I fear I’m treading on Paul’s territory with this one, since he was fortunate enough to be obsessed with cars while these were rolling off the assembly line in Turin. But perhaps my envious perspective might prove refreshing, because the diversity among new car offerings when I was in my early twenties simply couldn’t compare to the variety of the early ’70s.
A lot of young people were still able to get their hands on muscle cars at the time, so this Fiat might not be the best representative of the market as a whole, but it’s fun to imagine a time where something this simple and exotic was affordable. In 2003, the double wishbone era at Honda was over, GTIs weighed 3,000 pounds (of which 500 consisted of sound insulation), and Mini Coopers had electric power steering. There were still some excellent choices, but a cheap, 1,500 pound, rear-engined convertible wasn’t one of them.
Now, there’s no sense in ignoring the fact that I’ve grown up and learned to drive during the Miata era, but as a more refined, sophisticated proposition, gaining inspiration from the Lotus Elan, it was never within the reach of the typical high-school graduate.
The 850 Spider was in production from 1965 until 1973, putting it squarely in the heyday of the baby boomer cultural imaginary. Our appropriately bright yellow example appears to be a late ’60s model; later versions had rectangular side marker lights. At $2,100 in 1968, it was equivalent of $11,000 in 2003, and $14,000 today.
We’re happy the Mitsu Mirage is just about that affordable, and it’s worth remembering that as a three-cylinder throwback, there’s more appeal (to some of us) in that tiny five-door than in your typical economy car of 2014. Imagine, for a moment, if Mitsubishi gave us a convertible version of that car with a rear mounted engine. Or better yet, imagine if the Smart Fortwo weren’t such a frumpy proposition.
Yes, yes, I can hear some of you now, under the impression that I’m unaware that these cars rusted in a hurry and offered no protection in a wreck. To such killjoys, I say enjoy your monthly payment and I hope the optional sunroof is within your budget.
Like many Fiats, the original bodystyle (with faired in headlights) looked best; here was a car that was cheap, spirited, mechanically up-to-date (in many ways) and fashionable to boot. What lay beneath that thoroughly modern bodywork? A coil-sprung semi trailing arm suspension, a four-speed gearbox and a tranverse-leaf spring acting on control arms locating the front wheels. Europeans were given access to a twin-cam, 982cc Abarth model with 61-horsepower, but horsepower was in the fifties in later 903cc versions (earlier versions had a 817cc version of the OHV four-cylinder).
If a color scheme more in the British roadster mold suits you more, these were available in dark green, but the bright color of our featured car (uploaded by Eric Clem) is more appropriate to its hyper, Latinate character. You can head to your local Fiat and find a 500 Abarth with a folding roof tuned to sound like one of these cars, an effort which must be applauded now that engine noise has to be piped into the interiors of many hot hatches. But like the Citroen Roger shared with us this morning, sensational cars like this only come around when conditions are extremely favorable and there’s no shame in feeling envy for those who got to experience them when new.
Related reading: Cohort Sighting: Fiat 850 Coupe–Love Italian Style, On The Cheap