You have to hand it to the Italians — they know how to make any automobile interesting and exciting, even a budget-priced small car. Case in point: the 1967-1971 Fiat 850 fastback, the subject of this column. Although in its time it was low-priced and modestly powered, it’s a stylish, economical and sporty coupe that’s lots of fun to drive.
We’ve written about Fiat in “Foreign Favorites” a number of times over the years, but to recap, the company was founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli. Fiat stands for Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, or Italian Automobile Company Turin, the city that is Italy’s equivalent to Detroit.
The first Fiat automobile featured tiller steering, chain drive and a rear-mounted two-cylinder engine. The company entered racing early on; it won the Targa Florio and the French Grand Prix in 1907 and its cars earned a reputation for good performance. Its product line was tilted toward smaller, two- and four-cylinder cars, although it also offered powerful V-8 models. The company grew in its home country and even opened up a factory in the United States, operating a plant in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from 1910 to 1918.
After World War II ended, a bombed-out Fiat managed to get back into production of its tiny prewar 500 “Topolino” model, soon adding the larger 1100 series of compacts. However, it initially focused its attention mainly on the European market and formal importation of Fiats to America did not commence until 1957 with a line-up that included a two-cylinder Fiat 500 priced at $1098, the four-cylinder 600 two-door sedan starting at just $1298, and the larger 1100 series beginning at $1655. Sales were good at the start with some 21,000 Fiats sold in the United States during 1958 and more than 38,000 units sold in 1959. After that, increased competition from a flood of import brands, along with the new American compact cars arriving on the market, caused Fiat sales to contract. In addition, like some other import car owners, many Fiat customers complained about lackluster service support and poor availability of spare parts. Sales dropped to just under 21,000 cars sold in America in 1960.
In response, Fiat introduced new sports car models such as the 1500 Spider and 1200 Spider while dropping the underpowered 500 model from the line. Then, in 1967, came the new Fiat 850 series, which was comprised of a Spider convertible that was covered some time ago in this column and the attractive two-door fastback (aka coupe) shown here.
The 850 series were rear-engine cars with an 843cc (51.4-cubic-inch) four-cylinder engine mounted around back. The rear-engine configuration was more than acceptable for the time since the best-selling import, the VW Beetle, was likewise a rear-engine car. Featuring a cast-iron block and aluminum cylinder head, the Fiat’s free-revving little mill produced 52 hp at 6400 rpm and 46 lbs.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm., so its power was similar to the Beetle. The transmission was a four-speed manual and its floor-mounted gear shifter was every bit as rubbery-feeling as that in the VW (perhaps even a little more so).
Like the convertible, the 850 Fastback rode a short 79.8-in. wheelbase which, of course, means that rear seat room is a bit tight. The four-wheel, fully independent suspension included transverse springs up front with coil springs and semi-trailing arms out back, plus stabilizer bars to flatten the curves. This supple suspension provided excellent handling combined with a good ability to soak up bumps and shocks. Front disc brakes were standard equipment.
Styling was created by Bertone and the firm did an excellent job. Although this was an inexpensive economy car, it looks more expensive than it was; indeed, it looks almost like an exotic European sport coupe. The lines are clean and uncluttered with a greenhouse tall enough to ensure good head room inside. The sloping roof line begins to drop off midway over the rear sear area, drifting down to the rear in a gentle but stylish fastback. The rear beltline features a kick-up to add some visual character. (If the Fiat’s profile looks familiar, it’s because Chevy used a similar look for the 1971 Vega, albeit with a lower roofline). The Fiat 850’s front end is also cleanly styled and adorned by a single bar with circular emblem in the center. Wheel openings are large and circular to allow full view of the slotted wheels and 5.20 x 13 in. tires. Blade-style bumpers are a nice touch.
Inside the car were comfy vinyl bucket seats, a padded instrument panel with woodgrain trim and a standard tachometer. There’s room for four adults, though being a two-door, getting in and out of the rear seat can be slightly difficult. Heater, defroster and electric windshield wipers were all standard equipment. An engine compartment light was also standard. The price for all this was a very reasonable $1795 P.O.E. (Port of Entry).
Performance was leisurely by today’s standards with acceleration in the quarter-mile listed as achievable in 22 seconds, and an estimated top speed of 87 mph. That was actually a bit better than the VW Beetle’s performance, and with the Fiat 850, you at least looked like you were going faster. No less an expert than Sports Car Graphic magazine approved of the new 850, reporting that “Driving the 850 coupe around town is a sheer pleasure” and adding that the 850 was “Extremely maneuverable; it snakes through traffic and parks effortlessly.”
For 1968, a smaller 42-hp. 817cc (49.9-cubic-inch) four-cylinder engine was fitted to skirt newly enacted U.S. emission regulations. Overall sales, which had been lagging, nearly doubled this year. The 1969 model year saw the installation of new front bucket seats with integral headrests while on the outside, the rear quarter panel “kick up” was more pronounced. Then, in 1970, a new 903cc (55.1-cubic-inch) engine was installed, increasing power to 58 hp and providing a small increase in acceleration. Top speed rose to faster than 90 mph.
The last year the 850 Fastback was imported to America was 1971 and by that point, the price had risen to $2059. The Fiat 850 Spider continued to be offered along with the popular 124 series and newly introduced 128 small cars.
If you think you might like to own an 850 Fastback, I suggest looking for the best example you can afford, because restoring one can be difficult and expensive. Spare parts are hard to find and, like most European imports of that era, Fiats tend to suffer from rust problems. Though rarely seen today, good examples of the 850 Fastback do pop up from time to time and prices seem reasonable (less than $10,000 for a very nice driver). Good luck in your search!
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