It was 1976 and my head did a double take as I passed by the gas station. There she was, a sexy Italian with big eyes that seemed to follow my every move. Her skin was beautifully smooth and flowing, wrapped in a look-at-me shape that left little to the imagination. I have to admit that she was also topless and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I loved my Camaro, but here was a real head turner. Could I be forgiven for a summer fling with a sexy little Italian?
At that time I was young, I was free, and I decided that a summer fling was exactly what I needed. I’d be working as a lifeguard and living in the mountains of Southern California that summer. So what better place for a little top down and road hugging motoring? I took her for a test drive, money changed hands, and I was now proudly owned by my Italian mistress.
The Fiat 850 Spider was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and built by Bertone. Giugiaro also designed such beauties as the De Tomaso Mangusta, Maserati Bora, DMC DeLorean and the Fiat Dino. Bertone, not Fiat, was the actual manufacturer, building about 124,000 Spiders worldwide. Despite America’s love affair with land yachts such as the Electra 225 and Sedan de Ville, most of these diminutive beauties were imported to the US. The earlier cars had faired over headlamps, but the government apparently decided that some cars are just too sexy and ordered them changed. Have I said that these were “little”?
Banana for scale
The 850 Spider is so beautifully styled that it’s difficult to get a sense of size without something nearby for reference. Good items for reference might be a ten year old child, a guinea pig, or a banana for scale.
Anything larger than those made a Spider look like a toy car that you assembled yourself. Because these seemed to stay closer to the west and east coasts, some readers may never have actually seen one in the flesh. So let me try and give you a sense of the size of an 850.
I’m going to pick a Kia Forte as a modern small car so we can make some comparisons. Although the Kia is a proto-typical small car in the US, it is almost three feet longer and eight inches taller than our Italian 850. In fact, let’s take a closer look:
Specification 850 Spider Kia Forte
Length 149 182.7
Wheelbase 79.8 106.3
Width 59.1 70.9
Height 48 56.5
Weight (lbs.) 1600 2707
In the 850, I got used to looking up at other car’s mirrors. On a lifted pickup, I could tell whether they’d washed the underside recently, and it sure looked like you could slide right under a semi-trailer.
Being rear-engined, you might be concerned about terminal oversteer like a similar vintage Porsche 911. The thing is, you’d have to have some weight back there to do that, and the engine in the 850 was about the size of a Singer sewing machine – a whopping 49.86 cubic inches of pure pavement ripping power. In the land of 426 Chryslers, 427 Chevys and 428 Fords, Federal emission controls only applied to engine displacements over 50 cubic inches, as nothing could be smaller than that, right? To that, Fiat said “Hold my beer” and downsized their 903 cc (55 cu in) engine to just under the federal limit, thus avoiding emission controls for another few years.
The radiator, which was about the size of a cereal box, was also located in the engine compartment, so everything was compact with no long cooling pipes to the front of the vehicle.
Relaxed highway cruising was not really the 850 Spider’s mission, as 60 mph required a lofty 4,425 rpm. Even though it used pushrods instead of an overhead cam, it could easily spin to 7,000 rpm as there just wasn’t any mass to the moving engine parts. Oh, and you never had to worry about radio reception when driving on the highway, as Fiat thoughtfully provided a standard soundtrack of “angry hornets chasing two feet behind your head”.
With so little weight to move, my bite-sized Italian kept up with traffic just fine and topped out around 90 mph. The size was also perfect for driving on city sidewalks and a few of us could pick it up and move it from being parallel parked at a curb to sitting perpendicular on the sidewalk. Remember the Kia Forte above? The Spider weighed about 1,100 pounds less, so it was easy for my partners in crime to pick it up and place it in…unusual…situations. The gas tank held only 7.9 gallons, but at 35+ MPG you could still go a reasonable distance.
The handling really was bravissimo!, and my little Italian taught me the joys of curves and the intricacies of dancing together in close proximity. Shod with Pirelli Cinturato radials, driving at any speed on winding mountain roads was engaging and she never displayed a wrong move or an ill temper. The standard front disc brakes were also a welcome change after the adventures of my drum braked Camaro. The heater on the Spider was excellent, which meant that top down driving was comfortably available down to 45 degrees.
The interior exhibited a timeless beauty, with full gauges, real wood dash inserts and a classic arms-out Italian driving position. The top was easy to put up or take down, and when down, stored under a hinged metal panel, so not a line was out of place on the shapely exterior. You didn’t really sit in the car as much as you wore it like a good suit. It was perfectly sized for top down motoring with someone that you liked being close to, but NFL or NBA players need not apply. Behind the seats was a covered package shelf that stored the top when it was down, and offered about as much storage as the minuscule trunk. Everything had its place and no space was wasted.
With the engine in the rear, a front trunk was thoughtfully provided; the perfect place for two small overnight bags, four bottles of wine or 322 ping pong balls.
At some point, the popular butterscotch paint had been resprayed in an oh-so-eye catching purple, and the previous owner had thoughtfully used fingernail polish as touch up paint. The ravages of time have stolen any photos of my purple Spider, but picture the high impact “Plum Purple” from a 1970 Dodge Challenger. I wonder if painters offered a discount when painting the Spider, as it was less than ½ size of a normal American car?
Being a lifeguard at a summer camp offered many pleasures and opportunities for a young male, and I had another kind of summer fling with a camp counselor. She and I spent countless hours driving back roads with the top down in the 850, making up fictitious stories of our non-existent future life. Life was warm and simpler then, and like a fine Italian wine, we drank in every drop.
Summer ended, as did the summer fling with the counselor. And as the season turned to fall, I realized that I needed to let my little Italian mistress go as well. She had taught me about simplicity, sensuous looks and that great things could come in small packages. I let her go to another, so she could teach him all that she had shared with me. She left my wallet undented and my heart full of memories. And what more can you ask from a summer fling?