Driven: Dad’s 1969 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe

DSC_0127Call it a mid-life crisis, call it trying to recapture a spent youth, probably both. But for years I’d heard my Dad speak volumes about a funny little Fiat he used to own called an 850 Sport Coupe. With a rear mounted 903cc four producing just 52hp when fresh, I never really ‘got’ these cars, but Dad loved both of his.

s_11-20-2010_048He bought one brand new in the 60’s and thrashed it all over the place, eventually rolling it on a dirt road, and replaced it a few years later with a near new slightly used example. He told stories of winning a drag race against a 350 Monaro (on wet grass!), of taking it camping in the outback, and of bombing it through the dirt roads of the Red Centre around Alice Springs. It sounded like a fun car.

s_11-20-2010_011One day a few years back I was zinging through the Adelaide Hills on my way to Macclesfield when I saw a pretty little red car for sale on the side of the road. Those four big headlights were unmistakable; it was an 850 Coupe! I immediately hit the brakes and stopped for a closer look, and it turned out to be nice, clean 850. Not a show car by any standards, but a good solid driver. I snapped a couple of pictures on my phone and emailed them back home to Dad along with the owner’s phone number and didn’t think much more of it.

DSC_0056It was Mum’s stern face that told the story when I got home a few days later. It turned out that Dad had phoned the owner, and the price was just good enough to be a real temptation. Too much of a temptation it seemed, and after 35 years, Dad was the proud owner of an 850 Coupe once more. He was ecstatic. Mum…. not so much.

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I took the 850 for a few short drives when we first got it, but for some reason it was almost a year until I took it for a proper drive. I never really bonded with the car, and Dad and I both agreed that it felt quite antiquated to drive. The way the little engine freely revved out to redline with glee was smile inducing and the way it made even a slow trip to the shops feel like a flat out blast was fun, but we both always seemed to choose other cars from our small stable for our hills cruises.

DSC_0035That was until the Fiat Lancia Club monthly Sunday morning breakfast run a few months back. Dad was taking his Fiat X1/9; my Fiat X1/9 was still deep in restoration, and the gearbox of Dad’s Alfa Romeo Sprint was still spread out like a literal exploded view diagram on the bench. That left me a choice between my daily driver MX5, and the 850.

DSC_0198Given the continual hassling I’d receive for once again turning up in a Japanese car, the 850 was an easy choice.

DSC_0140On that run I bonded with the 850 for the first time in a way that was completely unexpected. Its vintage feel didn’t encourage you to push it, so in the city you never would.

DSC_0080But in the hills on a strangely deserted Clarendon Road, I did. And when you start working it, but only when you start working it, the 850 responds. It turns into a proper Fiat, egging you on to go harder, faster. And it makes you work for it, too. The brakes and high profile tires aren’t that great, which means you feel like you’re really on the limit of adhesion every time you approach a hairpin.

DSC_0024At just 726kg it’s light, and the key to driving it quickly is in the correct use of this mass. The weight of the engine and gearbox is behind the rear axle, so trail braking into tightening radius bends to keep the weight on the front is crucial to stop it from pushing wide, and its lack of momentum means lift-off oversteer isn’t really an issue on a dry road.

DSC_0066Speed, once lost, is difficult to recover so it is critical to be smooth with every input and to carry as much of it as possible through the corner. With almost no discernible power, wheelspin is not a concern, but having the engine at the back still means that on corner exit the rear wheels are weighted up, enabling you to get back on the gas harder and sooner. I’ve never driven a Porsche 911 at speed (or at all, for that matter), but I imagine it would be similar to the 850, just a lot faster.

DSC_0044But the real joy in this is that the 850 isn’t at all fast, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. You can access all of the 850 well within the speed limit, and in this day and age that’s got to be worth something. It’s a car that makes you work, and at the end of the Clarendon road I’d been working so hard that I was almost panting. In between bursts to the 7,000rpm redline I’d catch a quick glance at the speedo and be barely doing the 80km/h speed limit. Drive an old 911 that hard and you’d be in a very sticky situation if the boys in blue discovered you.

DSC_0039But sadly my Dad’s modern day 850 encounter wasn’t to be, and we ended up selling it a few weeks after that drive. We both arrived at the same conclusion that in the past 6 months we could count on one hand the number of times either of us had driven it, and its limited use didn’t really justify the prime real estate it was occupying in our shed.

DSC_0046A few weeks ago I took it for a final drive to take these photos, and a couple of hours after that it was loaded on a truck, heading across the Nullabor to its new owner in Perth. From what I hear he loves it, and is doing all the work we could have done to realise its potential. I was sad to see it go, but I don’t really miss it. I enjoyed driving it, but not more than the other cars we own and I think Dad feels the same way.

