1950s / 1960s / Autobianchi / Italian / Rust in peace

Rust in peace: Autobianchi Bianchina

The automotive landscape in the United States used to be jaw-droppingly diverse. In the late 1950s, you could spend your money on an Austin, a Borgward, a DKW, a Facel Vega, a Russian-built Pobeda, a NSU, a Simca, a Panhard, and even an Autobianchi. Few Autobianchis were sold and even fewer are left today, but I unexpectedly found a pair of them sitting in northern Utah a decade ago.

Let’s go back in time: In the U.S., the Autobianchi Bianchina was sold alongside the Fiat 500 it evolved from through Fiat dealerships from 1959 to 1961. Buyers in Italy had access to a full convertible, a sedan, a wagon, and even a van, but only the coupe model was offered on the other side of the pond. The base engine was a 479cc air-cooled two-cylinder that churned out 21 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 20 pound-feet of torque at 2,700 rpm. If that wasn’t enough, customers could step up to the Sport version, which used a 499cc twin tuned to generate 25 horsepower at 4,800 rpm.

In 1959, the Bianchina cost $1,298. In comparison, the base 500 started at $1,098, and a Volkswagen Beetle retailed for $1,545. If underpowered econoboxes were your thing, that same year you could walk across the street to the Citroën dealer and fork over $1,298 in exchange for a 2CV. In 1961, Fiat lowered the price of both cars to $998 in a last-ditch effort to get them off dealer lots, but few Americans warmed up to the idea of buying a two-cylinder car that could fit in the back of a Chevrolet pickup. The Bianchina and the 500 were both given the proverbial ax after the 1961 model year.

The ones I saw in Utah were sitting behind a shop of sorts among about a dozen equally run-down cars. The collection didn’t have a specific theme; the Bianchinas were parked next to a MG B, a handful of late-model American cars, a first-generation Nissan Pathfinder, and so forth. The one on the left was rusty, banged up, and it seemed to be missing quite a few parts. The one on the right, however, was in much better shape. I remember being intrigued by the “rent-a-ride” logo painted on both doors — was there really a company that rented Bianchinas to tourists visiting Salt Lake?

I didn’t get to see the Bianchinas up close, and I never found out what their story was. I managed to track down the owner, but all he could tell me was that he knew they were rare and that he didn’t want to sell them because he hoped to make one out of the two. I drove by again several years after I took the photos below and both of them were gone.

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