The Brand That Time Forgot: Autobianchi

We look at an invisible landmark.

Autobianchi Emblem
Exhibit at The Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee

Looking at the period between 1955 and 1975, there are various cars that we might identify as landmarks. For example the Citroen DS, BMC Mini, Ford Mustang, Lamborghini Miura, Renault 16, Jaguar XJ, NSU Ro80, Fiat 128, Range Rover, Renault 5 and VW Golf are all cars that really stood out at the time, even if some of them, fine cars that they remain, might now be seen as landmarks to nowhere, having no true descendants among today’s products. One car, however, certainly has undoubted conceptual descendants today, but would usually be overlooked when compiling such lists, and quite unjustifiably. The Autobianchi Primula.

Further to two earlier pieces, one on Etceterini, one on the Autobianchi A111, it’s interesting to look at Autobianchi in a bit more detail. The Bianchi company was started in 1885 as a bicycle manufacturer and exists to this day as such – indeed, I believe our own Eóin Vincent used a Bianchi in his ascent of Mont Ventoux. Before World War 2, they also dabbled in cars, but when Bianchi wanted to make new inroads as a car manufacturer in the 1950s, it formed a separate joint three-way company with Fiat and Pirelli. The original attraction for Fiat was to produce less mainstream vehicles and tap a market that, until then, belonged to a sizeable number of small manufacturers, such as the well-respected Moretti.

Autobianchi Bianchina : Image from photo-voiture.motorlegend.com
Autobianchi Bianchina Trasformable : Image from photo-voiture.motorlegend.com

The first cars were straightforward machines based on the Fiat 500, but with more grown-up looking bodywork. The Bianchina was introduced in 1957 and was made in saloon, open, cabriolet, estate and commercial versions, selling over a quarter of a million over 13 years. This was joined by the Stellina, first shown in 1963, a convertible based on the Fiat 600. By now you could see how Fiat was using the company as a sounding board, since the conceptually similar Fiat 850 Spider appeared two years later.

Autobianchi Stellina
The Autobianchi Stellina – from : autominded.net

But by far the most significant Autobianchi is the 1964 Primula, since it gives that manufacturer a definite, though largely overlooked, place in motoring history. Apart from the rear-engined 500 and 600, early Sixties Fiats were largely conventional cars. Both the the BMC Mini and 1100 were produced in Italy under the Innocenti badge, with a bit of added styling flair that probably infuriated Issigonis, and they, the Renault 4 and the Citroen Ami were suggesting that front-wheel-drive might be the future. Saab and DKW had been producing such for years and, far closer to home, Lancia were now driving the front wheels, first with the Flavia then, closer to Fiat’s territory, the smaller Fulvia, to be launched in 1963. But if Fiat were going to follow suit they were going to be cautious. Both DKW and Saab used lightweight 2 strokes, the French pair were quirky and the longitudinal mounting of the four cylinder Renault’s engine behind the gearbox was hardly the most space effective solution. The British pair had a compact transverse layout, but the integral, in-sump gearbox was an overly complex solution. Lancia, naturally, put engineering before profit and, kept the nose mass of the Fulvia low by using a short, narrow-angle OHC V4, mounted longitudinally, ahead of the gearbox, at a 45 degree angle. Fiat wanted to find a simpler, more cost-effective way, without any high profile embarrassment should it go wrong, so testing all this out under another brand name was ideal.

The brilliant Dante Giacosa had wanted to build a front drive car for years, and had even engineered the front suspension of an earlier Fiat 1100 with a view to it taking driveshafts. When he finally got the chance, he came up with the solution of putting the gearbox on the end of the engine, then just using unequal length drive shafts, which lacked symmetry but worked perfectly. Like the Systeme Panhard, hindsight suggests it was obvious, but the Autobianchi Primula deserves credit for first employing what has become an industry standard. Also, pushing forward another standard-to-be, it was available with a hatchback and, although beaten to this by the Renault 4 and Austin A40 derived Innocenti Combinata, the Autobianchi appears far closer to the five-door template we recognise today.  In styling, the car was a bit reminiscent of the BMC 1100, which is understandable, given Pininfarina’s influence over both BMC and Fiat.

Fiat Project 123 : Image from zuckerfabrik24.de
Fiat Project 123 : Image from zuckerfabrik24.de

Over five years, the Primula sold a reasonably modest 75,000 units until it was replaced by the slightly larger A111 of 1969, a more conventional shape that showed itself to be a Fiat in all but name, and indeed its early prototype development was as the Fiat 123. As such it had the minimalist three box styling of the similarly sized rear-drive Fiat 124 and the smaller 128. Launched at the same time as the A111, the brilliant 128 was Fiat’s first official front wheel drive car and, since it was the culmination of Giacosa and his team’s work with FWD, incorporating Macpherson strut suspension at both ends, it is the car that history credits, somewhat unfairly to the Primula, as the ground-breaker. But with the A111, Autobianchi were losing their separate style and, since it was pitched at a slightly higher price level than equivalent Fiats, with wood-look dashboard and cloth seats, its close similarity with these alternatives can’t have helped sales and it only lived for three years. The year the model was launched, a company with a far more prestigious history was taken over by Fiat and, in 1972, the A111’s effective successor was launched, the front wheel drive Lancia Beta.

