The Fiat 500: Big Fun in a Small Package

Photograph Courtesy Fiat

It’s a familiar cycle: The debut of a new, retro-styled car brings attention to its classic counterpart, nostalgia kicks in, and the originals are back in vogue. Volkswagen came out with their New Beetle, and suddenly people wanted the old ones. Then came the new MINI, and demand for its predecessor began to soar. 

The Fiat 500 may well be the next one on that list. Thanks to the company’s recent purchase of Chrysler, Fiat again has a connection to the States. Their newly released 500—another car in the retro revival—is slated for importation. An all-electric version is even in the works. As a result, odds are strong that the classic 500—known to many as the cinquecento—will see increased attention in the very near future.

There is a big difference between the first 500 and the original Mini and Beetle, however. Aside from its role as Luigi in the movie “Cars,” this Italian microcar is unfamiliar to most Americans. Few were imported stateside during the ’50s and ’60s, and many of those were thrown away when used up. 

Europe and the rest of the world, however, soaked up 3.4 million copies of the Fiat 500, so they’re not quite as rare as it would seem. A 500 can be purchased in the U.S. if you know where to look. It may not be the fastest car ever produced by Italy, but it can be a fun addition to your collection. Plus, the “Cars” connection seems to get kids interested.

Spartan Sophistication

The 500 is often confused with another small Fiat, the 600. While they’re both very small four-seaters with similar styling, they differ quite a bit under the skin. 

The 600 came out first—in 1955—and is slightly larger overall. The 600 is also powered by a water-cooled, four-cylinder engine. The smaller 500 came along in 1957 and uses an air-cooled, two-cylinder engine.

The cars were intended for different purposes, too. While the 600 was targeted to seat four adults and compete against the VW Beetle and Renault 4CV, the 500 was built to hold two adults and two children. It went after the microcars of the era, such as the Isetta and the Vespa 400. While a product of the realities of postwar Europe, the Fiat 500 enjoyed healthy sales throughout its 1957-’75 life cycle.

The 500 was a pretty Spartan vehicle built for utility and city travel. However, the car mixed in some suave touches.

One example is the four-wheel independent suspension. The ride is nice, and the rear suspension features a sophisticated arrangement of triangulated trailing arms and coil springs. However, the front is rather crude: a transverse leaf spring serves as one of the A-arms. This design was popular at the time—it was used in everything from Allards to Imps to Jeepsters to race cars. However, even as the arrangement lost popularity to better designs, the 500 soldiered on with it.

A promotional hand-drawn cutaway of the Fiat 500 showed the “structure and organs of the car.” The tiny Fiat featured A-arms with a transverse leaf spring up front, and coils in the rear. The two-cylinder engine offered excellent fuel economy.

The sliding fabric sunroof also mixes elegance with a price point. While such appointments were more common in luxury cars, Fiat’s main motivation for going this route was to save money: The fabric was simply less expensive than its steel alternative. In fact, Fiat actually believed that the sliding sunroof justified fixed door glass—another way to cut costs. (Consumers voiced their displeasure, and wind-up windows eventually appeared.)

Another paradox can be found in the transmission. The 500 features a four-speed gearbox while many of its contemporaries only had three speeds—or fewer in some cases. Of course, Fiat wasn’t going to give away that extra gear for free—it came at the cost of synchronizers, meaning double-clutching is a skill that 500 drivers must learn.

The 500’s most outstanding feature is its engine: two upright, air-cooled cylinders that look like they belong in a lawnmower or motorcycle. Small displacements provide small power, but the plus side is great gas mileage—drivers commonly see 50 to 60 mpg. 

Finding a 500

With most cars, we usually recommend checking out as many examples as possible before signing that check. That’s not so easy with the Fiat 500 as there just aren’t many in the States to consider. Even so, we still suggest looking at more than one car before making a purchase. 

Furthermore, we recommend actually driving a 500 before buying one. It’s a much different animal than the usual classic—think four-wheeled moped and you’re on the right track. First, there’s the size. The Fiat 500 is smaller than a Mini. As a result, those tailgating SUVs seem to loom even larger. 

