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

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.


Related reading:

VW 1500 Automatic Stickshift Review

Chevrolet Torque-Drive- A Dumber Powerglide

Ford’s Semi-Automatic Maverick – Copying Chevy’s Torque Drive