Fiat 8V

An engineering masterpiece for the ages

Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or Fiat, has always been Italy’s largest car manufacturer. The company’s success came mainly from producing small family cars like the Topolino and the 500, though there were large-engined Fiats before World War Two.

A break in tradition came in the early 1950s when the Italian company took on its altogether more exotic rivals with the Otto Vu sports car, also known as the “8V.” As Belgian collector and 8V aficionado Jan de Reu explains: “I consider the 8V equal to contemporary machines from the likes of Ferrari or Maserati.”

Styled by Fabio Luigi Rapi, the factory-bodied 8Vs had a striking design with covered rear wheels.

The V8-engined sports car had its roots in a project conceived by Fiat president Vittorio Valletta and Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi in 1947. The plan was for Fiat to build a brand new sedan with the United States as the primary market. Somewhat optimistically, Fiat’s planned foray into this lucrative market was introduced as a thank you to the Americans for the promised Marshall Plan aid. Valletta tasked Fiat’s chief engineer Dante Giacosa to create a car that would appeal to the Americans, which called for something quite different from the 569 cc, 13 hp Topolino that was rolling off the production lines in Turin at the time.

Giacosa welcomed the challenge and even suggested that Fiat should build the car at a facility in the United States. This would bring production closer to the market and also allow for a swift introduction as the factories in Italy had been badly damaged during the War. The initial plan was for a six-cylinder car but it was soon decided that a V8 would be more appealing to the Americans. Steady progress was made and a fully functional prototype was constructed. It was clothed by Pinin Farina with a sedan body. The end result was not particularly well liked and the project was shelved. Instead, Fiat introduced the smaller 1400 sedan at the 1950 Geneva Motor Show. Also designed by Giacosa, it was Fiat’s first unibody chassis and would remain in production through the early 1960s.

A Series 2 Rapi, this 8V has survived in beautiful original condition, having had just one owner before Jan de Reu added it to his collection in the mid-2010s.

Having the relatively high-end project shelved did not sit particularly well with Fiat’s board and engineering department. Both the Type 104 engine and the Type 106 chassis were salvaged and would form the basis for a high-performance sports car. With the car pitched squarely at the finest products produced in Maranello and Bologna, the 8V model was also an opportunity for Giacosa to showcase exactly what his engineers were capable of. To ensure that the final product did not disappoint this time round, every aspect of the design was kept in-house. This meant that the styling of the two-door coupe or berlinetta was entrusted to Fiat’s head of design, Fabio Luigi Rapi.

Just like the stillborn sedan, a compact V8 formed the heart of Fiat’s new berlinetta. It was built on a cast-iron block that featured two rows of four cylinders set at a relatively narrow 70-degree angle. Mounted between the two cylinder banks was a single camshaft. The heads were cast in aluminum and were equipped two valves for each cylinder that were actuated by push-rods. The engine displaced just under 2.0 liters. While more than sufficient in this application, the relatively modest displacement would indeed have made the full-size sedan not quite as appealing to American consumers. Fitted with a pair of twin-choke Weber 36 DCF 3 carburetors, the base Type 104 engine produced 105 hp. It was mated to a four-speed gearbox.

Showing signs of age, this truly is a time-warp example of the 8V.

The engine and gearbox were mounted in the very modern Type 106 chassis. Gone was the separate, ladder frame that had been commonly used for cars since the dawn of motoring. Instead, the floor was part of the load-bearing structure together with the tubular frame it was welded onto. That was also one of the reasons why the bodywork was styled in-house as it also formed part of the chassis structure. This semi-monocoque design was also used for the 1400 Sedan and would be universally adapted for all mass-produced road car in the years to come. Without the need for a completely separate frame to bear the loads, the Type 106 chassis was lighter but also left less freedom for custom coach-builders to work with.

For the development of the 8V, Fiat engineers were forced to use mostly bespoke designs, instead of re-using components already developed for other models. This was somewhat ironic as many of Italy’s specialist manufacturers used the Fiat’s well-stocked parts bin to construct small sports cars, affectionally known as etceterinis. What could be used was the differential and some of the front suspension components from the Fiat 1100. These double wishbones were used on both ends of the car to give the 8V fully independent suspension all around. Drum brakes were fitted on all four corners to provide sufficient stopping power.

The compact V8 was fitted with two Weber carburetors that were fed fresh air by the scoop in the engine cover.

The design Rapi penned for the 8V was a striking coupe with many subtle and some not so subtle cues. The nose boasted a pair of small lights mounted at the top of the fenders while two larger headlights were included in the oval-shaped grille. Five of the vertical chrome strips in the grill extended onto the bodywork. To feed fresh air directly into the carburetors, the engine cover featured a scoop, which was also adorned with the Fiat badge. A split windscreen was used to allow for a more efficient design. For the same reason, spats were also fitted to cover the rear wheels. A fastback roof was used culminating in a round tail. Twin exhausts were fitted to underline that this was not your ordinary, four-cylinder-engined Fiat.