Second, consider the lack of power combined with the non-synchro gearbox. Compared to a Fiat 500, a VW Beetle is a rocket. The 500 accelerates in true moped fashion—maybe slower. The crash gearbox requires lots of planning. Even a slight incline can slow the car, and downshifts aren’t that easy. 

Add some passengers, and performance gets worse. Freeway and long-distance drives are pretty much out of the question thanks to its measly top speed.

Then there’s service and support—or the lack thereof. This is a car that few people are familiar with, so you’re either going to need to service it yourself or make sure your favorite mechanic is willing to work on it. 

What are the plus sides to the 500? For one, it’s just so cute. Strangers will approach, kids will smile, and all will be right with the world. They’re also reasonably priced, and if you want one, you will find one.

Our other normal shopping advice sticks: Buy the best example you can find, stay away from rust, and choose a finished car over a project. Since 500 prices are not that high, just about any major repair, from rebuilding the engine or gearbox to a full restoration, is quickly going to outpace the return on investment. While the pickings are slim, we still suggest taking the time to find the right car.

We don’t really feel there are definitive models to seek or avoid. Rather, we suggest you hone in on the model that suits your fancy. The earlier models are a little crude and typical of economy cars of the 1950s and ’60s, while the later models are more up to date. If suicide doors are your thing, that’s what you should go for. If you aren’t picky, you’ll do fine with any version.

Jump In and Enjoy

Despite the car’s rarity and lack of parts support, there’s a good reason to hone in on a Fiat 500. We’ve been involved with classic cars for a long time, and we’re pretty convinced that these mechanical things aren’t really transportation. They are entertainment, just like a boat, a golf membership or a vacation. And if you want entertainment in a small package for a reasonable price, the Fiat 500 fits that bill. 

The enjoyment begins when you walk up to the car. You just can’t help but smile. It’s hard to say whether a 500 is cute or so ugly that it’s cool, but either way it brings a grin to anyone’s face. 

Next, take a seat. The front seats are adequate, although they may remind you a bit of your school desk chair from second grade. The steering wheel and pedal arrangement aren’t too bad, either. (You may be tempted to just use your toes instead of your feet, though.)

Your kids may like the back seat, but grown-ups won’t—once they’re back there, they’re kind of stuck back there. Fortunately, opening the sunroof is the quick solution to any pangs of claustrophobia. Flipping it back transforms the car and makes the world a part of your interior space.

Starting the Fiat 500 requires its own unique handshake. Turning the ignition key doesn’t fire the engine, as it simply starts the process. Two levers, one on each side of the parking brake, get things moving: One operates the choke while the other operates the starter. The starter lever engages the gears and closes the switch contact. There’s no complicated and heavy solenoid here. 

When the car starts, it doesn’t emit a roar or purr like a typical Italian thoroughbred. This thing sounds more like a Toro—yes, the lawnmower.

Clutch in, first gear, lots of gas, and go. Pretty soon you’re doing 5 to 7 mph. Time to grab second gear. Don’t be tempted to go for third too quickly. Keeping the revs up is a big part of the science of driving this thing. 

When you’re sure you aren’t facing too much of a hill, too much wind, a speed bump, a pebble, or anything else that may slow the car, you can finally upshift. Remember, downshifting is no picnic, and you don’t have the power to lug the engine back up to speed. Is this entertaining or what?

Starting with the 1965 Fiat 500F, the suicide doors were replaced with conventional ones that hinged at the front. The standard half-liter engine was up to 18 horsepower by this time, too.

Now that you’re cruising, the fun really begins. You’re likely going the speed limit—or less—yielding time to take in the surroundings. You’ll see the neighborhood like you’ve never seen it before: no blurry mailboxes as the world blows by. You’ll try hard to keep up with kids on bikes and Rollerblades. Don’t worry, though. They’ll be cheering you on and shouting “Nice car!” 

You’ll quickly discover that this is not a car for long trips, but the amount of fun per mile makes the short jaunts worthwhile. Like we said earlier, this car is more like a moped or scooter than an interstate tourer.

