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When Fiats were also works of art

It was nice to walk into a Sainsbury’s car park this morning and see….this.  photoFiat

Fiat 850 Coupes are these days rare by any standards; and this red one, it turns out, is used regularly in and around London by a cool guy who bought it for just £300 over 20 years ago.  It took me straight back to my past, of course. I learned to drive in my Mum’s dark blue Fiat 850 Coupe (ERE 710) and celebrated passing my test on my 17th birthday by half-spinning the 850 down the fast esses of New South Head Road, near my old school. 8-24-2010 18-26-11_202The 850 was gorgeous in every dimension and ours was rock-solid reliable. There was no rust, either – although we did clean it regularly due to the salt in the air from the nearby Pacific Ocean.  It was joined later by my Dad’s dark blue 124 Coupe (AJJ 949).08-26-2010_13

Is it me or is it real?  Were cars genuinely more beautiful back then? And why – the 500 aside – is the Fiat range today so relatively mundane?  What is today’s Fiat equivalent of the 124 Coupe?

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27 thoughts on “When Fiats were also works of art

  1. Peter Bakalor on said:

    Fiat doesn’t seem to be doing anything equivalent right now, but here in the US the Subaru BRZ and its Scion/Toyota semi-clone would fit roughly the same market I think. It seems they only brought the 124 convertible into the US – judging by the number of them at the Northwest Historics last weekend. And there was an 850 coupe there too, as you say a nice looking car.

    I had a Fiat 125, and David McKay asked me why I bought that instead of the 124 sedan, which handled better. The answer? It was the cheapest thing I could buy with a dohc engine, which to me seemed much more important at the time.

  2. Paul Murray on said:

    It may be some years ago…. but I remember someone writing for Motor/Autocar who had a Fiat X1/9 and decided it was so good it deserved Ferrari stick on badges! And on the wings they went. But I/m sure they’ve grown up now and would never dream of doing something like that again!!!

  3. oh the Italian mystic. i had a 76 alfa, a gtv and despite all of the problems and the exhaust fumes that would enter the cabin when i slowed down i loved that car. wish i never had sold it. i drive a 73 914 Porsche right now and i can tell you this much. this car will not be sold. there is just something about the sports cars from the 60′ and 70′ that the new one just don’t have.

  4. Mario Napoleone on said:

    Hi Peter,

    Mario here from the Australian Grand Prix Melbourne: I happen to have bought new an Alfasud Ti 2 door red colour (what else!) in Jan 1982. I still have it: 165,000 kms; always garaged; no rust; very original. My daily is a Subaru WRX 2.5 turbo World Rally Blue 2011. Both are from different era’s – the rex is fast, rides well and is economical to boot. The sud still feels tight, also rides well and handles as if its on rails. I can’t bear to part with the sud so it will probably go to my boy one day.

    Catch up with you in Melbourne next year.

  5. SuperSwede on said:

    Some really rather lovely Fiats, thanks for sharing Peter!

  6. Keith Squibb on said:

    I think the current Punto is extremely elegant. By far the prettiest small saloon on the market. And, unusually, the shape seems to look good both in red (of course) but also in sombre colours. Not all cars manage that trick.

  7. I was about to point to Subaru as an example ( But Peter Bakalor has used that as a reference) of how the cars are losing their individuality and all cars in a particular sector look just like their competitor in the in the same sector.

    I suspect that safety guidelines by vehicle safety authorities have something to do with the cars losing their personality these days.

    It’s been busy and have not be regularly following the blog and TRE. But trying to catch up whenever possible. Keep up the good work.

  8. Hi Peter. Yes, that 124 Spyder was only available in LHD, which explains why we never saw any in Australia. Strange that Fiat would only sell Coupes in a hot-climate Australia/NZ! My Dad later bought a 125 Special (also a great car) and I began my personal Fiat career with an orange Mirafiori Sport and then an X1/9. I still have a Mk 1 Fiat Uno turbo – and I still reckon it’s the ultimate town car.

  9. You’re welcome. Hope you liked our Ronnie section on the show this week!

  10. Many thanks. Yes, it all started to go wrong when Ralph Nader forced Porsche to build big bumpers on 911s and banned svelte little cars like the Lotus Europa. Shame. Great shame. Whatever happened to Colin Chapman’s philosophy of “avoiding the accident” being just as important as “surviving the impact”?

