Fate may have posed the 1965 Chrysler in the graveyard. But now I now needed a Fiat as the redeemer to the crumbling Chrysler. I waited in the cemetery, but nothing walked (or drove) out of the mausoleum. Well, “fate is for those too weak to determine their own destiny.” That would explain how Fiat became Chrysler’s fate. I was determined to find one, but for a while, it appeared that I was too weak to make my date with Fiat.
To be fair, trying to chase a (running) car on a bicycle, even a tandem, does stack the odds against you. Now with a Fiat 850, those odds are suddenly improved, drastically. I first spotted it in the neighborhood next to the river bike path. We pedaled furiously, followed it, and would have caught the noisy midget at River Road, had the light there changed a few seconds later.
But I know that 850s tend to be short-distance vehicles, so I prowled the neighborhood. Sure enough, I found the Fiat back in its den, along with two companions; a “project” Sports Coupe, and a parts donor Spider, tipped on its side. The whole 850 family, as fate, or Fiat would have it.
The 850 was a direct descendant of the Fiat 600, one of the most significant post-war small cars in the (non-US) world. Produced under license in Germany, Spain and Yugoslavia, the water-cooled four-cylinder 600 was even more widespread than its smaller sibling, the air-cooled, two-cylinder 500.
The 600’s engine was enlarged to 843 cc. Or 817 cc for the US to avoid emission controls, which only applied to engines with fifty cubic inches or more. Neat trick. Introduced in 1964, the 850 was a big seller in Europe. And as Stephanie remembers all too well, it was the de facto rental car in Italy and Spain. Nothing like being squeezed into the back seat of a SEAT 850 with pesky younger siblings to leave an enduring impression.
When you encounter an 850 today, it’s hard to put its Lilliputian size into perspective. And the pictures don’t help either. But check out that Golf sitting a ways ahead of it. Yes, the 850 really is that narrow (54″). And short (11′). And very light (1475 lbs). There’s been a lot of inflation in small-car (and waist) size these past forty years.
Somewhat surprisingly, my 6′4″ frame fits reasonably well behind the wheel. Good thing my butt has avoided inflation, because the seats are more like milking stools. But my left foot feels utterly rejected; its usual place of residence has been confiscated by the left front wheel well. Just like in the Zap Xebra.
But unlike the un-electrifying Zap, this Fiat comes to life with a bark and a snarl; an angry Chihuahua’s on the canine scale. That’s not how I remember 850 sedans sounding. These were economy cars, sporting all of 34 or 37 horsepower, resulting in a 0-100 kmh (0-62 mph) of 33 seconds.
A peek in the mail slot that doubles as the engine cover reveals the source of that Latin attitude: a 903cc engine kidnapped out of an 850 Spider or Coupe, including the stock four-tube header that looks straight off a vintage Formula 1 car, feeding an Abarth exhaust. The Sports Coupe and exquisite Bertone-styled Spider truly are Autopia-sized Ferraris.
That explains why we couldn’t catch the 850 on our bicycle. With 52 cavallinos prancing just inches behind that so-called back seat, my beloved and battered 1969 vintage Automobile Revue Catalog says this hot-rod Fiat should be good for a 19 second 0-100 kmh dash. Well, it sure feels a lot faster. And it sounds even faster yet. And it darts around corners like a bunny running for its life. Just the thing for traversing the narrow roads of an ancient Italian village in record time, and making sure everybody is awake to witness it.
Well, maybe not record time. But an Abarth-tuned 1324 Coupe with a tuned 1300cc engine out of a Fiat 124 might do the trick. Wicked little buggers.
The Fiat’s problem was in the translation—to America. Conditions were very different. In retrospect, it’s actually remarkable that Fiat survived the import Carmageddon of 1960. Fiat sold a respectable number of 600s in the fifties, and the 850 was not that unusual in the sixties. In my memory, it was the cheapest car you could buy, until the Subaru 360 came along in about 1968. Our neighbors in Iowa City had an 850, but then they were mighty eccentric.
The proud owner of this 1972 model reckons it’s one of about a dozen running 850 sedans in the whole land. I don’t doubt it. And he drives it too, what with his job being less than two miles away. Just about right for an 850. And for a bicycle.