Car Show Classic: 1968 Innocenti C – Italy Builds A Better British Sports Car

Here’s one you don’t see every day, or indeed, except one day last summer, any day. An Innocenti Coupé. My first reaction, and maybe yours as well, was that it was a Pininfarina design, perhaps based on the early 1960s Autobianchi Primula or possibly the Morris 1100, as Innocenti assembled those for the Italian markets.  Time to follow the first principles of Curbivore study – take photos; talk to the owner (not possible today); go home and research.

So, I hadn’t heard of it either so I’m indebted to Professor Google for all that I now know about it. It’s not a Pininfarina product nor is it linked to the ADO16 or the Autobianchi, but, and this is the really surprising bit, it’s built on the platform of an Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget. The car is a little wider than the Sprite, and all visible traces of the Sprite have been covered over, but the firewall, floorpan and inner wings are pure Sprite, as is the 1098cc BMC A series engine. Some of the dashboard gauges are common the Ferrari 250GTE and GTO, believe it or not.

Size wise, the looks are deceptive. It is just a few inches longer and wider in size than the Sprite, although with longer doors and some storage space behind the seats. It might not have a folding roof, but to doesn’t leak either. But if you wanted it, there was a Convertible version in the family.

Innocenti, named for its founder Ferdinando Innocenti,  was based in Milan, initially building Lambretta scooters, named after the district of Milan the company was based in.. Motorcycle sales declined in the late 1950s as affluence increased and car sales rose, and Innocenti turned to contract assembly for, predominantly, BMC. At this time, of course, Italy might have been in the European Common Market, the precursor to the European Union, but the UK was not and not immediately likely to be, so trade tariff barriers still existed between the countries. The most obvious way to circumvent them was to assemble BMC cars in Italy, hence BMC’s arrangement with Innocenti. Similar arrangements happened elsewhere, for BMC in Spain, for Fiat in Germany and for Renault and Citroen in southern England for example.

In 1959, assembly started of the Austin A40 Farina, the compact saloon that became one of the first hatchbacks.

Then in 1963 production started of the Innocenti IM3 – IM3 denoting the third model Innocenti and BMC/Austin/Morris had collaborated on.

The second collaboration is of most direct relevance to this car though – a car known as the innocent 950 Spider. The basic rationale for the car was that although a compact British sportscar was an attractive proposition, the styling of the Frogeye (Bugeye) Austin-Healey Sprite was not to Italian taste, and indeed was an acquired taste for just about everyone.

So, Innocenti asked Ghia, under Tom Tjaarda, to design a new body for the Sprite, using the floorpan, bulkhead albeit moved forward and lowered seats to give more space. The engine remained at 948cc 43bhp and the suspension just as basic as the Sprite.

The first Spiders came to market in 1961, and close to 5000 were built by early 1963, when the Spider S with 1098cc and 58 bhp, front disc brakes and revised rear suspension was introduced. Visually, it was unchanged. Another 2000 were sold by 1965, when sales slowed sharply.

Innocenti therefore called in Ghia again, for whom Sergio Sartorelli updated the car and added a fixed roof to create the Innocenti C or Coupe. Visually, and seen separately without reference, it looks like a gentle refresh of the Spider with a roof but there are more substantial differences. All the panels are new, except the bonnet, boot lid and doors, and the car is four inches wider, adding significantly to interior space. The wheelbase was lengthened as well, creating space in the cabin nominally allocated for luggage behind the seats. Power came still from the 1098cc BMC A series engine, through now with 58bhp at 5500rpm, a four speed gearbox and front disc brakes. Suspension was wishbones at the front and leaf springs at the rear. All this was pure Sprite, or MG Midget.

More Italian was the trim, with all the handles, bumpers and badges being bespoke to the Innocenti, along with the wiring loom and most electrical items, including the lights, instrumentation and switches. Some of this will be down to the style, some for industrial and local content reasons. Lucas were still there though, in the steering column and generator, so you wonder about the electrical systems. Lucas meets the Italians….

Production lasted from late 1966 to August 1968, and the car was only offered in red, white or green, to match the Italian flag. Production was very limited – either 794 or 487 depending who you ask. Sales were limited to Italy and some European markets, where it struggled against the cheaper Sprite and MG Midget. The number in the UK is in single figures, and low ones at that.

Innocenti was absorbed by BLMC in 1972, and production focussed on the Innocenti Mini until the business was sold by BLMC in 1976 to de Tomaso and ultimately to Fiat in 1990.

More Innocenti Reading:

Dave Saunders’ take on the Innocenti Turbo DeTomaso

Dave’s own 1984 Innocenti Minitre