While it’s comparatively easy to dismiss it as something of a parts bin special, the 1967 Fiat Dino Coupé amounted to a good deal more than the sum of its parts.
By the latter stages of the 1960’s, Fiat management realised the necessity of providing more than just basic transportation for the Italian market. With living standards on the rise, the demand for more upmarket cars grew – at least within the bounds of what Italy’s stringent taxation regime would allow. With Dante Giacosa’s engineers at work on a series of new models to cover the compact to mid-classes – (124 and 125-series’) in addition to a new flagship to replace the dated 2300-series, Fiat’s offerings to Italy’s middle classes reflected this push upmarket, even if the egalitarian Giacosa didn’t necessarily understand the necessity. With these models in hand, it’s therefore a little odd that Fiat saw fit to embark on the Dino programme, because on the face of things, it looked more like a favour to Ferrari than anything that particularly stacked up as a business case.
The story behind the project goes something like this. In 1964, Ferrari was interested in entering the Formula 2 championship but regulations stipulated that in order to comply, all engine crankcases would have to be series produced with 500 units completed by 1966. Ferrari hadn’t the capacity or the demand for these volumes, nor indeed the interest in producing road cars to meet it, but the Italian auto scene being what it was, word filtered through to Fiat’s Agnelli, who was interested in gaining a stake in the Ferrari business.
At the conclusion of discussions, Turin agreed to re-engineer, enlarge and produce Maranello’s 1596cc 65º V6, for use in a mid-engined Ferrari berlinetta and a Fiat branded sporting model, thus giving Enzo the volume he required and Agnelli his foot under Maranello’s door. The official line on the Dino V6 was that Alfredo Ferrari had worked closely with Vittorio Jano on the initial 60º design before the younger man’s illness tragically intervened. However, according to more independent chroniclers, the likelihood is that Alfredo’s contribution was retrospectively bolstered by the sentimentality of a grieving father, being predominantly Jano’s work.
Either way, the 1.6 litre unit (latterly the work of Franco Rocchi) was presented to former Ferrari, now senior Fiat engineer, Aurelio Lampredi with a brief to produce a suitable unit for a road car. Lampredi retained the stroke of the Rocchi unit, but widened the bore, giving a capacity of 1987cc. The cylinder black was alloy, valves being actuated by four chain driven overhead camshafts. With triple Weber carburettors, power was rated at 160 bhp. The redline was 7500 rpm.
With the power unit taken care of, the Fiat parts bin was raided mercilessly to furnish the remainder of the car’s technical specification. Front suspension and steering were 124/125 based, (as most likely was the floorpan) with coil springs and lower wishbones, while rear suspension was a derivation of the 2300’s live rear axle using half elliptic leaf springs, twin leading radius arms for location and twin shock absorbers on each side. A limited slip differential completed a relatively sophisticated rear end. Disc brakes were fitted all round.
While Pininfarina were given stylistic duties for the 1966 Spider version, the Dino Coupé was the work of carrozzeria Bertone. According to journalist and historian Martin Buckley, the Bertone styling theme was developed as early as 1963 by Giugiaro as a putative replacement for the existing Ghia bodied Fiat 2300S Coupé. Styling duties were completed after Giorgetto’s departure; likely supervised by his replacement, Marcello Gandini. (Shades of the Bertone Jaguar 3.8 FT?)
While the Spider was more of a rorty two-seater, the Bertone coupé was a suave Grand Turismo, with a fastback profile, a more subtle styling theme and an emphasis on comfort and practicality. The (usable) rear seats even folded 50:50 for additional luggage space. (Was this a first?) With a well honed technical specification, elegant carrozzeria styling and a race-bred Ferrari engine in the nose, the initial home market reception to the Dino twins was rapturous and apparently, the appearance of several black coupé’s in the Italian Job movie was not artistic licence; it’s believed the Mafia did use them and that the ‘Cosa Nostra’ connotations would later adversely affect secondhand values.
The Dino Coupé was an excellent driver’s car and like the early 124 coupés, the car’s well balanced road behaviour belied its relatively humble underpinnings. The 2 litre V6 was a free revving jewel of an engine, and despite a lack of torque and a rather heavy bodyshell, performance, if not stellar, was more than adequate, with a 130 mph capability. Parts bin special or no, the Fiat Dino Coupé was every inch a thoroughbred and easily the dynamic equal of anything in production at Maranello at the time.
In late 1968, Fiat ceased Dino production with nearly 4000 cars built, which more than covered Ferrari’s homologation requirements. That really should have been it for the programme, but mystifyingly, Fiat engineers thoroughly reworked the car, stem to stern. Firstly, the engine, while still essentially similar in design was Fiat-ised. The larger cylinder block was now of cast iron with capacity increased to 2.4 litres. Torque was the reason given for the enlargement, although this alone doesn’t adequately explain the degree to which the engine was revised. In addition, the sweet but fragile Fiat five speed transmission was replaced by a heftier ZF unit. At the rear, the live axle was replaced by a 130-series derived semi trailing arm and strut arrangement. The Coupé received a revised interior with a new dashboard, plusher seats – (the front ones apparently borrowed from a Lamborghini Espada). Externally, changes were minor, effectively consisting of a revised matt grille arrangement, and rubber bumper inserts.
The revised cars debuted in 1969 and while performance was stronger, and the overall package on offer was a more refined one, the earlier car’s delightful balance was lost. Quite why Fiat saw fit to go to such trouble and expense for what was purely a low volume image builder is one that has never been made clear – especially since the same year also saw Fiat’s acquisition of Ferrari’s road car operations. Surely it was a case of mission accomplished?
The larger V6 was also fitted to a revised Ferrari 246 GT, but its thorough re-engineering seems to suggest it was intended for other uses too. But what? Fiat by then had a larger single cam 2.8 litre Lampredi-designed V6 entering production. Once again, Fiat’s product planning deficiencies come into focus. Production ceased in 1972 with a further 2818 cars of both bodystyles produced.
For years now, the Dino’s have been seen as poor relations, their humble Fiat badging preventing the market from recognising their merits. Many retrospectively acquired Ferrari badging from owners keen to acquire some Maranello fairy dust. Rust, apathy and mechanical frailty saw many coupés to their doom, but values have hardened latterly as equivalent Ferrari’s edge toward the stratosphere.
So how to distil the Dino? A low volume image builder? A vanity project? A Trojan horse? Perhaps a little of all three, but also perhaps, just perhaps the seeds of other stillborn projects. Above all though, further example of Fiat’s ethos of offering enthusiastic drivers more for less. It wasn’t a sustainable focus, but its one enthusiasts should lament in its passing.