Autobianchi was an Italian car company founded on January 11th, 1955, as a partnership between Bianchi (who are better known for their road bikes), Pirelli and Fiat. The agreement was that Pirelli would supply the tires, Fiat would supply the drivetrains and Bianchi would take care of the rest, including production which throughout Autobianchi’s life took place in Bianchi’s factory in Desio, near Milan. Fiat eventually bought out its partners and became the sole owner of Autobianchi and used the brand as a sort of rolling laboratory to test new ideas before applying them to their own models.
What follows is a look at the car models produced by Autobianchi, leaving out the trucks that are a different story altogether.
The first car to come out of the newly-formed Autobianchi company was the Bianchina, launched in 1957. It was essentially a luxurious version of the Fiat 500: the drivetrain remained the same while the body was redesigned to look slightly more upscale.
Initially the Bianchina had a retractable roof made of canvas with metal arches on either side (like the Citroen 2CV) and was called the Bianchina Trasformabile. It used the Fiat 500’s 479cc (15hp) air-cooled flat two mounted in the rear; power output was pushed to 25hp for the Special and Eden Roc models. When the 500’s engine displacement was increased to 499cc that engine was made standard on the Bianchina, too. In 1960 a true convertible (called Cabriolet) and a station wagon (called Panoramica) were added to the Autobianchi catalog.
The Bianchina sedan replaced the Trasformabile in 1962. This new model was physically closer to the 500 and had a full metal roof which extended longer before sloping back, giving the rear seats much needed headroom. A Furgoncino version of the Bianchina was also available; it was based on the Panoramica but from the B pillar back had a taller and wider body without windows to allow for maximum cargo room.It only had two seats.
Production ended in 1969: the Bianchina sedan was replaced by the A112 and the Bianchina Panoramica by the Giardiniera.
The Stellina was introduced at the 1963 Turin Auto Show. Dante Giacosa, the engineer behind numerous Fiats including the 500, 600 and 128, called the Stellina a “poorly conceived auto” at that time.
Launched in 1964 the Stellina (which means “little star” in Italian) was based on the Fiat 600 D and the two shared a reliable, water-cooled 767cc four-cylinder engine mounted behind the rear wheels that was mated to a four-speed manual transmission. It had drum brakes all around. In an effort to keep weight low and have less rust-related worries the car was designed with a fiberglass body mounted on a steel frame, a novel concept in the 1960s. While this did reduce the weight, it also had the effect of making the Stellina look like a toy car to the eyes of Italian consumers and it was a commercial failure: only 502 examples had been built when production ceased in 1965.
The Primula was the first Autobianchi designed with the Morris Mini Minor in mind. It was almost 70 centimeters longer than a Mini so it did not compete directly against it but the inspiration was there. Fiat designer Dante Giacosa had patented a transverse, front wheel drive layout in 1947 as a potential drivetrain for the Fiat 600 he had started to develop. This setup didn’t make it to production partly because “the components of the engine and the gearbox are housed inside the same casing. This means they cannot be assembled and tested separately in different workshop.” Giacosa goes on to explain that when the engine and the transmission are mounted side by side, “a series of gear-wheels or else a chain has to be used to transmit drives from the motor to the gearbox. This means additional complications, higher noise levels, increased loss of power due to friction, heavier weight and higher costs. The Mini, with the transmission gears in the crankcase, presents these defects.”
Giacosa remedied this situation by placing the transmission behind the engine in a more conventional transverse layout. With this, the Primula was introduced in 1964 wearing an Autobianchi badge on its grille because Fiat management thought it was too different from the rest of their lineup (and from anything on the Italian car market) and therefore risky to launch, lest it fail completely and give Fiat a bad name. The reasons for the skepticism are primarily that it had a hatchback and the aforementioned front-mounted transversal engine driving the front wheels.
It was a fairly modern car for its day, featuring a hydraulic clutch and four disk brakes. The hydraulic clutch was designed for practicality’s sake: to fit the drivetrain transversally without the front wheels hitting it when turned at full lock, it was necessary to reduce the space it took up. By fitting a hydraulic clutch the bellhousing could be reduced in size, making the transversal setup feasible.
Throughout its production run the Primula was available as a two-door, three-door or a five-door sedan, with either a 1221cc or an 1197cc four-cylinder. The top of the line Coupe S version used a 1438cc four-cylinder (75hp) borrowed from the Fiat 124 Special and was only available as a two-door. The lack of a fifth gear limited the high-end capacity of all Primula models.
Fiat saw the Primula as a potential rival for their sedans, including the 850 that had been launched only a few months prior to it, and frowned upon it. The Italian market did not receive it particularly well either, though it was fairly successful in France where the market was used to front wheel drive cars with hatchbacks.
It was phased out in 1970. Ironically its transversal engine layout made Fiat skeptical to put their name on it but ten years later most Fiats used that setup.
In 1967 Fiat purchased all the rights to Autobianchi. The following year the Fiat 500 Giardiniera became known as the Autobianchi Giardiniera and was launched with a slightly redesigned front end. Mechanically it was identical to the Fiat model: the rear mounted engine was horizontally installed to give the car a flat trunk floor. It was a 499cc (17hp) air-cooled two cylinder unit that powered the little wagon through a four-speed manual.Interestingly enough this engine also powered an experimental military vehicle called the 1120.
