Welcome to another edition of our European Deadly Sins Tour, now in its seventh round after having visited France (twice), Britain (twice) and Germany (also twice). Today, let’s take a trip somewhere we’ve not been to before, Italia (che bellissima!), and examine what the country that chiefly contributed to the invention of the original concept of “Deadly Sins” might have to offer.
Compared to the other three “big” European carmaking nations, Italy has had few major companies but has produced world-class cars since the 1900s and some of the most prestigious names in the business. As per usual, three marques will be autopsied. Tomorrow, a look at bubble-cars and GT luxury with the glorious Iso. After that, the heartbreaking tale of the legendary Lancia. But let’s alphabetize this thing and kick off with Autobianchi.
We will specifically look at the A111. You would be forgiven for not being too well acquainted with it: few bought it back when it was made (1969-1972) and it has largely fallen off the radar since. But I’m guessing some of you may feel the same about Autobianchi as a whole. Let’s rewind to them 1900s for a bit.
Actually, let’s even go further to the founding of Edoardo Bianchi’s bicycle workshop in 1885. The first Bianchi motorcycle came out of the Milan works in 1897, followed two years later by the first motorcar and soon by trucks. While Fiat always produced the most cars in Italy, Bianchi sometimes beat Lancia to the second spot in the ‘20s.
Bianchi cars were reliable, solidly built, conservative and a bit boring. Buffeted by the aftershocks of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Bianchi’s car branch began to struggle. Resources were diverted to the more profitable truck market, leaving the Bianchi S9 as the last available automobile by the mid-‘30s. It was a well-built, conventional all-steel car with a 1.5 litre 45 hp 4-cyl. OHV engine – not as cheap as the Fiat, not as brilliant as the Lancia, it lingered until 1939, when massive State orders for more trucks compelled Bianchi to simply kill the car line.
Now aged 81, Edoardo Bianchi finally handed the reins to his son Giuseppe in 1946. The Bianchi group continued making bicycles, motorcycles and trucks, but car production did not resume. Times were getting tough for Bianchi, though the motorcycle range was selling reasonably well and the cycling team managed some incredible victories, thanks to the legendary Fausto Coppi.
Giuseppe Bianchi started looking for a way to expand his factory or build a new one, hopefully resuming automobile production. His Milanese neighbour, tyre-maker Pirelli, was also seeking to boost output. In 1954, both went to Turin on a regular basis to meet with Fiat CEO Vittorio Valletta to try out a mutually beneficial three-way joint-venture.
Bianchi’s reputation for above-average build quality could have served Fiat well in the higher end of the market, but Fiat had other ideas. Italy in the ‘50s offered a smorgasbord of firms and coachbuilders producing a fantastic array of specialist bodies for folks who wanted something a little different. Everything, from the smallest Fiat to the most prestigious Ferrari, was available with special coachwork. But the economy was booming, so a lot of customers might be willing to pay a little more for a series-made upmarket version of the upcoming Fiat 500. In January 1955, Bianchi, Fiat and Pirelli inked the contract and the Autobianchi marque was born. Within months, work began on the erection of a new Autobianchi car factory in Desio, on the outskirts of Milan.
Unveiled in September 1957, the new Autobianchi Bianchina Transformabile was styled by Fiat themselves. The entire point was to add value to the car’s looks, so the Centro Stile slapped as much brightwork as possible on the little car; rear fins and high headlamps, then at the height of automotive fashion, also appeared on the Bianchina. Immediately, the Fiat 500’s bulbous body looked like a different species (and a different decade). A similar concept was made over in Germany with the Neckar Weinsberg around that time, also obviously based on the unmistakable Fiat 500.
The first cars started coming out of Desio in 1958. Autobianchi’s debut was a rousing success, as Italians were feeling the full effects of the post-war boom. Exports soon grew, as the appetite of the European consumers started to demand a bit more luxury in the low end of the market. The automaker responded by unveiling a convertible and a four-seater in 1959, soon joined by a (tiny) wagon and delivery sedan.
The rear-engined cars sold steadily, brought in new customers both in Italy and abroad, and had cost hardly anything to develop. But Fiat weren’t content to sit back and watch the money roll in. It was time to put Autobianchi to another use.
