By on May 5, 2009

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.

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30 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1972 Fiat 850...”

  • avatar

    Speaking of Curbside Classics, since you mentioned it, you MUST write a piece about the Automobile Revue Catalog phenomena. I am lucky enough to be the owner of several examples, bought from a library that needed clean space in their shelves. I have never ever seen another one for sale, and I have been looking. My books range from ’56-’61, ’65, ’68, ’71, ’72, ’76 and ’77. It is the absolute bible of knowledge.

  • avatar

    I watched a show on these and the guy driving it was so tall his head almost stuck out the sunroof laff!

  • avatar

    And it darts around corners like a bunny running for its life.

    Great visual image. (Even more so compared to the recent VW Rabbit redux, a car that probably weighs twice as much. Some rabbit indeed!)

  • avatar

    And the American mainstream still doesn’t care about tiny little cars. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Didn’t Tom McCahill roll one of these in a Poular Mechanix test drive?

  • avatar

    My ’68 850 Spider served me well for six years. Apart from a tendency to burn its ignition points and a top that never fit quite right, this car was ideal for where I lived and a fifteen-mile commute. It was too simple to have much in the way of frustrating problems and it was so easy to work on that nearly any problem was over in a few hours.

  • avatar

    Great write-up Paul.

    Sweet little cars. It is a shame that here in the USA the “bigger is better” mentality set in, and then calcified into a fossil.

    There are so many small cars, available elsewhere that I’d LOVE to get my hands on, most of all a new Alfa Romeo Spider JTDM. Mind you it is a giant compared to this Fiat 850, but still smaller than most of the “small” cars sold in the USA.


  • avatar

    >>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<<

    Well, at the expense of being labelled “eccentric”, I used to have one of these. It was a lot of fun, got amazing mileage and I drove it from Massachusetts to Florida quite happily. In the first oil crisis (1973?) we drove the whole family (wife and 2 kids) from Greater Boston to New Haven for Thanksgiving dinner. Even carried a 5 gallon gas can (you couldn’t buy gas in those days) for the return trip. At the double nickel we did close to sixty MPG on the highway…

    When my oldest boy turned 16, I bought him a (used) 850 Spyder.

    The reason there are so few remaining is rust. The unibody just dissappears over time.

  • avatar


    Get enough of these curbside classics, and you coiuld do a little coffee table book, The Classic Cars of Eugene. Heck, maybe even get some stimulus money to do it.

    Slightly off topic, but even funnier than this editorial, Zippy calls Cartalk from his ’49 Packard, and then his ’61 Valiant in today’s strip:

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Ah memories. A good friend owned an 850 spider around 1970. Yes it was tiny. He had a dog, a shepherd collie mix, pretty good sized, but quite calm and amiable.

    The two of us drove the 850 from Chicago to Boston without an overnight around then, we had our luggage and the dog. I don’t know how we did it.

    A few years he dumped the car because, as he said, he could look down and see the road go by between his legs. He replaced it with a Vega.

    Since then he has only owned two cars: a Subaru that rusted out, and a 1990 Toyota bought new and still running.

  • avatar


    Love your street-side classics. Here in Santa Cruz we have a similar assortment of interesting older vehicles.

    I cannot believe how the US cries for fuel economy and performance but ignores diesels. I have a friend in Germany who has a 1.6L Punto diesel the keeps up with most autobahn traffic and gets approximately 45mpg (US)overall driven very hard. 6 Speed manual with lots of torque.

    Thank CARB for lack of diesel choices in most of the US.

