Part 9: Bianchi and AutoBianchi
By David Cavaliere
After taking a week off to bring you places to visit in Rome, this week returns to the north of Italy for our next segment. Edoardo Bianchi began building bicycles in his Milan workshop in 1885. His company – F.I.V. Edoardo Bianchi S.p.A is the world’s oldest bicycle manufacturer that is still in existence. Since Bianchi bicycles are traditionally painted Celeste, a turquoise also known as Bianchi Green, his cars were sometimes painted in the same color (see the Tipo12 below). Contradictory myths say Celeste is the color of the Milan sky, others, the eye color of a former Queen of Italy (for whom Edoardo Bianchi made a bicycle) and the more cynically inclined say it was a mixture of surplus military paint! Whatever the reason, Bianchi cars were almost never red. That changed in the 1950s when Autobianchi was formed, but that is getting ahead of the story…
As the 20-year old son of a successful grocery store owner, Edoardo had his eyes on going fast from an early age. When bicycles appeared in Milan, he looked at all of the different designs and decided that the English-style of equal sized wheels was the way to go. He opened a workshop and began producing bicycles, something that continues over 130 years later. Bianchi pioneered the use of equal-sized wheels with pneumatic rubber tires in 1885. His business grew and in 1899, he built his first car – a motorized carriage with a single-cylinder engine and started production the following year. In 1901, the engine had improved to give 8 HP and a two-speed transmission was fitted. Production of bicycles continued, and together with the cars, he then expanded into the manufacture of motorcycles, and later, commercial vehicles. His cars were well-built and well-appointed, showing extra attention to the choice of materials and producing automobiles of superior built quality. Bianchi was fortunate to have Giuseppe Merosi on his staff from 1906 until 1909. Merosi did the engine development and tuned the cars that were used in competition. Merosi went to Alfa Romeo, where he achieved fame as its chief engineer, a positon he kept until 1926. By 1914, the Bianchi was producing 45,000 bicycles, 1,500 motorcycles and 1,000 cars a year.
Much of the firm’s work during the war years involved military production, but in 1919, Bianchi released the S15. It was powered by a 1693 cc four-cylinder engine and could reach about 38 MPH. It was followed by additional series of increasingly larger capacity engines – the S18 with a 2-liter engine in 1922, the S20 with a larger 2293 cc unit producing 50 HP in 1925. Throughout the 1920s, the firm was usually Italy’s third-largest producer behind Fiat and Lancia. Bianchis’ of this period typified a conservative design approach, although they did build a contender for a 2-liter Grand Prix in 1922. The car had a double-over-head camshaft four-cylinder engine, producing over 90 HP. Unfortunately the project was shelved.
A wide variety of models were manufactured from 1920 through 1940, but by the time of the start of the Second World War, Bianchi was concentrating on motorcycles and commercial vehicles.
Despite the factory being destroyed by bombing during the war, it was reconstructed and resumed business activity in 1946. Unfortunately, that same year saw the death of Edoardo Bianchi in a car accident. The firm continued, mainly with commercial vehicles, but lost its way in an ever more competitive automotive marketplace.
It is notable that Bianchi did so well with its car sales. Unlike most Italian car manufacturers, it didn’t have any racing heritage, set any world records, build a model that stood out from the crowd by virtue of engineering innovation or body styling. Despite such apparent handicaps, Bianchi achieved a very respectable position in the world car manufacturers’ league on a basis of honest, unspectacular, dependable family cars.
In 1955, a collaboration of Fiat and Pirelli, Bianchi created Autobianchi. A new, modern, purpose-built plant for the production of Autobianchi cars was built in Desio, just north of Milan. Each of the partners had a defined role and interest in the venture. Fiat was to provide the technical base and components for the assembly of the cars. It was seeking to capture the premium niche of the small car market. Pirelli, which was to supply tires for the cars, sought to expand its overseas export market. Bianchi prepared the bodies and assembled complete vehicles; a step towards its desire to return to full passenger car production.
It quickly became established that the company would be used as a test bed of Fiat’s new ideas and technology applications. Autobianchi produced only a handful of models during its existence, which were almost exclusively small cars. The cars offered more features than Fiat models of the same chassis and were accordingly priced higher. Fiat used Autobianchi to test such innovative concepts as fiberglass bodies and front-wheel drive.
