Fiat 850: The Story

The Fiat 850 was launched in 1964 when the company's grip on the Italian automobile market still was so secure that it could blissfully ignore the winds of change. Issigonis's Mini showed the way of the future, with its transverse-engine FWD layout but, contrary to BMC, Fiat was more concerned with making money than making history.

That's why the Fiat 850 was simply an incremental improvement over the tried and tested 600: more space for people and luggage thanks to its larger dimensions and boxier shape, and an enlarged engine to allow a higher cruising speed on the growing Autostrade network.

Speaking of speed, the stubby third volume of the 850 wasn't there for extra bourgeoisie appeal. Testing proved the 850 actually needed it to achieve its top speed, as it reduced the formation of drag-inducing air vortexes behind the car.

A welcome, and overdue, safety improvement was the relocation of the fuel tank from the front to a less exposed position at the back of the car.

1966 saw the introduction of the 850 Idromatic, a version whose clutch was replaced by a torque converter, thus eliminating the third pedal.

By 1968 this option took the name "Idroconvert" and was offered on the newly-introduced 850 Special. The Special was a new top-of-the-range model, equipped with 13" wheels and front disc brakes, just like the 1965 Coupé, which also donated its double-choke carburetor and a larger exhaust manifold.

The Coupé

The 850 Coupé was the first sporting derivative of a mainstream Fiat model to have been wholly designed and in-house by the Centro Stile Fiat, which was established in 1956 under Felice Mario Boano.

While the Fiat 850 saloon wasn't going to win any beauty contest, the Centro Stile truly went to town on the Coupé, delivering a small masterpiece.

The 850 Coupé retained the saloon's wheelbase, but the significantly longer overhangs and reduced overall height gave the Coupé far more attractive proportions.

The Coupé bodyshell was made slightly wider, with its big round headlights placed further apart, giving the 850 Coupé more "presence" than the saloon it was based on.

Launched in 1965, the 850 Coupé proved a smash hit, but Fiat sadly didn't leave its pretty body alone for long, with two successive restylings in 1968 and '71 progressively spoiling its good looks.

The Spider

The pretty 850 Spider was launched in 1965 alongside the coupé. The two models shared the platform and drivetrain, but the Spider was designed and built at Bertone.

Its lines were penned by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro, who successfully adapted the styling theme he developed for the 1961 Testudo concept car to the tiny 850 platform.

Interestingly, the headlights of the 850 Spider were subsequently used by Bertone on the Lamborghini Miura, whose iconic "eyelashes" were actually devised to make such a cost-cutting measure less obvious.

Those headlights were shortlived though, lost in the 1968 reshuffle of the 850 range that brought the Special saloon and the revised coupè and Spider, from then on known as Sport Coupé and Sport Spider.

The "sport" moniker underlined the uprated engine fitted to the Coupé and Spider, to distance them from the newly introduced Special saloon and marking the debut of the 903cc engine that would go on powering small Fiats for over two decades.

The 850 saloon left the Mirafiori production lines in 1971, superseded by the 127, whose front-wheel-drive design finally brought Fiat's small cars into the modern era.

The Coupé and Spider held on a little longer, until 1972, one replaced by the 128 Coupé and the other by the striking mid-engined X1/9.


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