  11. Yes, I see your point but all the current Puntos I’ve driven are either very rubbery in feel or ridiculously harsh (sport versions). They don’t seem to have got the damping right – not as they used to in the 131 Mirafiori days. Carlos Reutemann once took my Mirafiori Sport for a few laps of a wet Brands Hatch and pronounced it one of the most driveable cars he’d ever known. A real, latter-day Lotus-Cortina Mk1.

  12. Ha! Yes. “A baby Ferrari”. Pictured it right next to the F1 transporter! Very appropriate. Loved that car.

  13. SuperSwede on said:

    I ALWAYS like the show, and I’m very much looking forward to this one!


  14. Keith Squibb on said:

    I was focussing on the aesthetics of the car. I have not driven a recent Fiat. We still have one of the first Uno “Fire”- engined 2 door models in the family- bought new and still going very well and is a lot of fun.
    Mind you any car feels fun to drve compared to my daily driver – a permanent 4 wheel drive turbo intercooled machine. No, not a Scuby but a Land Rover Defender 110 diesel! But I imagine it feels rather like driving an old blower Bentley at times…..

  15. Hi mate – thanks for note. Yes, love Alfasud Tis. I remember going on the original press launch to Naples. A lot of fun. Pleased to hear that it’s still going so well. Italian cars – whatever size – had flair by the Vespa-load back then. There seem to be a lot of S-words on this page now (S as in Subaru) so I guess I must take a closer look at one. Personally, I was always put off by the gold wheels but I was a Petter Selberg fan, that’s for sure. I guess Chris A also lifted the image somewhat in Oz? See you next year. Peter

  16. A Porsche 914! Another gem.

  17. Jonathan Powell on said:

    Hi Peter,
    I agree with your view of cars being more beuatiful back then and can think of some exmaples which make me agree. Some years ago I went to a supercar dealership which had all the latest Lamborghinis, Astons and Ferraris in it which looked great but the car which looked the most amazing was a classic silver Porsche S in the reception. At the Autosport show a few years ago there was a stunning Aston Martin DB5 which was the first ive seen and remember saying to somebody that it wasnt a car but a work of art!

    Similarly in Top Gear magazine in the back of the magazine where Jeremy Clarkson writes his brief view of each car manufacturer he writes that ‘Ferraris used to be art. Now,worryingly, they are science.’

    Think this sums it up nicely.

    Keep up the great work!

  18. Dan on said:

    Good read. Agree about your premise wrt the current Fiat range. I suppose we have to look to Alfa and the promising looking 4C now.

    (And isn’t the Mito so frustrating given how good the ‘Sud was…)

  19. Thanks. You’re probably right about the Alfa range – but why? It was all so simple back then. Fiat = equals Italian car for the people. Build fun car. Sell car. Have fun. Where did it all go wrong (the 500 aside)?

  20. Adam Wiseberg on said:

    I’m amazed that there is still an 850 Coupe out there in one piece!

    Here in the Uk they started to rust before they left the dealer, probably even before they left the factory.

    The really pretty one was the 850 Sport Coupe if I remember correctly.

    The 124 Sport Coupe was drop-dead gorgeous but I remember a year old one already rusting at the bottom of the A pillars. Fabulous to drive though.

    I’ve had some wonderful Italian cars; Alfa 1600 Spider, Fiat 125 Special, ’73 Alfasud in ’74 – the most stunning FWD car I’d ever driven at that time, Alfa 2600 Coupe, Fiat 2300 Coupe, Lancia Beta coupe; the list goes on. Every single one had rust showing through the paint within two years of manufacture.

    But they were all fabulous to drive.

    Best of the lot though was the last but one Italian car I bought and the only one which didn’t rust during my ownership. A Maserati 3200GT. So, so quick and absolutely beautiful too. Never have I owned a car which so many total strangers have commented upon. Whether in a traffic queue on the motorway or getting out having parked on a quiet village street, I was inundated with compliments on its looks. I’ve never owned a road car which destroyed its rear tyres so quickly either. 5000 miles for a pair of Pirelli (P7 Corsa Rossos) if driven gently. Way fewer with an undisciplined right foot. I’m sure that Pirelli used it as a model for current F1 tyre construction.
    When I tried Michelins they lasted twice as long.
    Two things the Italian car manufacturers were always brilliant at is beautiful design and exciting driver’s cars.

