Weekend Re-issue : A Fiat By Any Other Name?

You probably won’t see it commemorated anywhere else.

(c) junglekey.it

Of all the cars which mark their 50th anniversary this year, this is perhaps the most (to non-Italians) obscure and certainly least recalled. Partially a consequence of the marque’s subsequent demise – another piece of bungled stewardship by Fiat Auto – and the fact that the car is not only fairly unremarkable in itself, but lasted a mere three years on the market before being withdrawn in 1972.

Very little about the Autobianchi A111 makes sense. To the casual eye, it comes across as an amalgam of Fiats 124, 125 and 128, (especially in pre-facelift form) which in some ways it was – from a visual perspective at least. Technically however, it differed considerably; Autobianchi having somewhat inadvertently pioneered the favoured layout for the mass-market front wheel drive car with the introduction of the Primula model in 1964.

This car, frequently (and chauvinistically) dismissed in the British press as a BMC copy was, despite its (on-paper) relatively unsophisticated suspension media, a technically advanced motor car, certainly as least as forward looking as Professor Fessia’s Fulvia over at Chivasso.

Why therefore, after a mere five years, it was considered expedient to replace it, considering the advantages of front wheel drive and the fact that its styling hadn’t particularly dated remains something of a mystery – especially given Fiat’s habitual preference for lengthier production runs.

Proving something of a refugee from Fiat’s 123 and subsequent 128 programmes (albeit not from a chassis-layout perspective), the A111 appears as though it was something which had been left lying about centro stile in search of a champion. Utilising an updated version of the Primula’s running gear, mated to the 1438cc engine from the Primula Coupé S, the A111 arrived on sale, just as its Fiat parent introduced the technically more up to date, but cheaper 1100cc 128 model – a car which (justifiably) garnered all the acclaim, but was perhaps at least partially surfing the Autobianchi’s coat-tails.

Orthodoxy suggests that Autobianchi had been employed as Fiat Auto’s litmus paper – a means of testing out concepts in the market without risking the reputation of the parent company. If this is so, it seems not only a rather curious strategy, but also a somewhat inconsistent one. Fiat wasn’t particularly renowned for its consistency anyway – as subsequent events would illustrate – not that this was necessarily the fault of the engineering department, led by the eminent Dante Giacosa, who routinely championed the technical solutions which entered the market under Autobianchi’s purview.

The A111’s 50th is unlikely to be marked elsewhere, which seems a shame, because despite its unprepossessing appearance, it was it appears, a well engineered, technically interesting car – certainly judged by the standards of the time. If its rarity, brief life, and ‘where have I seen that before’ appearance are what now lends it a fascination which perhaps eluded it at the time, that is probably preferable to apathy.

Having profiled the A111 as far back as April 2015, you get two bites at the Desio cherry this Saturday – firstly upon the A111 from this author and secondly, on Autobianchi itself, courtesy of former DTW writer Sean Patrick.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Weekend Re-issue : A Fiat By Any Other Name?”

  1. Gosh, the A111, a car that had completely escaped my attention until today, really was a pocket-sized Fiat 130 Berlina. The cant of the front and rear ends, bodyside pressings and double-stacked tail lights (a “Series 2” revision to the A111) are all remarkably similar:

    Actually, this has made me look again at the 130 Berlina, a car that has always suffered by comparison with its sublime Pininfarina coupé sibling. It’s really rather dignified and handsome. Only those rather tacky indicator repeaters on the front wings and an unfortunately placed fuel filler flap, abutting the rear lamp unit on the right-hand rear wing, mar an under-appreciated and elegant design

    1. I also thought “mini 130” when I first saw the picture, at least from the head on shot.

      The 130 Berlina has a sort of nonchalant “presence”.

  2. The aforementioned fuel filler flap (and more nice photos of the 130 Berlina):

  3. What was the logic of replacing the Primula with the related A111 instead of both being put into production at the same time pitched in two different segments, let alone not using a 1585cc version of the 1197-1438cc Fiat 124 Series engines as was the case in the 1197-1438cc Primula and 1438cc A111? The A111 itself should have at least received the large hatchback layout of the Fiat 123 E1 prototype.

    Autobianchi could still have some value in such a scenario with the Primula being replaced by a unique bodied 5-door 128 hatchback above the related Autobianchi A112, while the A111 is replaced by a Fiat 131-sized FWD fastback hatchback derived from the larger Lancia Beta. Such a solution would have been cheaper compared to what eventually unfolded.