Once it came to building the first prototype, the Fiat engineers who would have normally been tasked with the job were are involved in starting up production of the new 1400. To work around the capacity issues, help was called in from Siata. Also based in Turin, this company had long been a supplier of components to Fiat and had also started producing cars after the Second World War. With Siata’s help, the first 8V was built up ready to receive its factory body from Fiat’s Reparto Carrozzerie Speciali or Special Coachwork Department. By using aluminum for all the removable panels, the weight of the completed car could be kept under 1000 kg.

Now beautifully restored, this Zagato-bodied 8V was raced during the 1954 season by Elio Zagato himself.

Fiat’s new sports car was ready in time to be unveiled at the 1952 Paris Auto Show. The 8V name was not chosen because it was Italian for V8. It was the result of a misconception at Fiat that the V8 name had been trademarked by Ford. Following its Paris debut, the 8V entered series production. By far the most expensive Fiat on sale at the time, demand was limited. The first cars were built using the same Rapi design of the prototype. A second series was introduced in 1954 with a revised nose. The redesign saw the two large headlights move from the grille to the fenders. Fiat also produced a one-off fiberglass version of the Rapi design. This body weighed just 48 kg but remained a one-off.

Giovanni Savonuzzi created this futuristic Supersonic design for Ghia, which was fitted to eight 8V chassis.

In Italy, the 2.0-liter class was a particular popular competition category. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lancia and Maserati all produced 2.0-liter racers. With its lightweight construction and all-round independent suspension, the Fiat 8V was also an ideal candidate for the category. To that end, the V8 engine was reworked with a more aggressive cam and higher compression, which helped raise the power to 127 hp. This was exactly what the 8V needed to become the dominant machine in the Italian GT championship; the 2.0-liter title was won by an 8V five years running from 1954 to 1958.

Most of the successful 8V racers were bodied by specialists Zagato. The Milanese company initially reworked complete, factory bodied 8Vs, which had been unsold. These examples were appropriately known as Elaborata or modified. Fiat later made the 8V as a rolling chassis, which allowed coach-builders like Zagato a little more freedom to create custom bodies for the compact Fiat. Among the drivers racing the lighter still Zagato bodied 8Vs was Elio Zagato himself. In 1955, he famously won the Berlin Grand Prix at Avus, beating local favorites Porsche. On the way to victory, he set the fastest lap with a startling 173 km/h average.

This Supersonic was carefully restored by Dutch specialists Strada e Corsa and perhaps looks even better from this angle.

In addition to Zagato, several other Italian carrozzerie also had a go at the the 8V. Perhaps the most famous of these custom creations is the Supersonic built by Ghia. As the name suggests, the Giovanni Savonuzzi–penned lines were inspired by the jet age. While the design was also used for Jaguar and Aston Martin chassis, eight 8Vs were clothed with the Supersonic body. Strictly a one-off was the Vignale Coupe designed by Giovanni Michelotti and dubbed the Demon Rouge or red devil for its striking red and black livery. In addition to the numerous coupes built on the 8V chassis, there were also a handful of open bodies produced by Ghia and Vignale.

As demand was slow, Fiat decided to return the favor and supply Siata with a batch of around fifty V8 engines. These were installed in a bespoke chassis together with a five-speed gearbox. The new Siata model was dubbed the 208 and most were finished with a Spider body by Motto or a coupe that was initially built by Stabilimenti Farina and later by Balbo. The Giovanni Michelotti–designed Siata 208S Spider was particularly popular with road racers in the United States. Among the period owners was young actor Steve McQueen, who famously dubbed the car his Little Ferrari.

Siata used the Fiat 8V engine for their own 208S Spiders with a lovely Motto body; a car which Steve McQueen dubbed his "Little Red Ferrari."

With demand limited from the start, the Fiat management decided to end production in 1954 after just 114 8Vs had been built. Although very much their equal in period, the 8V long lived in the shadow of its contemporaries. Jan de Reu explains that this did not do the Fiat justice: “If you remove the Fiat from the car, one could easily mistake it for a Ferrari.” He continues: “For me the 8V is a more than a match for its exotic rivals. Take the Zagato bodied versions for example; they are better proportioned than the similar dressed Maserati due to the slightly shorter chassis. The 8V is also lighter and has better handling.” De Reu personally helped bring the 8V back from obscurity during the last fifteen years by bringing his cars, which included both Fiat 8Vs and Siata 208s, to events around the world.

Now highly sought after, Fiat 8V remains the only Fiat ever fitted with a V8 engine. An engineering masterpiece, it certainly proved that while high-end sports cars were not the company’s core business, Fiat was more than capable of building one.