Rarely Reliable? 1971 Fiat 850 Sport Spider

I’m currently in the market for a new lawn mower and I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet researching various makes and models.  Just when I think I’ve found the perfect machine, I start to read through all of the customer reviews: Don’t buy, worst machine ever, fell apart the first time I used it followed by Best mower ever, ran over a tree and it kept right on going. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.  Reading about the early 70s Fiats (or just about any Fiat for that matter) is similar.  The 850 runs the gamut from being labeled unreliable and sluggish to affectionately regarded as capable, fun, sporty, and lovable.  This 1971 Spider with only 35,200 miles is available here on Craigslist in Webster, New York with an asking price of $6,500.

If you’re curious about the Scout II in the background, it’s also available for sale on CL and you can check it out here.  As for the 850, the seller’s claim that it’s in excellent condition is supported by pictures showing its glossy, presumed-to-be-original shining green paint.  All of the chrome looks great too.  I can’t place the wire wheel covers, however.  Are they original or simply aftermarket?  The seller mentions the soft top is like new and I’m wondering whether it’s original to the car.  Reported to be garage-kept it’s entire life, it’s no wonder the car shows no signs of body rust, a near impossible feat for a Bertone inspired Fiat.  Despite living comfortably indoors, underside photos reveal some minor rust scale which is typical of a Northeast US car.  That’s especially true if the car has spent a significant length of time on a moist, gravel/dirt floor, like the one shown in the photos.

Interior photos are a bit tight but from the look of things, there are no rips or gouges in the seat coverings.  The driver side floor mat needs cleaning although it appears poor lighting might make it look worse than it actually is.  A close-up photo of the original in-dash radio reveals some minor ripples in the wood grain applique, however, it seems to be limited to just one small area.

Here’s a nice shot of the rear mounted 903cc four-cylinder mill capable of producing 52 hamsters…I mean horses that will get you from 0 to 60mph in 20 seconds!  The seller reports the motor runs well and is mated to a 4-speed, rear wheel drive manual transmission that shifts smoothly.  As mentioned, the Fiat name often takes hits for making unreliable cars.  Yet, according to an article published by Hemmings in 2010, the 850’s motors are said to be quite durable.  Electrical issues and carburetor problems are common culprits of a rough running 850 and in many cases, such problems can easily be addressed.  These cars are pretty hard to find these days, particularly in original, rust-free condition.  The upside is they aren’t commonly seen on the road, like an Alfa Romeo or MGB.  The downside is due to their dwindling numbers, parts can be difficult to source.  So what do you think of this Sport Spider?

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Comments

  1. Scotty Gilbertson Staff

    Nice one, Jay! And, you nailed the online commenting thing for product reviews!

    Like 4
    • Jay B Staff

      Thanks, SG! I get it though, a lot of consumers only take the time to comment about a product when things go wrong!

      Like 3
      • Scotty Gilbertson Staff

        I’m the exact opposite, Jay. I’m the nerd who writes to companies when I’ve had outstanding service. Even, yes, our garbage company! They were stunned and asked me if they could share my email with the rest of the team since they literally never, ever hear from anyone with a compliment, only when they’ve messed up.

        Like 4
      • Jay B Staff

        Very cool!

  2. That AMC guy

    Very cool to see one that is not a heap of rusty parts, but alas the days of my being able to fit into such a contraption are way behind me.

    Like 2
  3. Mike

    Wow, my head is exploding. A Craig’s List ad of a 850 that isn’t full of rust and missing parts in a barn looks clean and organized.

    Like 3
  4. Scott

    Some clarifications. It’s Bertone designed and built, not “inspired.” And the wire wheel covers are absolutely not original; the 850 Spider came with steel wheels or (in some cases) cast aluminum wheels (Fiat-Roosevelt casting on the inside of the spokes). They have their common areas of fault – not least among them, a pressed-brass fuel fitting into the carburetor which can come loose, with disastrous results (a common fix is to tap threads to secure this fitting). This is the “big engine” 850, with a 903cc (compared to the two other options, at 843cc or 817cc); they’re great fun to rev and need to be wound up to get the best out of them. Careful rust inspection is a must, especially in the X-frame under the midsection of the car.

