Welcome to Ridiculous Rebadges, a series of articles in which I go through and examine the details and circumstances surrounding some of the more infamous and some of the more esoteric vehicular rebadges throughout automotive history.
In the aftermath of WWII, the automotive world was waking up after nearly a decade of dormancy. In America, amazing new chariots like the Chevy Bel Air were the stars of the ‘50s, captivating the public as big and powerful cars that anyone could buy. In France they had the mighty DS for those who were lucky, and the venerable 2CV for those who weren’t quite as fortunate. Even Germany had its own new automotive category of microcars which was quickly burgeoning to help put Hitler’s hellhole back onto its own two feet (or own three wheels), not to mention that the Beetle was becoming accepted as a new standard worldwide. Italy had the 500; England had the Mini. Things were looking good. By the 1960’s, things had settled down quite a bit and tiny companies like TVR could stand on their own and start producing odd things like the Grantura, the first in a long line of hunchbacked fiberglass TVRs. However, no one seemed too excited yet to mix up the world of practical cars. Tried and true is mainly what the consumer market seemed to want, especially outside of America where money was still relatively tight. This strategy was extremely pragmatic, of course, why fix what ain’t broke? Still, it’s human nature to want a bit of variety in life and in 1965, Innocenti decided that this was what the Italian car market needed.
From about 1955 to 1965, the Fiat 500 and 600 held a monopoly on the Italian car market. The Beetle had not proven to be quite as much of a success in the Mediterranean as it had been elsewhere, and even Renault’s incredibly cute 4CV was having a tough time selling. Former steel tube and automotive part manufacturer Innocenti saw his chance. In 1961, he introduced the 950/1100 Spider, a license built and rebodied Austin-Healey Sprite. In ‘65, the Innocenti 850 was born (later called 1300), a car which would put Innocenti on the map.
In concept, this little car was nothing more than a BMC Mini with locally sourced bodywork (which was very similar to the Mini’s although BMC would later use it on the Mini IV) and wearing Innocenti badges. The trick worked, though, as apparently the Italians were rather bored of the same old Fiats and Innocenti surpassed both VW and Renault to take the number two sales position in Italy, right under the ever-popular Fiat range. BMC took notice of this success in Italy and, recognizing that it was an extremely good chance for them to gain a foothold in the obviously very patriotic and highly loyal Italian market, bought out Innocenti in 1972 for a whopping £3 million.
Still, this huge acquisition of little Innocenti by BLMC was too little, too late to save the British giant. The company ran out of money in ‘75 and was turned over to the British government. De Tomaso took control at Innocenti, and the popular Innocenti Mini 850 was dead. Well, not quite. Before BLMC had run out of money, Innocenti had taken their Mini to Bertone to have it styled.
This new stylish, angular body for the Mini had only been on sale for a year before De Tomaso’s takeover, and it stayed on the market until the 1990’s (There was even a more exciting variant by De Tomaso which upped horsepower to 75 and added a body kit, though the thing was still in the FF layout.)
In the ‘80s, the Innocenti lineup received a minor facelift that brought Daihatsu engines into the mix, a collaboration which would have been impossible had Alfa Romeo not set the precedent with the Nissan-based Arna a few years prior.
De Tomaso decided he had had enough fun with Innocenti by the ‘90s, though (he used their tooling to make the Biturbo, Quattroporte, and Chrysler TC) and passed the entire brand to Fiat who phased it out in 1996 after selling some Yugos under the Innocenti brand. Overall, despite its successes, the entire Innocenti story seems to be one of “what could have been”, considering that in their early years they provided stylish bodies on proven BLMC mechanicals and later had the talent of De Tomaso at the helm. What if they had been given the chance to rebody, say, a Rover SD1? Or if De Tomaso had gone on a crazy flight of fancy and dropped a Ferrari V6 into the back of an Innocenti Mini to create a Renault 5 Turbo rival? Maybe someday we’ll discover an alternate universe where this all happened. Until then, we must simply dream.