When Fiat founder and CEO Giovanni Agnelli died in 1945, unions and politicians sought to take over the massive industrial empire, pretexting that his grandson Gianni was still too green and that Valletta, Fiat’s second-in-command, was compromised by his links to the Mussolini regime. Valletta was very soon recalled and became Fiat CEO, but throughout the ‘50s, the junior Agnelli started becoming more serious and learning the trade, taking much more interest in the business of being Italy’s most famous captain of industry.
By 1966, Gianni Agnelli was in full control as Fiat CEO, though the loyal Valletta remained as chairman of the board for several years. It is likely the both of them who masterminded the amalgamation of Autobianchi into Fiat, the first of a number of acquisitions that turned Fiat into Italy’s automotive black hole.
Sitting between two giants of the Italian automotive scene that were Pirelli and Fiat, Giuseppe Bianchi did not last long. He was fired as president of Autobianchi even as the first cars came out the factory. Pirelli and Fiat split Bianchi’s shares 50-50 and that was that. But now Agnelli wanted Pirelli’s 50% stake. That big Desio plant right in Alfa Romeo’s back yard was already a symbol of Fiat’s overbearing dominance on the national stage.
In 1969, Fiat took a 50% stake in Ferrari, absorbed Lancia and started trying to merge with Citroën (owner of Maserati), using the French carmaker to distribute Fiat products, including the new Autobianchi A111. The giant Togliatti plant would soon begin cranking out Soviet version of Turin’s 124. The Spanish SEATs, the Argentinian factory, Steyr-Puch in Austria, CKD assembly in a dozen countries – the Fiat empire was already huge by the late ‘60s. So what was the plan with Autobianchi?
The first really novel Autobianchi was introduced in late 1963. Based on the Fiat 600D platform, the Stellina spyder was a way for Fiat to try out fiberglass body production, albeit on a limited scale. The little roadster’s quite beautiful body, designed by Luigi Rapi, provided Fiat’s engineers with a lot of experience, but it was decided that the Stellina should be nixed (already) for 1965 to make room for the Bertone-made Fiat 850 Spider at that price range.
The Stellina’s dismal sales (502 units in total), caused by the car’s pricetag, low performance and iffy build quality, allowed Fiat to dip a tow in the pond and realize that they were better off sticking with metal bodies for their sporty rear-engined cars. And the Fiat image was not tarnished in the process, which was exactly what Autobianchi was all about, from Fiat’s perspective.
Since the ‘50s, Fiat were very conscious that the future of small to mid-sized cars lay in FWD, but were loath to give the technology a stab themselves, not least because Gianni Agnelli had a bad crash in one of the first Fiat FWD prototype early in that decade. But the evidence was there in the form of many distinguished competitors, not least Lancia. Autobianchi provided an opportunity for Dante Giacosa and his engineering team to try out their designs while preserving Fiat’s image, so they started work in earnest by 1957 on the FWD Fiat/Autobianchi. This resulted in the 1964 Primula, a lower mid-range (1100cc) FWD car chock full of advanced features.
Now Fiat looked like they were really developing their new marque in very interesting ways. The Primula was the world’s first FWD transverse hatchback. It was also quite a pretty and reliable little car, further improving Autobianchi’s street cred. The car’s cutting-edge design worked well and few teething troubles were found. It was a remarkable achievement: Fiat had aced their first foray into FWD and their pet project, Autobianchi, was going from strength to strength.
The issue ultimately was: where to next? Dante Giacosa had ideas. Many ideas. So he supervised the creation of the Fiat 123 G series of prototypes from 1962. The concepts of a hatchback with a horizontal rear engine or a new FWD layout with the engine ahead of the front wheels (à la Lancia or DKW) were seriously considered. A 3-cyl. OHC engine and semi-automatic transmission were also explored to power the new Autobianchi.
Even prior to the launch of the Primula, the rear engine still had traction. Notchback versions were also studied, one with a longitudinal rear and the other with a transverse FWD like the upcoming Primula. Fiat commanded that Giacosa should scale back the whole project – the 3-cyl., the semi-auto box and the rear engine layouts were off the table. The notchback was substantially reworked as the RWD Fiat 124, but the earlier FWD car, the re-bodied Primula, ended up as the A111.
There was no real plan, it seems, about the new Autobianchi. The presentation of a beautiful mid-engined coupé (penned by Pio Manzù) at the 1968 Turin Motor Show was a bit pie-in-the-sky for the marque: the car exposed did not have a drivetrain and was ultimately deemed impractical to put in production.
