The pencil of ingenious designer Pio Manzù delivers an original non-scheduled city transport design. The vehicle is full of hi-tech innovations geared to ensure safety and functionality.
1968 was the year that symbolised the heyday of trade union and student riots, when the euphoria of the Post-War period had lost much of its shine and workers and students often took to the streets to show their dissent. And those same busy streets were still populated by many of the taxis based on the ingenious Fiat 600 Multipla designed by Dante Giocosa in 1956, which had evolved together with the ultra-popular Fiat 600, on which it, in turn, had been based.
From 1964, the Turin-based manufacturer decided that the 600, still in production until 1969, would be joined by its natural evolution: the Fiat 850. The mechanical configuration remained the same, with engine at the back and rear wheel drive, but the power and displacement of the 4-cylinder engine increased, the design became squarer and more modern, the interior was enlarged, and superior quality finishes were implemented. The growing needs for transport led management to support the 850 sedan in the launch phase with a commercial vehicle: the 850T. In addition to the small van, a version with windows for carrying people was produced: despite its completely different bodywork, the name 850 Familiare highlighted the fact that it was based on the sedan, just as had occurred in the case of the 600 Multipla.
In those same years, the Fiat designers pondered over the possibility of designing a version of 850 explicitly dedicated to public transport, to replace the 600 Multipla, which had by then become obsolete. So, not just a new version of an existing vehicle but rather a brand new car, designed from the outset to be used as a taxi. At that time, the designs of unusual vehicles were an area in which the great Italian coachbuilders would flex their creative muscles. However, in this case, the task was directly assigned to the Fiat Centro Stile. For the first time, it relied on the independent collaboration of one of the most creative designers of the era: Pio Manzù, son of the great sculptor Giacomo Manzù.
The result was the creation of a vehicle that made its debut at the 50th edition of the Turin Motor Show, on 30 October 1968. The ambitious prototype was packed so full of innovations that it was defined a veritable “concept car” in its own right.
The new design began by taking the mechanics of the Fiat 850: to facilitate its intensive city use, the “Idromatic” version was chosen, presented at the Geneva Motor Show in 1966 and characterised by the presence of a torque converter round the hydraulic clutch to make it easier to drive in the city. It wasn’t an automatic gearbox, but a system that eliminated the clutch pedal and left the four gears of the 850 Super intact. The description used at the time was “servo-assisted transmission” and the small plaque on the engine hood bears the word “Idroconvert”, which had replaced the previous name used for the launch in the meantime.
The development of the Fiat City Taxi went no further than the prototyping stage, but like the most innovative concept cars, it became a source of many ingenious ideas that would later be transferred onto different mass-produced models.
The dimensions were compact but the design exploited every inch of available space to make it more agile for use in the city and also to facilitate passengers getting in and out. The two-volume shape, with reduced overhang, features rather tight lines, with a short, sloping bonnet, large windows so that passengers could enjoy the city views and a taller cabin than usual to improve comfort while on board. The purpose of the orange colour was to make these means of public transport easier to spot than other vehicles, when taxis still sported the classic green and black livery.
The 850 City Taxi’s extended height was not as surprising as its asymmetries: on the left side there was a conventional door, only used by the driver, whereas on the right side, passengers got into the vehicle through an unusual, innovative power-operated, long sliding door. The different sizes of the doors also impacted the different measurements of the first two side windows.
The two windscreen wipers were particularly long because they had to clean a windscreen that was much taller than usual: the one on the driver’s side - in the “pantograph-style” configuration - consisted of two arms and, similarly to some coaches of the time, in the resting position it remained vertical; the other windscreen wiper was not exactly conventional either because, when operated, it wiped in an arch formation from the inside to the outside of the glass, moving in the opposite direction to the other contemporary Fiat vehicles.
The back seat hosted three passengers: if, in extraordinary circumstances, the vehicle needed to carry a fourth passenger for short trips, there was also an extra folding seat beside the driver’s seat. Usually the folding seat would remain closed and the space on the driver’s right hand side was used for luggage, which could be secured using a special belt. More luggage could be placed in the space behind the back seat, above the engine. It was easy to access this last luggage compartment from outside the vehicle too, thanks to a large door with window.
The many details of the interior were unique: in fact, the Fiat City Taxi was characterised by its futuristic dashboard padded with deformable material, which incorporated the instrument panel and the taximeter - an innovative feature even by today’s standards! - and the screen of a small television. Additionally, the driver could speak directly to the taxi switchboard using a radio phone, with microphone built into the sun visor.
Fiat registered no less than 15 new patents to create the 850 City Taxi. The prototype presented at the Turin Motor Show remained in the experimental stage, but many of its innovative solutions, tried and tested at length by the Fiat Centro Stile, were later used on mass -produced vehicles. The lines of the vehicle, especially those of the rear engine hood, would also become a source of inspiration for those of the 1972 Fiat 126 utility car, which first joined and later superseded the glorious Fiat 500 on the market.
The safety innovations implemented were very important and they subsequently became standard in mass-produced vehicles. These included the articulated steering column designed to protect the driver in case of head-on collision, the padded dashboard in deformable material and the belt for securing luggage. Not forgetting the communication system with radio phone, with microphone in the sun visor: the forerunner of today’s speaker systems for mobile phones. In addition, the television located in the centre of the dashboard can be considered the precursor of our modern infotainment system screens. Some of the functional solutions featured by the vehicle were reused years later, such as the back door with window, used in modern hatchbacks, or the document pocket in the roof, still found in today’s MPVs.
To celebrate the innovative approach of this vehicle to safety, the futuristic prototype brought to life by Manzù and his pencil is now on display in the “Small and Safe” themed area of the Heritage HUB, the multi-purpose space of FCA Heritage in Turin.