bumpers were installed. The engine cover was also modified to improve the refrigeration and the interior was also slightly modified, with new upholsteries.
But even more important is that the 600 D started to be really affordable. The price, now lowered to 63500 Pesetas (12500€ today) and the improvement of wages and life conditions made the 600 D finally a true popular car.
It's also important to note that SEAT began to develop derivatives from the 600 around that same year. Until now, most of these were made by small coachbuilders like Siata Española, Conti or Serra. but now it was the motherhouse the one that was offering special bodies for the car.
A true family car: The SEAT 800
SEAT 800. The four door transformation was not specially pretty.
For many years, Spanish customers loved a four door car. No matter how big or small it was, if it had four doors, they wanted it. Being the 600 the most popular car on the market it was a matter of time that a stretched four door version was launched.
The idea wasn't new. In Italy, coachbuilders like Lombardi or Pininfarina had already built four door versions of the 600, but always in very small numbers. However, SEAT wanted to do something in a larger scale. They wanted to have a proper "mid size" four door vehicle.
In early 1963 the development of the 800 began. Carrocerias Costa, a small coachbuilding company that had already a commercial relationship with SEAT was the one in charge of the development. The process was basically as follows: The 600 monocoque was taken off the production line, then transported to Carrocerias Costa where it was sewed in half and elongated 18 cm. The front door was shortened and a new rear one was built. The stretched cars were transported back to the SEAT factory where they received all the mechanical components, interior, paintwork etc until they were completed.
Being 18 cm longer than the 600 D made the SEAT 800 a quite roomy car for its size.
Most of the prototypes built used the mechanicals and aesthetics of the SEAT 600, but when the model was launched in November 1963, the final specs in both design and engine were those of the SEAT 600 D.
During 1964 and 1965 the sales of the 800 were relatively good. However, the arrival of the more powerful and bigger 850 in April 1966, even in two door form, took away a big share of those sales. The announcement in early '67 of the 850 with four door body finally killed the 800. In fact, that model replaced it at the Carrocerías Costa assembly line.
The 800 was some kind of experiment that, in the end, acted as stopgap before the much awaited arrival of a true mid size model as was the 850. 18000 cars were built. Many of them were used as "micro taxis", what explains the very low ratio of survivors today.
A Workhorse: The SEAT Furgoneta Costa and the Siata Formichetta.
SEAT Furgoneta Costa.
The use of the 600 as a light transport vehicle was something planned by SEAT from the beginning. In 1959, the SEAT 600 Comercial was launched. It was basically a 600 with the rear bench removed, the rear side windows glass replaced by a piece of steel and stripped off all chromed parts. While accessibility to the cargo area was not ideal, the car was not bad received by small businesses that needed a city suited light transport vehicle.
But the 600 Comercial was not enough to beat the only serious competitor back then: The Citroën 2CV van. The 2CV van was introduced by Citroën Hispania in 1958, and while more expensive than the 600 Comercial, and less powerful, it was way more practical, as the cargo area was way bigger and accessible.
Siata Española facilities. Formichettas are being finished in the middle and right lane, while a Ampurias and 1500 based cars can be seen on the left.
Siata Española was the spanish branch of the famous italian coachbuilder. While the range of products made in Spain was vastly different from the ones built in Italy, Siata Española specialized too in transforming FIAT / SEAT models, specifically, the 600.
Siata transformed the humble 600 in beautiful sports cars like the Siata Turisa, the Tarraco or the Ampurias. However, the quantity of vehicles built was very low. Siata needed a volume product to survive. A commercial vehicle based on the 600 might be the answer.
So, Franco Ambrosini, head engineer of Siata Española, designed a cargo box for the SEAT 600. Clearly inspired in the concept introduced by Citroën, the cargo area of the 600 was slightly limited by the engine position, but the addition of side doors was a big advantage. Siata presented the project to SEAT, that almost immediately gave green light. The Siata Formichetta was born, and the first units were launched in late 1961. sold through the official SEAT dealers network.
Siata Formichetta. Note the taller cargo box on these.
Carrocerías Costa, that was already working with SEAT saw the success of the Siata and wanted a slice of that cake as well. Costa contacted Ambrosini, who had left Siata just after the Formichetta launch. Ambrosini designed a very similar cargo box, but with small structure-wise improvements. In 1963, the SEAT Costa was launched, although this time, it was sold by the way smaller Costa dealers network.
Rear view of a SEAT Costa.
With both vans in the market, SEAT finally had a serious competitor for the Citroën 2CV. More powerful and solid than the Citroen the Siata and the Costa vans found a smaller but solid customer base. During the first years both models sold relatively well, although sales figures were always behind the 2CV ones. However, when in 1966, FASA Renault launched the Renault 4F, it was game over for both little 600 vans. More powerful, easier to drive, more practical and with with a bigger payload, the Renault 4F sweeped both SEAT vans from the market and took a big bite on the Citroën sales.
In the end, 6713 Formichettas and around 2500 Costa vans were sold until 1967. With the small box van market cornered by Renault, Siata and SEAT looked for alternative uses for the 600 chassis as a commercial vehicle. The Siata Minivan was born, but that, is another story...
Second series SEAT 600 D. Note the new headlight bezels, wheels and bumpers
The 600 D continued to sell remarkably well all throughout the 60s. When the SEAT 850 was introduced in the spring of 1966, the 600 received a few improvements. A new fuel tank, larger and safer was added, as well as some SEAT 850 parts like seats, hubcaps or wheels. The interior now could be ordered in a synthetic fabric leatherette called "Nappel".
Although the 850 took a good amount of sales from it, the 600 D sold well until the spring of 1970.