Fiat preferred to focus on putting the A111 into production, which would kind of (but not really) replace the Primula. There were already several well-established competitors in this segment, including cars made by Fiat or Fiat-owned companies. Fiat were fielding three own-brand cars, the lower-spec RWD 124, the higher-spec RWD 125 and the lower-spec FWD 128. This meant Autobianchi’s newest and biggest-ever car should occupy the last logical niche: higher-spec FWD.
The transverse engine, also used on the Fiat 124 S and on the Primula Coupe S, was a 1.4 litre 4-cyl. that provided 70 hp (DIN) to the front wheels via a four-speed manual gearbox. The suspension was also inherited from the Primula (and probably inspired by the FWD Lancias): cart springs front and rear; the front one was really more of an anti-roll bar, the rear used a dead/beam axle and semi-elliptic springs.
This was not as modern as the Fiat 128 – nor even as the 125, really. Context is everything, so how did the A111 compare to European competition? Lancia’s sublime (but expensive) Fulvia, but also the Peugeot 304, the Renault 12, the Austin Maxi, the Audi 60/75 and the Saab 99 – FWD was getting popular in this segment. Of course, things like price, tax rating, looks, comfort and feel were just as important for the average 1970 car buyer as the data displayed here.
Though the Autobianchi was a true four-door with a rear boot, it was among the shortest of the group. At barely over 4m long, it was dwarfed by the likes of the Renault 12, which was about 25cm longer. The A111 did not compete in all markets (it seems no RHD version was made, for instance), but was usually sold as a fancy Fiat and priced as such. In Italy, it slotted among other Fiat group products beneath Lancia but above the cheaper Fiats. The A111’s placement made sense on the domestic front, but was not necessarily translatable in other countries: the A111’s relatively hefty price made it compete with cars that were a bit bigger, had more identity or better performance. But not everybody cares which wheels power a car. Let’s see how the Autobianchi fared against the Distinguished Opposition of The Rear-Wheel Drivers.
RWD cars were nothing to sniff at. Ford UK, GM Europe, Simca, Rootes, Alfa Romeo and VW were also on this turf, soon to be re-joined with a vengeance by British Leyland. In France, the Fiat-designed Simca 1301/1501 range was very competitively priced, much roomier and more powerful than the Autobianchi – not to mention the Peugeot 404, one of the sturdiest cars ever made. “Neutral” continental markets (Scandinavia, Switzerland, Benelux, Austria, etc.) might see prices between the A111 and other contenders (especially the British marques) become quite close, and BL would soon unleash the Morris Marina, the Triumph Toledo and (drum roll please) the Austin Allegro in this segment. Still, even in Italy, the Alfa Giulia was a bit cheaper and much more satisfying in many ways than the A111. Tough crowd.
The A111 held its own compared to its competitors in most ways one could measure such things, from “objective” data to “subjective” feel and looks. It was a very good product. So why was it such a failure in the newly-unified European marketplace? Even at the time, the answer from the automotive press was: the car’s lack of image and the marque’s small-car image had conspired to remove the A111 from buyers’ radar. The car had dragged Autobianchi in the much tougher world of the mid-range saloon, terra incognita for a marque whose main street image was “Fiat 500 DeLuxe,” notwithstanding the Primula, whose modest run (about 75,000 made from 1964-70) may have also cannibalized the A111’s initial sales.
The Primula had had a far-from-stellar run, made worse by Fiat’s choice of sourcing low-quality steel and not applying rustproofing. The A111 would suffer from this reputation as well, and deservedly so. The Primula was kept on because it offered something the new car did not – the rear hatch. When the A111 came out in 1969, the hatchback saloon market was in its infancy. The Renault 16 and BMC’s fatally-flawed Austin Maxi were the only hatches in the circa-1500cc area. Perhaps a 5-door hatchback A111 might have given the car some sort of niche appeal, which its three-box Fiat-derived design decidedly lacked.
