Call 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.
He 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.
One 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.
It 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.
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.
That 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.
But 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.
At 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.
Speed, 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.
But 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.
But 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.
A 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.
So 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.850 #850 Sport Coupe #Fiat #Fiat 850 #Port Adelaide