  • avatar

    My father used to own one of these. My driver’s license still smelled very fresh when we loaded our Fiat 850 with a big canvas tent (that the car could park in), a propane tank and stove, cans of food, and other camping gear to survive two weeks in (then) Yugoslavia. The car’s trunk and the rear seat were fully dedicated to all that life-support stuff. We took turns driving from Prague in the Czech Republic via Hungary to the Adriatic Sea. Three memorable highlights of our drive were the crazy villagers in Hungary that would ride dark bicycles (without any lights or reflective things) in dark clothes at night. They would all of a sudden appear only (what seemed as) a few meters in front of the car. Then there were those nuts Yugoslavians driving like crazy in their mini Zastavas, engaging in high-speed passing manoeuvers in the middle of their mountain tunnels, where the sane Czechs were glad to drive the legal limit. The third memorable highlight was that even a fully loaded Fiat 850 can stop before hitting a policeman, with a greenhorn driver in charge.
    The little Fiat never left us stranded, and compared to my (then) Trabant, the engine was very quiet. In fact, when I went from the Trabant to the Fiat, sometimes I couldn’t even hear the engine running. But then, eh, you couldn’t engage the manual choke to let the guy behind you know that his tailgating was not appreciated like you could in the Trabant. But then again, the Fiat was not likely to be eaten by mice in the garage. Anyway…

  • avatar

    Fiat Abarth. The two word guarantee fun, defines one of the few spunky big-fight-in-the-little-dog cars…along with the original Mini Cooper (the new porkerized MINI is *not* the same experience). People see FAs (bubba) and grin (*not* in derision) and the grin just get wider if they get to drive one.

  • avatar

    “But then again, the Fiat was not likely to be eaten by mice in the garage. ”

    I’m on the floor, Blue!!

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Peasoup! My favorite color!

    Are those wheels Minilites?

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    I’m not a fan of rear-engined Fiats, but they are eminently affordable and pleasurable vintage cars. Several F1 drivers have 500’s because nothing beats them in tight towns. And the 850, you can get a non-rusty, trusty one for little more than one grand:

  • avatar

    I drove a Fiat 500 once in Germany. 2 cylinder engine. When the engine shut off the car rocked a little from side to side. That was a nice touch at the end. The car was incredibly slow and underpowered. Hills were a challenge with two people on board. Forget cargo.

  • avatar

    All this talk of small cars! Pshaw!

    Can’t safely crash in them things!!! (tongue in cheek alert…)

    Have a look at an early attempt (1972, GM) of a safety car.

    All it needs is padding inside (a few feet thick), 29 airbags, ABS, Traction control, stability control, all wheel drive, a “safe” top speed (electronically limited), GPS (reporting back to Uncle Sugar as to your speed and wherabouts), mustn’t pollute at all, now; at least 4 catalysts, E85 only, eh? Forget about feeding the rest of the world…. they can go fish(ing). (So long as it is not in the gulf of mexico/dead zone, that is…)

    One thing wrong – they forgot to add the thigh-thick A-pillars to keep us safe when it rolls over (probably from the high center of gravity from the uber-strong roof….)

    Of course, the Pelosi-mobile (or is it the Barry-Kar?) would only have a 3 cylinder 660cc engine like a Japanese Kei car. Must think of the polar bears.

    Performance? What’s that? Top speed: a nice, safe, 35 miles per hour.

    Unless of course, you belong to the right Party; then you get an 8.7 mpg V10, bulletproof version

    Being UAW built the MSRP of the 2011 Pelosi-mobile will ONLY be $149,999.99 (plus CO tax, FET, state sales tax, city sales tax, consumption tax, tax on a tax tax). Air conditioning (using the ironic new Euro-CO system) only runs an extra $15,999.99. Plus taxes. And Fees. And dealer mark-up.

    You’d better go sign up now to pay cash for delivery in 2017. As in, you pay cash in 2011 and the car arrives in 2017. Or 2018 if someone important wants theirs ahead of you. You won’t get a choice of color. Why should we be any different than the soviets in the 1960’s through 1991?

  • avatar
    A is A

    Until the late 1980s Spain was flooded with SEAT 850s (the Spanish clone).

    So successful was this car that SEAT also developed a (only for Spain) stretched 4 door version:

    And even SEAT re-skinned the 850 platform to create its first car: The SEAT 133.

    In this classic Spanish Public TV late seventies program…

    …you can see (2:55) what happens when a 850 crashes frontally against a SEAT 124. I would not commute in an 850. In comparison, the humble and jurassic 124 (a.k.a. Lada Zhiguli) performs like a 5 star Volvo.

