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

The Fiat 850 Spider was the cheapest sports car in America at the time. Priced at $2109 ($17k in 2021 dollars), it was a solid hundred bucks cheaper than the MG Midget, which no one would accuse of being a genuine looker. The Fiat Spider was, thanks to having been designed at Bertone by a team headed up by future superstar Giorgetto Giugiaro. The front end had a decidedly Miura-ish slant; according to one source, the headlight units were actually shared with that uber-duper-supercar.

Isn’t that front end delightful? Only one problem: Although mechanically this was a 1968 US spec car that R&T tested, the lights did not conform to the new federal standards that mandated vertical sealed beam units without any covers. That rather ruined the real ’68’s front end.

Here’s how the real ’68’s looked: ruined. The XK-E suffered the same issue; even the lowly VW Beetle lost its original smooth faired-in headlights too. The 1967 Fiat 850 Spider was the one to have. I loved seeing them back in the day, and it was so sad to see that front end despoiled.


The Spider arrived in 1965 to round out the prolific 850 family tree. It didn’t look remotely like any of the other members, which were all rather short, tall and stubby. The Spider was an all-new body that was significantly lower and longer, and looked a lot better than any cheap little roadster had any right to be. It was a splendid design, given how challenging it is to work on such a small chassis.

Ironically, R&T mentions that they “waited for a 1968 model” to test, and obviously this was an early “mule” with the ’67 front end but the smaller 817 cc engine, rather than the 843 cc engine used in 1967. Why reduce the engine displacement by such a small amount? For a very good reason, as the new 1968 emission regulations exempted engines below 50 cubic inches.

This allowed Fiat to tweak it just a bit to maintain the 52 (gross) hp rating of its bigger predecessor, and skip the air injection pump and reduced ignition timing and rejetted carb. Peak power came at 6200 rpm, which doesn’t sound like much with today’s engines, but that was a pretty high number for what was essentially an economy car engine, and a simple pushrod design at that.

It did have a very lovely tuned tube exhaust header, seen prominently in the engine shot above, and one that dominated the view when opening the rear lid. I remember being pretty impressed the first time I checked the oil on one at the gas station I was working at in 1967. FWIW, these were rather surprisingly common around the Baltimore County area: they were the perfect graduation present for the well-heeled family’s daughter at the time. Oh, so cute!  But can she drive it properly, and will she get tired of wringing out the engine to 6700 rpm on every shift in order to keep up with traffic? I can hear the sound of it now, in my mind’s ear.

Taking the little buzz-bomb mill up to 6700 rpm in top gear would result in 90 mph, But even at a cruising speed of 68 mph, the resulting engine speed of 5000 was a bit tiring.

R&T used a conservative 6200 rpm for their acceleration tests, since it had less than 1000 miles on it. But an Associate Editor’s 850 Coupe was shifted at 7000 rpm, which of course netted a good second off the Spider’s 21.7 second 1/4  mile time. This was a car to be seen in on Saturday night, and not to be sucked into any red light races.

The extended nose of the Spider improved its weight distribution, and kept tail-heaviness in check. “The Fiat can be flung about enthusiastically, giving an exceedingly high fun per-dollar quotient.”  What more can one ask for, given the price?

R& also noted the excellent build quality of the Bertone body, including the tasteful and nicely-executed interior. Too bad about the headlights, though.

Related reading:

Cohort Classic: Fiat 850 Spider   Perry Shoar

Cohort Sighting: Fiat 850 Coupe   PN