  4. It’s good to re-read what’s been written about the A111 before.

    As for the perplexing issue of why the A111 was as it became, or indeed happened at all, here are a few thoughts:

    Autobianchi was deliberately positioned upmarket of Fiat’s mainstream products. Fiats were affordable cars for the masses, Autobianchi was for people who wanted to show they could spend a bit more. Thereby the semi-autonomous tripartite subsidiary had Lancia, Innocenti (for some time Italy’s second best-selling domestic car brand), and lower-end Alfas in its sights. I don’t have access to Italian price lists from the time but they would be very informative; Fiat priced their big-sellers very cheaply in their home market, and it would be interesting to establish how the A111 fitted in the hierarchy alongside the products of the other Italian carmakers.

    As regards the change of shape, from the BMC-influenced two box shape to a rather staid, if neatly proportioned sedan, Dante Giacosa gives a bit of help in 40YODWF:

    “This coachwork was designed several years before as part of the project for the 123 auto.
    The design was taken down from the shelf when the new Autobianchi management wanted to replace the Primula with a more conventionally styled vehicle”.

    Giacosa would have relished the chance to create a cheaper, simpler and possibly better Fulvia rival. He held Antonio Fessia’s abilities as an engineer in low regard, railing against his creations as overweight and over-complicated. The Fulvia appeared a year or so before the Primula, but the suspension similarities between the Autobianchi and Lancia could have derived from the 1960 Flavia. Antonio Fessia died in August 1968, too early to witness Fiat’s polemic.

    The Fulvia berlina was a sales success, so replacing the Primula with a car in its image was an attractive strategy. I’s a pity there was never a twin cam option – possibly the gearbox was on its limits with the 1438cc pushrod engine. Short of a 25mm wheelbase stretch, there’s nothing new in the engineering. The A111 is just a new “top hat” on the Primula platform. Yet the coachwork is all new; no evidence of “borrowed” doors or other cost-cutting contrivances.

    If the Fulvia was the prime target of Enrico Righetti (Autobianchi’s General Manager) and Dante Giacosa, the ambition was frustrated by Fiat’s acquisition of Lancia in late 1969. From this point it’s easy to track the marginalisation of Autobianchi, as Lancia became Fiat’s premium brand.

    1. Would the involvement of Abarth had made Twin-Cam versions of the Primula and earlier A111 a more viable proposition? In standard form could see 75-84+ hp 1.6 OHV/OHC Fiat 124 Series engines being the most both the Primula and an earlier A111 could reliably take.

      Am fascinated by the notion of the A111 potentially being capable of becoming a cheaper, simpler and possibly better Fulvia rival in other circumstances. One could have also made a similar case for the BMC 1100/1300 potentially becoming a Fulvia rival via an earlier version of the later Austin Apache three-box under the MG marque, along with the originally planned longitudinally mounted 18-degree V4 OHC engine capable of displacing 1100/1200cc up to 2000cc (with a hint of Citroen via the hydrolastic suspension) and strangely requiring a transmission layout similar to that of the FWD Triumph 1300 FWD.

      Do not really see a way for Autobianchi to avoid becoming marginalized and later merged with Lancia, however a 128-based Autobianchi 5-door hatchback successor to the Primula and Beta-based successor to the A111 would allow them to be indirectly replaced by the Delta and Prisma/Thema, similar to how the A112 / Y1o gradually became Lancias.

  5. That BMC V4 engine…

    According to AROnline, “Senior Longbridge Engineer Eric Bareham later confirmed that the V4 was for inline installation only, and that for front-wheel drive it would have required a transmission layout similar to that of the later Triumph 1300 FWD car. When the A-Series engine proved capable of enlargement to 1098cc, the V4 idea was dropped.”

    I’m not convinced about the transmission layout comment, or possibly Eric had a broad interpretation of the Triumph 1300 configuration.

    Here are section drawings of the BMC V4 which look to be purposed for a conventional rear wheel drive arrangement – prototype engines were tested in the MGA:

    It’s unusually tall owing to the narrow angle V4 layout, and perching it on top of the final drive as with the Triumph engine (below) would have made the powertrain even taller, particularly as the engine is not slanted like the Fulvia’s.