    Like 6
    • Seneca

      I owned a 1973 850 which wore Borani wire wheels. I’m not sure if they were a factory option. I suspect they were after-market. I’ve owned 4 of these remarkable little cars, and wish I still had one. I used to see them everywhere, but they seem to be a vanishing breed. The hinges for the convertible top hatch are also a weak point.

      • t-bone Bob

        The wire wheels on your car most likely came from a Siata Spring. They were fitted with Borani wire wheels with the classic 4×98 bolt pattern that would be easily fit all Fiats or Fiat-derived cars. I don’t believe 850s, or any true Fiat for that matter, came from the factory with wire wheels. Would have been a neat set-up on you 850 I’m sure.

  5. ghalperin Glenn Halperin Member

    Sweet jag-wire rims

    Like 1
    • Brakeservo

      KMART / Pep Boys / JC Whitney Wheel Covers!

      Like 3
  6. Blyndgesser

    Mine was a 1970 model in the same exact color. I loved it. We had to rebuild the carburetor every year because rust from the tank clogged the tiny fuel jets.

    My dad eventually blew it up.

    Like 2
  7. wuzjeepnowsaab

    They may not be speedy, but you know what they say…

    It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow.

    Like 3
  8. ccrvtt

    But nothing beats driving a fast car fast.

    Like 3
    • Kevin Harper

      Of course a 17 year old kid in this Fiat will drive faster than 99% of Corvette drivers

      Like 4
      • John

        Mine was much lighter when I was 17 than it would be today. Maybe that’s what made’em so fast. I had a bugeye that I “raced” in HP in those days. We used to tear around the tracks at speeds often approaching 80. I got a set of Minilights that added at least 2 HP.

        Like 1
  9. Mr. Bond

    One other area that might need attention was the rod bearings. Really easy job to change, and would be on my list of things to check If I bought this one.

    Like 2
  10. matt

    had one, same color. also had at the same time a 69 1750 duetto. as you can imagine, one was my favorite while the other hardly ever ran. while this is a nice example, like a bad marriage, I would not go back. JB, excellent reporting sir.

    Like 1
  11. Michael Schnittker

    I owned one in high school in the very early 1970’s. I had extremely limited car knowledge, didn’t even own a metric wrench set. For a 16 year old it was a very sexy car. Reliability was terrible. It would not start on a cold morning and Atlanta is not exactly Minnesota. Electrics were terrible, headlights would just turn off at night while driving. It ate clutches regularly and I didn’t slip them. The top was amazing, you could reach back and pull it up at a stop light. Top speed was 85mph indicated at something over 6500 rpm! Handled well. The earliest models had covered headlights and made the car one of the most beautiful ever especially for an inexpensive car. The Italians know styling but rust and electrics mystify them. Paint was thin. With the knowledge I have today I could keep one up if I could get hold of clutches on a regular basis, might need to replace all the electrics with better components. Rust is a challenge as it part or all unibody. For the right price I’d buy one just to play with.

    Like 1
    • Ross W. Lovell

      Greetings All,

      I had one of these.

      The electrical gremlins………due to the metal corroding enough not to be able to serve as ground.

      Engine pretty good, but clearly doesn’t help if you pretend its a V8.

      If I owned this after learning to weld, i would still have it.

      I had the detachable hardtop, no soft one.

      • B

        As far as Fiat’s and electrical problems go, remember, it was Magneti Marelli that gave Lucas a good name!!

  12. John E. Ropelewski

    You always hear about cars that people had and wished that they had never sold. Well, I had one of these, a 1972 that I bought new and this is a car that I was GLAD to sell and I NEVER want another one !!!

  13. Raymond J Lawson III

    If they had detailed the engine compartment, you could ALMOST believe that it is original paint… but sadly, no chance. Pic #15, over spray on the undercoating was NOT a factory option. And the X-member IS rusted. That needs close inspection.

    Still could be a good deal… but definitely not perfect.

    Like 2
    • dweezilaz

      Raymond, but brother bought a two year old model in 1972.

      After just a short amount of time it was discovered that the engine cradle was almost rusted out.

      It was sweet, still beautiful today. A bright orange. New paint on a 2 year old car should have given Bro-ham a clue. It was replaced by a 71 Chevy Biscayne.

      This one has a poor driver’s door fit, much wider gap at the top than the bottom and those awful wire wheel hub caps.

      My Dad’s 78 Subaru was equipped with those. Dealer rice.

