1967 Fiat 850: My little California Spider

John L. Stein

Remember that crappy sports car your buddies told you not to buy? As a young foolish college kid, I didn’t listen.

In 1967, Fiat dispatched its tiny 843-cc, 52-hp coupe and roadster to the U.S., a country with 3.5 million square miles of land and wide, fast roads. What were they thinking? Gas cost 32 cents a gallon, and the average American six-passenger land yacht weighed north of 4000 pounds, meaning a Fiat 850 could just about fit in the trunk. The $1998 Spider version was fetching, though, and promised carefree motoring for the young at heart. Why drive a boring old Bonneville when you could let your hair fly in the breeze?

Just 10 years after being assembled in Turin, this little green Kermit sat forgotten along the Pacific Coast Highway. A wall of apartments fronted the road there, and locating the owner required knocking on doors. My pitch: “Excuse me, is that your Fiat?” Eventually, one resident knew the car and sent me to the right apartment, where I found a dispassionate owner tired of the Fiat’s overheating. For 300 clams, it was mine.

A quick way to I.D. pre-1968 cars is to check for side marker lights. As a ’67, the Spider beautifully lacked them, and further, it sported sleek glass headlight covers, banned by the DOT for ’68 (which helps explain the Jaguar E-Type’s metamorphosis from voluptuous to frumpy that year). Unfortunately, both of the covers were missing—broken by debris or by vandals, I figured. A local Fiat dealer had replacements for under $30. Ten percent of the car’s price seemed exorbitant, but I knew the Spider would look better with them. (Plus, Lamborghini Miuras reportedly used identical covers!)

Thankfully, my California Spider was free of rust. In wetter states, the Fiat’s hollow steel unit-body was defenseless against water and salt moving in and playing their nasty games. Like an old house, an 850’s foundation is crucial.

Even in the 1970s, the Fiat 850 Spider was a risky ride, because surrounding traffic, although way less than today, was dominated by much bigger and faster vehicles. Regardless, I tried to make the Fiat an honest driver. Flushing the cooling system helped forestall overheating, polishing and waxing made the lacquer gleam, and fitting the new headlight covers were like adding fresh-baked biscotti to the Bertone body. Fantastico!

Before long, I genuinely liked that little car. I drove it for a summer in a manner befitting its wonderful purpose and then sold it on. It was just too small for my world.




Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: An F1 mechanic breaks down McLaren’s best worst car


    I owned a ’67 850 Coupe for a few years not that long ago. The small car thing in today’s traffic is probably even worse than it was back then. Sold the car before I could be taken out by a distracted SUV driver. Too bad, because both coupe and spider are such pretty cars and quite nice to drive when you aren’t constantly worried about being squashed.

    I owned my ’72 for 3 days, exactly how long it took to get it to my mechanic, have him put it up on the lift, and come running out exclaiming ” I don’t know what’s holding it up”. Lured by the “baby Ferrari” design, I was foolish enough to buyone, but not without a “money back if it’s a total rust bucket” guarantee.

    Had a 68 Spider 850 in college in Detroit. Had lots of fun, and pretty reliable, but taught me valuable lessons about metallurgy and salt, as well as terminal oversteer on wet roads.

    I’ve owned every 850 variant except the spider. Enjoyed them all. Easy to work on, cheap parts, and you can drive at 10/10ths all day long without drawing attention or endangering your driver’s licenses. Unfortunately, the spiders were the worst of the lot when it came to rust. There was a class action suit that resulted in Fiat buying back and scrapping significant numbers. I still recall a like-new spider at my local wrecking yard. When I asked about purchasing the entire car I was told the settlement dictated that the car could only be sold in pieces for parts. A real shame.

    Old girlfriend (actually the love of my life) bought one in late ’60s. It could not stay up with 65 to 70 MPH traffic without burning up. Piece of junk.

    1972, my neighbor had an 850 spider. Pathetically slow but wonderful. I gave the car a tune up and he let me borrow it. Sounds like a plan. I miss those days.

    For 1968, in addition to losing the headlight covers, Fiat cleverly skirted the new emission regulations by reducing the engine displacement to 817 cc and raising the compression ratio to restore power. The emission regs only applied to engines over 50 cubic inches. I think Saab did a similar trick with their two stroke engines.

