The Autobianchi Story
Unless you're an Italian over the age of 40, you're unlikely to have ever heard about the Autobianchi brand. Although it may be easy to dismiss it as a mere footnote, the Milanese firm's role in automobile history is actually far from inconsequential. And here's why...
From Bianchi to Autobianchi
Few people know that the Italian brand Bianchi, mainly associated with high-end racing bicycles, also built automobiles, and began doing so as early as 1900.
By the late 1930s, Bianchi had established itself as a purveyor of classy mid-sized cars and sturdy diesel trucks that competed more-or-less directly with Lancia's products on the Italian market.
However, the end of WWII left Bianchi as nothing more than a smoldering heap of ruins, much like the rest of Italy's industrial fabric.
While production of bicycles and trucks resumed quickly to cater to the demands of post-war reconstruction, Bianchi's attempts to re-enter the automobile market never went beyond a few prototypes, and a deal was struck in January of 1955 with Fiat and Pirelli that saw Bianchi's trucks division merge into a new entity called Autobianchi.
The new company's mission was to build in Bianchi's facility located in Desio, near Milan, a small two-seater car based upon the floorpan and running gear of the Fiat 500, which was then in the final stages of development.
The impossibly cute Bianchina
The Autobianchi Bianchina was presented at Milan's science and technology museum in September 1957 and was, in a way, the polar opposite of the Fiat 500 it was based on.
Whereas the small Fiat's body design was guided by the need to optimize weight and costs, the Bianchina was instead deliberately frivolous, sporting all of the styling tropes typical of the period: tailfins, abundant chrome decorations, two-tone paint, and whitewall tires.
The buying public quickly embraced the Bianchina, so much so that it initially outsold the Fiat 500 itself, despite the higher retail price.
Bianchi's worsening financial situation saw it divesting its stake in Autobianchi by 1958 already, while 1960 saw the launch of an even cuter, and nowadays highly sought-after, Bianchina cabriolet.
The original two-seater model was then superseded in 1962 by the Bianchina "quattro posti," a four-seater sedan that, together with its wagon and van derivatives, remained on sale until 1969 and remains the most common Bianchina variant on the classic car market.
The Italian experiment
By September of 1967, the remaining partner Pirelli sold off its stake in Autobianchi, which became a wholly owned Fiat subsidiary. Production of the Fiat 500's wagon variant, known as the "Giardiniera," was relocated to Autobianchi's facilities, and the model was marketed as an Autobianchi from 1968 until its discontinuation in 1977.
During the 1960s, Fiat still enjoyed almost complete control of the Italian car market, and the role of Autobianchi often became that of the firm's "guinea pig" to test more advanced technical solutions and vehicle concepts on the market under another name.
One such experiment was the Autobianchi Stellina, introduced in 1963 and the first fiberglass-bodied car to enter series production in Italy.
Under the unstressed plastic panels, though, the Stellina hid a sturdy steel unibody that made it no lighter than a Fiat 600 and about as prone to rust. Performance wasn't outstanding either, given the engine and running gear of the Stellina were carried over, practically unchanged, from the Fiat 600.
By 1965, the arrival of the faster and sexier-looking Fiat 850 Spider transformed the Autobianchi Stellina from a hard sell into an impossible one, and production was quickly terminated.
Rewriting the rules
But if the Stellina came and went without leaving much of a trace, the Autobianchi Primula of 1964 changed motoring history forever.
The launch of the Mini in 1959 made waves in the European automobile industry and, as Fiat's engineering supremo Dante Giacosa wrote in his memoir, caused in him some regret for not having insisted on the studies for a car with front-wheel drive and transverse engine he did over a decade earlier.
No longer wanting to be held back by the ingrained skepticism regarding front-wheel drive of Fiat's upper management, Giacosa cleverly involved Nello Vallecchi, then head of Autobianchi.
Manufactured in lower volume and under the Milanese brand, the eventual failure of Giacosa's daring front-drive hatchback project would not compromise Fiat's reputation and bottom line and could therefore be greenlighted.
Just like Alec Issigonis, Giacosa had to adapt an existing engine but, crucially, placed the gearbox beside it rather than in the engine's sump, where it was on the Mini.
This solution, made possible by the Primula's track being around 100 mm wider than the Mini, kept the engine and gearbox lubrication separate and allowed the two items to be manufactured and tested independently.
Autobianchi built around 75.000 Primulas between 1964 and 1970, and roughly half of them were exported, France being the market where the Primula found most appreciation.
The Primula's technical layout was then embraced not only by Fiat itself but by nearly every successful compact car introduced from the mid-70s onwards.
A landmark year
1969 was a landmark year in Autobianchi's history, as it saw the launch of what would turn out to be the brand's longest-serving and best-selling model, the A112... But also the short-lived and soon forgotten A111.
The Autobianchi A111 was an indirect replacement for the Primula, which mated the latter's suspensions and running gear with a more traditional three-box sedan bodyshell and a particularly well-appointed interior.
However, the A111 received little marketing support and was quietly discontinued in 1972. By then, Fiat's upper management had decided, following the recent acquisition of Lancia, that Autobianchi's offerings were to be confined to the lower end of the market.
The greatest success
The A112 story began sometime in 1966 as Fiat's project X1/2.
In the intentions of Dante Giacosa, X1/2 was to replace the outdated rear-engined Fiat 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.
However, Fiat's vice president Gaudenzio Bono had other ideas: the X1/2 would instead become an Autobianchi, while Fiat would offer a larger, more spacious car, which was codenamed X1/4 and reached production in 1971 as the Fiat 127.
Although Bono's decision initially puzzled Giacosa, the A112 ultimately served as the Fiat Group's answer to the success of the Minis built in Milan under license by Innocenti since 1965.
Unable to compete with Fiat on price, Innocenti cleverly positioned the Mini as a cut above Fiat's cars, attracting a younger, more educated, and urban clientele. The strategy worked a treat: by 1969, Innocenti sold almost 50.000 Minis a year, something Fiat wasn't willing to tolerate any longer.
Italians love cheap small cars with a touch of style, and the Autobianchi A112 became a runaway hit. By the time the upmarket Elegant and the sporty Abarth joined the range in 1971, Autobianchi had already sold over 200.000 A112s.
Yearly sales for the Milanese brand peaked at nearly 114.000 units in 1973, the year that saw the first of many restylings the A112 received over its 17 years on the market, during which around 1.3 million examples were sold.
But there's only so much plastic cladding you can graft onto a 1960s design to make it look like it belonged in the era of compact discs and shoulder pads: enter the Autobianchi Y10.
The last hurrah
Launched in 1985, the Y10 sported a sleek and modern wedge design that belied its humble Fiat Panda underpinnings.
Sales were slow initially, but the Y10 then enjoyed a long and successful production run. Nevertheless, by the late 1980s, the Autobianchi brand was on borrowed time, as the Y10 began being marketed under the Lancia brand everywhere except its native Italy.
When the Fiat Group ran into financial trouble in the early 1990s and began shrinking its manufacturing footprint, Autobianchi's Desio plant was among the first to go in 1992. Production of the Y10 moved to Alfa Romeo's Arese factory later the same year, and the model soldiered on until 1996.
The Y10's demise marked the end of Autobianchi's story, as the new-for-1995 Ypsilon had been designed from the outset as a Lancia model: nobody knew then how this choice would later prove instrumental in saving Lancia itself from oblivion.