Curbside Classic: 1972 Fiat 850 Sedan (and Coupe) – Faster Than A Bicycle, Just


(for some reason this is one of the last of my CC’s from the other site that hasn’t made the trip here yet, but then Fiat 850’s are a bit slow. Updated and expanded 11/19/22)

To be fair, trying to chase a (running) car on a bicycle, even a tandem, does stack the odds against you. Now with a Fiat 850, those odds are suddenly improved, drastically. I first spotted this little gray 850 sedan in the neighborhood next to the river bike path at some distance. Wow! A Fiat 850! My one and only sighting of one here ever. My trusty stoker and I pedaled furiously, followed it, and would have caught the noisy midget at River Road, had the light there changed just a few seconds later. Porca miseria!

Fortunately Fiat 850s tend to be short-distance vehicles, so we prowled the neighborhood on our Eugene-built Burley tandem. Sure enough, I found the Fiat back in its den, along with two companions; a “project” Sports Coupe, and a parts donor Spider, tipped on its side. The whole 850 family, as fate—or Fiat—would have it.

The 850 was a direct descendant of the Fiat 600, first built in 1955 and one of the most significant post-war small cars in the (non-US) world. Fiat’s brilliant designer-engineer Dante Giacosa designed the 600 in the early postwar years as Fiat’s answer to the VW. Given that Italy was poorer, and by quite a long shot back then, the 600 was quite a bit smaller than the Beetle. And unlike the air-cooled boxer four in the VW, Fiat went the same route as Renault did with their post-war 4CV, using a small (633 cc) water-cooled inline four. Produced under license in Germany, Spain and Yugoslavia, the four-cylinder 600 was even more widespread than its smaller sibling, the air-cooled, two-cylinder 500. The 600 and its variants were built until 1985, in Yugoslavia (Zastava).

The 850’s body was of course new and a bit roomier, but except for a 1.2″ longer wheelbase and wider track, the greasy bits were largely the same. 600’s engine was enlarged to 843 cc; there were two variants in Europe: a 34 hp Normale or a 37 hp Super.  For the US, starting in 1968, the engine was reduced in displacement to 817 cc for the US to avoid emission controls, which only applied to engines with fifty cubic inches or more. Neat trick.

Introduced in 1964, the 850 was a big seller in Europe. And as Stephanie remembers all too well, it was the de facto rental car in Italy and Spain. Nothing like being squeezed into the back seat of a SEAT 850 with three(!) pesky younger siblings to leave an enduring impression.

When you encounter an 850 today, it’s hard to put its Lilliputian size into perspective. And the pictures don’t help either. But check out that Golf sitting a ways ahead of it. Yes, the 850 really is that narrow (54″). And short (11′). And very light (1475 lbs). There’s been a lot of inflation in small-car (and waist) size these past forty years.

The owner welcomed me inside—somewhat surprisingly, my 6′4″ frame fit reasonably well behind the wheel. Good thing my butt has avoided inflation, because the seats are more like milking stools. But my left foot feels utterly rejected; its usual place of residence has been confiscated by the left front wheel well. These postage-size pedals were designed for the narrow Italian leather shoes of the time and not for my size 13 athletic shoes.

This Fiat comes to life with a bark and a snarl; an angry Chihuahua’s on the canine scale. That’s not how I remember 850 sedans sounding. These were economy cars, sporting all of 34 or 37 horsepower, resulting in a 0-100 kmh (0-62 mph) of 33 seconds.

A peek in the mail slot that doubles as the engine cover reveals the source of that Latin attitude: a 903cc engine kidnapped out of an 850 Spider or Coupe, including the stock four-tube header that looks straight off a vintage Formula 1 car, feeding an Abarth exhaust. The Sports Coupe and exquisite Bertone-styled Spider truly are Autopia-sized Ferraris.

That explains why we couldn’t catch the 850 on our bicycle. With 52 cavallinos prancing just inches behind that so-called back seat, my beloved and battered 1969 vintage Automobile Revue Catalog says this hot-rod Fiat should be good for a 19 second 0-100 kmh dash. Well, it sure feels a lot faster. And it sounds even faster yet. And it darts around corners like a bunny running for its life. Just the thing for traversing the narrow roads of an ancient Italian village in record time, and making sure everybody is awake to witness it.

Well, maybe not record time. But an Abarth-tuned 1324 Coupe with a tuned 1300cc engine out of a Fiat 124 might do the trick. Wicked little buggers.

This 850 sedan has good company here—this almost-finished Coupe, and over there, across the driveway, is the body of an 850 Spider. It looks stripped of its mechanical components; maybe its engine is in the sedan now? And maybe the body was too rusted to save? Fiat was forced to buy back 1971 and 1972 850s because their rapid rusting of structural members was a safety issue. That was in 1980, and Fiat only had to pay the depreciated price; not much, presumably, for an 8 or 9 year old 850 back then.

The Coupe has a nicer dash, of course, but its interior is even tighter than the sedan, especially the back seat.

The summer of 1969 that I spent in Innsbruck was punctuated by the bark of similarly-exhausted 850s, echoing off the masonry buildings set close to the narrow streets. They were the equivalent of the hot-rod Chevy IIs—it was easy to hop up or swap in a hotter mill.

The Fiat’s problem was in the translation—to America. Conditions were very different. In retrospect, it’s actually remarkable that Fiat survived the import Carmageddon of 1960. Fiat sold a respectable number of 600s in the fifties, and the 850 was not that unusual in the sixties. In my memory, it was the cheapest car you could buy, until the Subaru 360 came along in about 1968. A ’68 850 cost $1,497; a Beetle $1,699.  Our neighbors in Iowa City had an 850, but then they were mighty eccentric.

The proud owner of this 1972 model reckons it’s one of about a dozen running 850 sedans in the whole land. I don’t doubt it. And he drives it too, what with his job being less than two miles away. Just about right for an 850. And for a bicycle.


Related reading:

Curbside Classic: Fiat 600 – The 500’s Older, Bigger And More Influential Brother

Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 Fiat 850 Idromatic – Bet You Never Saw One Of These

Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 Fiat 850 Spider – The Miura Of Cheap Sports Cars