We look at an invisible landmark.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.