Meet the little car that deserves big respect.
We joined Gareth Jex last spring for a day at the Brooklands Auto Italia.
Words - Tom Aiton // Photography - Tom Duke
Out of the last 100 years the motor car stands out as probably the most influential machine to have changed our lives - permanently. Out of this only a few have made it into the history books as ‘cars of the people’ - cars that single-handedly became icons, chariots and institutions for millions. The Fiat 500 is one of these cars. It sits up there with the VW Beetle, the Mini and the 2CV. It liberated those in the cities in a post-war Europe which demanded more economic transport. Exactly how such a monumental achievement was gained by such an honest little bundle of fun is a question that’s been burning in our minds for some time.
First let me make one thing quite clear: it’s small. And I don’t just mean a bit cosy, it’s properly small. 'Sitting' in the back consists of lying half across the two rear seats, your legs at an angle. In the front it’s not much better. There’s a lot of awkward knee touching. The domed roof makes the dash seem minuscule; you could probably steer from the back seats. All three of us including Gareth squeezed in and we set off.
“I love how small it is. It will never be the quickest car I have owned, but it surprises many to see it happily plodding along at 70mph on the motorway.” True. It’s incredible to think whole families would go out in these things. To combat the space you have the open roof, built in fact as a cheaper option to a steel one. The fresh air and comforting views of blue sky (on this occasion) are invaluable as a rear passenger. The truth is, this little car has so much desire to please that to criticise it out loud would hurt its feelings. In that vein I decided to curb my mild claustrophobia and pretend to be an excited child in Italy out for a picnic. Brilliante!
Gareth’s car is an Abarth. A car built after Fiat's collaboration with Carlo Abarth, a creator and developer of sports cars with a history associated with the Cisitalia racing team. He was ultimately responsible for building this worthy rival to the Cooper: the 595. This specific car is in fact a replica. Gareth saw it at an auction and after a fairly nonchalant bid, found he had actually bought something he would eventually hold very dear. There are small, beautiful details that become apparent such as the light-up start button, the painted sump logo and quality of the seats. The engine is a 650cc Fiat 126 engine (4 speed) rather than a 595cc and makes quite an assertive noise; you’d be forgiven for thinking it was something bigger. With a Weber carb, a sports exhaust and a bit of modern electronic ignition, it’s eager. Other modifications which significantly improve the car are the disc brakes on the front, new lowered sports suspension all round and an Abarth Steering wheel.
We headed to a car park to meet up with some fellow 500'ers and after a quick all day breakfast bite to eat, joined the motorway in convoy. Italian cars (heading to Brooklands) seemed to come from nowhere; 458s, Lancias and a few Alfas too. It was magnificent. There was a true sprit of appreciation for the cars, all mechanical gems from a nation at the heart of motoring bliss.
On arrival we took the chance to take a few self indulgent snaps of the Abarth underneath Concorde, how often do you get the chance to do that! Every vehicle at the Auto Italia had something to offer. Yes, there were personal favourites, but you really had to admire the care and pride taken in showing each one. Considering what the 500 brought to the table reminded us of the strength in the Italian vision “…and if nothing else the realisation that the modern Fiat 500 is huge!”.
Gradually more Fiat 500s arrived. It was charming to see so many looking quite as immaculate as this little bunch. Getting there early avoided the crowds and allowed time for a look about. Chatting with the club we learned it’s actually quite unlikely to ever find a Fiat 500 with the same trim and colour. The Brooklands layout offered a lot of opportunity for close encounters with what was on display. Gareth’s car stood out being the only Abarth configuration - the flared arches and wider wheels giving the car a strong stance. On the back rack sat our picnic full of pork pies and crisps. Below the hamper, the typical spaced-off engine bay cover.
So what it actually like as a car? I’ll be honest: remove any context and appreciation for its heritage and you realise how there’s really nothing to it. It’s a rather spartan shell with a tiny engine; only enough room for four human beings without arms, legs or any kind of nerve endings. "Its rather noisy, which can be fun, but perhaps not when I come home late and it wakes the neighbours!". By modern standards it’s shocking, but we knew that.
It’s taken us a while to realise the sheer power the car has over you, to obliterate those thoughts and make you love it. There’s so much going on in your heart that your head doesn’t have time (let alone space) to think. “I have owned several classic and sports cars, but this gets much more attention than all the others, driving along, people slow down say hi, give thumbs up, hoot the horn … I think its charm appeals to many.” You can’t ignore that this machine, a cheap economy car that propelled the masses is now being asked to take three grown men on the motorway nearly 50 years later, picnic and all. I distinctly remember overhearing a surprised remark made by someone negotiating the Brooklands site: “there’s three of them in there”. We ask a lot from our classic cars and this 500 has delivered in abundance everything it can. It’s a car set to win the hearts of everyone. It’s small appealing nature making driving a pleasure whilst the Abarth bit gives some poke in the bends.
It’s hard to deny this bizarre and sometimes unsettling situation us car lovers can find ourselves in. Out of principle it's comfort, practicality or performance that makes something desirable, but the Fiat 500? It hits a completely different nerve altogether.