If you have to park it, you’ll find another pleasure: Its size, wheelbase and steering make it a breeze to fit into the tightest space. You may find that it will convert your two-stall garage into parking for three. And while it’s parked, you’ll get one last bit of entertainment by just looking at it, maybe giggling a bit, and then thinking of the enjoyment you get out of its unconventional utility.

So, will the new Fiat 500 do for the classic version what the MINI and the New Beetle did for their predecessors? It’s hard to say, but in the meantime we know that these little things are worth a look and certainly a ride.

Things to Know

The very early examples and super-rare variants can fetch some big money like the Abarth-tuned models and little surrey-topped Jollys. However, a garden-variety Fiat 500—still a cute, fun car in anyone’s book—isn’t too expensive.

Parts support for the 500 is pretty weak in the U.S, as the larger suppliers don’t carry many parts beyond tune-up items. We’ve found one niche supplier that can help American owners: Fun Imported Auto and Toys in Vernon, Connecticut, offers a good inventory and knowledgeable support. 

Owner Danny O’Donnell really knows his way around a 500 and stocks an array of repair and restoration parts. What he doesn’t have can usually be ordered from Europe. Parts typically arrive in two to three weeks. 

Speaking of Europe, parts support is better there, but again it mainly comes from niche suppliers. If you want to work directly with these sources, it means planning ahead and doing lots of research. You also need to understand overseas shipping, exchange rates, and maybe even foreign languages. 

Once you find someone to work with, availability is okay but certainly not perfect. For example, reproduction wiring harnesses are far from original in color coding and even wire location. For those types of parts, it’s up to the used market and, again, you’ll be dealing mainly with overseas suppliers. 

Though it came with woven basket seats and a top that could have been borrowed from one of those pontoon party boats, the Ghia-styled Fiat Jolly is no joke.

Body and Interior
It’s pretty easy to update or backdate a Fiat 500 to your desired specs by simply mixing and matching parts from different years. Like most cars, early versions were lighter, simpler and less powerful, while later cars had more luxury, weight and power. 

Hidden rust isn’t a big issue with the 500, but visible rust is. If a car is rusty, you’ll see it in the floors and rocker panels. Walk away or expect huge bills. 

Look carefully at the wiring and make sure it’s in good shape. Replacement harnesses are available, but they’re far from accurate.

Since these cars have always been inexpensive, expect to see some pretty interesting repairs. If you’re looking for a 500, try to find the most original, unmolested one you can—or you may find a rat’s nest of bodges held together with duct tape and baling wire.

The brakes are conventional hydraulic four-wheel, 6.7-inch drums with a cable-activated hand brake on the rear drums. They’re marginal at best, so make sure they’re in perfect condition and inspect them regularly. 

If you start adding extra power, remember that every increase in top speed requires much more brake power.

The cars ride on skinny 12-inch wheels and tires. They stick well enough if the rest of the car is stock.

Getting a stock 500 past 50 mph is a chore and takes a long, long time. (Did we mention these cars are slow?)

A Fiat 500 with 50,000 miles is getting up there. Expect an engine rebuild, gearbox work and maybe more. 

The cable systems used for the starter and choke are a source of trouble. These cables can unexpectedly break. To make matters worse, replacements made by previous owners have often been improperly routed. 

The hot ticket is to swap in an engine from the 126, the 500’s successor. Displacements include 594, 652 or 704cc. The 126 also features a fully synchronized gearbox. Where do you find 126 parts? Not in the U.S. However, they made nearly 5 million in Italy, Poland and Yugoslavia. Fun Imported Auto and Toys regularly brings in 126 components, too. 

If you want to go beyond parts-bin upgrades, there is a decent aftermarket that offers big-bore kits (up to 800cc) plus upgraded carburetors and exhausts. Turbocharger and disc brake kits are also options.

The rear-mounted engine sits behind a transaxle, much like in a VW Beetle. In fact, 500s and 600s occasionally turn up with Beetle drivetrain swaps. 

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wspohn Dork
9/29/20 10:51 a.m.

Cute, but if I were going to buy a 'Little Mouse', I'd go for a previous generation.


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