Fiat once built a series of famous small cars, but not without a big challenge: how to adequately replace icons such as the 500 and 600? In the case of the "Seicento", the answer was clear 60 years ago. The 850 model series appeared in May 1964, initially as a saloon, and a year later also as a coupé and spider.
The 1960s were the heyday of the rear-engine principle, especially in Italy. The Fiat 500 and 600 had already carried the engine in the back of their passengers. When designing the 850, the legendary Fiat chief designer Dr Dante Giacosa stuck to this design - although the 850 was significantly larger than its predecessor, it was technically derived directly from it.
Gallery: Fiat 850 (1964-1973)
Although the wheelbase was only extended by 27 millimetres, the interior was considerably more spacious. The body, which was also extended at the front and rear, now had a notchback instead of a hatchback. The boot in the front was larger due to the tank being moved to the rear. The backrest of the rear seat bench could also be folded down, creating additional storage space.
With a wheelbase of 2,027 millimetres, the saloon - Berlina in Italian - reached a length of 3,575 millimetres, almost exactly the size of a 2004 Fiat Panda. Inside, it offered space for two adults and three children; under the front bonnet was a sizeable luggage compartment, which also accommodated the spare wheel. The two-door 850 had a deliberately unadorned exterior and interior design and offered a further advance: its doors were no longer hinged at the rear as on its predecessor, but at the front.
Fiat 850 Berlina (1964-1973)
Mounted longitudinally at the rear was a classic from the Turin-based brand - the indestructible four-cylinder engine with a displacement of 843 cc and a four-speed gearbox. With a compression ratio of 8.0:1, it produced 34 PS at 5,000 rpm and 51 Nm of torque at 2,800 rpm.
A side-mounted camshaft controlled the valves via rocker arms, while a Solex downdraft carburettor prepared the mixture. Weighing just 670 kilograms, the Fiat 850 reached a top speed of around 120 km/h (75 mph). In the more powerful "850 Super" version, the engine produced 37 PS thanks to a slightly higher compression ratio (8.8:1). Not bad, as an "Ottocentocinquanta" only weighed between 670 and 745 kilograms.
In 1966, the semi-automatic "Idroconvert" was introduced, followed in 1968 by the hot "Special": visually more attractive, with a firmer chassis and equipped with the coupé engine. Here, a twin carburettor from Weber, a "sharp" camshaft, a compression ratio of 9.3:1 and a sports exhaust manifold provided 47 PS, for which just 6,200 rpm were required. A torque of 59 Nm was available at 4,000 rpm.
The specific output of 55.7 PS was very high for the 1960s, but was entirely in keeping with the idea of sportiness at the time. The 850 "Special" had 13-inch rims as tyres and disc brakes at the front.
In car-loving Italy, the nippy 850 series found an enthusiastic audience. There is a documented case of a nun who lovingly cared for her saloon and treated it to an Abarth exhaust. Carlo Abarth, the Italian tuning king with Viennese origins, implanted a 1.6-litre engine in the Berlina, propelling it to a top speed of 211 km/h (131 mph) with 155 PS.
The chassis provided a sound basis for this. Wishbones and a transverse leaf spring were at work at the front, whilst the wheels were individually guided by semi-trailing arms at the rear. Telescopic shock absorbers kept the vibrations at all four wheels within limits.
Fiat 850 Coupè
While the Berlina was successfully making its way on the market, Dr Giacosa ignited the second stage of his plan, which today would be described as a platform strategy. The 850 Coupé, a 2+2-seater, appeared in 1965. Based on the floor assembly of the saloon, the "Berlinetta" had grown in length by 33 mm.
The design line was reminiscent of the powerful Fiat Dino Coupè, which was launched somewhat later, particularly in the sweep of the rear side windows. For the first time in 40 years, the classic round Fiat badge with the silver laurel wreath shone again as the brand emblem. The cockpit featured two round instruments instead of the saloon's tape tachometer, which could be seen through a sports steering wheel with two metal spokes. The driver and front passenger sat on sports seats.
The 850 Coupé was equipped with the aforementioned 47 PS engine, which propelled it to a top speed of 134.6 km/h (84 mph), as the magazine auto, motor und sport meticulously determined: "When driving, the ease of handling is impressive," the author praised, "you should show off the temperament on winding country roads. The coupé is extremely sporty to drive and a lot of fun to drive." With the rear-heavy weight distribution, the handling proved to be oversteering, as was appreciated at the time, but unproblematic.
