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Fiat 500

Baby Love Published: 3rd May 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Iconic small, fun economy car that beat the Mini into production by two years. Sluggish but full of character and they make practical daily drivers although prices are on the rise

It’s said that the best things come in small packages, and where the Fiat 500 is concerned, that’s a sentiment that’s easy to believe. Easy to park, frugal, overflowing with character and great fun to drive despite a distinct lack of power, the baby Fiat is an absolute blast so if you want a small car with character, there’s no need to look anywhere else.

HISTORY

1936 The original Fiat 500 ‘Topolino’ (or Mickey Mouse as it came to be known) is introduced, with production lasting until 1955. Power (such as it is) comes from a four-cylinder engine.

1957 The first 500 is unveiled, and just like its predecessor, the 1957 model is the work of Dante Giacosa. The archetypal Italian supermini, it features Fiat’s first air-cooled twin-cylinder engine; an underpowered 13bhp 479cc unit. Having introduced its new toy to the people of Turin by parading the car through the city’s streets, it’s quickly obvious that more urge is needed. Out come the spanners to change the carb, cam and 15bhp is realised – a small but important increase. The production 500 then débuts at the 1957 Turin motor show; with suicide doors and a roll-back sunroof, it’s an instant hit. But for some it’s too basic, so the entry-level model becomes the Economy and above it is the Standard.

A 500 for sybarites, has luxuries such as hub caps, an upholstered rear seat, a boot badge and drop door windows.

1958 21.5bhp 500 Sport, arrives, with no cloth roof (to stiffen up the bodyshell), but by the following year there’s the option of a shorter cloth sunroof.

1960 There’s an increase in engine size (and power) to 499.5cc and 17.5bhp, and at the same time the fantastically cute 500 estate appears. Called the Giardiniera, this would become the longest-surviving 500 as it would stay in production until 1977 – later cars were built by Autobianchi not Fiat.

1965 The 500F débuts, with front-hinged doors, a larger windscreen and a 0.5bhp power increase, to a heady 18bhp.

1968 The Lusso, or 500L, arrives with extra trim inside and out, radial tyres and even a fuel gauge. True luxury at last! 1972 The final incarnation of the 500 goes on sale: the 500R, powered by the same 594cc engine as the new 126 – with an outrageous 23bhp.

1975 Production of the 500 ceases, with nearly 3.5 million made and another 327,000 or so Giardinieras being built.

DRIVING AND PRESS COMMENTS

By the time UK car testers got behind the wheel of the Fiat 500, they were a little underwhelmed. Blame it on the Fiat 600, which had made its début two and a half years before; knowing that the 500 was effectively a scaled-down version of its bigger brother, the likes of Autocar and Motor knew pretty much what to expect.
That’s not to say the baby Fiat was unappreciated; merely that its design didn’t raise eyebrows in the way it might have done. However, whereas the 600 featured a four pot, the 500’s twin was singled out as newsworthy.

Intriguingly, Motor claimed that “a great deal of intense research went into a power unit which, while producing adequate power, would stand up indefinitely to continuous flat-out driving, and at the same time be acceptable in smoothness and silence to motorists accustomed to four cylinders. The result is a very fair success”.

Acknowledging the 500’s limited performance, Motor concluded that driving the tiddler was still enormous fun, thanks to decent suspension, light controls and reassuring brakes.

When Autocar tested the same 500 (7 LMK), it took more time to put it into context. Whereas the 500 was priced at under £300 in its home market, the price had ballooned to £556 in the UK. However, with relentless rises in fuel costs thanks to the Suez Crisis, and the Mini yet to arrive, such a frugal ‘full- sized’ family car still held much appeal.

Once again, it compared the 500 with the 600 and came away with the same verdict as Motor; here was a small car with lively enough performance, decent fuel economy and a spacious enough cabin for a small family.

