Autobianchi A112: The Italian Mini
With over 1.2 million units sold over a 17 years production run, the A112 has been the most successful model wearing the long-discontinued Autobianchi badge.
The A112 story began sometime in 1966, as Fiat's project X1/2.
In the intentions of Fiat's engineering supremo, Dante Giacosa, X1/2 was intended as a replacement for the rear-engined 600 and 850.
About 3.2 meters long and equipped with the 850's engine mounted transversely at the front, sending its power to the front wheels, it was to finally bring Fiat's mass-market offerings into the modern era.
Things changed in 1967, when Gaudenzio Bono, Fiat's vice president, decides the X1/2 would be made at the Autobianchi factory in Desio, near Milan, while Fiat's car would have a larger, more spacious bodyshell.
That larger car, which was codenamed X1/4, would ultimately reach production in 1971 as the Fiat 127, one of Fiat's greatest commercial successes.
However, Bono's decision initially puzzled Giacosa, but I consider it likely that Bono's decision could have been influenced by the Minis that Innocenti started building under BMC license in 1965.
Whether Bono wanted to spoil Innocenti's party or not, the Italian market immediately perceived the A112 as Turin's answer to the Mini.
Unable to compete with Fiat on price, Innocenti cleverly positioned the Minis made in Milan a cut above Fiat's cars, attracting a younger, more educated, and urban clientele. The strategy worked brilliantly: by the time the Autobianchi A112 was launched in late 1969, Innocenti sold almost 50.000 Minis a year.
Whether Bono wanted to spoil Innocenti's party or not, the Italian market immediately perceived the A112 as Turin's answer to the Mini. After all, the new Autobianchi was only slightly larger, came with a hatchback, and had a technical specification pretty much cutting-edge for a small car in 1969.
The pushrod 903cc inline-four from the late 850 Sport Coupé, modified for transverse installation and mated to an all-new four-speed transmission, sent its 44 HP to the front wheels and propelled the A112 over 130 Km/h. The new Autobianchi also had independent suspensions on all four corners: McPherson struts at the front and a compact yet effective transverse leaf-spring arrangement at the back, front disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering.
Small, cheap to run, yet stylish, the Autobianchi A112 was tailor-made for the Italian market, which embraced it right away. By the time the upmarket Elegant and the sporty Abarth joined the range, in 1971, Autobianchi had already built over 200.000 A112s, and yearly sales for the Milanese brand peaked at nearly 114.000 units in 1973, the year of the A112's first restyling.
Nowadays, the most collectible A112s are the sporty Abarth versions, equipped from December 1974 with a new 1.050cc engine rated at 70 HP. However, this example isn't one of them, despite the badge on the grille and the rather purposeful exhaust note, courtesy of an aftermarket silencer.
the A112, precisely because of its flaws, it's fun to drive even at parking speeds.
This remarkably well preserved, tastefully personalized example painted in Azzurro Lipari is a Junior from December 1984, equipped with the base 903cc pushrod engine. The big wraparound plastic bumpers, big horizontal tail-lights, and tall protective fascias on the sides were introduced in 1982, together with the color-coded plastic trims on the rear pillars.
It may be a base model but, with just over 50.000 km from new and sitting on these rather lovely cross-spoke alloys, this A112 is one fine representative of its once-ubiquitous breed.
This dashboard design was first introduced in 1977, together with the 1980s-style headliner finished in cloth over a pre-formed sound-deadening foam layer. As standard, this Junior model would have come with a stylized plastic two-spoke steering wheel, but here it's been nicely replaced with a wheel from the Abarth version, with aluminum spokes and leather rim: definitely more pleasing to the eye and touch.
Sampling one of these in 2021 is kind of a bittersweet sensation. On one side, it's immediately apparent how far small cars have come since the Seventies in terms of safety, performance, comfort, and overall refinement. But it also shows what we've lost in the process: the A112, precisely because of its flaws, it's fun to drive even at parking speeds.
Production of the A112 at Autobianchi's Desio factory ended in early 1986, one year after the presentation of the stylish, innovative Y10, which would be the last ever model to wear the badge. But that's a story for another time.