Fiat History

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Fiat History



 1899 - present

Societa Anonima Fabrica Italiana di Automobili Torino

It seems ironic that the largest and most established of all Italian auto manufacturers is arguably the least well known in Australia. Fiat have entered into the Australian car selling foray, most notably when selling the X1/9, but unlike Alfa Romeo have retreated from the Australian marketplace for many years, until recently.

And so I labored over whether Fiat should be listed in the Heritage section of the Unique Cars and Parts web site, but as I researched their origins I became more and more convinced that indeed Fiat should be here, and is a most worthy inclusion. If you read this article, by the end I hope you will agree.

Owners of a Fiat can be thankful that, reasonably early on, the management decided to use that moniker rather than their original company name - “Societa Anonima Fabrica Italiana di Automobili Torino”.

Around the same time Fiat’s management also decided that Fiat would join other marques at the race track, convinced that race success would result in vehicle sales - a theory that still holds true to this day. Success came quickly when, in 1907, Felice Nazzaro won the Targa Florio, the Kaiserpreis and the French GP!

The Balilla And Mille Miglia Models

Fiat’s first sports-car was the “Balilla”, a car derived from the small saloon design of the same name. Balilla, incidentally, was the name given to Mussolini's young soldiers – but quite what the two have in common remains to us a mystery. The Balilla Sports had a four-cylinder 995cc OHV engine good for 36bhp.

Perhaps not breathtaking output, but when combined with a slim 1350 lb weight and four speed gearbox the Balilla was a solid if not lively performer. There were a number of modem refinements, including hydraulic brakes, and when the car was first shown in Milan in 1933, at a price of 14,900 lire, it caused a sensation among buyers.

The subsequent release of the “Mille Miglia” model was a further evolution of the original, and not only featured a more powerful engine but a lovely “torpedo” body style. After the war followed the short-lived 1100S and ES models, born out of the very specialized 508CMM coupes of 1937, however the first true post-war sporting Fiat was the 8V, shown for the first time at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1952.

The 2 Litre V8

The 8V was powered by a 2 litre 70-degree V8 pushrod engine good for between 105 and 115bhp (depending on the tune), the latter version making the car good for a top speed of around 120mph. Not a leader in technical innovation, Fiat were none the less quick to adapt to the new technologies of the day, particularly when the engineers saw merit; and so the 8V used a tubular chassis with coil sprung/wishbone independent suspension.

The 8V’s body was extremely aerodynamic, the narrow-cabined fastback design usually incorporating staggered seating, although several specially styled coach-built bodies were also manufactured. In all, only 114 8V’s would be built over a 2 year period, and it’s most notable achievement remains the outright win in the 1956 Italian sports-car championship.

To follow the 8V, Fiat then built a series of cars based on the basic under-pan and engineering of the ubiquitous 1100s, 1200s and 1500s. All featured coil sprung suspension and rigid rear axles. Most unusual, and least successful, was the “Trasformabile” of 1955-1959, although cabriolets built between 1959 and 1966 sold in large numbers.

Fiat 3 1/2 hp 1899
Mercedes may have been the first to make a car, but Fiat were hot on their heels with the 3 1/2 HP of 1899...

1932 Fiat 508 Balilla Torpedo_1932
A car with sporting aspirations, the 1932 Balilla "Torpedo"...

Fiat 508 Balilla Berlina 1932
Fiat would become Italy's largest car manufacturer, not by producing sports cars, but by building good-quality small saloons such as this 1932 508 Balilla "Berlina"...

Fiat 508S Balilla Sport
Based on the saloon, the "Sport" created a sensation when first shown in Milan in 1933. You can quickly understand why when you compare it to the saloon...

Fiat 8V 1954
Unfortunately only 114 8V’s would be built over a 2 year period...

Fiat Trasformabile
Based on the 1100, the Trasformabile was less successful than it should have been, mainly due to its price...

Fiat 850 Coupe
The 850 Coupe was built between 1965 and 1973, and was very successful...

Fiat 124 Spider
The 850's were quickly followed by the 124 based cars, this time the Spyder being designed by Pininfarina...

Fiat X1/9
A collaboration between Fiat and Bertone would develop the beautiful X1/9, brimming with innovation...

The Osca Twin-Cam Engine Sets A Fiat Design Precedent

Fiat styled and built the bodies in-house, most models being equipped with Fiat engines borrowed from other models; but arguably the most exciting and therefore most collectable of this series was the 'Osca' engined version, which was fitted with a sweet spinning 1491cc engine, which by 1962 had grown in size to 1568cc and was good for a healthy 90bhp.