When the next fuel crisis hit, in the early 1970s causing petrol to double in price virtually overnight, Autocar rounded up a set of eco specials (Hillman Imp, Honda N600, Citroën Dyane and the Fiat 500), and pitched them against each other. Despite the Fiat’s age – it was by now over 15 years old – it was still rated highly by the test team, even if it was the slowest and far from the most frugal, thanks to it having to be caned to make any kind of progress. But there was one characteristic which couldn’t be quantified and it was on that score that the diminutive Fiat led. The 500 just oozed charm, and it still does.

PRICES

Manj Lal runs Swindon-based Weenie Fiats (http://www.weeniefiats.co.uk), which specialises in the 500 as well as the new one. Owner of no fewer than nine examples of the 500 covered here, Manj is a huge fan of Fiat’s diminutive baby.

He comments: “There’s been a trend in recent years to import left-hand drive cars to satisfy demand. While everybody prefers a right-hand drive car, there simply aren’t enough to go round. Some people bring them in to use themselves, but many are brought in to sell straight on, so it’s worth checking exactly what you’re buying. There’s a chap selling half a dozen on eBay, each priced at £1600 and all of which need a full restoration.

Do the work yourself and you can break even, but entrust the work to a specialist and it’ll cost a lot of money”.

At least everything is available to overhaul a 500; just about everything is being remanufactured, and while the quality isn’t always spot on, as Manj says, anything is better than nothing.

While the regular 500 is in short supply, Abarth editions are especially scarce. As a result, some owners are creating their own replicas, which is fine if it’s not passed off as the real thing. Such cars – if done properly – can be worth up to £6000, whereas the real thing will be at least double this.

Early cars with the suicide doors are also in demand, but there are very few to go round, with right-hand drive examples very rarely coming up for sale. Something with an MoT will be priced from £8000 but the best examples will go for twice this. That’s a lot of money when you consider that a really nice 500F or 500L will top out at around £10,000, with decent runners available from £3500 in left-hand drive form.

Manj adds: “Giardiniera makes an interesting buy; they’re good value as they’re not especially sought after and they’re quirky. But, parts are very expensive as they’re hard to track down; I’ve been offered a rear quarter panel for mine recently, and the asking price was £1000”.

Manj concludes: “The 500 appeals to all sorts of people; background and age doesn’t seem to make much difference. One of our customers is a barrister who uses his every day; the 500 is fine with that as long as it’s garaged. Leave it outside and it’ll rust unless it’s been completely restored. When we restore them we get them blasted then dipped and fully rustproofed. It’s the only way of ensuring that the cars last a lot longer than when Fiat originally made them”.

IMPROVEMENTS

Fiat’s 126 unit gives up to 24bhp – a sizeable jump in available power. Removing the engine can take as little as half an hour, but if you’re fitting a 126 lump you’ll have to fit the gearbox as well.

The larger engine looks the same as the smaller one (it was bored out), so the appearance of the car’s engine bay isn’t affected. But if you are keen on originality, check the identifying marks; they’re next to the rocker cover and denote what capacity engine is fitted. Stronger brakes, electronic ignition and thicker driveshafts for better reliability are all common upgrades too.

When it comes to tickling your 500, membership of the Fiat 500 Club (www. fiat500club.org.uk) is essential.

What To Look For

GENERAL

• Electrical problems are usually limited to the wire that connects the ignition coil with the distributor. It goes brittle then breaks down.

• Interior and exterior trim are surprisingly hard to source. Floor coverings, whether rubber or carpet, are hard to track down and getting panels or seats retrimmed is costly. Especially rare is the knee pad that runs beneath the dash along with the aluminium trim fitted to the exterior of pre-1965 cars.

• Fixing a damaged sunroof is cheap; the fabric is £90, the catch is £14 and the rear bar is £25. If only the canvas is damaged you’ll get away with spending less than £50. The £14 price for a catch refers to an aluminium unit – for half this price you can buy a plastic one, but it won’t last long…

• The front seats can’t be replaced with new items if they’re broken, but used ones can be tracked down easily enough, and if you’re not too worried about originality it’s possible to fit all sorts of aftermarket chairs or perhaps those from the 126.

