Italian sports cars quickly became successful after World War II — think Ferrari, Maserati, Lancia and Alfa Romeo — but Fiat’s entry-level two-seaters never totally captured the imagination or sales of enthusiasts.
In the 1960s, Bertone and Pininfarina slowly emerged as the top Italian styling houses, and they proved the Italians were particularly good at constructing graceful designs for small sports cars.
Yet, for Nuccio Bertone, the early 1960s were difficult. Fiat had not conveyed any interest in the carrozzeria, and his relationship with Alfa Romeo was not as solid as it had been a decade before. He met with Fiat’s Nicolo Gioia and persuaded him to create a new two-seater sports car based on the 850.
An agreement was reached to build a Spider version, but the new sports car had to be ready for the upcoming introduction of the coupe at the 1965 Geneva Motor Show. Cost was a factor, as it couldn’t exceed 6% to 7% more than the coupe. The longitudinal, rear-engine design of the 850 dictated a high rear deck, but Bertone was a master at designing small, shapely bodies, and he incorporated the inclined headlights and dihedral wings of the sensational Testudo show car of two years before.
The new car was popular in Europe, and Bertone set production at 25 850 Spiders a day, but a year later Fiat requested production to be cut to just over half that amount. Bertone could not afford such a drop and suggested Gioia sell the 850 Spider in North America.
Fiat agreed, and the rest is history — with almost 140,000 850 Spiders built by Bertone over the eight-year production period.
Although there were no dramatic styling changes, there were four basic iterations of the Spider model.
The 79.8-inch wheelbase 850 Spider first got a 47-hp, 843-cc, 4-cylinder engine on its arrival in the U.S. in 1967.
In 1968, thanks to new smog regulations, U.S. drivers had to settle for a smaller 817-cc version, but power was boosted to 52 horsepower.
The first real styling change — triggered after U.S. headlamp regulations changed — was unveiled in March 1968. The front lamps were raised and set back into the fenders. The front bumper was also beefed up.
The final big amendment came late in 1969, when the engine was enlarged to 903 cc and 57 horsepower. Also offered in 1970 was the slightly dressed-up, Spider-based 850 Racer. This coupe version of the Spider was fitted with a standard black vinyl-clad roof.
Slow, tricky and rusty
The 850 Spider was pretty, the interior nice, the handling nimble, the disc/drum brake configuration more than adequate and the price low, but the car had an Achilles heel. It just didn’t have much oomph.
The 850 Spider’s 0–60 mph times fell around the 20-second mark. And with a top speed in the mid-80 mph range, some patience and planning were required when approaching steep upgrades.
Tire pressure also played a very important role when it came to handling. The owner’s manual recommended 15.6 psi up front and 25.6 psi in the rear tires — and meant it. Failure to adhere to this dramatic difference resulted in an equally dramatic change in the Spider’s personality. Scary things could happen quickly with its fully independent front and rear suspension and 60% of the weight in the rear. Rear tire wear was also a problem, to which I can attest, having lost control in my 1969 Spider on a sweeping highway curve. (Thank goodness for the high-back bucket seats, as I crawled out from underneath without a scratch.)
The novel push-button door locks were a problem in cold climates. Water tended to leak inside and required a cigarette lighter to heat the key. Once the shivering driver got inside, the doors would not lock again due to ice, and a wire coat hanger rigged around the door button and top bows kept the door closed until the robust heater had a chance to warm things up.
The top was a dream compared with the competition’s and folded neatly away under the rear hinged panel. When deployed, it leaked at the top of the A-post and dripped on your knee. An optional hard top was available.
Other maladies included the tiny, contortionist muffler, which tended to rust quickly with all the water and muck thrown on it. The clean body was very also very susceptible to parking lot dings.
The interior was lovely, but the materials were not the best quality, although the durability of the vinyl was no worse than any others in its price category. Considering the overall dimensions, there was plenty of storage, with the shallow front trunk and the somewhat generous space behind the seats, having three passengers was not recommended.
Reliability issues with the generator and wiper motor were common, and the parts and service were not as readily available in comparison with British sports cars.
This was a time when the build quality on any car was far from ideal, and derisively making Fiat an acronym for “Fix It Again, Tony” wasn’t just a funny line.
One owner noted that he picked up his new 1969 Fiat from the dealer, was handed the keys and then rolled up the window — only to see it crash to the ground.
The rear-engine design was considered on its way out by the last half of the 1960s, and enthusiasts even in those early auto-safety years were a little apprehensive about going flat-out in a Fiat 850 Spider at just over 80 mph — with just an empty trunk in front of them.
The biggest long-term problem with an 850 Spider was rust. I swear if you spat on the ground beside a Spider, a rust bubble would appear the next day.
One Fiat that I had sitting at a body shop outside for a couple of months looked like Swiss cheese, and there was solid rust underneath by the time work began on the tiny unibody design.
Fun on the cheap
Still, having owned four of these sweet little Italian sports cars over the years, I think the 850 Spider offers lots of — albeit slow — fun at a real bargain price.
In fact, Fiat 850 Spiders are popular vintage race cars these days, as they are good entry-level cars for the track.
The highest price I’ve seen advertised for an 850 Spider in North America was a dreamland $15k, which is well above the SCM Pocket Price Guide’s estimate.
An older restoration 1966 850 Spider with the early covered headlights sold for $8,634 with premium at Bonhams’ Monaco Auction on May 11, 2012. Generally, Spider 850 prices are higher in Europe due to scarcity and greater overall Fiat enthusiasm than in North America.
The secret of finding happiness with a Fiat 850 Spider is finding a good one — a very good one. Even though parts are inexpensive, the cost of restoring a cheap, $2,000 example is just not worth the effort and final cash outlay.
Still, with good club support and most mechanical parts readily available through the Internet, the Fiat 850 Spider is an ideal around-town, top-down, very beautiful — as well as affordable — classic.