With just six examples known in the UK, the Vignale-Fiat 850 is exceptionally rare today. We drive a rarer-than-rare saloon variant

Words and images: Jon Burgess  With thanks to: Stone Cold Classics

‘Semi premium’ may be a well-known marketing ploy these days, but it was in its infancy in the 1960s. In Italy, if the finances couldn’t stretch to an Alfa Romeo or Lancia, one had one’s Fiat rebodied by a famous coachbuilder, like Vignale.

While examples of the Vignale-Fiat 850 Saloon were sold in the UK, this example – for sale at time of writing at Stone Cold Classics for £18,450 – was built for the Italian market in October 1966, as verified by the Heitage records of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis). Previously restored in its home country, it remained there until the late 2010s, when the first of two owners brought it to the UK; by 2019, it had an age-related UK plate.

The next year, it had five brand-new (and expensive) 175/70/14 Pirelli Cinturato CN36s from Longstone Tyres. Normally fitted to 850 Spiders with different hubcaps to the Vignale-Fiats, they fill the arches rather better than the standard 145HR13 items fitted to 850 saloons, but the original wheels and hubcaps are included – it’s about the only thing on the car that isn’t standard.

By March 2022, its second (and current) UK owner spent a considerable sum of money at Fourways Engineering in Kent on a mechanical overhaul and an engine bay respray. In May it returned to Fourways, which rustproofed the floor pan, tuned the carburettor and fitted a new speedo cable.

More than £6000-worth of work has resulted in a car that presents extremely well, although if we were to nitpick, the front bumper needs attention (the driver’s side corner has curled up slightly).

The Neptune blue paint is generally good, though the finish has wrinkled on the driver’s side C pillar and has flaked off around the filler neck in an otherwise immaculate engine bay. There’s also been paint touched up on the edge of the driver’s door, while the door mirrors themselves are generic Astrali items fitted in 2022. The rubber front windscreen surround could do with replacing, and the scratches in the glass polished out.

Inside, the Vignale wood effect centre console is intact for all to enjoy. A cigarette lighter/power point was fitted recently and the dashtop and steering wheel are uncracked, though the wooden dashboard itself has faded. The leatherette upholstery has stood the test of time but the seat squabs have faded slightly, presumably in the Italian sunshine.

Regardless of the specialised all-steel bodywork, the Vignale-Fiat drove more-or-less exactly like a standard 1966 850 Normale; the tiny, right-offset pedals a case in point.

The worm and sector steering was light and positive, despite the larger Spider specification tyres. Lacking the more powerful 43bhp 850 Special engine fitted to UK-specification cars from 1968, the lesser 34bhp unit fitted to this car was still willing.

Slow, deliberate down shifts in deference to the synchromesh kept the car the happiest: first for moving away, second for climbing, third for acceleration and fourth were cruising meant the Vignale-Fiat kept up with traffic. The all-drum brakes required a bit of a shove, but pulled the 850 up safely and squarely whenever needed.

What very marginal equipment was fitted worked perfectly, from the heater (rebuilt with a new valve in 2022) to the static Faram seat belts.

Fiat 850: our verdict

Expensive though this Vignale-Fiat might be, the costs of restoring one of the few (if any) right-hand-drive survivors would ring the till far higher, as would bringing another car in Europe to the UK and then up to the same standard. Rare, pretty and engaging to drive, the chances of running into another at next summer’s car shows are remote at best.