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Channelling the spirit of Il Sorpasso and La Piscine, the Fiat 2300S and Dino coupés still make seductive cases for themselves, tapping directly into that idea of a louche and sophisticated 1960s Riviera lifestyle that, probably, never really existed.
They transport us to an eternally sun-dappled place of Campari-sipping afternoons where, with a light cashmere pullover draped over tanned shoulders, playboys with nothing better to do (and never short of a Bardot or a Cardinale to occupy the passenger seat) gunned these expensive-looking grand-touring cars up mountain roads in search of hedonism, be it an illicit liaison or the perfect cocktail.
With air horns to scatter the riff-raff and looks to turn heads in any company, the 2300S by Ghia and the Bertone-styled Dino that replaced it as Fiat’s flagship in 1967 are cars that speak not only of the glamour of their period, but also of the unbridled ambition of Fiat in the ’60s.
As the biggest car manufacturer in Europe, at the centre of the Italian post-war economic miracle, this firm’s almost total domination of the domestic market gave it the resources to do anything it set its mind to: be it jet engines, refrigerators or exotic GTs.
Born with more than a touch of Maranello magic in the blood – but, in a funny way, almost cooler in 2021 because it is not a Ferrari – the Fiat-badged 2-litre Dino was the opening gambit in the Turin giant’s seduction of Enzo Ferrari.
Looking for a means of homologating his 1½-litre, four-cam 65º V6 for Formula Two FIA rules Enzo knew that, with his limited production capacity, the only way to get the job done was to ask Fiat to build the unit and design a car around it as a means of selling them.
Two cars, in fact. The Pininfarina Spider was launched in late 1966; its appearance had been so heavily anticipated that the required 500 had already been sold by the time the Coupé, a generous 2+2 based on a longer wheelbase, was launched at Geneva the following year.
Giorgetto Giugiaro had started designing this body as early as 1963 but Marcello Gandini, his successor at Bertone, finished the job.
Although the production Dino engine used the same billet crank as the 1.5- and 1.6-litre competition units, 2000cc was deemed to be the minimum requirement for road use in these relatively heavy cars.
This meant a wider bore along with a general civilianising – and productionising – of the original Vittorio Jano/Franco Rocchi design under the guidance of former Ferrari man Aurelio Lampredi.
Engine aside, various well-judged shortcuts were taken to get the Dino twins into production in less than two years.
The chassis architecture owed something to the Fiat 124 Spider while the front suspension was 125, as was the live rear axle with its semi-elliptic springs and quad dampers, but with a Borg-Warner limited-slip diff.
With 3670 produced through to the end of 1968, the 2-litre Coupé handsomely outsold the less costly Spider.
It lived on in 2.4-litre form (with 130-type rear suspension and Lamborghini Espada-style dash) until ’73, but purists tend to favour the earlier car.
It was also a direct replacement for the 2300S, the model that had successfully established Fiat’s credentials in the world of luxury GT cars since ’61.
It was an upmarket move by a firm that saw no need to maintain the status quo and had every reason to believe it could do the job just as well – perhaps even better – than the established names, with a car that was well worthy of the ‘poor man’s Ferrari’ sobriquet it quickly earned. (It was a third of the price of a contemporary 330GT.)
The total of 7000 examples built through to 1967 shows that Fiat’s instincts were on the money, with sales of the more expensive 135bhp 2300S far outstripping those of the 105bhp 2300N, or Normale.
Hardly surprising when you realise that the cooking version represented a saving of just £84 on a £3000 car.
The shape, by Ghia’s Tom Tjaarda, had first been seen at the 1960 Turin show as a proposal for a low-volume specialist model based on the 2100 saloon.
But Fiat bosses saw the potential and the Coupé re-emerged a year later as an official model, based on the latest 2300 berlina running gear.
The Coupé body was stamped out by OSI, with assembly by Ghia and Fiat at a rate of 25-30 cars per day.
For the ‘S’, Lampredi extracted a further 30bhp from his straight-six by raising the compression ratio, specifying a high-lift camshaft and fitting a pair of twin-choke Weber carbs to make the most of the efficient cylinder-head design with opposed valves and hemispherical combustion chambers.
