The neatest, prettiest, most Italianate small displacement pre-war coupe ever made.
In one sense, the paltry 998 cc 36 hp Fiat Balilla Mille Miglia Berlinetta Coupe is much ado about very little. In another sense, it is the quintessential example of prewar Italian design in miniature and very nearly takes your breath away. And the name is no auction house hype; Mille Miglia Berlinetta it was from the day it rolled out of the factory in 1935.
If looks aren’t enough, consider that the ultra-rare MM Berlinetta may be one of the first true Grand Touring cars ever conceived, and most certainly one of the first small displacement GT cars ever built.
The famed Balilla Berlinetta and Spiders hailed from the humblest of origins. The Fiat Balilla 508 was presented at the 1932 Milan Auto Show. It was ahead of its time, however, with a 12 volt electrical system, four wheel hydraulic brakes, and a three speed gearbox. The flathead 995 cc engine developed by Bartolomeo Nebbia put out a promising 22 hp out of the box.
Though the stock displacement never changed, the Balilla 995cc engine grew in horsepower and torque through the years primarily due to the change to an overhead valve head, and cam and piston developments.
Preceding the artful Berlinetta were the two Balillas Spiders, the cycle-fendered Corsa, also known as the “Coppa de Oro” and the Sport, which had more streamlined fenders. The Corsa and Sport Spiders were unveiled at the 1933 Milan Auto Show. Not only were the pair immediately successful in the hands of Italy’s gentleman drivers, the Ghia styling as executed by Fiat, was more than reminiscent of the top-of-the line Alfa Romeo 1750 Gran Sport with their beautiful Zagato and Touring bodies, right down to the boat-tail and central tail fin.
The factory designed and built Balilla Mille Miglia Berlinetta was not launched until late in 1935, but two interesting Balilla coupes had already made appearances in the Mille Miglia. Perhaps inspired by the Alfa Romeo Touring coupes which placed well in the 1931 and 1932 events, Ghia designed a streamlined Fiat Balilla coupe for the 1933 Mille Miglia – which out of sixty-nine starters, twenty-five were Balillas. The Ghia Berlinetta was also an advance design, with a severely raked windshield. The 995 cc car had to be classed with the 1100s, yet the team of Giorgio Ambrosini (Mr. Siata) and Dante Menchetti took a third in class behind the much faster MG K3 Magnettes.
In 1935, another type of Berlinetta made itself famous at the Mille Miglia. The dynamic duo of Ambrosini and Nuccio Bertone drove one of two very special 1060 cc supercharged Berlinetta Aerodinamicas, with special body designed by Mario Revelli de Beaumont. Although they both retired, according to “Otto Vu” author Tony Adriaensens, the Siata Berlinetta encouraged Fiat to build their own in-house product.
Hence the Fiat 508S Balilla Berlinetta Aerodinamica aka “Mille Miglia”. According to “La Fiat va alla Mille Miglia” by Cancellieri and Marchiano, “..the Balilla Berlinettas (were) produced by FIAT itself. This solution was introduced (chosen, or preferred) in an attempt (so as) to create a cockpit as much comfortable as possible for endurance racing (literally for races that were to be held over long distances) in events such as the Mille Miglia.”
Although built in much smaller numbers, the Balilla Berlinetta is much more expressive than its sister Spiders. With its stunning looks and seductive styling (one of the major attractions of a coupe was that women were much more inclined to come aboard, being thusly protected from the wind and elements) the Aerodynamica is in another class altogether. The design is dominated by ornate shapes and motifs, all of which seemed to go together amazingly well and the proportions are perfect.
By 1935, the Balilla range already was equipped with a four-speed transmission and an overhead valve head. The Berlinetta 508CS was equipped with a four speed transmission (with delightful, virtually perfect ratios), an overhead valve engine with a basic 36 hp (tuners would easily achieve 50 hp sans supercharger) and would do 0-50 in 18.6 seconds, and cruise at about 70 mph.
But by 1936, the first year a factory built Berlinetta Mille Miglia could have raced the legendary 1000 miles around Italy, the Balilla was getting a bit outdated, although Balillas easily won the unsupercharged 1100cc class and were clocking over 78 mph on the straights. For 1937 the 1100cc Millecento replaced the Balilla on both the road and track, and with independent front suspension and a new overhead valve engine of 1089 cc totally outclassed the old Balilla. It was an icon which eagerly and successfully carried on the tradition of a small displacement Grand Touring car.
Production numbers are pure guesstimates but the current owner’s thoughts of about 11 could be in the ballpark. The Spiders sold very well, but the Berlinettas were introduced towards the end of the Balilla line, and catered to a very specific clientele. After all, if one wanted to be competitive in class, one had to have a bit more than just a factory car. But by early 1937 the Millecento had made both the Balilla Spiders and the Berlinetta obsolete.
The car in our photos was originally owned by the mayor of Milan and stayed in Italian hands until it was sold at the Christie’s Monte Carlo auction in 1998. The next owner from Chicago kept it until recently. It has its FIVA book and registered with the ASI (Automobile Storica Italiano). It has owner’s book in Italian and English. It still has a Milan, Italy license plate. It has been in the retro Mille Miglia several times and won 1st place in its class in 1994.