Cambiare la Moda

The mid-point of the 1960s truly represented peak-coupé. It was all downhill from here. 

(c) junglekey.fr

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Cambiare la Moda”

  1. Good morning Eóin. The 850 coupé is such a delicate and pretty thing. Nobody makes pretty cars anymore. I suppose crash protection legislation militates against such design, but it is a great shame.

    The original pictured above, with its single front and rear lights, is the purest, although the facelift is far from Fiat’s worst:

    I think they subsequently added a fake front grille to make it look more ‘conventional’.

    1. If I remember correctly, the picture below shows a Serie III.

      Some of the Abarth-versions had (not faked) front grille, because of front mounted Oil-/Water-cooler. The Fiat never had one as standard, maybe aftermarket…

    2. Good morning Daniel! I agree that crash protection has removed a lot of the delicacy in design, but when I watched the Nurburgring video referenced by Eoin above, I found myself unexpectedly glad that I’m not driving in the era in which the 850 was current! The extent to which all the cars disintegrated and folded up on impact was shocking. Of course it might have helped if more of the occupants wore seat belts…

    3. The pictures show Mk1 and Mk3 cars. Mk2s had front lights of unequal size and looked much better

    4. Hi Michael. You’re right, I’m sure, especially in light of Olivia’s account of the car’s unpredictable handling! Thanks, Fred and Dave, for putting me right on the facelifts.

    5. Fred – Here’s the Abarth in all its glory – about as aggressive as a Fiat 850 derivative could be:

      Actually it’s brutally functional rather than aggressive. There’s far more aggression in the autobahn scowl of the weediest A Class or 1 Series these days. The OT 2000 deserves its display of attitude with two litres and 185bhp slung out the back.

    6. In the early Seventies a brother of a former classmate had two of these coupés. The first (a Mk1) was badly bent by hitting a lamp post while driving drunk, the second (a Mk2) was stored under a tarpaulin while the driver’s license was on holiday and then resprayed from white to dark green with yellow go-faster stripes.
      Last year I had the opportunity to follow a 52 hp example on a very twisty back road. Two things were remarkable: how large even my barchetta is against one of these cars and the incredible, ear splitting noise coming from the Abarth exhaust when driven hard.

  2. My father bought me one of these, CLB ***H in red, as an 18th birthday present. It had been a FIAT demonstrator. Grateful and surprised as I was, I disappointed him by trading it within 18 months against a Ford Escort. It tried to kill me so many times. I was a novice driver, of course, and it was lethal in the wet with all that weight behind the rear axle (and so little over the front). Also, there was no ‘stop’ on the doors, which on opening butted up on the front wings putting ugly vertical creases in both doors 2-3cm from the leading edge.

    Yes, it was a pretty little thing but the more I drove it the more I did so with trepidation, fearful of what it had in store for me. I did some long trips in it, including to and around Switzerland, but I never really liked the car – let alone any girly affection that would (for example) cause me to give it a soppy name; it was always just ‘the car’. Your article brought back memories, but I just wish that Dad had allowed me some input into the choice of first car.

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories Olivia – what a lovely 18th birthday present. I’m sorry to hear that the Fiat didn’t prove to be a very satisfying experience, and on balance the Escort was probably a more enjoyable, more predictable, if somewhat less suave mode of transport. Hope you are enjoying the site.

    2. I can empathise with this: Someone keeps parking a beautifully preserved Rover 75 near my home and every time I see it I admire its lines and feel bad about getting rid of mine… then I remember I didn’t really like how it drove.

      The Fiat is a lovely little thing though.

  3. A friend of mine had an 850 coupe, unfortunately I was always only the passenger. We were young and had no idea what kind of pearls were using to make us feel “the world is our oyster”.

    The 850 coupe is such a pearl. We will never experience it again – and no, modern crash regulations are no excuse…

  4. It’s good to be reminded of this delightful car. It was a slightly unlikely favourite of Dante Giacosa’s. In 40YODWF he wrote: “The coupe with coachwork for which the Boanos, father and son should be given all credit, was one of the most beautiful of all Fiat models”.

    I say unlikely, as Giacosa was not in favour of the 850, considering it an update too far of the 600, and also favoured utilitarian, space-efficient cars over those which were glamorous or prestigious.

    I suppose the closest Britain got to the 850 Coupe was the Sunbeam Stiletto, and its Imp Californian and Chamois Coupe stablemates. Nice little things in their own right; regrettably Rootes didn’t have the inclination or money to put their ‘Asp’ a proper sports car, into production.

    There was also the very neat 1964 Zagato Zimp, of which only three were made to tease the Rootes management into a production version. They were not tempted, despite carrying out an engineering assessment and at least considering manufacturing feasibility.

  5. Having watched the Nürburgring video, it reminded me that one of the ‘wow’ factors of the mk1 Golf was that it handled well and wouldn’t try to kill you if you made a misjudgment, or carried out an emergency manoeuvre.

    I learned to drive in an original Beetle (and a mk1 Golf which replaced it in the household, plus my driving instructor’s mk1 Fiesta), and I recall driving the Beetle in such a way as to avoid provoking it. It made me a bit nervous though, as I had no idea of its limits and didn’t want to find out the hard way, either.

    The 850 appears to have been catnip for the carrozzeria – Moretti, Lombardi, Vignale, Zagato, Ghia, Bertone, Farina and others all had a go, with varying degrees of success. I think my favourite is the Moretti, or the Zagato.

