Perky and Pretty: Fiat’s 850 is cheap Italian fun

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Courtesy RM Sotheby's

Compared with Cadillacs and even Corvettes of the 1960s, Fiat’s 850 Spider and Coupé (later known as Sport Spider and Sport Coupé) were roller skates among road trains. These rear-engine cutie pies were powered by a diminutive liquid-cooled OHV inline-four with an aluminum head and two-barrel Weber carb, which drove the rear wheels through a transaxle. They were the diametric opposite of a period Ferrari V-12—ironic since Fiat’s Turin production facility was scarcely 200 miles from Ferrari’s in Maranello.

A two-door 850 sedan came first, based on the Fiat 600. But for enthusiasts, of greater interest were the Spider and Coupé that debuted together in Geneva in early 1965 and arrived on these shores for 1967. Giorgetto Giugiaro designed the Spider for Bertone, and Fiat’s Centro Stile group produced the Coupé design. Among 850 Spiders, holy grails include the pre-1968 models with glass-covered headlights and the fixed-roof Sport Racer.

1970 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe rear engine bay
Courtesy RM Sotheby's

Displacement and performance both got modest bumps in 1970, up from 843 cubic centimeters and 52 horsepower to 903 cubic centimeters and 58 horsepower, respectively, although with an advertised “over 90 mph” top speed and a 0-60-mph acceleration in the 20-second range, the Fiat was never exactly a performance darling.

But a Fiat 850 in any form connects you to the essence of motoring, with precisely zero driver aids, power assists, or flimflam. Its nimble handling came through A-arms above a transverse leaf spring in front and semi-trailing arms and coilovers in back, giving the 1600-pound Fiat a jaunty ride. “The handling and side bite are excellent,” reported Sports Car Graphic in its October 1966 test of the 850 Coupé. Author and racer Jerry Titus added, however, that “flinging it through a tight corner on the ragged edge will produce some rear-wheel hop … not unlike that of the earlier Corvair.”

1970 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe interior
Courtesy RM Sotheby's

That’s just fine if you’re on sparsely traveled two-lanes with no need for speed, because at 25 to 50 mph, the 850 is a pleasure. Step on the gas, row the long-throw (and fairly vague) gear lever to catch the next ratio, and the car strains forward, engine and exhaust rasping behind you. Be patient, because, as Titus concluded, “From 60 mph on up, it takes a lot of time to increase velocity, and the top speed of 87 indicated … can only be achieved in still air with a long run.”

Nearly 2.3 million Fiat 850s of all stripes (including some 120,000 Spiders and 340,000 Coupés) were built by the time the last Spider rolled off the line in 1973, so there are plenty to choose from, but watch out for rust.

1970 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe rear three-quarter
Courtesy RM Sotheby's

In the late 1970s, you could find an acceptable Fiat 850 for a few hundred dollars; now, they’re a bit more, but they’re still absolutely cheap fun. For a starter Italian collector sports car at credit-card money, this pint-size Fiat will garner smiles anywhere you go. And that’s worth a lot.

1970 Fiat 850 Sport Coupé

Engine: 903- I-4cc
Power: 58 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 48 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
0–60 mph: 20.0 sec
Price when new: $2000
Hagerty #3-condition value: $8800–$11,000

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