In the United States, Italian cars have long been associated with devastating performance, stunning bodies, and monumental price tags. Decades have passed since affordable Italian cars were being sold in the U.S. in significant numbers. Alfa Romeo, the last manufacturer to export reasonably priced cars to the U.S., withdrew from the American market in 1995 after years of painfully slow sales. Fiat withdrew long before that. In the absence of inexpensive models from Fiat and Alfa, it fell on Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Maserati to shape the American perspective of Italian cars.
It's easy, then, to forget that Italy has consistently built more somber machinery for the masses for over a century. With Fiat poised for a reentry to the American market in 2011, now is as good a time as ever to consider some of the more humble roots of Italian motoring.
Fiat, whose name is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino (Italian Automobile Factory of Turin), was founded in 1899 and is Italy's oldest surviving car manufacturer. The company's reputation for producing the people's cars of Italy was cemented fairly quickly, though characteristic Italian excitement has punctuated Fiat's story in the form of early racing successes and a close association with Carlo Abarth's knack for wringing giant-slaying performance out of little cars.
Genius engineers like Abarth proved the great potential lurking within many of Fiat's affordable and unsuspecting autos. Dante Giacosa was another one of these bright engineers, whose work preceded the great victories of Abarth-tuned Fiats. One of Giacosa's earliest endeavors pertained to the Fiat 508, also called the Balilla.
The 508/Balilla, introduced at the Milan Motorshow of 1932, was a rather conventional small car available in several body styles including a two-door sedan, spider, and light van. Powered by a Zenith-carbureted 995cc side-valve four producing 22bhp, the 508 could comfortably reach 55mph and deliver 35mpg. Fiat fitted the 508 with standard hydraulic brakes. In 1933, Fiat introduced a more powerful 508S (Sport) with 30bhp and revised the list of available body styles to include a spider by Ghia and an aerodynamic coupe. More updates followed in 1934, with the introduction of a 4-speed gearbox to replace the original 3-speed and an even more powerful engine for the 508S with overhead valves and 36bhp. A modest 2bhp power increase was given to the standard engine.
In 1937, several important changes were made to the Balilla lineup. The styling was revised in order to make the 508 fit in with other Fiat-branded contemporaries and more body styles were offered, but perhaps the most important news was that the Balilla received a new engine. This updated power plant displaced 1,089cc and used an aluminum head with overhead valves to produce 32bhp in standard trim. To distinguish the revised-engine models from their predecessors, the 508 became the 508 C or Balilla 1100. Fiat produced military and civilian versions of the 508 C during World War II, and in 1939 the Fiat 1100, essentially a 508 C with a new grille, was introduced. The 1100 continued in production after the end of the war, proving the longevity of the initial 508 design.
It was for the 1938 Mille Miglia that Dante Giacosa turned the 508 into a successful racer. Giacosa, born in 1905 and working for Fiat since 1928 after earning his engineering degree in 1927, was still a young man at the time of the 508's introduction. His enthusiastic spirit served him well at Fiat, though, enabling him to foster the creation of the 508 C MM (Mille Miglia) while in his early thirties.
Giacosa daringly experimented with aerodynamics while at Fiat, so it is fitting that the 508 C MM was created with a body as slippery as it was pretty. The sleek Fiat featured a 42bhp version of the 1,089cc overhead-valve engine. With its improved power output and aerodynamic shape, the 508 C MM was a superb car. Fiat and Giacosa were rewarded for their efforts when a 508 C MM placed first in its class at the 1938 Mille Miglia.
The Balilla was a popular car, with about 170,000 examples produced, excluding production of the later but similar 1100. Additional versions were made under license by Simca in France and NSU in Germany. Like other common cars of the era, though, what was once an abundant device has become exceedingly rare since so few 508s were deemed worth preserving through the years. The sportier 508 models have become pricey collectors' items, and remain important reminders of the great magic Fiat could bestow on modest chassis.
Goodfellow, Winston. Italian Sports Cars. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 2000. Print.
'Fiat 508 Balilla & 1100.' CarsfromItaly.net n. pag. Web. 21 Dec 2010. http://carsfromitaly.net/fiat/index.html.By Evan AcuñaThe 508C was such an incredible success, that today some models remain on the road, even 75 years later. The 508 C or Balilla 1100 was created as a distinction between the updated-engine 508 models from their predecessors. A compact automobile, the Fiat 100 was introduced in 1937 by Italian carmaker Fiat, and was produced until 1969. Similar in appearance to the 1936 Fiat 500 'Topolino' and the larger 1500, the Fiat 1100 featured the characteristic late-1930s heart-shaped front grille and styling by Dante Giacosa. Numerous models were reborn after WWII as 'Competition Specials' and lost their pedestrian factory bodywork for more creative panels.