DSC_0113So where does that leave us, with the conclusion that happy memories are best left as exactly that? I don’t think so, as our recent 850 ownership has confirmed a decision made in the past. Dad loved his 850, but the just released X1/9 was the one he really wanted but couldn’t afford at the time. Now, 35 years later, it’s an X1/9 that occupies that space in the shed and gets exercised regularly.

DSC_0007Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

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17 Comments

  1. Dirk A Davidson May 24, 2013 Reply

    Brilliant write up Andrew. I almost felt like I was there.

  2. Daniel McRorie May 28, 2013 Reply

    As the proud new owner of this little gem in the west; I love directing people to this page !
    Great pics Andrew, and love the write - many shared sentiments there !
    Dan

    • Andrew Coles June 2, 2013 Reply

      Thanks Daniel, I hope your enjoying the 850! It's the only car we've owned that regularly pulls looks from the ladies :)

  3. Jack Bryce July 1, 2013 Reply

    I had one of these in 80's great car and much fun as 124 Sport AC

  4. Wayne July 5, 2013 Reply

    I've owned several 850 coupes just like this and I can vouch for all of the comments. It is unlike any other car I've ever driven. Going flat out and being on the cars limit, around round abouts, hairpin corners, short straights, red-lining, then tight braking, on the way to the shops for milk, and barely braking the speed limit... Its an amazing experience. Probably the most satisfying feature is the fully independent suspension, with rear mounted engine. It is a balance that takes some getting used to, especially in the wet, but it allows weight shifting through tight chicanes with a smooth fluid almost elastic bounce back onto red-line. I loved driving this car. Unfortunately, like the author of this post, garage space is precious and I couldn't , just couldn't, keep justify keeping one. But I've owned one, I driven one, all the way from Melbourne to Sydney and back, and everywhere else around Victoria, and it was the best driving experience I've ever had. Oh, and I taught my girlfriend to drive in it. That is a claim to fame I doubt many other girls have, good or bad. Oh, and she had to push it on our second date.... And she's still with me. Actually, she went and bought a 128.

    • Andrew Coles July 9, 2013 Reply

      I think that's definitely a good thing! And if she then bought a 128, perfect.

  5. Alan Leary July 9, 2013 Reply

    My first car was a second hand 1962 Renault Dauphine Gordini and I guess the thrill of 39hp in the rear, and acceleration of 0-100kph in 22 seconds !!! was the reason I purchased a new Fiat 850 Coupe in 1969. It cost $2,100 which was half my year's wages. With 52hp, disc brakes and a suspension which worked,cars had come a long way between 1962 and 1969. I sold it a year later and bought a Fiat 124 Special, then a year later sold that and went back to another 850 Coupe. Since then there's been a very long string of cars, including 11 Porsches. In 2011 my wife and I completed the Adelaide Targa in a Cayman - a fast drive, but I still often think back to the 850 Coupe days and the absolute joy of thrashing them around the hills. It's not how fast you go, it's how much fun you have doing it.

  6. Hugo Reis August 26, 2013 Reply

    Dear Andrew,

    I think we have some points in common here and that includes opinions about the car.

    My daily driver is also a MX-5. In this case a '91 MX-5 (Miata, since its US spec).
    In 1991 my father convinced his long time employee - a single lady in her sixties that became almost a member of our family - to sell him her '67 850 Coupé. This is the double tail/headlight version with only 47bhp. She had bought the car new and had only clocked 47.000km. The car needed a full body rebuild, but the engine and the rest of the mechanical parts remained untouched. The "one lady owner" died a few years later and the car gained an even bigger space in our hearts. Between my father, my older brother and me, we did another 47.000km with it. At a certain point I was the only one who really kept interest in the car and the only one who drove it, but my father helped me with the maintenance. Back in 2007 my father died unexpectedly and I lost the courage to drive the car. It sat unused for 5 years and degraded significantly before I've decided to put it back on the road. It still didn't happen, but the light restoration process will begin as soon as I can as the car now has too much significance for me to sell it.

    This said, I also find the car tricky and rather strange to drive since it’s underpowered and rather than feeling tail-heavy, it feels “nose light”. That’s because the mass in the rear never unsettles the car, but the lack of weight on the front demands some special techniques to drive it fast. But that kind of adds interest to the challenge.

    Congrats on your text and the blog! I’m a fan!

