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.
Cohort Classic: Fiat 850 Spider Perry Shoar
I don’t remember seeing any of these back in the 60’s, which tells me I never saw a pre-1968 model. That, I would have noticed!
I have a ’73. Fun ride, but it has to put up with a dilettante owner. I’ve driven it, maybe, five times in six years of ownership. I couldn’t resolve the sophisticated looks with the assault of the decibels. Absorbing the obtrusive engine and suspension noise that was acceptable in a cheap car in the ’60s shows you when you’ve become an automotive snowflake. Even if you enjoy it viscerally, there’s a feeling you are carrying the engine in a back pack with snaps that don’t undo, while the speed is too modest to prevent you from becoming a quick snack for the Escalade in your mirror. Looks aren’t everything.
That’s right; you have one. And you just wrote a very effective description of how they feel.
Those post 68 headlights made it look like the old Bug eye Sprite and the 0-60 time of 20 secs must have made it just as fast…
They also, somehow accentuate the front overhang and short wheelbase to length ratio.
As Erie, PA had a real Fiat dealer just outside the city limits, operating out of a large ex-service station building, I got to see one or two of the faired headlight models around town but they we outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by the 68-up models. At the ice, my dream car, although I was never close to actually owning one.
Although I was just 11 years old, I remember this test, and the car, very well. I probably only had a vague idea of what liters or cubic inches really were at that time, I knew that really small Fiats were 500 or 600 cc, and Mini’s were also 850’s, so the fact that a mere drop to 817 could avoid emissions requirements seemed odd. I think only these Fiats and a bit later the Subaru 360 took advantage of this loophole; I think it had been closed by the time the Honda 600 was officially sold here a few years later. By the way, I also remember the headlight change, and while I certainly prefer the old ones, I don’t think the newer design is terrible. A better implementation than the E Type, and within a few years cars like the 240Z made this look ubiquitous.
The Saab 96 two-stroke took advantage of the loophole also. They took the displacement down to 820cc. Of course 1968 was the last model year for the two-stroke.
I’d forgotten all about Saab, which is odd because I’ve actually driven an 850cc 96. Thanks for the comment.
How many promising earlier designs, have been destroyed by ill-conceived headlight design. Reminds me a bit of this.
The alt-world EXP! I don’t think I’ve ever seen this…
Not too shabby eh? I imagine it was due to cost cutting, but concealed headlight would have done wonders for the EXP’s image. Perhaps it was seen as too potentially competitive with the Mustang’s market. Alas, we ended up with the frog prince!
Me either! That looks downright good, which I’d never unironically say about the EXP.
Ford has a better Idea… stillborn in the design studio. 🙁
Note the equally cool Merkur XR4ti-style bi-spoiler. Or at least one ‘elevated’ spoiler, flaring from the ‘C’ pillar.
The EXP also was likely conceived as a 2+2. Since it was heavier than the Escort 3 door hatchback (at least) in production form, a back seat and headlight motors might have made it heavier even than the wagon.
But worth it for the style.
Anna Magnani’s character’s prized ride in the Italian TV movie “The Automobile”. I have been especially endeared to these ever since, pre- or post-headlight revision.
This must be the last time anyone in the world praised Fiat build quality. (The passenger seatback release broke yesterday on my 2013 500. Why? Because it’s operated by a bicycle brake cable, that’s why!)
I’ve probably ridden tens of thousands of miles on bikes with cable operated brakes and never had one break. Until recently, at least in the CC scale of time, most cars had similar cables operating heating and AC doors, parking brakes and of course throttles. I’d attribute a broken cable to poor design for the application, not build quality, though perhaps that’s splitting hairs. Broken is broken.
I’m a cyclist myself. Never broken a brake cable. But I think the cable in the Fiat takes some sharp bends, and rubs against some plastic bits. At any rate, it’s not up to the job.
It came down to this car or a new ’68 Mustang when I was about to buy my first new car.
The Mustang won. About the same money, and I got the Sprint “A” package (pop-open gas cap, C-stripes and wheel lip moldings. White vinyl roof over blue. And even with the 200 ci six and a three speed it was much quicker. The only downside was losing my ’62 Impala Sport Coupe in the trade.