It was longer and wider and a 500 sedan and could seat four adults relatively comfortably, something the sedan could not easily do. The rear seats folded flat to give it more cargo space. Alternatively one could opt for the Commerciale or Furgoncino version which only had two seats and sheet metal instead of rear windows, a precursor to the fourgonettes on today’s market.
The Giardiniera line was phased out in 1977, two years after the 500 sedan, and unlike the sedan it retained its suicide doors until the end.
The A111 was introduced in 1969 to replace the Primula. It used the same mechanical layout as the Primula Coupe S, the 124’s 1438cc four-cylinder mounted transversally to spin the front wheels.If the body looks similar to a 124 it is because it was actually originally designed as a prototype for that model which was turned down in favor of a rear wheel drive version.
Italians did not take kindly to the A111 and sales were less than stellar. Even in France, where the Primula had previously been adored, the A111 did not find very many buyers. The Primula was successful there partly because at the time of its launch the French market was hungry for affordable front wheel drive vehicles; the Renault 4 (1961), the Citroen Ami 6 (1961) and 2CV (1948) were the primary ones. By contrast, when the A111 was launched the French market was nearly flooded with them: the Renault 4 and the Citroen 2CV were still in production and sales were strong; the Renault 6 and 12 were launched in 1968 and 1969 respectively, the Peugeot 204 and 304 in 1965 and 1969 respectively, the Citroen Ami 8 and GS in 1969 and 1970 respectively, the Simca 1100 in 1967, etc. On top of stiffer competition the A111 did not benefit from a hatchback. By the time the plug was pulled in 1972 only about 60,000 of them were made. Nevertheless, the A111 helped convince Fiat management that front-mounted transversal engines could work effectively and they quickly adopted that on the 127 (1971) and the 128 (1969).
The A112 is perhaps the best-known Autobianchi model. Launched at the Turin Auto Show in 1969 to replace the 12-year old Bianchina, it was a response to concern about the growing sales of the Mini across Europe. The main competitor coming out of Turin was the 500 with its rear engine/rear wheel drive setup which looked archaic compared to the Mini’s front wheel drive setup. So unlike the Primula, which was inspired by the Mini, the A112 was launched as a competitor to the Mini.
It could carry four adults more or less comfortably despite being fairly small (a little under 20 centimeters longer than a Mini). The first models used the 850 Spider and Coupe’s 903cc (44hp) water-cooled four cylinder mounted transversally in the front of the car and bolted to a four-speed manual transmission. The car went through minor redesigns throughout its production run, including larger taillights and interior upgrades. In 1977 a new engine was available, a 965cc (48hp) four-cylinder. Production ended in 1986 after over a million A112s were produced, making it the most popular Autobianchi to come out of the Desio factory.
The A112 was the first and only Autobianchi to go through the Abarth workshops. In 1971 the A112 Abarth made its appearance; the engine was bored out to 982cc (58hp) and it had a specific grille, a specific interior with a more complete instrumentation and specific rims, amongst other changes. In 1976 a version with a 1050cc (70hp) engine was available, marking the ultimate evolution of the A112.With the two Abarth models, the 982cc became known as the A112 Abarth 58hp and the 1050cc became known as the A112 Abarth 70hp.
Introduced in 1985, the Y10 was Fiat’s answer to the tough question of how to replace the Autobianchi A112. It was not a full Autobianchi model: it was sold as the Lancia Y10 in northern Europe and the Autobianchi Y10 in France and Italy.
The Y10 was based on the first Fiat Panda’s front wheel drive platform but it did not use the Panda’s much-criticized leaf spring rear suspension. Some versions of it did use the Panda’s 999cc (45hp) four-cylinder FIRE engine, a unit that’s remarkable for its reliability; for example, it is a non-interference engine, meaning the pistons and valves will not be damaged if the timing belt breaks. Fiat commissioned Pininfarina and Giugiaro to design the car but both submissions were rejected; instead it was designed in-house at Fiat. Despite its boxy shape it was very aerodynamic.
In Italy Autobianchi continued to produce the Y10 at its Desio factory until Fiat closed the brand in 1992 in an effort to merge it with Lancia. The Y10 stayed in production until 1995, badged as a Lancia but built in Alfa Romeo’s now-vacant Arese factory.
Below are more pictures of the various Autobianchi models throughout the years, starting with a Bianchina Panoramica:
The more conventional Bianchina sedan that replaced the Trasformabile in 1962:
The three-door Primula:
A Primula Coupe S raced in an unknown event:
One of the first Autobianchi Giardiniera; note the different front end compared to the earlier Fiat model:
The Furgoncino version:
An A112 in full Abarth regalia:
A cross section of the A112, scanned from the 1973-1974 edition of Quattroruote’s “Tutto le Auto del Mundo”.
An early A112 Abarth with the small taillights and aftermarket fog lights:
A period ad for the A112 Abarth: