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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

The Lovable Fiat 850 Berlina

Automobile historians like me constantly celebrate the weird and wonderful of the automobile world, the cars that broke new ground in terms of style or technology. The little Fiat 850, however, definitely wasn't such a thing...

It's fair to say that, had Fiat's engineering supremo had his way, the Fiat 850 wouldn't have happened.

The rewards of conformity

Giacosa had been championing front-wheel drive at Fiat for some time already, and the launch of Alec Issigonis's Mini in 1959 clearly showed it was the way of the future.

However, his enthusiasm wasn't shared by Fiat's management. After all, the company was selling all the cars it could make, controlling a massive chunk of an Italian automobile market that was expanding at a breakneck pace and showed no signs of slowing down.

Fiat knew that the vast majority of existing 600 buyers would gladly come back for more of the same, and that's precisely what the 850 offered: an incremental improvement upon the tried and tested 600 formula.

Engine displacement went up from 767cc to 843cc to move a larger and boxier body that offered more space for people and luggage, and top speed went up to 120 Km/h.

The need for speed

However, getting there proved easier said than done.

Despite the larger engine, the 850 prototypes actually struggled to achieve a higher top speed than the existing 600 due to the aerodynamic drag induced by the air vortexes forming behind the car.

To solve the problem, Fiat's Centro Stile, headed by Mario Boano, was forced to hastily redesign the 850's rear end with the stubby, squared-off tail we all know, but that wasn't part of the original design.

The result was never going to win any beauty contest, but Fiat intended to make money rather than a design statement: if it was good enough for buyers, it sure was good enough for the company.

The same adage applies to the rest of the technical package. The simple independent suspensions, 12" wheels, and drum brakes are all carried over from the existing 600 with little to no modification.

However, one very much overdue step towards passive safety was thankfully done by repositioning the fuel tank from the front bulkhead (where it was on the 600) to a much less exposed position behind the rear seats.

The launch

The Fiat 850 was launched in 1964 in two versions: Normal and Super, and, just as Fiat intended, the new model was readily embraced by the market.

1966 saw the introduction of the 850 "Idromatic," whose clutch had been replaced by a torque converter, thus eliminating the third pedal. By 1968 this extra-cost option was renamed "Idroconvert" and was offered on the new top-of-the-range 850 Special.

Something Special

The Special rode on 13" wheels and was dolled up with added chrome trim on the outside and a better finished interior with a faux-wood steering wheel.

Thanks to a double-choke carburetor and a larger exhaust manifold, the Special's engine was rated at 45HP, enough to push Fiat's little family saloon up to 135 Km/h. To rein in such newfound exuberance, the Special was fitted with front disc brakes as standard.

Fiat phased out the 850 in 1971, but the model lived on a few more years in Spain, where the local automaker Seat kept it in production until 1974.

Spain is different

Although the Spanish automaker primarily built Fiat models under license, it often sold unique, homegrown variants alongside the original Italian designs, including a rather lovely four-door derivative of the 850.

Built on a slightly stretched floorpan, the Seat 850 four-door was arguably a much better design than the Italian original, with its well-judged, balanced proportions.

However, such rear-engined designs were well beyond their sell-by date in the early 70s, when a new generation of modern front-wheel-drive compact cars was ready to take over...



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