    Had a red ’67 Spider in college at the U of A in Tucson. The red paint turned to chalk after about three months of the relentless sun. It was certainly underpowered, but with this being the case it wasn’t a bad way to learn about trailing throttle oversteer. Drove it from home in Wisconsin, and from Tucson to S. F. and back via the Pacific Coast Highway without issue. Today, as I realize how small the car actually was, it’s hard to imagine how certain amorous college adventures were managed!

    Fall of 1967, my first year of college, and I wanted a sportier replacement for my dependable Simca 1000. Swooned for an 850 Coupe after seeing it in Road & Track so I drove the 25 miles to the closest Fiat dealer and placed a deposit to get the first 1968 when it came in. After two months, the dealer still didn’t have one so I collected my deposit and headed to the town Buick dealer and plunked down my dough on a new Opel 1.9 Coupe. Definitely a much faster and more comfortable vehicle than the Fiat (and much more backseat room for my girlfriend), but maybe not quite as sexy as my unfulfilled 850.

    I guess I should have changed it to “…for my girlfriend and me to stretch out” I just figured all you guys would assume that. 🙂

    My crappy sports car was a used and abused Eagle Talon Tsi AWD that I bought to get me through one winter, which it did. The next owner was not as fortunate.

    Contrary to the author, I was talked out of purchasing a 1969 850 as my first car. Decades later, I was talked out of buying another 850, but that was the German flagship with gorgeous seats and 8 more cylinders. I had my eye on a 79 X19 as well, but it was above my budget as a teenager. So I picked up a 1976 124 with headers and a Monza exhaust as a not so prudent first vehicle.. Pininfarina coachwork is fine art that ages well. Bertone, not so much. Curves > straight lines.

    Love the story, and I always liked the 850 Spyder though I never owned one. Writer doesn’t specifically say he bought it in California, but since he saw it on Pacific Coast Highway it’s a good bet he did. While California is known for being friendly to old cars with regard to rust, all bets are off if the car lives at the beach, so maybe it’s best he sold it before too long. I’m not an authority, but I’m pretty sure Lamborghini Miura’s did not have those same headlight covers. Anybody out there know for sure? Thanks for a nice story.

    As in early Porsches, Volkswagens, and Corvairs, the Fiat’s combination of a rear engine and swing axles was a recipe for rear wheel tuck-under and spin-outs. Some enterprising aftermarket suppliers offered “camber compensators”, just a transverse leaf spring that limited camber change by limiting suspension travel. Most of the manufacturers went on to provide double-U-jointed rear axles to address this characteristic.

    In the early 80s a friend’s daughter had an 850 Spyder. Among other things we did did to the car was a repaint (orange a factory color) in my gravel driveway. It was an ideal location for a non-concours paint job; hose down the gravel, tape the sanded car up and spray away. I still occasionally find orange gravel bits while weeding the drive.

    Being in Ohio, it rusted. Oh did it rust. But all hidden. Laurie had a friend–a large girl–who plunked down in the passenger seat, and went straight to the ground, seat and all. I was taking an auto body class at the time and was persuaded to weld in a new floor to help hone my skills. That’s when I discovered why those Spyder floors rusted out so efficiently. The Spyder’s floor pan was basically Fiat 850 sedan,so to compensate for the lack of roof stiffening on the open Spyder, the factory simply welded in another front floor atop the original–with a 3/8″ gap between the two. The tops leaked as they aged, and a reservoir formed between the two floors, rusting the inner one from beneath, and the outer one on both sides. I replaced that dual floor with steel cut from an old school locker; it was still holding four years later when she sold the car.

    And BTW, those 850 Coupes and Spyders had the neatest little 2 barrel Weber carb fitted: a 30 DRS–smallest 2 barrel Weber made AFAIK. I’m busily making an adapter to use it on my hotrod Renault 4CV and gain a few hp.

    I owned four 850 sports over the years – 1969, 1970 and two 1972 models. Sold my last one in October 2022. Fun little cars and easy to service. Parts are still relatively easy to source. I sold the last one because I needed room in my garage and a buyer came looking for one. I rather miss the little cabriolet but, hey, the world is full of interesting vehicles and life goes on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *