Bread and Roses
Platform-sharing is nothing new in automobile history. The Autobianchi Bianchina is a perfect example: built on the same underpinnings as the humble Fiat 500, yet in many ways can be considered its polar opposite.
The story of the Bianchina started on the 11th of January, 1955, when Autobianchi itself was founded in Milan.
Nowadays, few people remember the Milanese automobile company Bianchi, which had been quite an esteemed automobile manufacturer before WW2, only to concentrate its efforts on trucks rather than cars in the immediate post-war years. Still, as the economic situation became more favorable and automobile sales in Italy started to climb, Bianchi lacked the resources to re-enter the automobile sector independently, so they managed to involve Fiat and Pirelli as joint shareholders in a new venture called Autobianchi.
The Bianchina Trasformabile was a two-door saloon with a canvas roof, based on the Fiat 500's floorpan and running gear, including its air-cooled 479cc two-cylinder engine, rated at 15 HP at 4000 Rpm. The Bianchina was presented in September 1957, just a few months after the Fiat 500.
It may be hard to believe now, but the posh Bianchina initially outsold its cheaper Turinese counterpart by a significant margin.
The Bianchina, styled by Fabio Luigi Rapi, was a triumph of style over substance: with its tailfins, lashings of chrome, and two-tone paint, it was a slice of Americana but cut to measure for Italian roads and pockets.
the Cabriolet remained an extremely niche product, and it's believed little more than 3000 units were ever made
Despite the little car's successful launch, Bianchi's ongoing financial woes meant its involvement with Autobianchi was already over by 1958, with its shares bought out by Fiat and Pirelli.
The year 1960 saw the launch of the even-cuter Cabriolet, equipped with an improved 499 cc engine shared with the Fiat 500D. Manufactured until 1968, the Cabriolet remained an extremely niche product, and it's believed little more than 3000 units were ever made. Such rarity and its puppy-like cuteness make the Cabriolet the most collectible Bianchina of all, and pristine examples like this cherry red one currently fetch upwards of 25.000 Euros on the classic car market.
The same can't be said for the more pedestrian variants of the Bianchina, which, by the mid-1960s, was available in a comprehensive range of body styles, including a four-seater saloon, a wagon, and panel vans.
The saloon was called "Quattro Posti," the Italian for "four-seater," and replaced the original "Trasformabile" from 1962. However, its peculiar rear-end design with a recessed vertical window failed to convince most of the buying public. More successful was the wagon, called "Panoramica," and based upon the Fiat 500 Giardiniera presented in 1960, including its two-cylinder engine modified to lie flat instead of vertically to gain space for passengers and cargo.
Paolo Villaggio said he chose the Bianchina over the Fiat 500 as Fantozzi's ride because he thought the Autobianchi best represented the character's lack of taste...
But, by then, the Italian public had fully embraced the Fiat 500, relegating the Bianchina as the side-show it was always meant to be, with a production rate of around 20.000 units each year, at best.
Pirelli sold its Autobianchi shares to Fiat in 1967, and the Milanese company was then fully incorporated into the Fiat empire.
All the Bianchina models were quietly discontinued in 1969 amid falling sales. The model would have faded into obscurity if it wasn't for the Italian comedian Paolo Villaggio and his successful character called "Fantozzi," a parody of the average 1970s Italian over 10 movies made between 1975 and 1999. Interviewed on the subject, Paolo Villaggio said he chose the Bianchina over the Fiat 500 as Fantozzi's ride because he thought the Autobianchi best represented the character's lack of taste... Which speaks volumes about how low the Bianchina's reputation had fallen! Nowadays, this first Autobianchi model, even in its less glamorous variants, gets respected as the collectors' item it is.