Fiat “Handbuilt by Robots” Commercial, 1978

Exhibit / June 27, 2017

Object Name: Fiat Strada commercial
Maker and Year: Fiat, 1978
Object Type: Commercial
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In the post-Star Wars era of 1978, robots—or  “‘droids”—had ceased to be the ambiguous, threatening machines of yore. Now, they were cheerful helpmates for humanity who labored tirelessly (and free of cost) for the benefit of all. In a world suddenly obsessed with futuristic technologies, their appearance in an advertisement was sure to be noticed—especially by the younger members of any potential car-buying family.

The brainchild of Italian car designer and engineer Sergio Sartorelli, the Fiat Strada—known in Europe as the Ritmo—was intended to be a stylish, futuristic-looking family vehicle, its chunky plastic bumpers and non-radial hubcaps giving a modernist touch to what was otherwise a fairly standard utility car. The Ritmo was produced using Fiat subsidiary Comau’s “Robogate” system, a robotic production chain that automated the entire body shell assembly and welding process. Fiat had been automating parts of its assembly line since 1972, when it first introduced robot welders, and the Robogate system installed in the company’s Rivalta plant in Turin allowed production of the Ritmo to reach up to 1,200 units per day. The Italy of 1978 was still in the throes of what became known as the Anni di Piombo” (“Years of Bullets”), when left- and right-wing terrorism was widespread, and the car made its debut at the Salone dell’Automobile motorshow in Turin while the country’s ex-prime minister, Aldo Moro, was being held prisoner by the Red Brigades. His dead body would be discovered in the boot of a red Renault 4 eight days after the Salone had concluded.

In Britain, the Strada was promoted with the “Handbuilt by Robots” campaign, based around a costly (allegedly around £300,000) TV commercial written by Paul Weiland and directed by Hugh Hudson for the Collett Dickenson Pearce agency. Against a soundtrack of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville—chosen for its association with perceived Italian characteristics of charm, flair, and humor, and to which Vangelis (who would go on to provide the theme music for Hudson’s Chariots of Fire) had added some R2-D2-esque beeps and chirps—the short film showed the Rivalta robots assembling the car’s body shells.

“Handbuilt by Robots” was unprecedented for British television, both for its length and the fact that the entire advertising break in the middle of ITV’s popular News at Ten program was booked for its debut. Fourteen years later, author J. G. Ballard, speaking on long-running British radio program Desert Island Discswould state that it was his favorite TV commercial of all time. Paradoxically, “Handbuilt by Robots” was shot during a strike at the notoriously politicized Fiat factory by workers who were protesting the job losses the automation promised to cause. Perhaps hesitant to inflame national tensions further, Italian adverts for the Ritmo avoided the issue of automation altogether, promising instead that the car represented “The Evolution of the Species,” while in France, set against a wistful Renaissance melody, it was posited almost as a part of nature itself. Although US adverts promised that “The Strada pleases your eye with style only an Italian designer could create,” British DJ and celebrity Noel Edmonds was less enthusiastic, describing its dashboard layout with prominent clock as “absolutely ridiculous” and criticizing the car’s utilitarian appearance for resembling a “young child wearing… national health specs”—a reference to the anachronistic glasses provided free of charge to all British citizens by the country’s national health service. The Ritmo soon enjoyed an equally poor reputation, thanks to the low quality of its construction and the propensity of the cheap Soviet steel used in its production—part of a design exchange deal with Russian manufacturers—to rust.

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