R&T used to do “Used Classic Car” articles. This is one of them.
This article from 1980 February issue reviews the little Fiat and also brings up an owner’s impression:
Just taking the Grizzly for a drive…
Having wanted to own one of these for as long as I’ve been driving, 44 years, I was happy to see this article reposted.
I do think that the article was a bit unfair about maintenance issues as Fiats were no more or less reliable than their British counterparts. Think about it, some high-end lawn tractors have engines with more displacement. For its time this was an incredibly advanced car.
Thanks for posting!
Nothing in the articles to suggest any “unfairness” to the 850. They were only reporting on the problem areas, how to buy a good one and what owners experienced. Nothing unfair about that and pretty positive about the car itself.
Not even a suggestion of a reliability comparison between the 850 and British sportscars in the “Used Car Classics” article.
Excellent write up. Useful information. A potential 850 buyer would know what to expect after reading it.
“…Fiats were no more or less reliable than their British counterparts.”
I’d call that damning with faint praise. A best friend in college owned a green ’72 850 Spider and I got to drive it sometimes. Fun but fairly troublesome.
I don’t think they were being at all “unfair”. It’s a survey of owners’ experience, and quite fair. In fact, I rather think they were rather generous in emphasizing all of the 850’s appeal, despite its certain weaknesses. And those weaknesses are certainly pretty reasonable, given the time and size of this car. The fact that these 850s did as well as they did in grueling American conditions says positive things about their fundamental soundness.
Yes, things wear out on them, but these not anywhere near as junky as some folks would like us to believe.
I owned three Fiats, Gawd help me, an 850, a 124 convertible and a124 Sport coupe.
If one took the viewpoint that Fiats were expensive adult toys, and not reliable 14K a year automobiles, they made much more sense.
124 Sport! I had one of those, an AC in the once-popular mustard-yellow colour. It was about 8 years old when I got it during my first year at University. The sound of the engine was superb, the gear change excellent and the handling way better than any of the Japanese cars of the time. Interior was rather good too. Then there were the problems…..carb floats that would disintegrate and pieces would clog the jets for one. Memorable was the occasion when scalding hot water came cascading down on my feet! A failed valve in the heater caused that little issue. No really big problems, just lots of little ones.
My real automotive pain came about 5 years later, in the form of a brand new Jaguar XJ-S. Absolute rubbish and genuinely a case of ‘less and more’ (less reliable and more trouble than anything else on the road).
Many 124 Sports survived well into the 1990;s but they are a rare sight now.
Fun little car, but indeed rather fragile. My Dad went a bit crazy at one point and laid down $500 for a used ’68 model in butterscotch paint, with the bolt-on hard top; it was a tossup between this and a (horrendous) ’67 Renault Dauphine for the most eccentric cars we ever owned. I drove it a few times and it was a blast, although it was severely underpowered for the Western PA mountains, where we lived. Likewise, the combination of Italian steel and salty winter environment was less than ideal. With that said, however, Dad didn’t really have the wherewithal to maintain it properly and it succumbed to mounting mechanical problems long before rust became a serious issue.
My brother had one, purchased used at two years old. Red/orange. Neat little car but had to be returned to the dealer because the rust had become so bad [ Iowa winters ] the engine was read to drop out and it was sold in that condition.
He’d only owned it two months. Young and dumb. The fresh paint on such a new car should have been the tip-off. He worked with them and came home in a 71 Chevy Biscayne. Fleet special.
But it was beautiful then and still looks fresh today.
While it would have been a whole lot more expensive to develop, it would have been nice if Fiat had chosen this vehicle as their new retro convertible, rather than the upcoming, Miata-based ‘Fiata’ 124 Spider.
These cars look great with their original covered headlight configuration, at least in photos. I’ve never seen one that way in the metal, although the bug-eyed sealed beam ones were quite common when I was a kid.
Is there such a thing as a Curbside Classic Premonition? Cause I just saw a Fiat 850, sort of, on Monday. Like most premonitions, it wasn’t immediately clear what I was looking at – it seemed to be a sort of feverish bad dream- but it was one in fact, even though it was pretty well (badly?) disguised.
I didn’t take any pictures of it but I have managed to find a sister car on the net;
Always had a major soft spot for these, especially the original faired-headlight version. What a little jewel. These were quite popular at the time, and a lot of folks bought them on looks alone, and didn’t fully understand or appreciate what they were getting into.
Good timing, Thomas! Just bought this ’73 in October. Not much time behind the wheel, yet, with winter coming on, but so far, so good!