What one struggles to understand is the decision to un-invent the rear hatch, a key feature of the Primula, and adopt a conformist three-box design. And a rather anonymous design at that, though not an unpleasant one. But Fiat’s influence on the design was all too blatant. And with its hints of Fiat 130 here and strong whiffs of 124/125 there, the car’s image, certainly in foreign markets but also domestically, was blurred from the start. This might have made some sort of economic sense had the A111 actually shared, say, the Fiat 124’s doors and trunklid, or the 128’s suspension and brakes. But none of the Fiat body parts fit the A111 and its Primula platform was not as modern as the 128’s. As had always been the case with all Autobianchi, only the engine was really Fiat – it was also used on the (cheaper) 124 Special.
The A111 was given a slight facelift in 1970, about 10 months after its presentation in the spring of 1969. The bumpers received rubber overriders, the interior was given a trendy console (but remained a mishmash of Fiat parts), and the rear lights were simply doubled. By the time the A111 bowed out in October 1972, Autobianchi had made around 57,000 units.
The Bianchina was put to sleep, peacefully, except for the Giardiniera wagon, which was built in Desio from 1968 to 1977 and marketed as Autobianchi in Italy (but as the Fiat 500 wagon for exports). The new small car, the A112, was derived from the Fiat 128. It was essentially a BMC Mini with Bolognese sauce, sometimes with added sting thanks to Abarth. And like the Mini, it was a long-lasting hit: over 1.5 million were made until 1986.
Realizing that the “big Autobianchi” plan was a bomb, Fiat retreated and naturally put far more effort into Lancia, which had a far more prestigious and established name. Basically, Fiat discontinued the A111 as soon as the new Lancia Beta could take over and transferred Autobianchi to Lancia. The dealership networks, in most countries, were merged by the end of the ‘70s.
The Autobianchi A111’s lackluster sales precipitated the marque’s downfall, which was perhaps inevitable even had the A111 fulfilled its mission, which was a puzzling and wasteful stab at a larger car that was based on a Primula but had none of its qualities. Autobianchi probably should have based their Primula successor on the Fiat 128, like Peugeot were doing with the 204/304 (and soon the 504/604). At least, that would probably have turned a bigger profit.
By the late ‘70s, Autobianchi’s newest raison d’être as Lancia’s small-car make was already fading. It was pressure from Italian dealers and Autobianchi’s French distributor, André Chardonnet (whom we also met when discussing Neckar), that kept the brand alive – in fewer and fewer countries. Citroën also distributed Autobianchi products until 1973 when Fiat were told to pull out by the French government, so the brand was very widely available (and quite popular) there for a sustained period. Even this did not help the A111, which did not establish a sizable following across the Alps due to its being priced too high and being relatively small, given its engine size and tax bracket. It flopped on the French market while the A112 sold like hotcakes.
By the time the A112’s Fiat Panda-based successor was unveiled in 1985, most European markets called it the Lancia Y10. In the crucial French market (Autobianchi’s top export destination since the ‘70s), Fiat refused to prolong the decades-old deal they had with Chardonnet in 1989 and simply switched to distributing the Y10 as a Lancia through the Fiat-Lancia network. The Autobianchi brand soldiered on for domestic consumption only through to the model’s end in 1995, after the Desio factory’s closure in 1992.
Lancia’s latest (and probably last) model, the Fiat 500-based Ypsilon, is now only sold domestically. It’s remarkably similar to Autobianchi’s dying years. This subject will certainly come up again when we explore Lancia in a couple of days, but the Autobianchi marque was a pure Fiat operation virtually from the get go, so its demise is not as shocking as Lancia’s, or indeed other illustrious and long-lived names that were badge-engineered to death.
The Lancia buyout had downgraded Autobianchi to a one-trick pony as the chic / sporty Italian city car. Chic / sporty Lancia’s more prestigious image made Autobianchi completely redundant very quickly. The marque was toast already by 1969, one could argue, but the A111 was the final nail in the coffin.
Bianchi’s bicycle branch survived the whole ordeal and is still with us today, manufacturing some of the best racing bikes in the world, just as it did 130 years ago. But let’s bid our little Fiat-engined friends arriverderci for now and take a look at some Italo-American masterpieces. Tomorrow: Iso.
