Perusing these endless stacks of old Road & Tracks is an interesting memory exercise, running into cars that I had simply forgotten about. I’m not talking about the basic Fiat 850; I remember those all-too well. They were everywhere in Austria when I spent the summer of 1969 there, and there were even some to be seen in both Baltimore and Iowa City; in fact our former next door neighbors in IC had one when I went back to visit there in the summer of 1968, or maybe it was in 1970?
No, I’m talking about the Idromatic semi-automatic transmission that was available in these, Fiat’s answer to VW’s Automatic Stick-shift Beetle and Chevy’s Torque Drive (and the soon-to-arrive Semi-Automatic Ford Maverick). I remember it now, but then this was a pretty forgettable…thing. And I have zero memory of ever seeing one sporting that little badge; maybe some repressed-memory therapy would help?
It’s hard to make out in this shot, but there’s an “Idromatic” badge attached to the bottom of the “Fiat 850” badge on its stubby little tail. And if you think this little Fiat looks a bit undersized on the San Diego freeway, imagine one there today.
The Idromatic was quite similar to the VW’s automatic, and quite unlike the GM and Ford semi-automatics, which were essentially just their real automatics without a valve body. It used the same four speed manual as the normal version, with a torque converter and cluth, which was actuated by the shift knob. The main difference was that it retained all four gears, whereas the VW unit only had the original second through fourth gears.
It worked reasonably well enough, although it was possible to beat the clutch, resulting in some unpleasantness. Performance with the 42 hp 817 cc mill was of course very modest; it was the slowest car tested by R&T since the Renault Dauphine some years earlier, resulting in a 0-60 time (25.5 seconds) longer than a 1/4 mile time (23.3 seconds).
The 850 Idromatic was deemed a quite adequate second car for slower-speed and shorter distance use, but not for serious highway driving, American style.
VW 1500 Automatic Stickshift Review
Chevrolet Torque-Drive- A Dumber Powerglide
Ford’s Semi-Automatic Maverick – Copying Chevy’s Torque Drive
Gee, what does Idromatic sound like? Hmmm.
Ah now I get it. I was pronouncing the vowel sound in the first syllable rhyming with “it”.
Nicely played! I too read Idromatic with a soft i. It sounds much better as intended, though I imagine two expat Yorkshiremen I used to work with, thus:
“Oy, Maurice (pronounced Morris), Oi ‘ear you gaw a caw wiff an aw-oh-mah-ick!”
“Aye, Broyin, it’s an ‘ydromatic.”
Idromatic sounds like perhaps a turn-of-the-last-century automotive coinage, back when inventions in another new field, cinema, were being called Praxinoscope and Eidoloscope.
Still faster than a Mercedes 240D!
The clutch was hydraulically actuated vs. VW’s pneumatic actuation. The VW autostick actuator could develop a leak in the diaphragm but since they were located external to the trans they were easy to replace. I don’t ever remember having to replace an autostick’s clutch disk; the torque converter did all the slipping required.
These Fiat 850s were moderately popular in Greece in the early 1970s, I’m pretty sure I rode in one once, as this was my mother’s friend’s family car. I remember it was a big deal when they replaced it with a Fiat 128.
Not as popular as Dauphines/R8/R9 though when it came to rear-engines, which where not as popular as Beetles.
I didn’t know much about cars then, but I knew that rear engine meant “cheap car”.
I didn’t realize how small it was though, 79″ WB and 140″ in length, yikes! I thought it was about the same size as our family Beetle.
In the early 80s a friend had the Seat version from tbe 70s that never let hom down. Never seen an other . We had both Fait and Seat versions in the UK ,none with this semi automatic.
This was the big rear-engined FIAT in 1968. Italian buyers who bought the 850 had the denaro to step up from the twin-cylinder 500 and smaller 600.
I understand FIAT attempting to broaden it US appeal. However, this attempt just didn’t cut it. IIRC, VW tried something similar with the Beatle in the late 60s or early 70s which didn’t go over too well. To think of it, Ford recently introduced its double clutch transmission to dismal failure and class action status.
It takes some torque and HP to power an automatic, let alone A/C. I felt the Asian learned how to handle this combo by the early 80’s. The Europeans were too fragmented, and took awhile longer to get the receipt right.
It probably says it all about the Idromatic that Gianni Agnelli, who lost the use of one leg in a crash in the early ’50s, drove a regular manual transmission by operating all 3 pedals with his one good leg rather than having it installed in his company cars.
It says a lot about the Fiat 850 in the US that its’ successor, the segment-defining 127, was never sold in America and indeed would’ve required a significantly modified front clip to be US legal even before the big-bumper ’74s having been designed around single square headlights that wouldn’t be legal until ’78.
Wait – a Renault Dauphine automatic 5 years ago? (Doing the math) That’s 1963. What?
Mike from AUS.
The NSU RO80 had the same setup ie normal syncro gearbox with torque converter and clutch which was activated with the movement of the gear stick knob whilst changing gears
Fiat 850s were certainly around in Australia back then – a friend had an 850 coupe – but I never heard of the Idromatic. Horrendously slow, even for the sixties, and this was with the Super engine!