    • Andrew Coles September 2, 2013 Reply

      Hi Hugo,

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for sharing your story. They're odd cars aren't they - on paper it's not really a car I think I'd like, but when you drive them the story changes. It's good that you've still got the 850. Work can be done when the time/money/energy combination is right, but I've sadly met a lot of people who have sold cars in that situation and have come to regret their decision. And with a story like that, you could never sell that 850. And good work on the MX5 too... they're top little cars. Although they too can be dangerous - since getting mine I've spent a lot more time out driving when I should have been working on my Fiat in the garage! Nice online shop too... I'm traveling at the moment but when I get home I might have to make a few purchases :)

      Andrew

      • Hugo Reis September 5, 2013 Reply

        Hi Andrew!

        Thank you for your compliments to my shop.
        One of the reasons why it's hard for me not to be able to sell the Fiat is because I'm not able to sell the MX-5 either! :) That's a car that still makes me happy and I haven't started upgrading yet! ;)
        The 850 can be bettered with some tweaks to the steering, brakes and front suspension. That can give you a little better turn in and quite more predictable behaviour under braking.

        Nice chatting to you. I'll always be around, with an eye on your blog. :)

        Cheers,
        Hugo

  7. alan flores September 12, 2013 Reply

    Owned a white 850 coupe in1970 racked up 100,000 kilometres across the east coast, looked great with a nine foot surfboard on top. Twin throated weber carbs really pulled the power together with extractors. One shows up in the film the Italian Job. They did rust though and finally moved to Toyotas, Now have two Italian stallions, Ducatis of course, Viva Italy.

  8. andrew April 18, 2014 Reply

    have 69 fiat 850 coupe for sale,needs restoration,all original one owner car.ph leave message 0488125488.located northern nsw lismore.

  9. Cas. April 19, 2014 Reply

    Not sure what it is about these little cars but they have a big heart . Yes, many people have fond memories of the 850. I was lucky to have over the years many of these , mostly tired cars but did get a sedan 850 Special that drove as new , also one Sports Coupe that was exceptional. In good order they stand out in how they drive.
    I kept a Sc but now are selling it, too many projects, it is going to a good home. Bit sad. I have a sedan, 850 Special , in the shed still which i will get to , i like these because you feel very connected when you drive . Not much power but they slide nicely through slow corners with a flick on the steering wheel!! Lovely motors! I also camped and traveled all over Australia in one as did my brothers!

  10. Gil Griffith October 15, 2014 Reply

    I bought one brand new in 1969 just after I turned 18. I was in the VADC and started driving in motorkhanas , rallies and trials straight away.
    It won a lot! Even up against some friends in their Cooper S's. I flipped it at 90mph after a rally and was able to drive it home where I cut the roof off and turned it into a convertible.
    It could compete in wet rallies with Lotus Cortina and Porsche 911 if you didn't slow down too often.
    I often thought of getting one now, but always stopped myself.
    Probably the right thing to do. But I really loved that car....

  11. Colin Brown February 7, 2015 Reply

    What a great story, and photos, too! This brings back a flood of memories of my own dad's red 1967 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe, the version with single headlights and taillights. When I read the performance specs today, it turns out it was so slow it was laughable, but I had 10 times more fun in that car at the ripe age of 17, than I ever did with the '67 V-8 Mustang Convertible that followed it. We always "drove it like we stole it", and apparently stayed within the speed limits the entire time. How could there be any more fun than that? It looked like a baby Ferrari, and sounded like one too (because the throttle was floored nearly all the time). My forte was blowing the doors off VWs and 6 cylinder Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs! Sadly, we only had it for one year -- a service station attendant forgot to tighten the radiator cap, and the coolant boiled over, warping the aluminum cylinder head so severely that it had to be planed 3 times! That raised the compression ratio so much that it would only run on premium fuel after than, and my dad, being of Scottish descent, wasn't too happy about that development. He drove his cars nearly 40,000 miles annually, so it was enough to put him off. Living as we did, in the northern U.S. where we apply an inch of salt for every inch of snowfall, he also worried about inevitable rust, which literally dissolved most Fiats of that vintage! But...the memories of that little darling never left my mind, and today I drive the modern equivalent -- a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth! I've owned at least 15 cars in the 40 years I've been a licensed driver, but none has been so much fun as my little Abarth is! It's obviously the total opposite in layout compared to the 850; front engine, front wheel drive, front end heavy, so the actual handling is vastly different, but the same sensations of listening to the engine revs and the exhaust notes, not the radio, are all still there. Rev the daylights out of it, and just hang on! I have a Honda Element for the "heavy lifting" and my wife has a four-door Honda Accord, for reasons known only to her. ;) But I will never let go of my current Fiat, ever! Thanks again for your truly wonderful story, Andrew.

    • Andrew Coles February 12, 2015 Reply

      Thankyou for your kind comment, great to hear your 850 history! Yes, I have been lucky enough to have a few drives in the 500 Abarth and I know exactly what you mean about the same spirit. About as far removed as can be, but still a fun little car to throw around :)

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