Autobianchi A111 : Image from autominded.ne
Autobianchi A111 : Image from autominded.ne
Autobianchi A112
Autobianchi A112 : Photo Ralf Roletschek

But that wasn’t the end of Autobianchi, and the Bianchina wasn’t to remain their most successful model. That was the near Mini sized A112, with one and a quarter million units built. Also introduced in 1969, this neatly designed hatchback effectively showcased the larger Fiat 127’s underpinnings two years prior to that car’s launch, but also outlived that car by three years to 1986. However, Fiat felt that the Autobianchi name didn’t have enough kudos in some markets, so sold it in those countries as the Lancia A112. When the A112’s successor, the Y10, was released, this splitting of brands continued but, in 1996, the first generation Lancia Ypsilon was released and Autobianchis were no more. This makes the more recent rebranding of the second generation Lancia Ypsilon in some markets as a Chrysler all the more ironic.

In hindsight, it is obvious that Autobianchi’s days were numbered. As soon as an idea looked good, Fiat took it mainstream and, once they’d got a new best chum in Lancia, there wasn’t much left over for Autobianchi. Nevertheless, a couple of years ago there was talk of reviving the Autobianchi brand, but probably that will be one distraction too many for the dazed and confused FCA group.

This is not a Lancia - In Italy at least : Autobianchi Y10
This is not a Lancia – in Italy at least : Autobianchi Y10

9 thoughts on “The Brand That Time Forgot: Autobianchi”

  1. Who else started out as a cycle manufacturer? Peugeot, Rover? Were there others? Bianchi, unlike say Peugeot, remain at the forefront of cycle technology and are still used by some of the current pro-peleton. While not as covetable as a Pinarello or Colnago, they continue to make excellent bikes with a fantastic heritage.

    There was significant product overlap between Fiat and Autobianchi, which made little sense given its market similarity Fiat’s core business. Were they a cheaper Fiat or a more upmarket one? If cheaper, why more technically advanced? If more upmarket, why make them so similar? The fact that Fiat couldn’t work out how to properly utilise Autobianchi, probably ensured the mess they made of Lancia was inevitable.

    1. Starting as a cycle repairer, William Morris moved on to making bikes – I’m sure there are others.

      As far as I see it, up until the A112, Autobianchis were maybe Singers to Fiat’s Hllmans, so sold at a bit of a premium. The A112, especially in Abarth form, was a rather charismatic little car, but was really just a Fiat in all but name.

      I suppose Ferrari have done OK for themselves but, generally, I really wouldn’t give my company to Fiat to look after.

  2. A company with the off-putting name Joker Driver in Belloy-en-France north of Paris currently have a two door Primula for sale. It has a fair amount of honestly photographed bubbling paint, but doesn’t look unattractive at 5,000 EUR. They have various other cars that don’t spring to mind but make me think “I’d quite like that for the right price”. A Kadett Rallye, Volvo 122, Alfa 6, Chevrolet Camaro, Mercedes 280CE

    http://home.automobile.fr/JOKERPILOTE#ses_208031588

  3. Smart and Borgward seem like good suggestions.The Singer/Hillman and Fiat/Autobianchi parallel is hard to fathom as I don´t get Singer´s place in the world. Cheaper Hillmans?

  4. Singers were (slightly) upmarket Hillmans, but not as sporty as Sunbeams, nor as upmarket as Humbers. So they lived in an unsustainable world, in the same way as Autobianchi did once Lancia, then Alfa Romeo came under Fiat’s umbrella. My reading is that the A111 was originally the proposal for the mid-sized Fiat that became the 124. Fiat, who seem rather conservative in hindsight but, if you look at what GM and Ford were doing in Europe at the time, not at all, decided that the time was not right for them to launch a mainstream mid-sized FWD car, then developed the more conventional 124 but, having got so far with the ‘Fiat 123’ then put some timber on the dash and nicer looking seats and sold it as an Autobianchi at a premium . This seems quite a good idea really. My memory of seeing A111s in Italy at the time was the impression that they were somewhat upmarket from Fiats – hence the fact that Lancia inherited their market.

  5. Didn´t they have much hazier notions of brand positioning in those days? Or were people better at sniffing out differences in nuances. These days brand-differentiation is painted on with a big brush. Overtones don´t cut it any more. Another factor is dealership networks. I think that it might be that some brands were concieved as much as products for dealers as well how they were positioned in the market overall. That is, the geographical market mattered as well as the overall choice in cars.
    Is this right: Hillman = mass market, budget/price conscious. Singer = middle-market, Sunbeam = sporty and Humber = upper middle market (Rover/Triumph, foothills of Jaguar). Splendid. I did not have that worked out before.

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