    Some examples are here:

    http://www.carstyling.ru/en/manufacturer/Fiat/

    I hadn’t realized just how many concepts in general the carrozzeria built – they really were prolific.

    1. Adenauer forst is an extremely demanding part of the Nordschleife und still a favourite for taking spectacular videos

      Meanwhile at least they fitted some armco to prevent people from flying into the forest.

      You come from Wehrseifen, an extremely fast downhill section, go through a compression and then hit the very slow Adenauer Forst with adversely cambered corners. The combination of the car’s suspension being on rebound and the adverse camber catches out many unsuspecting drivers.
      As you can see in the videos those cars are caught out that have suspensions with big camber changes like swing axles or semi trailing arms. Having the engine in the rear isn’t particularly helpful.
      The 1970 video linked in the article around 0:30 is shocking because it most probably shows somebody’s death. When the 02 flips the passenger is pulled out of the open side window by the centrifugal forces (a great danger that’s often overlooked) and the car rolls over the body.

    2. Thanks for the video and explanation, Dave – that makes sense. Gratifying to see how much more stable the modern vehicles are.

  6. I am ashamed to say it took me a while to warm up to the charms of these. The Abarth versions have always looked like fun but I suspect a large part of my ambivalence toward the 850 is related to its replacement, and my admiration thereof. As Robertas points out, the standard 850 was not one of Giacosa’s favourites, and the generational gap between the rather antiquated 850 and the fervently modernist 128 was, and remains, huge. As alluded to above, an 850 really does feel like an old car to drive – in some ways charming, but not so in rather more. Some years back I had access to a rather ratty 128 3p and it felt, if not exactly ‘modern’ in the current idiom, massively more modern than any 850, nominal single generation model gap notwithstanding. For someone who grew up or trained on cars of the 1990s, you can drive a 128 or X1/9 without really thinking about it – they might be basic but all the dynamics are, at a foundational level, those of what you would expect a broadly contemporary car to be. An 850 is a product of a different generation and, to be honest, different engineering values that resided within it – which is to say, having your wits about you while driving one is not merely optional but necessary, as it is for the overwhelming majority of cars that pre-date the Italian front-drive revolution.

    Of course, all this now matters little that 850s and their replacements are both firmly entrenched within ‘old car’ territory, which means the relevance of comparisons to their successors fall away and their underlying charm is easier to appreciate as a result. I have warmed to the styling of the coupes in particular over the years – like most of Fiat’s better production designs, they have a happy, friendly character to them which helps compensate for some of the less-than-totally-refined detailing and the fact that it is difficult to pull off perfect proportions on really small cars.

  7. I drove my Aunt’s 850 Coupé in the early 80s. Was just before she traded it on a Mitsubishi Mirage (the ‘8 speed’ first gen one). I thought the 850 was a better car to drive!

  8. My Sport coupe MK2 handled as well as a 911 Porsche. It was so much fun driving in rallies and motorkhanas and I have trophies to prove it. Also I know how strong the body is because mine flipped upsidedown at 90mph, and won a motorkhanas the very next day. I bought it new after choosing it between the 1500 beetle and Renault gordini.

    1. I drive a Daihatsu F20LK 4WD that I have owned for 43 years. (It’s a similar colour too, what I call “chuck-up yellow”). But I wish I still had my 850 Sport Coupe, it became the only convertible of it’s type after I rolled it in a rally and replaced the roof with a roll cage and soft cover. It’s a pity they were prone to rust, especially after the sea trip to Australia. It was the type of vehicle that you didn’t even need a radio, let alone all the modern electronics we expect these days. I really don’t like front wheel drive cars, because they have a completely different set of handling problems, where a controlled oversteer is impossible. Bringing it back with an extra gear ratio and a modern fuel injected engine but NONE of the other electronics, would be a miracle. I don’t want or need electric windows, sound system, GPS, WIFI, heated seats, air conditioning, or any other “conveniences”.

    2. The Daihatsu is not unlike the dear old Suzuki Jimny – a useful vehicle indeed and very likeable. I agree with you on the bane of extra gadgets in cars. I´ve ossified around the standard expected of a 1990s mid-size car and can see no reason to have connectivity to any kind of a ´phone, I despise sat-nav too. I might make a case for electrically adjustable seats for the driver since it is handy to be able to reposition oneself without having to twist rotary controls or wrench at bars under the seat when in motion. Do I need remotely sensed air pressure monitors? No. Central locking isn´t bad. And that´s it really. I´d rather companies spent money on good seating and proper fixings than on fragile equipment. A good test of a technology is this: will it be relavant and working in 30 years? There´s nothing on my 406 that fails the test whereas the LCD displays in my 1989 XM are now mostly out to lunch. And the interior hard trim is crumbling in places.

    3. I agree with you except I always adjust my seat before starting the engine. It’s not electric.
      Those tyre pressure sensors only work for a few months before failing, just check pressures every week or two is enough. I’m appalled with the annoying policies on “safety” when we’re bombarded with accessories that distract from actually concentrating on driving. Advanced driving courses should be compulsory for cars with the performance we only dreamed of thirty or forty years ago.

    4. Amazingly, I saw one of these the other day, pootling through the small West Cork town I currently call home. Lovely thing, in superb condition. Clearly a well loved example.

      Thanks for stopping by, Gilbert

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