The mid-point of the 1960s truly represented peak-coupé. It was all downhill from here.
Anyone with a shred of understanding for the art of automotive design will readily acknowledge the difficulty of dealing with a limited palette. When it comes to small footprints, the problem is acute, given the architectural strictures imposed. Anyone therefore confronted with Fiat’s 1964 850 berlina would probably have been rather dubious about the carmaker’s ability to craft a comely GT variant from such humble and let’s be fair, unprepossessing underpinnings.
Notwithstanding the above, it’s relatively inconceivable that the resident Torinese carrozzieri, well adept at crafting silk purses from base material, didn’t at least throw their putative hats into the ring in the wake of the 850’s announcement, but it appears that Fiat was determined to follow their own muse when it came to at least one of the more glamorous 850 derivatives – the sexier two seater Spider design (and production) brief being granted to Bertone’s Giorgetto Giugiaro.
Introduced at the 1965 Geneva show, the in-house 850 Sport Coupé made its debut powered by the same 843 cc engine as the saloon, developing 47 bhp – so no ball of fire. But this was hardly the point, the target market being those who wished to make a purely visual statement.
Nevertheless, the 850 Sport Coupé quickly developed a keen following; its saloon derivative, despite its by then rather dated rear-engined layout being praised for its civilised manners, economy and intelligent design, so its adoption by that doyen of UK motor racing correspondents (Motor Sport’s John Bolster), of an early example as personal transport lends some credence to its qualities – especially as Bolster sang its praises in the warmest manner.
Not that the car was entirely viceless – in less than experienced hands, matters could get seriously out of hand – physics after all, has an unfortunate habit of reminding the unwary of the power of natural forces. Nevertheless, for the more experienced driver – (or the less adventurous) – the 850 Coupé was both a stylish and suave mode of arrival.
Styled within centro stile Fiat under the supervision of Felice Mario Boano, the 850 Sport was something of a masterpiece in proportion and form; its delicate lines a finely judged synthesis of contemporary formality. Characterised by an almost total lack of visual aggression or machismo, the 850 Coupé spoke to that Italian sensibility where one wouldn’t even contemplate nipping out for a loaf of bread without being correctly attired.
It also inhabits that small sub-sect of Fiat models which somehow evaded the usual Fiat-Charter retrograde facelift. The 850 Coupé was visually revised in 1968 and despite looking perhaps a little fussier than of yore, was a relatively graceful transformation. Indeed, it is the revised car that I recall from my youth – which may in retrospect have influenced this impression. Let’s just say that it was carried out to a similar standard to that of the first 124 Sport Coupé facelift and leave it at that.
The 850 Sport Coupé also forms another sub-section of small, rear engined Coupés of modest proportion and displacement, aimed at those of relatively limited means. Simca’s 1962 Bertone-designed 1000 Coupé being perhaps the most obvious rival, but it was not alone, the genus (which probably deserves further elaboration) culminating with Skoda’s Rapid Coupé, which ceased production as late as 1990.
The 850 Sport Coupé was discontinued in 1971, and while the saloon was superseded by the front-driven 127 a year later, the Coupé was not replaced. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1978 that a performance model of the 127 made its debut, the 70-bhp ‘warm-hatch’ 127 Sport.
In 1965, the level of compact coupé choice was bewildering. Within a decade, Japanese carmakers aside, the retreat was almost total. Its loss has not been our gain, but it now seems inconceivable that we’ll see its like again.