Cohort Capsule: Autobianchi Bianchina Panoramica – Hey! Look At Me and Not That BMW!, by PN
CC Capsule: Fiat 500 Giardiniera – That’s Signore Biggie Smalls To You, by Jim Klein
European Vacation CC: 1982 Autobianchi A112 Junior – Rosemma’s Third, by PN
* * *
European Deadly Sins series
French DS 1 (Hotchkiss, Panhard, Citroën) — French DS 2 (Bugatti, Facel-Vega, Monica)
British DS 1 (Jowett, Armstrong Siddeley, Daimler) — British DS 2 (Alvis, Lagonda, Gordon-Keeble)
German DS 1 (BMW, Borgward, Glas) — German DS 2 (Neckar, DKW, NSU)
Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia)
Italy has had few major auto companies? From the late teens early 1920’s Fiat was the biggest auto company in Europe & third biggest in the world up to at least the 1970’s. They held on to number one in Europe until the 1990’s, only falling apart with the Mani pulite scandal and all loss of government support & outright hostility by Italian politicians (German lovers- like Berlusconi) while the German government and their arab backers where racheting up support to the German auto makers.
The Italians had factories in Germany (NSU/NEKAR) France (Simca) Put Japan on wheels (1917 Mitsubishi Model A was based on the Fiat A3-3 design. (This model was considered to be the first mass-produced car in Japan). Hell they built a plant in the USA (Fiat incorporated in the United States in 1908 and built its plant two years later)
And even the deadly sins being originated in Italy!
Tatra87 did not slam the Italian car industry as a whole. He looked at one single brand that does not exist anymore and explored why that is so. Tatra87 is also putting praise where it belongs, but that is not the topic of “deadly sins”.
I also can’t see what this has to do with a deadly sin, maybe apart from most Americans not being familiar with Italian cars…..Autobianchi made some great cars,including the 111.
The A111 was a total flop. Autobianchi eventually croaked. The A111 contributed to that, as it relegated Autobianchi to a maker of only small cars.
Here’s my definition of a GM DS: what exactly qualifies a car to be a GM DS? Any car that didn’t specifically counter GM’s downward spiral. Here’s the key issue: having a car be called a DS does not mean that it was necessarily a truly bad car! It’s not reflection on any given car to be wholly lacking in qualities that were attractive to some or many.
That’s from my article On the Purpose and Nature of GM”s deadly Sins”
Does that help? And FWIW, Tatra (and other CC writers) are not bound by that definition, but the A111 certainly falls within it.
Who says I’m an American?
Knowledge (and stupidity) have no homeland.
As to the A111’s Deadly Sin status, well, Paul answered that pretty clearly. They sold poorly, did not usher in new technology, caused Autobianchi to become reduced to Fiat 500-sized cars again and nobody remembers them.
That’s not to say it was a bad car intrinsically, as the comparison with other European cars shows. It just wasn’t different enough from Fiats and a bit small for its engine. Those were not huge flaws, but Fiat figured Lancia was far more capable in this segment. Which was most probably the right call.
They sold 57.000 in the 3 years FIAT allowed them to build them, not to bad, but not great numbers either. For the time, the 111 was a pretty innovative car, and better then some of Fiats own offerings. So I do not see this car as a deadly sin compared to most others written up here.
Still enjoyed the writing however, don’t get me wrong!
Here’s what Tatra said:
Compared to the other three “big” European carmaking nations, Italy has had few major companies but has produced world-class cars since the 1900s and some of the most prestigious names in the business.
That is 100% correct. Yes, Fiat was ‘big” and “major”, exactly as he said. But there were none other on that scale. Correct? Or are you having a reading comprehension issue?
If you want to debate the specifics of his text, please do so. But questioning a CC’s writer’s integrity or personality is not allowed here, so I’m editing the offending words from your comment.
An interesting read of another European tragedy, if a minor one. I find the A111 to be quite attractive. But as similarly as it is styled to some of the Fiats, it is amazing that there was zero panel interchange. So it was, what, the Italian Mercury? It would seem so, a brand that never seemed to develop a consistent identity.
My thought as well, The Italian Mercury.
Though America’s Mercury wasn’t responsible for any particular innovation, unlike Autobianchi’s Primula. Wikipedia quotes Hemmings: “Little known outside of Italy, the Primula is today primarily known for innovating the modern economy-car layout.”
“The Italian Mercury” – genius. That should have been the title!
It’s scary, but I had quite forgotten about the A111. When I saw the title, I could not visualize it. Which probably explains a lot.
But thanks for refreshing my memory banks in your usual thorough way. A most excellent treatment of the subject.