1970: A 600 for all the world: The SEAT 600 E
SEAT 600 E. Finally with doors opening properly..
In December 1969, FIAT ceased the production of the 600 D (IV Serie). However, the car still had a strong demand in some countries, so all the tooling was brought to the SEAT factory in Barcelona where in February 1970, the production of the SEAT 600 E started.
The 600 E introduced all the changes seen on the 1965 FIAT 600D: Bigger tail lights, bigger headlights (The same used in the 850), doors opening the right way, new front end trim, front quarter windows etc, Nevertheless, the most important news were not mechanical or aesthetic. The most important news was that SEAT was going to build the 600 for all the export European markets, which meant a closer relationship between SEAT and FIAT. SEAT was no longer just a licensee but a trusted industrial and commercial partner for FIAT.
The cars sold abroad carried FIAT badges. The front one read "FIAT Costruzione SEAT" (FIAT, Built by SEAT) as an acknowledgement gest to the Spanish company. The 600 E sold well both in Spain and in Europe, where it was the best selling car in countries like Finland, where topped the best selling car charts until 1973.
FIAT Costruzione SEAT badge used in all the SEAT built cars sold abroad.
The 600 E was the first SEAT officially sold in Europe as FIAT. Later, other models like the 850 -(which would be, again built only in Spain since 1972), the 127 or the 124 would follow, expanding SEAT sales and business volume.
However things were changing, and quite fast on the automotive world. The new front engined, front wheel drive compact hatchbacks were all the rage by the early 70's. During 1970-71 the Autobianchi A112, the Renault 5, the FIAT 127 or the Honda Civic were released and changed the supermini segment forever.
Since the launch of the SEAT 850, the 600 D and later the 600 E were repositioned as entry level cars, relieving them of that family car role it had in Spain on its early days. But with the introduction of the front wheel drive SEAT 127 in the spring of 1972, the old 600 was starting to look out of place.
1972: The best 600 ever: SEAT 600 L Especial.
The last 600 released by SEAT: The 600 L Especial. Included a more powerful engine, and more "luxurious" interior arrangement.
SEAT revolutionized the lower part of its range in 1972. The SEAT 850 became the SEAT 850 D and was built exclusively in Spain for all the export markets, exactly like happened with the 600 a few years back. Also, the ultra modern SEAT 127 was also launched, repositioning the 850 as the entry level model.
So, what was the 600 place in this new range? Was there still a place for it? SEAT and the market thought that the old Seiscientos still had enough demand so production kept going and even more, an improved model was launched.
In October 1972 the SEAT 600 L Especial was released. It was an improved model with a high compression 767cc engine, that reached an output of 29hp and could go up to 120 km/h. The interior was renewed with reclining seats taken from the 127, new cloth high quality upholstery, vinyl covered dashboard and black interior trim including steering wheel. Optionally it could also have alternator, rear screen defrosting and upholstered roof. Instead of replacing the 600 E, the L Especial was sold along it, as a more luxurious alternative.
With all those new features, the 600 L Especial was by far the most complete 600 model ever built. However, in 1972 all those features were not exactly impressive. The 600 sold well because it was cheap, reliable and was already an icon. But the showroom appeal of the car was getting slimmer every day.
1973: You were born a prince, you die a king.
By 1973 it seemed clear that the future of the automobile, specially the small and mid sized ones was going to be front wheel driven. As this layout began to spread across all manufacturers in Europe and Asia, the rear engined vehicles started to look like dinosaurs.
Soon, european manufacturers were discontinuing them: Renault axed the Renault 8 and 10 in 1973, Volkswagen would replace all the rear engined models except the Beetle by 1974, while the Simca 1000 would linger into 1977 with lower sales every year. Only Skoda, Zastava and FIAT would stick to the RR layout, and in the case of the Italians, only for their city cars.
In Spain, where the market was not as broad as in Europe, the 600 was doomed. Its very old structure made the installation of the mandatory seat belts difficult, and the installation of three point seat belts impossible. By 1973 the buyers deemed the good old 600 as too small, too noisy and too underpowered.
August 1st 1973. The Zona Franca factory workers said farewell to an icon. The banner reads: "Naciste principe, mueres rey" (You were born a prince, you die a king)
In August 1st 1973, the very last 600 was manufactured. After 16 years and 783745 units built, the car that put Spain in four wheels finally said goodbye.
It was a goodbye not just to a vehicle but to a very important part of the 20th century Spanish popular culture. It was farewell to the car that allowed many citizens to own its first automobile, that allowed them to feel free in a country where freedoms were restricted, that allowed them to feel modern, and european. A car that in many cases, was just another family member. A true car of the people.
SEAT 600 in a Mortadelo y Filemón comic strip. The 600 became a true pop culture icon.
For many years, the 600 was part of the Spanish landscape. While many contemporaries ended in the scrapyard, many 600 were kept as daily drivers through the 70's, 80's and 90's. It's simplicity, the ridiculously cheap running costs and its image of cuteness worked on its favour. But in fact, the same cars that pushed it out of the market in the early 70's, replaced it as well a cheap daily driver two decades later.
By the late 90's, twenty years after it was discontinued, it began to be regarded as a cult classic. Owner clubs were founded all around the country, and many forgotten cars were restored, with better or worse fortune, but were saved from the scrapyard. A big fever for the old Seiscientos (and a inevitable bubble price) arrived with the dawn of the 21st Century By it's 50th anniversary, the 600 was without a doubt the most popular and loved classic car in Spain. But more than that. It was part of the collective memory of the country that this little car helped to change.
Quite an achievement for such a tiny vehicle.