The seller had bought it out of a barn and restored it for his wife, but she didn’t like driving it enough to keep it around. The headlight rings were in need of refinishing, so he painted them instead of rechroming. I might leave them like that.
I’m not much of a vanity plate guy, but I like to use the generator on the DMV page just for fun. When I found out that LA LOLLO was available, I changed my tune and went for it!
After all, the nickname that the Italian press gave to Gina Lollobrigida seems entirely fitting…
Oooh; she’s sweet! Congratulations on your latest Italian mistress. 🙂
I’m not normally a fan of painting chrome trim but that works quite well. Congrats.
The painted rings actually go quite well with the car. I loved my 850 and wish I could get another one.
Does anybody know if there was a later article saying what happened to Mr. Thompson’s 850. He says that at the time he planned to keep it forever and in 1980 it had already gone a long way.
I did a search on the man and car. I didnt find a picture of it as described. That unusual side mirror and three spoked Cromodora wheels would give it away if they were still on it; I actually found just one photo of that style wheel on the entire net, and it wasn’t on an 850.
Mr. Thompson appears in an obituary from 2005 (below). He was an auto journalist and artist who did a couple of stints at Road & Track, and founded the Rear Engine FIAT Club.
Sadly, there hasn’t been an update to the club’s website since January of 2005, and nothing on the rather sparse webpage seems to have been authored by him.
He would have been 5 months shy of his 45th birthday, and just 70 when he died.
Ah, the memories……. all the way back to 2nd grade. As my Dad focused in on a Fiat purchase, he first pondered a 124 sedan or wagon. Quick test drives in the 850 coupe and spider pointed him back at the 124, but this time, a spider. (never mind the fact that we supposedly were shopping for something that would seat the whole family) My brothers and I had plenty of time to wander around the showroom sitting in the various models.
The butterscotch color was fairly popular on these 850’s, as I recall. I also remember the Siata Spring sitting in the showroom.
My brother owned one if these, with the slant eye covered headlights, in the late ’70s. If you could fold down the windshield I bet you could drive it under a semi trailer. The previous owner painted it green by getting a couple of friends pick it up and set it atop 4 55gallon drums so it was at a comfortable work height.
The radiator had to be re-soldered periodically but unlike all the air cooled VWs had a fantastic heater, you could stay warm with the top down into the 30s. Like most Fiats in MN it died of rust after a couple of winters.
For those interested in “tests” and/or articles on used “classics” I can think of 2 sources available today: Car&Driver occasionally runs articles on near new cars and the British magazine CAR has run several features on used car bargains. CAR has also started running articles that ask the question: at £XXXXXX, should you buy a new……or a lightly used…….
When these were new, I strongly considered buying one. I figured they were just the smallest bit quirky, with a decent dose of fuel economy. But silly me, I figured the only sports cars REALLY worth owning were British.
A few years later, I just missed buying a 850 coupe. It belonged to a co-worker would told me AFTER I bought my 69 Valiant that he would have sold me his coupe…if he had known I was looking to buy a car.
It’s interesting that this article focuses almost entirely on the Spider, briefly mentions the coupe, and completely ignores the 850 sedan; were those all in sub-$500 beater territory by 1980?
This weekend I am bringing home a 1967 850 Spider resto project. Yes it does have some rust but not as much as I thought I was going to encounter. The purchase included three engines, three transaxles and enough parts to fill my van to the brim.
I love the original design which I think looks best in Corsa red (Ferrari red). My car is white which is not very flattering.
Mine was blue, but the previous owner took it down to bare metal, so he could pick a new color if he wanted. Had to be red (though I think Spiders look great in any of the primary colors). I haven’t had her long enough to become empirically knowledgeable about the quirks, but it might be beneficial for us to keep in touch when you get into your restoration, fortee9er.
Barko, When I do I will post something or contact you via Paul.
A room mate in college bought one of these new in 1969 in green and tan and drove it cross country with only one problem – one of the swing axles was out of alignment from the factory and wore out a new tire in 1200 miles. I drive by this poor little 850 nearly everyday and I’m reminded of my old college friend.
I’ve never seen one. Looking at the specs I’d have to say it only has 2/3rds of the power needed to be taken seriously. With that trans-axle arrangement is should’ve had an oversquare 1000cc 90degree V4 engine w/peak hp at 7500RPMs. Theoretically that should give you about 40% more power with about the same engine weight and slightly less weight on the rear wheels.
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