  14. Brakeservo

    Keep in mind these rust easily – even primer and paint will cause them to rust, as will exposure to sunlight, fresh air, hamster farts, carnuba car wax and even WD-40!

    Like 2
    • John Oliveri

      Fix It Again Tony, is what Fiat stands for, in Italian and in my neighborhood when I was a kid there was a Fiat dealer, so I can call it, this one has no rust? I thought they started to rust on the showroom floor, like the Vega. Those wheel covers look like Straus store specials, to all you young people before Pep boys, but all kidding aside it’s a nice car, I’d buy it if I had room

      • Brakeservo

        Not Fix It Again Tony but Failure In Auto Technology.

    • KarlS

      I’ve had three of these with no rust. Two 69s were California cars and one 70 was from the east coast. The 70 was held together by bondo but it was because of collision damage. I still have one of those 69 vintage ones and there is still no rust on it, under it or in it. Keep them in a garage and they’ll be fine. Any vehicle will rust if left out in the elements. I just hope that the people commenting negatively actually had one of these and aren’t just passing on “fake news.”

      • John

        My 1967 coupe was garage kept from day one. It was even kept in a parking structure while I was at work. But it was my only car and was driven daily, including driving in winter with normal Washington, DC type snow and slush. At the end of three years, my car had perforation rust in the floor boards, the extreme back end of the engine cover, in the panel between the headlights, at all of the bumper mount positions, and especially in the bottom of the doors. When the rust first started, I tried to clean, prime and repaint, all to no avail. By the end of the fourth year, the vehicle was not safe to drive because of the holes in the floorboard. Again I want everyone to understand that I truly loved this little car and I’d buy another if it were available. Mine NEVER had any sort of mechanical problems and the motor seemed to be bulletproof. But it had severe metallurgical problems. What it would gave been like in Arizona or SoCal can only be conjecture. But in the Mid-Atlantic States and along the northern tier of the country, you will find few if any 850s which have not experienced rust. It is not fake news, just a simple fact.

  15. Maestro1

    To the writers at Barn Fiinders: Excellent work all of you. Please continue.

    I remember these Fiats when they were new. Very sexy Italian cars with a marginal future. This one looks good, however, so a close inspection will hopefully be rewarded by a purchase.

    • Jay B Staff

      Maestro1 & Matt,
      Your compliments are very much appreciated!

  16. John

    Two kinds of these, those which have rusted away, and those that will. I had an 850 Coupe version. I drove the rush hour Grand Prix about a million times, wind it up to 6 or 7 grand shift into the next gear, check the speedo, nope, not over 30 yet. Hear comes an on ramp, aim for the inside apex, apply throttle, wind it out again, feel the rear end drift out a bit as the swing axles tucked under. straighten it up and zing through the gears. Check the speedo, nope, still under 55. Life is good. When I win a bazillion dollar lottery, I will commission someone to build an exact duplicate in some sort of metal that will not rust away. I loved the little red car, but it just faded away. A scrap metal dealer gave me $75 for it with no motor. The motor would have done an excellent job of propelling the lawn mower that was mentioned early in the write-up, provided you weren’t in a hurry.

    Like 2
  17. TimM

    I sometimes just leave a comment on a car like this because I never had one and I’m not to familiar with the car so I get a world of knowledge from it!! Thank you everyone!!! Some of you guys are really knowledgeable!!!

  18. JBD

    I had a ’72 Sport Spider 850, it was fun and fast for the day.

  19. KarlS

    I recall an article in Road and Track I believe, where they compared one of these, a ’67 with the Miura headlights and the Borrani “snowflake” spoked wheels, and an MG Midget and, I think, an AH Sprite. The article writer conceded that the Fiat was a “girl’s car,” maybe it was because it was such a beautiful design whereas the two British cars were more utilitarian looking, but why offer that sort of excuse? With the exception of horsepower, all three were pretty much equal. All that the prospective owner had to decide was did they want the more modern suspension and rear engine in the Fiat as well as an easy to raise top or a more traditional British sports car with all the more dated bits that they are comprised of?

  20. rapple

    Back in the early ’70s the shop I worked in serviced a number of these. The mechanic who worked on the Fiats always referred to them as “the nifty, thrifty, fearless frisky Fiat 850.” I haven’t looked at one since without remembering that line. He should have gone into advertising!
    Fun attractive cars and easy to work on. A great starter car for someone just getting into the hobby.

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