Agreed: the A111 should have been a hatchback, and a more direct replacement of the Primula. That would have given it a much more distinct image and character in comparison to the Fiat notchback sedans. it might well have carved out a reasonable albeit modest bit of the market, like the Primula, or maybe even more, since hatchbacks were on the rise.
If I ever knew about it, I had certainly forgotten about it, too, even though I remembered the Primula, A112 and Lancia Y10.
Superficially it looks a lot like a Fiat 124 or 125. That sure wouldn’t have helped Autobianchi’s brand identity. And it seems it hit the same road blocks as cars like, for example, the Suzuki Kizashi and Daihatsu Applause — nobody was really expecting a car this size from this brand.
I spent 2 tours of Naval duty in Sicily (5 months each) in the early 70s and from the looks of things I figured the A112 was the car young, single, men aspired to…if not in Italy, at least in Sicily. The A111? I can’t say for sure if I saw more than a handful as they look quite similar to contemporary Fiats.
The idea of using Autobianci as a “test bed” for new technology and new directions in styling would seem to be a good one. However, it appears that Fiat threw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, whenever there seemed to be ANY chance Autobianci would “upstage” Fiat.
(This whole…episode is quite like Ford’s treatment of Mercury.) That is, they could never decide if Mercury was a more expensive Ford, or a slightly cheaper Lincoln. That back and forth killed Autobianci and is killing Lancia. And with Lancia, it is not just a deadly sin, but a blatant homicide (or is that, caricide?)
I´m with you. Its a tragedy. Saw my favourite Lancia a few weeks ago on a car show. You prabably know this one.
It should be “curricide”, if you care for Latin.
JP C, that is a fitting analogy. Autobianchi, another Italian word for Mercury, or a B grade Italian movie entitled “Mercury, Italian Style”, somewhat similar to “Divorce Italian Style”, without the humor, and definitely not starring Marcello Mastroianni
When I first saw the A 111 pictured in a book, I thought it was a up-market version of the 124. Then I read it has a FWD layout, and thats all. Never had a in deep look at this model/brand. So it was very informative to me. But I don´t think that a hatchback version would have save the brand. In my opinion the niche for Autobianchi as a luxo Fiat or testbed was to small. The only Autobianchi I ever saw in real was th, guess what, A 112. They were quite popular here in Germany when I was a child.
The A112 I once had was one of the best driving machines ever, good potent engine and as an Abarth the real first hot hatch. And great brakes
I Abarthized mine, the engine was basically a FIAT 850 Coupe unit 903 cc, but the Abarth shared the slighly larger Spider engine I fitted a Spider cylinder head to my A112 and carburettor and camshaft. I was always fiddling with my A 112, loved it, fast, practical, small but capable.
Those days you’d reckognize me by my black fingernails.
Odd, I am back driving a small Italian hot hatch, today it is a Mito Veloce 1.4, nice but tuning it to 200Hp just took a guy with a laptop!
Fascinating tale, with a lot of material that was new to me. Thanks for a great piece. I can’t wait for the Lancia story…..
I confess to having never seen an A111 (knowingly) and my first thought was that it must have shared the Fiat 124’s centre section. To go to the trouble of designing a four door saloon that looked like a 124 derivative and fitting it with FWD seems odd, to say the least. Who knew, what benefits did they get for the price delta did they had to pay?
I see bits of BL history ands even the cars appearing here – the styling of the Primula looks very ADO16, the series 2 Primula has some Maxi overtones and even the Bianchina reminds me of the posh Minis BMC pushed out int he early 1960s. Add in looking after additional (unnecessary?) brands and the similarity grows. Except one is still here!
Let’s just Lancia doesn’t go the same way!
I see some BL in this story too, Roger. And some Mercury, some GM, some Rootes… It’s not that original, I guess. The only thing that really sets it apart us the shortness of the timeline. Kind of like the Italian Saturn.
Very much reminded me of BL too, what with the merging and squeezing, some really good designs, some quite odd ones (this A111) and strange sizing. For me, the A111 is an unfortunate looking thing, managing blandness and noticeable ill-proportion in one go.
As an aside, I was really struck by the fact that GM was making the HB Viva and just 500-odd miles away, the unrelated Opel Olympia A. And with similar distances, Ford the Cortina and Tanus. Corporate homogeneity not yet discovered.