    The other clue is that the 1100/1300 has an unusually long bonnet for an Issigonis car, and is much the better in appearance for it – it’s the most conventionally good looking of the four 1959-1969 BMC front wheel drive cars. That says to me that the engine would be located in front of the front axle centre, with the clutch and gearbox end-on behind, in a ‘conventional’ longitudinal mid to late ’50s front wheel drive arrangement as used by DKW, Saab and Goliath.

    I don’t think Greek Al would have had any worries about this arrangement, as his RWD Morris Minor had its engine ahead of the front axle centreline. However the adoption of the Mini’s powertrain for the ADO16 series was probably for the best. That V4 with its central camshaft and tricky valve operation system looks a nightmare to build and maintain – even mighty VAG struggled to make the narrow angle v-engines workable and buildable a few decades later.

    1. Know the V4 and related V6 engines were intended for ADO16, ADO17, MGB and a few others. Found the gearbox arrangement to be strange given what Volkswagen later managed to achieve with the VR6 family and would have assumed it was within Greek Al’s ability to make it workable.

      Would have to agree on the A-Series ADO16 being for the best (even if it could have benefited from a 73-88+ hp 1600cc engine at most), yet curious to know whether it (along with ADO17 to a lesser extent) could have accommodated an end-on gearbox layout with the A-Series instead of simply carrying over the Mini’s in-sump arrangement?

  6. The transverse engined FWD Minor Greek Al and his team concocted in the early fifties was end-on, with the old side valve engine and the standard Minor gearbox turned through 90 degrees, with driveshafts comprising a Hooke joint combined with a sliding Cardan joint. It was flawed, but showed promise, and the prototype was run for years as a works hack valued for its traction on snow and ice.

    Things might have been different if Al hadn’t shortly afterwards taken his Alvis interlude.

    Even when he returned to BMC, history could have taken another course if priority had not been given to XC9003, the smallest of his “Experimental Cars”. The engine-over-gearbox set-up was probably the only way to go to fit an A series into the strictures of a 4ft. x 10ft. four-seat design brief.

    After that, either conservatism or laziness took over. The Mini configuration didn’t just work. It worked far better than expected, mainly down to the use of Rzeppa type CV joints for the first time in a mass-produced car.

    The result was that the Issigonis system – as we learned to call it -was carried over to the ADO16, then scaled up for ADO14 and ADO17. That it worked was good enough, and the disadvantages of cost, complexity, noise, friction losses, and the dubious practice of mixing engine and gearbox oil were conveniently disregarded.

    Perhaps the question we should be asking is why BLMC didn’t invest in an end-on gearbox for the following generation: Allegro, Princess, Metro? Issigonis had been sidelined, and Giacosa and Cordiano had shown the way.

    1. Will take it the end-on layout was a possibility for both ADO16 and ADO17 were it not for conservatism or laziness at BMC (the same with the hatchback layout for the FWD trio), it is almost comical how close Issigonis was to reaching was to beating Dante Giacosa in developing a now universal layout for transverse FWD cars though it seems to be a be close call in the early-50s between the experimental FWD Minor of Issigonis and Giacosa’s flirtations with FWD via during the development of both the Fiat 1100/103 (that had a Taunus P4-like V4 layout) and Fiat 600 (before the latter opted a rear-engined layout thereby influencing the smaller Fiat 500 and larger Fiat 850).

      It seems Alfa Romeo’s Giuseppe Busso was another candidate with the Project 13-61 – a design for a car powered by a two-cylinder engine derived from the Alfa Twin-Cam mounted transversely driving the front wheels. Busso apparently believed that if development of the 13-61 had been allowed to continue (were it not due to the machinations/gentlements agreement with Fiat that also impacted the later Tipo 103 prototype), Alfa could have released a front-wheel drive microcar with a transverse engine in 1956 some three years ahead of the Mini.

  7. “a front-wheel drive microcar with a transverse engine in 1956 some three years ahead of the Mini”

    Borgward’s Lloyd subsidiary were there in 1950 with the LP300 – transverse parallel twin, front wheel drive, and an end-on gearbox, all in a car almost identical in dimensions to the BMC Mini. The car pictured is the 1953-on LP400, but the only mechanical difference is the increased engine capacity.

    The transaxle looks very modern, apart from these Old Testament UJs:

    The bigger Goliath GP700, also from 1950 had the same arrangement but with a bigger water-cooled parallel twin. The engineering of the Lloyd and Goliath powertrains is credited to the INKA operation set up by DKW exiles August Momberg and Martin Fleischer in Hude, near Oldenburg.

