Fiat 500 (1957-77) Buyer's Guide
They’re small, cute and irresistibly Italian, but Fiat’s ‘Bambino’ is no longer the cheapest classic on the block
Fiat 500 (1957-77)
For almost 100 years, successful car makers have recognised the need for affordable, four-wheeled transport. Henry Ford started the movement with his T Model, followed by Herbert Austin’s Seven, the Volkswagen Beetle and Citroen 2CV. Italy did its part as well; producing a four-cylinder Fiat that went by the nickname of Topolino or Little Mouse.
Between 1936 until 1955 the Mouse brought the basics of motoring to 500,000 Italians and made its way to other locales as well. It was a conventional little car; cheap to buy but cramped and with only two seats, so its replacement followed a format already successfully exploited by Volkswagen.
The Nuova or ‘New’ 500 that appeared in 1957 turned the Topolino concept – literally – through 180 degrees. The new car was immediately nicknamed Bambino – Italian for baby – as it was half a metre shorter than the Topolino but had four seats.
The engine was a tiny, 479cc twin-cylinder unit mounted at the rear yet it matched the four-cylinder car’s 9.6kW of output and provided a top speed of 93km/h.
The fully-retractable roof followed previous practice and allowed bulky objects to be lowered in through the top. Fuel consumption from the original car was 4.7L/100km.
Three years after the 500’s announcement, power from an enlarged 499cc engine soared by 30 percent and top speed finally edged past 100km/h without any effect on the cars’ miserly fuel consumption.
Accompanying the new engine was a station wagon that went by the unpronounceable name of Giardiniera.
With the engine dropped on its side to provide additional load area, an extra 10cm of wheelbase and retaining the full-length sunroof, the wagon offered a significant boost to the 500’s versatility.
Both models came with rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors that were replaced in a 1965 styling upgrade that would carry the 500 into the 1970s. The sedan disappeared in 1975 but the wagon carried on until 1977. By that time 327,000 Giardinieras and 3.4million Bambinos had been sold.
BMC’s Morris Minor dominated Australia’s small car market during the 1950s and was itself being assailed by the 1.2-litre Volkswagen Beetle.
That didn’t leave much room for a 500cc Fiat or even its slightly larger 600D sibling to snitch some market share, yet the baby Fiats still sold in significant numbers. The rise of BMC’s Mini saw the 500 withdrawn from Australian sale in 1965, only to return in 1969 to challenge Japanese Hondas and Daihatsus in a revived micro-car market.
Robert Di Martino’s 500 is one of the later-model cars; identified by its smaller roof aperture and front-hinged doors. He has owned the car for almost 10 years but spent half of that time sourcing parts and undertaking a substantial restoration.
"My uncle helped with the bodywork and it was a big job," Di Martino recalled. "We virtually cut the front off the car and replaced all of the panels plus the floors and the bottom halves of the doors."
The final Bambino was by far the best but never officially imported to Australia. In 500R form, the car received a 594cc engine with 17kW and an all-synchromesh transmission in place of earlier models’ ‘crash’ gearbox.
ON THE ROAD
My memories of Bambino motoring date back to a lopsided Unique Cars comparison of American and Italian approaches to four-seat ‘personal’ cars; pitting a 500 against a ’58 Ford Thunderbird.
Fears that driving the tiny Fiat at highway speeds would be akin to sharing a 205-litre drum with an angle grinder proved groundless, since much of the clatter from two hard-working cylinders is left behind.
Out the window also went preconceptions that something sitting on Michelins that were barely a handspan wide would have a fairly tenuous relationship with the road. Not so.
The little Fiat needs barely half a turn of the steering wheel to negotiate a 90 degree bend and only if you back off suddenly or brake in the middle of that bend will the rear step out. Twist your wrists as far as they will go – yes, try it now – and that’s all the movement required to catch the slide.
Power output from later-series engines was 13.5kW, developed at a surprisingly low 4600rpm. Acceleration – timed with an alarm clock according to one journalistic wag – saw 50km/h reached from rest in 10.2sec and
0-80km/h taking a full half minute. Low gearing gave 20.5km/h per thousand rpm for a theoretical top speed of just on 100km/h, but the Bambino is far more comfortable when limited to 90km/h.