Power for the 508 C came from a 1,089 cc four-cylinder overhead-valve engine, while drive was to the rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox. A comfort to drive, the car was 'the only people's car that was also a driver's car'. After undergoing a revamp and partial restyling at the front end, the car was renamed the 1100B and received new streamlined window-shaped louvres and was jokingly known as the '1100 musone' or 'big nose'.
In 1949 following WWII the car was re-introduced on the scene with a curvaceous trunk and a new name: the 1100E. Used mostly for taxi and van purposes, both the 508C and the 1100B were available as the long wheelbase 508L.
The 1100 went through a serious overhaul in 1953 and was transformed into a compact four-door sedan. It now featured contemporary monocoque bodywork and integrated front lights. In honor of its project number the new model was called 1100/103 and was available in two differed versions: the 'economica', the least expensive model, and 'normale', which was the standard version. The car was offered in a sporty version in the fall of 1953; the 1100TV (Turismo Veloce) and featured a third light in the middle of the grille and a bumped up 50 PS instead of the normal 36 PS of regular versions. The 1100/103 was also offered in station-wagon version with a side-hinged fifth door at the rear.
Debuting at the 1955 Geneva Motor Show was a two-seat roadster called the 1100/103 Trasformabile featuring the mechanics from the 1100TV. The American-inspired Trasformabile was the creation of the special bodies division of Fiat called Sezione Carrozzerie Speciali. A total of 571 of the first series Trasformabiles were constructed. The car received a stronger engine in 1956 with an addition 3 more hp and a modified rear suspension. A total of 450 of these versions were produced. After 1957 the Trasformabile came with the mightier 55 PS '1200' engine. Until 1959 this model continued in production with about 2,360 of the 1.2-liter Trasformabiles constructed. Changes at this point included updates to the front and rear design that included larger headlights.
Starting in 1956 the new 1100 received numerous updates. These included a revamped grille, a completely redesigned grille, more rectangular profile, dual color dressing and small fintails with spear-shaped backlights. New in 1959 was a special version called the 1100 Granluce; which stood for 'large light'. This model didn't come with rear-hinged doors and had both wider windows and both fintails. It could be fitted with a new powerful 1,221 cc engine. The third generation of the 1100 was introduced in 1962 and was dubbed the 1100D with 'D' standing for Delight. The 1100D was a subtle four-door sedan very similar to the Granluce but with a more simplified rectangular front end and simpler sides. This model was a successful Italian Standard with its own Estate or Family car version. A Deluxe model was available with additional side moldings, front bench seats with two reclining backs, carpet floor mats and a higher performance of 50 PS. These models all remained basically unchanged until 1966 when the radical 124 model arrived on the scene.
Starting in 1964 the Fiat 1100D was manufactured under license in India by the Premier Automobiles Limited. At first the car was marketed as the Fiat 1100D. For 1973 it was the Premier President and until it was discontinued in 2000 it was marketed as the Premier Padmini.
The final 1100 model was the 1100R with the 'R' standing for Rinnovata. The 1100R featured a lengthier, straighter and slimmer line, a squared off back and a front end that was very similar to the Fiat 124. The vestigial fins were further suppressed while the vertical form rear light cluster from the 1100D was replaced with the simple round one from the Fiat 850. To avoid undue overlap with the 124, the larger engine wasn't used, instead the 1100R received the older 1,089 cc engine with a compression ratio of 8:1 and a claimed output of 48 bhp.
The motoring press was happy to see the return of a floor mounted gear level that was found between the front seats and connected to the gearbox with a rod linkage system, while the clutch and gearbox remained virtually unchanged. Showing its age was the absence of synchromesh on the bottom forward speed. The propeller shaft had now been separated into two parts with three couplings between the gearbox and the differential.
An increase in the 1100R's overall length, relocating the spare wheel to a space under the floor, and moving the fuel tank to the rear wing on the right helped to lengthen the trunk space. For an extra £8 reclining front seats were a popular add-on. In 1969 the 1100R was replaced by the new middle-class Fiat 128.
From 1957 on the 1100T was available as a van, pickup and a bus. The 1100T was powered with an in-line engine with 1,089 cc with 38 PS at 4800 rpm. It had a top speed of 56 mph. The 1100T was replaced by the Fiat 1100T2 in 1959. The T2 had a 45 PS 1,222 cc engine. A continuing stream of revamped engines kept on coming until 1971 when production of the 1100 T4 ended.