After World War II it was time to get Europe moving once again and Italy came up with a brilliantly simple design that was affordable for the masses in the form of their cute and cuddly Fiat 500.
With nearly four million units sold over an impressive eighteen year reign (1957 – 1975) the world really fell in love with the Fiat 500. Here was a modern design that, at a push, could transport four adults around a city or from town or town. It was also cheap to buy and cheaper to run in what were austere times, sound familiar? After all the era we find ourselves in now is forcing car manufacturers to think less is more to compete in the compact market.
Back in 1957 the requirements were much the same and the Fiat 500 delivered in every way. The small 470cc 13hp engine (later increased to a 499cc 18hp unit) copied the VW Beetle in being rear mounted, although in this case a simpler two cylinder air cooled affair that provided just about enough performance to make this 500kg car feel almost nippy at times. Acceleration arguably not the strongest point, more an ability to maintain decent pace once in top gear at around 50mph (80kmh).
Mated to the feisty little motor is a four speed gearbox, plus reverse, which feels nice and tight but devoid of any synchro-mesh. That means all gear changes require you to double de-clutch, a somewhat lost art today. Changing up seemed to work quite well but, for this pilot anyway, changing down a gear crunching disaster most of the time. The challenge of course being to match gearbox input and output shaft speeds. Drive the Fiat 500 like a modern and you leave yourself little time to fit everything in if coming up to a junction. Plan ahead, begin the process of changing down much earlier and things quite literally begin to slot into place much better.
When you do have to slow down the brakes are spot on and inspire confidence. The all-round drum brakes work very well indeed and thankfully mean down-shifts aren’t a mandatory part of the retardation process, more a bonus if you can manage to get a few in every now and again. If the brake action whilst on the move impresses then the handbrake feels strong enough to prevent not one but at least ten Fiat 500s from rolling down a hill late at night. The lever also has a nice positive action when applied.
Low cost interiors and compact design don’t always translate into a brilliant driving experience and whilst ignoring the constant noise emanating from the rear just a few feet away the simplicity of all the controls that you engage with beggars belief. In fact so much so you begin to question why on earth others try to tell a driver absolutely everything. In the Fiat 500 there is one round dial (ours is a 1966 F model) that shows speed and when to change gear plus warning lights for ignition, oil pressure and fuel level. A more detailed understanding of the latter requires you to dip the handy wheel brace into the front mounted tank.
The giant steering wheel negates the need for PAS and also provides a lovely light feel all of the time. Guiding this Fiat 500 is a bit like a cat dribbling a ball of wool by tapping it from left leg to right. In our case you set a straight course and then intervene as the car inevitably drifts one way or the other. You never feel able to hold it dead centre; although this could just be some wear and tear on our car today.
Starting a Fiat 500 is a pleasure indeed involving two levers located on the floor between the two front seats. One engages the starter motor and the second sets the choke. There is still a key to turn on the dash but as soon as the red IGN light illuminates attention turns to the floor as you fiddle with both in trying to spark the engine into life. What’s more a second pull cord under the dash moves the rest position of the throttle pedal allowing you to set an appropriate idle level. Now I’m sure it’s been done and we certainly cannot condone it but that is also something akin to a rudimentary cruise control. We didn’t and you definitely shouldn’t try that of course.
Which leads nicely onto the driving experience which does take some getting used to? Crash box aside the tiny engine has in reality a very narrow power band and the marks on the speedometer are soon reached requiring a two clutch pedal press gear change which if unsuccessful leaves you unclear as to whether to have another go or drop back down again. Needless to say moving in modern day traffic during the acceleration phase is an extremely busy time in an original Fiat 500.
What is impressive though is once in fourth the engine’s torque means only the steepest of inclines, one up without any luggage at least, require a downshift. The rest of the time you can pop along quite nicely at 50-60mph and generally not get in anyone’s way. As stated there is a bit of play in the steering, hence the cat and ball of wool analogy; but that aside this car is everything you expect it to be being tight, light and nimble able to quickly change direction at every turn of the giant steering wheel. Also if you need to turn around, no problem, the width of most A-roads provide more than enough space to perform an impromptu U-turn.
The Fiat 500 remains relevant today by continuing to show the world how to build compact economical cars for approaching nearly sixty years now. The fact it looks like the family pet has ensured the love affair hasn’t ended either with clubs continuing to bring passionate owners from across the globe together.
How does this car make you feel?
In one word: Modest
As a favourite meal: Italian anything.
Anything Else: Why do people have to complicate things unnecessarily.
Key Ingredients: Cutsey good looks, tiny 9ft 9in proportions, practical folding roof and rear bench seat, unique engine and drive train, but most importantly the attention you get driving through any town, the automotive equivalent of arriving with a puppy dog.
With thanks to Great Escape Classic Car Hire
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