Another great article. If I recall correctly, the Biachina coupes and convertibles were sold in the US under the Fiat badge. I remember seeing a few as a kid. The Stellina would have been nice looking if it hadn’t been for those awkwardly-shaped covered headlights. What a mess. On the other hand, the A111 had an elegant-looking linear front end but the rest of the car was overly boxy and old-looking for 1969.
Great story — I’d heard of the Primula (though don’t think I’ve ever seen one) and A112s used to be everywhere in Italy, but the A111 is completely new to me.
My favourite series here at CC, exploring some little-known (or totally unknown) cars from the less prominent defunct marques. I remember reading about the Primula in car magazines of the time, but I don’t think I read anything about this one. Until today. Well done, as usual, Tatra!
Not sure how much of a difference it would have made by the time Fiat acquired Lancia and produced the Beta / etc, though Fiat could have made the Autobianchi A111 into a hatchback similar to the Fiat 123 G E1 prototype (and have it powered by more potent engines).
On top of that Fiat could have made Autobianchi’s USP being building slightly posher FWD hatchbacks by producing a posher Fiat 128 3/5-door hatchbacks akin to the Fiat 128-based Yugo Skala.as a replacement for the Autobianchi Primula, which in turn is essentially replaced by a rebadged Lancia Delta depending on the market.
Though unlike the Autobianchi A112 and the Fiat 128 that both managed to remain in production until the mid-1980s with the Autobianchi / Lancia Y10 and Lancia Delta replacing in production until the mid-1990s, the same cannot really be said for the Autobianchi A111 holding out until the mid-1980s even with a hatchback unless the A111 was somehow quickly replaced by a Lancia Beta-based Autobianchi model or an earlier Lancia Prisma-based model both featuring a proper hatchback (as opposed to the existing Lancia Beta Berlina that featuring a 4-door fastback bodystyle).
Tatra87, are you sure the Audi 75 had torsion bars? I think it had coils all around.
Yep, torsion bars. Google it.
“The Stellina’s dismal sales (502 units in total), caused by the car’s pricetag, low performance and iffy build quality, allowed Fiat to dip a tow in the pond…”
How dare you slur the reliability of Fiat, sir! Did you not mean “a toe in the pond”?
I saw that, too… Freudian slip?
Could well be. I love me some Fiats. Always have and always will. And you are right, sir… a very interesting article, chock full of info that I never knew and I consider myself an aficionado of the lower priced Italian marques.
To be fair, I did not say anything about Fiats being unreliable. That is your word. But I remember reading about the Stellina in a French auto mag, and the owner said it was really not well put together and that the GRP became brittle over the years.
Just kidding, it did catch my eye, though. Thanks for the informative post. I own an ‘81 X1/9, a 2012 500 Abarth and may pull the trigger on a 124 Abarth Spider. Like I’d mentioned, I do love me ‘em!
I love your articles, Tatra! You have an innate ability to masterfully tell a story at just the right level of detail so someone who knows very little on the subject can keep up without getting too bogged down in detail – my Autobianchi knowledge was extremely limited but now it’s been satisfyingly fleshed out!
Using Paul’s Deadly Sins series as the template for your pieces is excellent because I love a good (automotive) tragedy and it’s inherently more entertaining to read about a wonderful failure than a stunning success. Alas, there will always be people that misunderstand what a “deadly sin” is or can be but you made the case convincingly for this car.
Also, your labelled images and tables are beautiful! Love a good table, and I love it when you put cars in their contemporary, competitive context… It tends to send me down a Wikipedia rabbithole (I didn’t even realise the Ford Taunus was FWD, now I want to know more…)
Thank you kindly, William.
I usually start researching these with a hazy memory of a factoid or two as well. But once you start looking for data, contemporary tests, and whatever Google Books can dredge up, there’s usually too much information.
When I started on this one, I figured there wouldn’t be much put there on the A111, but there was a lot more than I reckoned, especially if you look at French and Italian sources.
I agree with everything you said, and I can’t wait for the other two pieces.
On top of what Tatra cited as the reasons for the A111 failing and then fading into obscurity, there’s another one which I saw mentioned years ago in a Ruoteclassiche article: the fact that Italy, unlike France, was a more conservative market, and a FWD car (let alone one with a hatch, like the Primula) was at the time the equivalent of todays hybrids, simply too weird for the average Joe. And obviously the kind of customer looking for a car with such a restrained design (to use an euphemism) wanted none of that, and instead bought the almost identical 124, with its tried-and-true RWD layout.