    Amongst others I now have a Fiat 500 TwinAir.

    After two years there is no sign of any rust and it’s got a brilliant engine. Ride and handling are somewhat basic but it makes up for that in mechanical sophistication and wonderful looks.

    40+mpg over 30,000 too but one has to drive with cotton wool between foot and accelerator pedal to achieve that.

  21. Adam Wiseberg on said:

    Bearing in mind my current Fiat experience ,I should have said that the Maserati was the FIRST Italian car I owned which didn’t rust within two years.

    One more Italian car point, probably contentious, prompted by your later piece on Warwick Farm.

    I have always thought that the 250LM was a prettier car than the GTO.

    Any views?

  22. Hi Adam. Actually, as I say, we had no rust problems on the 850 or the 124 Coupe – or the 125 Special that followed them. Hmm. Front-engine vs mid-engine. Can I be boring and say that I love both the GTO and the 250LM but that the best-looking Ferrari sports car of all time was and still remains the 1967 330P4? Into second place I would put the original Dino 206 hill-climb car.

  23. Adam Wiseberg on said:

    I can’t disagree with your choices at all!

  24. Peter Bakalor on said:

    The P4 definitely. I can still hear it going down the straight at Longford, driven by Chris Amon. Mind you I loved the SV 250LM. Even sat in it a couple of times :-).

  25. Angelo on said:

    No Way…Peter Windsor owned an 850 Coupe. I can’t believe it. At least this will give me bragging rights and added motivation to commence the restoration of mine. I also have a series 1 850 coupe in white that I purchased in 2011 from Gundagai, NSW. Its a very original and complete car in white with blue interior and has no rust except the passenger side sill which is only the size of a 50 cent piece. Its a fantastic car. I kind of fell in love with the coupe after a family friend gave me an old copy of classic and sportscar magazine when I was 12 years old. Surprisingly 11 years later, I managed to track down a series 1 coupe after seeing a for sale ad in the NSW Fiat Club Classifieds. Drove all the way from Melbourne with my dad, did the deal and it was in my garage the next week where it has sat since (4 years). Plan is the restore it to its formal original glory and one day have it on show at the Auto Italia in Canberra. Its definitely a fantastic car that had a syncro gearbox, front disc brakes and reverse rotation engine all wrapped in a Boano designed body and this was the late sixties.

  26. Ah. A man after my own heart. Enjoy. I last saw an 850 Coupe here in the UK about two years ago. Great shame. The dark blue and tan was just gorgeous but I can see it also working in white.

    Happy New Year and all the best.

  27. Peter – only just spotted this mention of my Fiat 850 Sport Coupé (sometimes referred to as the series 2 model, the navy blue one you had being the series 1). I well remember talking to you in the Sainsbury’s car park on that hot summer’s day in 2013. Pleased to say that the 850 is still doing the supermarket run (and occasional longer trips) and I can’t honestly imagine parting with it, even after 30 years of real enjoyment (and the occasional headache, mostly due it has to be said to the vagaries of dealing with so-called “marque specialists”).

    Earlier this year I came to the conclusion that it might just be time to let someone else enjoy it and for me to try something different. So when I came across a low mileage, essentially one owner 20 valve turbo Coupé – possibly the last truly distinctive model Fiat produced – in dark green with a cream leather interior (special order in RHD in late 1997 apparently) I jumped at the chance. It’s an extraordinary piece of design and epic to drive (and of course light years ahead of the 850 in a number of ways). It’s also surprisingly refined and practical. And yet – against all expectations, I still look forward to driving the 850 (even if it is only Sainsbury’s and back !) Realistically, however, I can only keep one of them. So I now find myself in a genuine quandary as to which is the better long-term proposition. 1960’s charm or 1990’s iron fist in a velvet glove ?

    Whichever one it is though (and picking up on many of the comments above), I think it’s safe to say that we are unlikely to see cars like this produced by Fiat – or any other volume manufacturer for that matter – ever again. For the money Fiat asked for them when they were new, there was little or nothing to touch them.

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