The first car to be produced by the new company was the Bianchina, whose name was a tribute to Edoardo Bianchi’s first 1899 car. The Bianchina was based on Fiat 500 mechanicals, with its two-cylinder, air-cooled engine mounted in the rear, but it featured a completely new stylish body. With many premium design and equipment features, the Bianchina was marketed as an upscale city car. The car was launched in September 1957. Initially, the car was equipped with the smallest Fiat engine of 479 cc, producing 15 HP. In 1959, the engine power was increased to 17 HP. It was available in various configurations, including a convertible (Trasformabile), station wagon (Panoramica) and van (Furgoncino).
The Autobianchi Stellina was a small spider (a rear-engined cabriolet) built for only two years in 1964 and 1965. It was based on the mechanicals of the Fiat 600D, but was the first Italian car with a fiberglass body. The car was powered by Fiat 600D’s rear-mounted, water-cooled 767 cc inline 4 engine, delivering 29 HP. Only 502 Stellinas were made; nevertheless, the model was an important step in the development of new technology for Fiat and the rest of the automotive industry.
Even more important was the following year’s presentation, the Autobianchi Primula. It was Fiat’s first attempt at a front-wheel drive car with a transverse engine, a configuration popularized by the British Mini. This allows for a compact and efficient utilization of the body space. Rather than located the gearbox in the engine’s sump (like the Mini), the Primula located the transmission in-line with the engine. It was launched under the Autobianchi brand to test market reaction to the new concept. The Primula is a car design of far greater significance than is often realized and its design influence spread worldwide. Though the new Autobianchi was priced higher than Fiat models of similar size, the car met with a favorable reception. Fiat would gradually move all of its models to front-wheel drive. Throughout its production run the Primula was available as a two-door or five-door sedan, three-door or five-door hatchback and two-door coupé, with either a 1,221 cc, or a 1,197 cc four-cylinder engine. The Primula also featured disc brakes on all four wheels, uncommon in small cars of the time.
Facing a crisis in the motorcycle market, Bianchi was forced to sell its share in Autobianchi and in 1968, the company was finally fully integrated into Fiat S.p.A. 1969 marked many important developments for the marque. Bianchina production was finally stopped, moreover, Autobianchi was positioned within the Fiat Group under the control of the newly acquired luxury marque Lancia. And significantly, two new Autobianchi models were launched that year -the Autobianchi A111 and A112.
The A111 was derived from Primula mechanicals, but was a much bigger and more spacious automobile, marking the company’s first (and only) entry into the small family car class. It was priced higher than its equivalent Fiat model and after l 50,000 A111s were made, production ended in 1972. The A112 on the other hand, was far more successful.
The most famous of Autobianchi models, the A112, was released in 1969. It was the original “Hot Hatchback,” followed later by competing cars such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Alfa Romeo Alfasud and Peugeot 205 GTI. The small hatchback proved to be very popular in Italy for racing. With small dimensions, brisk performance, excellent handling characteristics, good quality finish and equipment, it gained a place in the market where there was little competition. The A112 had strong demand and built a loyal following, reinforced by the introduction of Abarth sporting versions and Autobianchi’s engagement in racing with modified versions of the model. The majority of the cars were painted red.
With Primula production ceasing in 1970 and the quick demise of the A111, Autobianchi became effectively a one-model brand. Consequently, the A112 was marketed as a Lancia from the mid-1970s in most markets, except for Italy, France and Israel, where it retained the Autobianchi branding until the end of production.
The A112 continued for a remarkable 17 years, with frequent and substantial refinements and changes. Over 1,250,000 cars were built. It was finally replaced in 1986 by a new model, the Autobianchi Y10, based mechanically on the Fiat Panda. This car was branded as Lancia from the beginning for most export markets and became better known as the “Lancia Y10.” It retained Autobianchi badging and branding in Italy alone. The Desio plant was finally closed in 1992 and the Y10 being replaced by the Lancia Y. In 1996, the Autobianchi brand disappeared entirely.
Next week’s edition will feature a company that splintered off from a legendary manufacturer and an automaker best known for its design studio.