Looks too much like a Fiat 125 without the character.
The A111 was arguably more modern than the 125, as whilst both had rear leaf springs, the A111 was FWD.
I’m actually much more intrigued by the various Fiat 123 prototypes, with hatches, front and rear engines and the like.
Antisuv, don’t be too critical of the leaf as a springing medium used in the A111.
The leaf spring has long been considered a viable suspension element by many designers because of its compactness for packaging reasons and wheel/axle location.
The earlier front wheel drive 1962-1966 Ford Taunus P4 and later 1966-1970 Ford P6, used similar transverse front suspension leaf springing and semi-elliptical dead axle rear springing. So use of transverse front suspension leaf spring in a front wheel drive application was still an acceptable application at the time of the A111 development.
The lowly leaf spring has been also used for decades in the Chevrolet Corvette in the rear beginning in 1963 and later for front suspension springing. Even the highly esteemed 1962-1964 Ferrari 250 GTO used a live rear axle with semi-elliptical rear springing.
As long as there are fans of “I Spy”, Autobianchi will be remembered.
My American eyea look at a A222 and see a shrunken ’88 Ford Fairmont. Also, who had the logo first, Autobianchi or Audio-Technica?
^ (click to enlarge)
Very enjoyable and informative. This brand made sense upon its JV commencement, but once Fiat started accumulating other marques there was just no reason for it.
It seems to me the PARDEVI (Participation et Développement Industriels) agreement with Fiat/Citroen in 1968 plays a big part in the fate of the A111. Fiat bought the 49% stake Michelin owned of Citroen that year, and it appears that it was understood that their dealer network would sell Autobianchi products outside of Italy. That partnership showed signs of souring very early on. By 1969 and now owners of Lancia and their network, Fiat had no reason to keep Autobianchi around. They divested their share of Citroen back to Michelin in 1973, a year after the A111 went out of production. No need for a replacement car when you have similar products sold within your own showrooms. Take note that the A112 was rebranded as a Lancia at this point nearly everywhere except Italy. Autobianchi basically was redundant, and phased out for Lancia, as far as Fiat was concerned. To be honest, I don’t think Fiat would have even bothered with Citroen if they knew Lancia would come begging for help a year later.
There can be no point, from an automotive perspective, to the A111. It appears to be similar to the fwd Fiat 128, which was an outstanding piece of design. An upmarket 128 with an Autobianchi badge would have been a better product, so there must have been political reasons for the development of the A111. Remember that when Rootes in England introduced the Hillman Imp they had wanted to manufacture it at their home base in Coventry but were compelled by financial constraints to make it hundreds of miles away, which must account in part for the shortcomings of the project.
Autobianchi wasn’t acquired by Fiat until 1968, and therefore, it was clearly near developed on their own dime by that point. The engine is the only substantial Fiat component, really.
The text makes clear that from 1955 Autobianchi was effectively a Fiat subsidiary, with Fiat deciding the product and Fiat designers and engineers responsible for the product.
The FWD Fiat 123 prototype was originally conceived as an alternative to the RWD Fiat 124 though Fiat was reluctant to commit to FWD at the time, deciding instead to place the 123 project on the back burner until the project was later dusted off a few years to become the Autobianchi A111.
Had the Soviets got their way, they would have gladly built the Autobianchi Primula and Fiat 123 / Autobianchi A111 at Togliatti instead of the Fiat 124-based Lada, only for higher-ups at Fiat to give the Soviets little option but to chose the Fiat 124 as the basis for a Soviet People’s car.
Interestingly the rear-engined Fiat 123 G E3 prototype would have made for a decent Simca above the 1000 and 1100 yet below the 1300/1500.
Both it and the FWD Fiat 123 G E4 prototype also happened to use the same Fiat 1100 Type 101 1221cc engine used by the Autobianchi Primula, which Simca were still producing versions of in the Simca 1300/1500 with the Simca Poissy engine itself (along with the smaller Fiat 100 Series engine) also being said to be derived from the Fiat 1100 Type 101 unit.
Is it known whether the Fiat 124 Series and related Twin-Cam engines carried over anything from the earlier Fiat 1100 Type 101 or loosely related Simca Poissy engines?