Abarth built the engines for the ‘S’ – complete with a tuned exhaust and finned aluminium sump – and proved the durability of the design by averaging 110mph for three days at Monza.
For those not satisfied with 135bhp, the tuner also offered a bored-out 165bhp version, said to be good for 132mph.
Yes, the 2300S cost £1000 more than an E-type Jaguar in the UK, where just 70 right-hookers are thought to have found buyers through to January 1968 – rocker-turned-actor Adam Faith among them.
Yet even at that price the Fiat 2300S Coupé was always warmly reviewed by the press.
Le Mans winner and motoring writer Paul Frère paid it a personal tribute by replacing his Porsche 356 with a 2300S in 1961. He kept it for six years.
There was always a lot to be said for the Fiat 2300S, and there still is. Martin Neil’s left-hand-drive example was recently acquired from Italian car specialist David Honeybun’s European Classic Cars.
It is a post-1965 model and thus an unofficial ‘Series 2’ version with the fussier wheeltrims, chrome side mouldings, ventilation flaps in the front wings and an alternator.
From the way the doors thump shut to the crisp spring action of the front-hinged bonnet, everything about the 2300S feels substantial and well made.
There is something slightly more ephemeral about the detailing of the Dino, but a lot of thought went into the engineering of this body, particularly its sophisticated fresh-air ventilation.
Styling was moving forward so quickly in the ’60s that the difference in visual language between 2300S and Dino Coupé is like comparing Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy number from Breakfast at Tiffany’s with an André Courrèges Mini-Dress: both are elegant, but from such different sensibilities that it is hard to believe only six years separate them.
‘Our’ 2-litre Dino is almost certainly the best in the UK, perhaps in Europe, having received the attentions of specialist Mark Devaney of 24 Hundred, The Dino Workshop.
A full rotisserie restoration totalling 1500 hours included new hand-fabricated sills, half wings and doorskins, and a fully rebuilt drivetrain. It’s odd to think that it originally only came in to have its windscreen wipers fixed.
“I even found a new-old-stock front grille for it at the Padova show,” says Devaney. “It could be the last in the world – still in its Fiat wrapper.”
The lozenged-honeycomb design of that grille is one of the themes of Bertone styling at the time, echoing some of the Lamborghini Miura’s detailing.
Step inside and there is something Miura-like about the dashboard architecture and the expansive views across the bonnet through the deep ’screen, with the same clap-hands wiper arrangement as the 2300S.
The Dino has the edge in headroom and back-seat space over the 2300S, but the wraparound rear windscreen of the older car makes it feel even more airy and easy to see out of.
The seats in both cars are trimmed in vinyl. The Dino’s are skinnier yet slightly more comfortable than the fat chairs of the 2300S, but I felt more at home with the floor-hinged pedals and the position of the earlier car’s beautiful Nardi wheel that puts the Dino’s helm to shame.
You don’t get the passenger foot-brace and transmission-hump grabhandle in the Ferrari-engined car, either, but it trumps the 2300S in having electric front windows as standard.
The infamous ‘bells and whistles’ for the handbrake and choke appear to have been disabled on this particular 2300S.
Its long, wide if not particularly deep boot made it a popular choice with Italian smugglers in its day but, at the business end, its engine bay cannot compete with the visual impact of the Dino’s quad-cam V6.
It’s nice to see one with the proper tin airbox fitted (rather than black sponges), complete with flaps on the front acting as chokes for the triple Weber 40s.
Exotic dual servos augment four-wheel disc brakes on the 2300S, whereas the Dino’s ventilated discs have a single servo.
If the long, deep in-line ‘six’ of the 2300S doesn’t quite look the part it certainly sounds it, at least once you have got past the fussy, clickety-clack tickover that comes with generous tappet clearances.
From its steady 800rpm idle to a self-regulated 6000rpm, this engine is superbly smooth and lusty. There’s more than a hint of the BMW 328 in its feel and sound, but no 328 ever revved this freely.
