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.
* * *
European Deadly Sins series
Italian DS 1 (Autobianchi, Iso, Lancia)