The engine was purpose built by Osca, the twin-cam design setting a design precedent for all future Fiat engines to come. And, beating much of the competition, in 1965 Fiat standardized a five-speed all-synchromesh gearbox.

The next notable models to be released by Fiat include the Coupe and Spyder versions of the rear-engined 850 models, which were built from 1965 to 1973, both models good for an impressive top speed of around 90mph. These were quickly followed by the 1966 derivatives based on the 124 saloon, the “Sport Spyder” and “Sport Coupe”.

The Coupe was based on the standard saloon under-pan, the four-seater styled by Fiat; the body of the open two-seater “Spyder” was instead styled and built by Pininfarina. At launch both cars used a 1438cc engine, some also featuring the five-speed transmission first seen in the previous 1500 and 1600 cabriolets.

Over the years, the engines were enlarged, first to 1608cc, then to 1756cc (and alternatively to 1592cc), five-speed transmissions were standardized, along with minor styling changes, but the Spyder carried on alone after 1975, eventually having its engine enlarged to a 1995cc twin-cam version, with a turbocharged derivative built for the US market.

This would eventually be re-launched as the “Pininfarina Spyder Europa” in 1982 and, if sales volumes are the mark of a cars success, then these model Fiat’s were indeed extremely successful.

The Abarth Rally Spyder

Between 1972 and 1975 Abarth developed a lightweight specialized version of the Spyder, which featured independent rear suspension and, during it’s last year of manufacture, optional four-valve cylinder heads; all were used almost exclusively for rallying.

To help Ferrari achieve a 'homologated' engine for use in Formula 2, Fiat assumed manufacturing of the Dino V6 engine. The re-designed engine (small modifications being required to enable efficient mass-production) was then supplied to Ferrari, but some were kept for use in their own front-engined cars, the “Fiat Dino’s”.

Pininfarina Spyders, Bertone Coupes

Pininfarina then styled Spyders for Fiat, while Bertone penned the longer-wheelbase Coupes, with both versions undergoing final assembly by Fiat. Both cars used the highly acclaimed Fiat 2 litre quad-cam engine mated to a five speed transmission, unfortunately however they retained rigid rear axles.

In spite of the Coupe being good for a top speed of 127mph it remained only partially successful, no doubt because of the high price. By the end of production, nearly 5000 Dino’s (mostly coupes) had been built.

Three years later, the Mk. 2 Dino’s were put on sale, this time with the 2.4 litre iron-block version of the engine, a new ZF five-speed transmission, and at long last coil spring semi-trailing link independent rear suspension – borrowed from the 130 saloon.

The Maranello Built Mk.2 Dino

In 1969 Fiat acquired a 50% stake in Ferrari, and so it seemed logical for assembly of the 2.4’s to be undertaken at their Maranello assembly plant. Extremely collectable today, some 2398 coupes and 420 Spyder’s were manufactured before production ceased in 1973. It is interesting to note that the engine was also to be used in the Lancia Stratos rally car of 1974-75.

To replace the long running Fiat 850 Spyder, the company undertook development of a mid-engined sports-car – no doubt influenced by their association with Ferrari. Although first thought of as being a private venture by Bertone, instead they worked together with Fiat and created the 1972 X1/9.

The X19, Brimming With Ingenuity

The design talent from both factories ensured the little two-seater X1/9 was brimming with ingenuity; particularly in regards to stowage space, available at both the front and rear of the car. The wedge-nose shape of the car may date the car by today’s standards, however at the time it ushered in a futuristic look of tomorrow being adapted by most all sports-car manufacturers.

The first X1/9s had 1290cc engines, but from the end of 1978 this was increased to 1498cc, and linked to a five-speed transmission. The latter engine was good for 85bhp and gave the car a top speed of 105-110mph (168-177 km/h).

Clever design features were in abundance, and included such things as the use of four-wheel independent suspension, a removable ‘Targa’ style roof panel which could be stored in the front luggage compartment, and a spare wheel housing in a compartment behind the seats, accessible through the passenger compartment. And, as did the 124 Spyder before it, the X1/9 would become the ‘Bertone’ in 1982.

Fiat may not be the first marque you would think of when talking about collectable cars, nonetheless it remains an enduring brand (particularly in Europe) with a rich history, undeniably helped by its association with Ferrari. The pretty Spyder’s, while rarely seen on Australian roads, are highly prized and remain a great drive in true Italian sports car traditions.

Also see:
The History of Fiat (USA Edition)
Fiat Car Reviews
Fiat Colour Codes
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