Fiat 850 Spider (1965-1968)
The third member of the model family, the 850 Spider, which, like the coupé, made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in spring 1965, was even more fun to drive. Here, Fiat had entrusted the design and production to a trusted partner - the coachbuilder Bertone in Grugliasco near Turin.
The young Giorgetto Giugiaro (later known as the creator of the VW Golf I), who worked as design director at Bertone until 1965, was in charge of the project. He created a line of captivating lightness. The Spider only had the drive, the axles and the wheelbase in common with the Berlina - designed as a pure two-seater, it measured an impressive 3,782 mm in length with its generous overhangs, but only 1,220 mm in height.
The stretched silhouette with the elegant hip curve and the sharp spoiler lip at the rear, the easy-to-operate fabric soft top that could be retracted under a metal flap, the low-mounted sports seats and the lovingly furnished cockpit with its toggle switches and its whole battery of displays - all these elements made the Fiat 850 Spider a kind of Ferrari for the little man.
Fiat 850 Spider
And with a sales price of 7,150 marks in Germany, the dream was also affordable - the weaker-engined VW Karmann-Ghia cost almost the same money even as a coupé in the mid-1960s. Speaking of money: the 850 Berlina (DM 4,590, 750,000 lire in Italy) and the Coupé (DM 5,980, 950,000 lire) were of course much cheaper.
Driving performance was also considered attractive in that era. Thanks to its aerodynamically favourable bodywork, the 725 kg Spider reached top speeds of 144 km/h (89 mph) and even 152 km/h (94 mph) in two measurements by auto, motor und sport. It only needed 49 PS for this; compared to the coupé, the technicians had found another two hp with a camshaft with sharper timing.
The characteristics were extremely lively: the maximum torque of 57 Nm was only available at 4,400 rpm and the needle was allowed to climb to almost 7,000 rpm. The Fiat 850 Spider completed the test with 8.9 litres of super fuel consumption per 100 kilometres and with a good impression of quality: "The body is as solid and rigid as you would wish for in an open-top car," was the verdict. A 10-kilogram hardtop was available for winter use.
Fiat 850 Familiare (1965-1976)
In 1968, the Spider and the Coupé received a facelift; with it, a new 52 PS engine was introduced. The four-cylinder engine had grown to 903 cc by increasing its displacement and had thus gained some torque. The absolute top version, however, was again a one-off from Abarth - a two-litre engine with 185 PS for the coupé, which was said to have a top speed of 240 km/h (149 mph).
When the new compact 127 series appeared at Fiat in 1971, the 850 family was gradually phased out - first the coupé, then the saloon and finally the Spider were discontinued. A total of 2.3 million units were built, a number of which were even sold in the USA. But that was not all: the 850 Familiare (later 850 T) minibus, just 3.80 metres long, was built from 1965 to 1976.
In Spain, Seat produced all variants of the Fiat 850 under the name Seat 850 from 1966 to 1974. In addition to the Italian programme, there were also two saloon versions with four doors (Seat 850 "4 Puertas Normal" / "Largo"), which were based on a design by the Italian body manufacturer Francis Lombardi.
Seat 850 Coupé
Seat 850 Spider
Towards the end of the production period of the Seat 850, the Seat 133 was developed in Spain, which had a body in the style of the small 126 Bambino on the platform of the Fiat 850. It was also briefly offered in Germany as the Fiat 133.
The German Fiat subsidiary Fiat Neckar (formerly Fiat-NSU) produced the Neckar Adria under licence, which was identical to the 850 Super and was finally assembled in Heilbronn between June 1965 and September 1969.
Numerous Italian coachbuilders used the Fiat 850 as the basis for their own sporty or elegant special versions. These included the Turin-based Carrozzeria Ellena, which designed a compact spider with a sloping front end and headlights behind a glass cover. Allemano also created individual special versions based on the Fiat 850.
Carrozzeria Vignale produced around 70 examples of the Fiat 850 Vignale as a coupé and cabriolet; saloons are also known. These bodies were designed by Giovanni Michelotti. Also a Michelotti design was the Michelotti Shellette presented in 1968, which took up the concept of the beach car that Ghia had popularised ten years earlier with the Fiat 500 and 600 Jolly and updated it with contemporary lines. The Shellette was based on the Fiat 850 Spider. It was one of the few cars that Michelotti had built and marketed under his own brand.
A flat two-seater was the Fiat Lombardi Grand Prix 850, which was designed by Francis Lombardi and derived from the 850 Coupé. In addition to an 850 cc version, it was also built as the Abarth Scorpione with a displacement of 1,280 cc. The car was also launched on the market as an almost identical Otas.