Spain’s Franquist government teamed up with Italy’s Fiat to create the Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo (SEAT) in 1950. Long months of cross-border negotiations ended up giving seven percent of SEAT to Fiat, 42 percent to miscellaneous Spanish banks, and the remaining 51 percent to the Instituto Nacional de Industria (INI), a branch of the Spanish government.
As unlikely as it might seem, the deal had advantages for both parties: On the Italian side, it enabled Fiat to join Volkswagen as one of the first true global players in the automotive industry. On the Spanish side, it allowed General Francisco Franco’s government to build a full-fledged auto industry almost from scratch.
SEAT introduced its first car in 1953. Called 1400, it was an exact replica of the Fiat 1400 and it was completely out of tune with the needs of the majority of Spain’s population. Business improved in 1957 with the launch of the SEAT 600. Again a Xerox copy of a Fiat, it was precisely what Spain needed to motorize its population and sales quickly skyrocketed. The 600 became so popular that certain dealers had to turn down orders, and it spawned several interesting versions such as a four-door dubbed 800 and a small van called Formichetta that were built exclusively for the local market.
During the 1960s and the 1970s, SEAT continued to build Fiat replicas such as the 850, the 124, the 127 and the 131. So when Fiat launched the highly-anticipated Ritmo in 1978, it went without saying that SEAT got its own version of it. On the outside, the biggest difference between the two cars was that one had a Fiat badge and the other a SEAT emblem, but a look at a brochure revealed that the SEAT was powered by a 124-sourced gasoline engine (the diesel engines were the same). The Ritmo was sold as a SEAT in Spain and as a Fiat throughout the rest of continental Europe. It was dubbed Fiat Strada in the UK and in North America.
SEAT had reached a comfortable cruising speed by the late 1970s, but all was not well under the surface. The 1979 oil crisis hit the company hard, and its ambitious expansion strategy had left it in dire financial straits. Fiat refused to inject more money into SEAT and instead asked the INI to help restructure the brand so that it could later buy it entirely. When the INI rejected Fiat’s offer, the latter sold all of its shares for one peseta a pop. When all was said and done, the INI wound up with 95 percent of SEAT.
SEAT’s lineup consisted entirely of Fiat models built under license, and whether or not these could still be sold was a point of major confusion. Fiat knew that refusing to let SEAT build its cars would kill the company almost overnight, so the two signed the following agreement in 1981: SEAT could keep the 127, the Ritmo and, surprisingly, the Panda but it had to redesign them inside and out and gave them a new name.
SEAT was happy to oblige. The cars were rechristened Fura, Ronda and Marbella, respectively. All had undergone a minor facelift to set them apart from their Fiat counterparts but the Italian influence was clearly visible.
In August of 1982, while SEAT and Volkswagen were busy hammering out the details of a potential collaboration, Fiat drafted a letter to SEAT executives to inform them that it was not satisfied with the changes that had been made to the Ritmo. An article published in Spanish newspaper El País on November 11th, 1983, claims that SEAT made several attempts to contact Fiat and discuss the problem but the Italians never responded in writing. Instead, on November 17th, 1982, Fiat filed a lawsuit against SEAT in a Parisian court. The court accepted the lawsuit and notified SEAT of the litigation on November 25th of that year.
The judge selected for the lawsuit was an Italian lawyer named Franzo Grande Stevens. SEAT’s first move was to request a different judge because Stevens was a member of Fiat’s board of directors, so lawyers argued he would be unable to deliver an unbiased verdict. The court sided with SEAT and a panel of three judges — from France, Spain and Switzerland — was appointed to preside over the trial. SEAT also filed a countersuit that accused Fiat of hindering its attempts to export cars around Europe.
Fiat noticed its case looked a lot less solid with Stevens gone so it rephrased its arguments against SEAT. Court documents indicate that the Italian company’s problem with the Ronda was that its middle section was too similar to that of the Ritmo. SEAT knew that offering a rebuttal was pointless. Although the door handles were different, one could remove a door from a Ritmo and fit it to a Ronda without any modifications.
SEAT’s future as a major European automaker depended on the outcome of the suit so its lawyers focused on the differences rather than the similarities. Engineers were given a black Ronda and asked to paint yellow every exterior difference between the Ronda and the Ritmo. An El País journalist who attended the trial reported that the result was spectacular.
The lawsuit carried on with people traveling to Paris from both Spain and Italy to personally testify for one side or the other. Several key Fiat executives were marked absent, including Umberto Agnelli, the future president of the company, and Cesare Romiti, the man who orchestrated the company’s purchase of Alfa Romeo from the Italian government.
In the end, the full ruling was kept secret but the court decided that SEAT had sufficiently modified the Ronda to keep selling it in Spain and all across Europe. The Seat Malaga, a mix between an Ibiza and a Ronda with a three-box body, benefited from the court’s decision and was launched with the same doors as the Ritmo.