Those looking for a little more performance can slot in a 650cc engine as fitted to the Polish-built FSM Niki or head for Europe to hunt down an Abarth-enhanced version.
The issue that will deter many potential 500 owners is the absence of synchromesh, demanding double declutch gearchanges. But Di Martino’s experience allayed those fears.
"If I don’t drive the car for a while it takes about 15 minutes to get used to the gearchange again, but after that it’s easy. My daughter is a couple of years away from getting a licence and she knows how the gear-shifting works but still wants to learn to drive the car, so it can’t be all that bad," he said.
Interior space isn’t generous but there’s room enough for two adults up front and a couple of children in the back. The big doors provide easy access and the front seats are decently shaped and well padded. Between the seats is a lever that ducts warm air from around the engine into the cabin and to demist the windscreen.
Cuteness aside, the Bambino’s most endearing feature is its frugality. Robert Di Martino reports that it now costs little to fill the fuel tank for more than 350km of city and suburban running. Cars driven cautiously and without the family on board have produced even better results – UK economy run results showing a well-tuned Bambino returning 96mpg or 2.94L/100km.
Body & Chassis: There isn’t a huge amount of metal in a 500, but don’t ignore a square centimetre of it in your quest for rust-affected panels. Start with the cabin floors because serious problems here will affect the car’s structural well-being. Next take a look under the battery box and in the spare-wheel well at the front, the window surrounds, door skins, front mudguards and suspension mountings. On later models, check that the window winders work without binding and the doors haven’t dropped on their hinges. Replacement headlamps are only made for LHD dipping and need to be modified to pass an Australian roadworthy inspection.
Engine & Transmission: The 500 engine is small but not overly stressed and should last 120,000km between rebuilds. The motor may knock a little at start-up but persistent rumbling or vibration indicate bearing or piston problems, while a high-frequency rattle is symptomatic of timing chain wear. Oil needs to be changed every six months, even if the car doesn’t travel very far during that time and make sure the oil pressure light is working. Check the exhaust system for leaks that can lead to dangerous fumes entering the cabin. Gears can suffer chipped teeth but will need replacement only if the damage is serious. A rebuilt gearbox will cost around $1000. Robert Di Martino recommends replacing the original driveshafts with heavier, 25mm diameter units.
Suspension & Brakes: Not a lot to go wrong here but beware the car with imprecise steering or that wanders under brakes. Worn front king-pins generate rattles and a feeling of front-end looseness, while sagging at the front is likely due to a tired transverse spring. Worn or cracked rear suspension mountings will cause unpredictable handling. Watch from the side when the car is accelerated to check for rear wheel deflection. Replacement brake drums are available at $200 per pair and master cylinders around $150.
Interior & Electrics: Age rather than inherent problems are the issues here. Faded rear lamp lenses can be replaced for $70 per pair and new speedometers that read in km/h are available from European suppliers for around $100. The Di Martino car has been trimmed for extra comfort in non-original cloth but reproduction vinyl is available to those with a yearning for authenticity. Failure to start is often due to a failed condenser, so carrying a spare is prudent.
Fiat 500, 1957-77
Production: Sedan: 3.4 million, Wagon: 327,000 (approx)
Body: all steel, combined body/chassis two-door sedan and station wagon
Engine: vertical twin-cylinder with overhead valves and single carburettor; 479-594cc
Power: 13.5kW @ 4600prm (1969-71 model)
strong>Torque: 29.5Nm @ 3000 rpm
Performance: 0-80km/h – 32 sec. 0-400m – 29.7sec (British market 500F)
Suspension: Front – independent with wishbones, transverse leaf spring and telescopic shock absorbers Rear – independent with semi-trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers
strong>Brakes: drum front and rear, no power assistance
strong>Wheels & Tyres: steel 12 x 3.5 125-12 radial
strong>Contact: Fiat Clubs throughout Australia
Web site: www.fiatclub.com.au
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