    Curiously, the 33 years old Spanish Public TV program crashed the 850 in a simulated accident to advocate… Daytime Running Lights. How modern!.

    In 2:05 you will see why black, red and dark cars are BAD color choices.

  • avatar

    850 Spiders were probably the single most rust prone car ever built. So few 850s, X/19s or even 128s or 124 Spiders are left in the US because they rusted so badly they can’t be restored even.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    On occasion my travels take me down Beacham St in EveretMA. There is a Fiat sitting in a store window. It is the same color and general shape as the 850 in your article. Keep em coming Paul. Your pieces are a pleasant change from the doom and gloom.

  • avatar

    When I was growing up my father bought a Baby Blue 1968 850 brand new. As I remember it was a good car. It had a semi automatic treansmission. You could shift through the gears without a clutch pedal. Or leave it in third and drive all day. I believe there was an electrically activated clutch in the shift knob that when depressed while shifting allowed gear changes. We had it for four years until my brother got hit by a NY City bus in it. As you can guess there was not much left of it after that. My family owned several Fiats during the 60s and 70s and to my recollection the 850 was the most trouble free.

  • avatar

    Ronnie Schreiber: “850 Spiders were probably the single most rust prone car ever built. So few 850s, X/19s or even 128s or 124 Spiders are left in the US because they rusted so badly they can’t be restored even.”Ain’t that the truth. When most cars rust, it’s a gradual process and in spots so patching isn’t particularly difficult. When a Fiat rusts, the entire undercarriage disintigrates like it was in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

    Doesn’t exactly bode well for future Chrysler small cars. OTOH, there’d be no future at all for Chrysler if it weren’t for Fiat.

  • avatar

    To be fair, Japanese cars into the late 80s couldn’t deal with salt and rusted almost as bad as Italian cars, but I can remember a guy in 1976 that was trying to “restore” an 850 Spider that couldn’t have been much more than 5 or 6 years old.

    The Looney Toons image is perfect.

    Fiat sold a bunch of cars here in the late 60s and early 70s. The 128 was the cheapest car you could buy for a while, less than $2000 in the early 70s, and it was the first practical transverse FWD car sold here (the original Mini was not practical). My dad came this close to buying a 128 when gas got expensive starting in 1973 but ended up going with a much more reliable VW Super Beetle.

    Now, you can’t even find a 128 on eBay. There are 124 Spiders and some X/19s, but frankly I think Alfas from that era are more common in the States.

  • avatar

    Just for grins I checked eBay. There are 32 “Fiats” for sale. About a dozen 124 Spider variants including those sold as Pininfarinas, four X/19s, some 500s and 600s, and a couple of 850 Spiders, a SCCA Abarth 850 racer too. No 128s but there is a Polish made 125 Ute in New Zealand, a Lada Niva and a Fiat Dino 2.0 Spider for a Buy It Now price of $60K.

  • avatar

    Me and a buddy owned slightly used 128’s in the mid 70’s – a well-packaged, efficient car, but decayed to red dust by PA winters.

  • avatar

    My first car! I had a 1971 model, bought in 1986 for about GBP150, I think. Could almost get to 65mph on a long straight. No really serious rust issues after 15 British winters and a lot of salt on the road. Maybe Italian cars only suffered badly from rust after Fiat and co. started buying Russian steel in the early ’70s, just a theory. Sold it for GBP120 to a school classmate a year later. We’re no longer in touch, though the Fiat is not to blame. Was it any better-or worse-than an equivalent Mini? I doubt it. I was also in the market for a Hillman Imp at the time, but the late models were out of my price range… Traded up to a GBP1,500 1983 Alfasud, now that was a bit of a ‘mare. Still, thanks Dad…

    Lusted at the time after an 850 Spyder or an 850 Coupe, mostly the Spyder, tho’ in retrospect the Coupe stands out as one of the most elegant small cars of the 60s. Had to settle for an X1/9 instead, but that’s another story.

    Shame Fiat doesn’t make anything as desirable today. Which could be one of their many undoings.

    Paul, thank you so much for this series!

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    A is A, thanks for the entertaining video link!

  • avatar

    Love this series! Bravo.

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