There would be no point in going to 7000rpm but it sings so sweetly you feel it would cheerfully tolerate it, even if the sheer volume of glorious, throaty intake noise would cause most people to ease off.
The flipside of this is an engine with ample middle and bottom-end flexibility, matched to a well-plotted set of widely spaced ratios (60mph in second, 80 in third) in a gearbox with a much more precise and pleasing action than its long, kinked lever suggests.
It has a hefty movement that goes with the rewarding physicality of driving this masculine car. It is matched to a smooth-acting clutch and the solid precision of the steering, which is heavy at low speeds but direct and reasonably high-geared with 3½ turns between impressively compact locks.
The 2300S urges you to drive it hard and is easy to place and play with, but also stable and predictable.
The skinny Pirelli tyres are more grippy than they look and it is hard to reconcile the 2300’s smooth, rattle-free ride with such apparently crude rear suspension.
In the Dino you have an extra 25bhp and 2000rpm to play with, plus an additional gear, and they are all there to be used if you want to feel the benefit on the road.
Sitting on much fatter tyres it feels lower and slightly wider than the 2300S, with a more Italianate driving position.
Like the earlier car the Dino starts readily: spooling camshafts and chattering chains compete with barely muted induction sounds that don’t need to be synthetically enhanced as they are in so many modern exotics.
The engine alone must have made this car worth the price of admission in the ’60s, perhaps even a bargain, at £3736.
There is something almost sentient in the way this V6 winds out with such smooth, strident, symphonic punch, yet it is still tolerably flexible from 2000rpm.
It sounds faster than it is (0-60mph in 8.5 secs isn’t going to blow anyone’s hat off these days), but the joy of the Dino comes from matching gears with engine speed, glorying in the way the revs pick up and shut down with such razor-sharp alacrity.
The Dino ’box shares its casing with the 2300 but has new internals, with a bolted-on fifth and an oil pump. It has more compact movements but the ratios are just as well-chosen, so playing tunes on it is obligatory when you go in search of twistier terrain.
Fiat didn’t have time to develop the de Dion rear end it wanted for the 2-litre Dino but, all things considered, it is hard to find significant fault with the way the live axle puts its power down, with no sign of wind-up or tramp.
The steering, heavy at low speeds, feels slightly vague around the straight-ahead but much less ponderous on lock.
It helps the Dino stride confidently through long, fast, open curves where it loads up just enough to earn your trust.
There’s not much roll even in quite slow corners, and such understeer as there is you can cancel out with judicious use of the throttle, tweaking your line of exit without getting out of shape.
I have a huge affinity with both these Fiats. Gravity pulls me towards them and they remain irresistible, even if my ownership experience falls sickeningly into the ‘failed dream’ category on each occasion.
As cars bought with heart not head they are poster-children for over-reaching Buckley ambition exceeding depth of pocket.
Great examples of the 2300S and Dino, such as these two, are a different game.
Today I’d happily still give a home to either without hesitation. But if I had to come down in favour of one or the other, something just tips the balance, for me, in favour of the 2300S.
Images: Max Edleston
Fiat Dino 2000 Coupé
- Sold/no built 1967-’69/3670
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 1987cc V6, triple Weber carburettors
- Max power 160bhp @ 7200rpm
- Max torque 126Ib ft @ 6000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 9¾in (4515mm)
- Width 5ft 7¼in (1708mm)
- Height 4ft 4in (1320mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm)
- Weight 2825Ib (1281kg)
- 0-60mph 8.5 secs
- Top speed 130mph
- Mpg 17-20
- Price new £3736
- Price now £70,000*
Fiat 2300S Coupé
- Sold/no built 1961-’67/7000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 2279cc straight-six, twin Weber carburettors
- Max power 135bhp @ 5600rpm
- Max torque 145Ib ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front wishbones, torsion bars rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes discs, with twin servos
- Length 15ft 1½in (4610mm)
- Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
- Height 4ft 51/2in (1359mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 9½in (2680mm)
- Weight 2790Ib (1266kg)
- 0-60mph 10.5 secs
- Top speed 120mph
- Mpg 17-23
- Price new £3000
- Price now £35,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication