How to keep a Fiat 500 running like new

Photography Courtesy Fiat

Story by Ed Higginbotham

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

In postwar Italy, the Fiat 500 was the answer to a call for cheap utilitarian transportation. They weren’t very quick, but they offered valuable mobility and practicality to millions.

Expert: Carl Heideman

Eclectic Motorworks

  • Keep It in Tune: The 500’s two-cylinder, air-cooled engine needs every one of its horses to move the car. Keeping the points adjusted, the timing set right, and the carb adjusted properly can easily make a 1- to 4-horsepower difference. Given that many 500s only have about 17 total, every bit of power counts.
  • Keep the Oil Full: “Air-cooled” is a bit of a misnomer, as the oil also helps keep the engine in its ideal operating temperature range. Less oil means less cooling potential, so keep the oil topped up.
  • Mix and Match: Like VW Beetles, Minis and many other economy cars of the past, the 500 enjoyed a long career in many iterations. Parts interchangeability is excellent, so it’s possible to add upgrades from newer versions. One great choice is the engine and transaxle from a Fiat 126 (the 500’s successor), which offers 6 more horsepower and synchronizers on all four gears.
  • Clean Wiring Connections: The newest 500 is already a 40-year old car. Electrical problems are most likely related to corroded connections. Wires never go bad, but connections do. Clean contacts at switches, bulbs, the fuse box, the battery and all grounds are the difference between reliability and a tow truck bill.
  • Momentum Is Your Friend: As mentioned, there isn’t much power. Additionally, the stock four-speed transaxle does not have synchronizers, so downshifting isn’t a fast operation. Keeping up the rpm and looking ahead can help you plan and conserve momentum through turns and hills. As a result, you’ll find a 500 to be an excellent driving coach if you vintage race or autocross other vehicles.
  • Drive Like Nobody Can See You: These cars are small, so defensive driving is the key to getting places safely. Take routes with forgiving traffic patterns and slower speeds, and make sure your horn is always working.
  • Drive Like Everyone Is Looking at You: People used to give you a thumbs-up when they spotted your car. Now they take cell phone pictures, sometimes while they’re driving. Remember that a car like this gets attention, so prepare to deal with distracted drivers.

Expert: Chris Obert

Fiat Plus

North American law allows cars to be imported that don’t meet U.S. regulations as long as they are older than 25 years old. Most of the Fiat 500s we see these days are the later European-specification cars. The problem is that most of these cars are examples that the Italian government made illegal to reregister in Italy. So the cars shipped here were usually only cosmetically cleaned up and made to run only a few miles.

Since the 500 was officially sold here for such a short time and was so cheap, most of the survivors have had too many years of neglect, or of “Chevy mechanics” breaking stuff. Parts were an issue as Fiat did not support the car for long, and the aftermarket mostly skipped it.

A quick summary of common weak points: Years of neglect, people who don’t have a clue trying to service it, lack of parts. Including tires, parts from a “Chevy” installed (including tires). Contrary to the belief of many American mechanics at the time, the 500 is not just “half a Volkswagen” or a overgrown lawn mower.

The first thing any new owner should do is have their car evaluated by a knowledgeable Fiat 500 technician. Then the car’s weak spots can be identified and addressed. Cars are delivered to me from all over just for this evaluation.

It must be remembered that these cars are from an era when the owner serviced their car over the weekend so it could be used for commuting during the week. It seems most of these owners had a basic idea of maintenance, but I remember cars in Italy still in service that could barely move. Add in a low top speed, lack of proper maintenance and service, and an expected lifetime of 50,000 kilometers or so, and it’s very hard to find a functioning example.

One of the most common mechanical modifications is the installation of the Fiat 126 engine and transaxle. Otherwise, changes were mostly cosmetic to make yours stand out from the thousands of others painted just like yours. Remember, these cars were so popular in Italy in the 1970s that they were referred to as “bellybuttons”, because everyone had one.

I would suggest that the plan of attack on any car be based on a mechanical evaluation by a knowledgeable service technician. Often the items suggested are based on the owner’s feelings for the car, and are not based on any kind of reality. Sure, it’s great to have a presentable interior in your car, but what about the brakes or its ability to start?

Fortunately the suspension on these cars is usually without fault, except for tie-rod ends.

With cars this old, rust is usually at least somewhat prevalent. Floors, inner and outer rockers, wheel wells, wheel arches, and lower parts of fenders are especially vulnerable. Fortunately, a replacement for almost every sheet metal piece on the car is available.

Most Italian cars have already had most of the exterior sheet metal changed at least once, because they park by feel.

If you’re shopping for a 500, try to avoid anything trying to make the car something it is not. I used to service a car built for racing at Monza. It featured a 5-speed transaxle, 10-inch wheels, roll cage and almost 70 hp. It idled at 3500 rpm and was so loud it set off car alarms going down the street.

It was certainly not a car for running to the grocery store. The owner bought it for the wrong reasons, and would have been much happier with a stock car with a 126 drivetrain.

I’ll sum up with some maintenance suggestions:

  • Make sure the tires are inflated.
  • Make sure the brakes work.
  • Adjust the valves and set the points. Remember that it does not adjust at 10 degrees BTDC.
  • Read the service book.
  • Learn how to shift a crash box.

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Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/20/19 10:39 a.m.

I really want to drive an original 500, now, especially after driving a new 500 Abarth recently. 

Zoldier New Reader
9/24/19 1:07 p.m.

Love driving our 500 around town (in the Sping and Fall, too hot otherwise). She's like a part of the family. :) Best souvenier I bought while living overseas. She stalled out on me last Spring and haven't driven her since. :(  Thanks for the tips. 

californiamilleghia HalfDork
9/24/19 1:12 p.m.

Anyone know what needs to be changed when you put a later 1971  12 volt motor into an early 500 ?

on a VW I know the flywheel teeth are not the same , but no idea on my Fiat.

My Fiat is still 6 volt  but the motor was taken apart 25 years ago , and pieces went missing :(

Jordan Rimpela
Jordan Rimpela Digital Editor
9/24/19 2:00 p.m.

Maybe give Carl a jingle? He seems like he knows his stuff. 

Eclectic Motorworks
(616) 355-2850

bosswrench New Reader
4/9/23 2:36 p.m.

I've driven FIAT 500s in Italy but I'm a little more familiar with the SEAT- the Spanish version made  under license and used as the cheapest rental car outsde the Navy bases in Spain. We called them "beer cans" because they were tinny and tiny. I once rode in a SEAT for 200 miles with my buddy and two nurses in the back. Could hardly believe the poor thing survived 4 people and flat-to-the-floor driving the whole way! Good memories- thanks.

Fiat New Reader
9/23/23 10:56 p.m.

Re: California...

I would not try to complete an engine rebuild someone else started 25 yrs ago.

The most common upgrade is the 126 drivetrain swap. You will have to find an older European mechanic who has the time to tinker.  I remember having to install 500 axleshafts in 126 transmission (126 is a bit wider). This requires some skill. New axle boots are needed. They don't exactly seal  anything,  just slow down the leak.  The trick is to keep the fluid level just under the flange and check / top up from time to time.

It is slow and fun to drive. Master the the original box and your friends will be impressed. Look up what "zwischengas" mean first.

 Old Mechanic

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