While a GI in mid-’60s Germany, I met a girl who drove a Fiat 600, & whipped it around the cobblestones like Fangio. I fell in love (car, & girl). She later bought an 850 Coupe. In love again, so I bought one for myself. I put an Abarth exhaust “system” on it which added maybe 2 HP. It was six months of narrow street excitement ’til a headlong meeting with a monster German Lastwagen (truck), put me in the hospital, & the car in the bone yard. Nonetheless, she kept hers running for a few more years, & in order to keep the car in the family, I married her (really), Our marriage lasted 30 years, The car didn’t. But, these small European gas-sippers converted my way of approaching transportation forever.
I had a ’68, used, for about three months when I was 17 years old. It did handle well but it was slow and for a seven-year-old car the body integrity was awful. Granted it suffered through seven Chicago winters but that still didn’t excuse the window regulator spot welds from breaking inside the door, dropping the window to the bottom. Some electrical and carburetor gremlins too, as I recall, that were never resolved.
Can those really be Miura headlights since the Miura lights popped up vertically when used? These have a similar looking lens but as far as I can tell that’s a cover and the then actual light was set back vertically behind it. Maybe just the outer lens of the Miura was used as a cover, but wouldn’t that make the beam all scattered? (Daniel Stern, comment?)
What is clearly Miura however are the taillights, perhaps the story is mixed up
A 5th gear would have made a world of difference. However, most drivers were focused on hair pin turns in the mountains of Italy or narrow lanes in the British country side. Top speed wasn’t the focus.
With a five-speed, it probably still would have been like 16 mph/1,000 rpm in top, which would still have been plenty busy (and plenty loud).
Given how small this engine is and its limited torque curve, I doubt it could handle anything taller than that, if even that.
This. Fiat 850 familiare.
My older brother bought a 1972 850 Spider, orange with a black interior. When he went off to Air Force day camp (boot camp), he left it in our parents care. I had graduated from high school and since mom couldn’t drive a stick & dad was deployed to the western Pacific, I a”volunteered” to drive it occasionally. Although I’m just under 6’4″, I fit in the car remarkably well. Living in San Diego, the top was down most of the time & it was a blast to drive around town. If I remember correctly, I put about 2k miles on it while he was at basic training. I took a girl friend from San Diego up the coast through La Jolla & Del Mar as well as the other coastal towns. We go in I-5 to go through Camp Pendelton but got back off in San Clemente where we was a Model T in a driveway. As I was explaining the T to my girl friend, the owner came out & asked if we’d like to have a rider in the Model T! We had a great time as the owner explained the operation of the Model T to us. All in all, I still have fond memories of 850 Sipders & Maria!
A girl I knew who lived off Loch Raven Blvd in Towson bought a new ’71. I went with her and we road tested one, then a Midget at a foreign car place just up the street on York Rd from Towson Ford. I drove both of them too and the Midget felt like a go-cart, almost like you were wearing the car, it was so small, but it was a ball to drive and had decent footroom for a 6 ft’er. She liked the 850 better, and it was in that wild Electric Lime Green color that looked great on that car. I still have the brochure from the dealer. It was prettier, smoother, and more comfortable than the Midget but it was a buzz bomb on trips. We drove it to OC once and it was a ball driving it that summer, top down, up and down Coastal Hwy. The trip a bit of an ordeal though. She kept it for only 2 years then when she’d thrashed the clutch to death “moved up” to a Corolla, a much more practical car.
Excellent article. Not many writers venture to extol the fine features of 850 class of Fiat. I drove and owned a 67′ in Italy in late 70s while stationed in Southern Italy. What grand fun on the AutoStrada.
Years later after years of searching I purchased a sweet 67′ 850 coupe. Had been vintage raced and was Abarth set up.
A couple of years ago I snapped up a racer! A 67′ 850 convertible fully race equipped. Lovely full provenance gift with race photos and awards! Has a 12.5 to 1 stroker 903 cc engine with every trick I have seen.
Life is complete with my pair. Never to be sold! Thank you for the well done article!