    DKW themselves were producing transverse engined twin cylinder FWD cars from 1931, but they favoured a motorcycle-like configuration with the gearbox behind the engine driven by a chain or idler gears.

    1. More fascinated by the notion of a twin-cam 2-cylinder engine in a microcar (even if it would have likely been better served with a more Tipo 103 prototype type twin-cam 4-cylinder engine), which would have been a significant advance over the two-stroke 2-cylinder powered Lloyds and Goliaths with only the fuel-injected versions of the GP700/GP900 likely being comparable in terms of potential output (with the Goliath being slightly larger compared to the Giulietta).

      It also seems Borgward did not really have a plan to produce a comparable rival to the Mini before it went bankrupt beyond the Hansa 1300 prototype and the planned Borgward Isabella successor, both another story entirely.

      Have seen a drawing on Project 13-61 online somewhere though cannot find anything suitably large to upload here.

      The 2-cylinder Lloyd and Goliath brings to mind both the experimental yet rough ADO11 475cc 2-cylinder A-Series engine as well as the later Mini-Mini project originally intended for Innocenti on the Italian market before evolving into 9X, the potential if unlikely combination of both slotting below the Mini basically creating a Fiat 500-sized FWD equivalent of the Honda N360 also notable for using a Mini-like in-sump layout (short of the historically classist 3-wheeler only British microcar segment being more akin to Japan’s Kei Car segment using the Fiat 500 and Vespa 400 as templates). Or something Dante Giacosa could have archived had FWD instead been opted for the Fiat 600 and by extension the Fiat 500.

  8. I managed to find a brief description of the Alfa Project 13-61:

    “In 1952 the so-called “Project 13-61″ came close to realization, planned as a 750 cc vehicle.

    At that time this kind of cheap vehicle was very popular in Italy. Giuseppe Busso, the engineer in charge, designed a two-cylinder in-line water-cooled engine which was half of that of the 1300 cc Giulietta engine which was still under development.

    The Type 13-61 was designed with a transversely mounted engine and front disc brakes. The project was never implemented due to costs deemed excessive by Alfa Romeo.”

    Probably a good move on the part of Alfa’s management – they could have been sunk into the sort of small car morass BMW fell into in the 1950s, with the Fiat 600, rather than the VW Beetle, as their nemesis. Not where a very middle class carmaker with a distinguished history would want to go.

    In 1955 the aforementioned Lloyd got a 600cc four-stroke OHC parallel twin of astonishing sophistication.

    Trouble was the car itself was looking awkward and dated, and was also expensive to make, with its platform chassis and bolt-together body. The Glas Goggomobil and NSU Prinz were about to ambush it. The Lloyd OHC engine was intended to power the upcoming Arabella, but that car was too large and heavy for the engine, so got its own flat-four.

    Despite the Suez crisis, the microcar era ended with the 1950s. Len Lord signed off the Mini to ward of an influx of European bubble-cars, but the so-called ‘Suez specials’ were typically proper four-seaters with conventional four cylinder engines with capacities in the 750-1000cc range, mass-produced by established car manufacturers

    1. Was the original intention behind carrying over the Lloyd OHC to the Arabella to use the engine in 25 hp Alexander TS spec form or to uprate it in another manner (whether by further tuning or increased displacement to an output target of about 30-35 hp) before the flat-four entered the picture?

      Would again have to agree on Project 13-61 despite its appeal, the later Tipo 103 prototype on the other hand (minus the styling that would have presumably been further polished for production) seems like a missed opportunity for Alfa Romeo as a potential challenger to both the Austin 1100/1300 and Autobianchi Primula (also have to wonder to what extent would the Twin-Cam in the Tipo 103 would be allowed to grow above 51 hp 896cc engine to around 1300-1600cc). Especially in terms of appearing to largely share the Alfa Twin-Cam engine as the bigger Giulia and other models despite its small displacement and would have probably benefited the company in being able to easily rationalise engines.

      That is in stark contrast to the unique flat-four later used in the Alfasud/33/etc that other projects aside (e.g. 2-litre and dieselized flat-fours, etc) had only limited usage and added an unnecessary complication for the company before it was acquired by Fiat. https://www.autopareri.com/forums/topic/40114-progetti-alfa-fine-anni-70-e-inizio-anni-80

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