BODY AND CHASSIS

• Lift the bootlid and check around the battery tray. This rots when the drain holes get blocked and the tray fills with water – spilt battery acid doesn’t make things easier. Also check the tops of the front wings and the wheelarches, both front and rear.

• Feel the lips but also have a close look at the inner wings – arm yourself with a torch and if you can, take the wheels off for an inspection. The whole length of each sill needs to be analysed very closely – it’s common for bodged repairs in this area.

• From inside the car, check the floorpans and inner sills to make sure they’re not full of filler. Lift the rubber mats or carpets to do it properly – you might find there’s hardly any sound metal there at all. Check the door bottoms; front-hinged replacements are easy enough to track down, but rear-hinged doors aren’t. The shallower windscreen of these earlier cars is also hard to get, so make sure the one that’s there is intact.

• Although a 500 can rust anywhere, the panels normally worst affected are at the back. The metal at the base of the rear screen dissolves, as does the engine cover – especially around the air vents.

RUNNING GEAR

• Gearboxes are reasonably durable, but if the gearchange is especially nasty it’s probably because the linkage is out of adjustment. There’s a Metalastik bush in there that perishes; the only solution is to renew it at £20.

• Because the car has so little power, the rest of the cogs shouldn’t give problems – as long as the car is standard. Engine swaps can double the power, which gives the transmission a hard time.
• Oil leaks are common, caused by overfilling the gearbox or weeping joints. If there’s a lot of oil escaping it takes five hours to fix which is a lot of labour if you’re paying for it. Check the driveshaft gaiters, which tend to leak. There were two types. Many cars have had the thicker items fitted.

• The worm and sector steering box is simple and durable. The most likely malady is perished idler bushes, giving lots of play. New idler bushes are about £25, but it’s easier to buy an exchange idler unit at £165.

• At the front the kingpins need to be greased to prevent wear, but worn or seized bottom bearings cost £165 or so on an exchange pair of rebuilt units.
• The front suspension can also suffer from a worn single transverse leaf spring. See if the car sits level from head on – if it’s leaning to one side you’ll need to fit a new spring at £130. Dampers that assist also wear; £70 for a new pair.

• The biggest thing to be wary of with the 500’s suspension is at the back, and if corrosion sets in.
• The all-drum braking system is up to the job and it’s only the usual checks needed.

ENGINE

• Although the engine is noisy, it shouldn’t sound like a bag of spanners in a spin dryer. If it does it’s probably because the timing chain has worn – fix it yourself and you’ll pay around £60 for the bits. Get somebody to do it for you and it’ll be more like £200.

• Oil leaks from the rocker cover or sump gaskets are common. But if the dip stick is being ejected from the engine it could be because the piston rings are trashed and the crank case is getting pressurised. A rebuilt engine is the only answer and that’ll cost you over £1000; a 126 unit costs barely any more. Valve in oil filler cap could have failed instead; £7 fix.
• Other maladies that afflict the 500’s engine include worn valves and guides, which lead to blue smoke from the exhaust on the over-run.

• Just because the 500’s powerplant is air-cooled, don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no cooling system to worry about. There’s a thermostatically controlled air vent which should open once up to temperature. Sometimes the system fails, but it tends to be in the open position rather than the closed, so there’s usually no damage. But if the engine has been allowed to overheat, there could be a blown head gasket, which will lead to the engine running badly.

• The outlet pipes either side of the engine will also be pressurised (put your hand over them to see if they are) and the fix is a new gasket. Hand the car to a specialist and you’ll pay around £300. To minimise the risk of overheating, see that the fanbelt is correctly tensioned all the time – if it’s obviously slack the cooling system won’t be working as effectively as it should be.

• Many specialists recommend keeping the engine standard but using an additive when using unleaded petrol. Although the 500 has an alloy head, so harder valve seats are already fitted, many of the aftermarket hardened seats fall out in use they warn, it’s safer to keep it ex-factory and use an additive.

Three Of A Kind

BMC MINI
BMC MINI
Classic car ownership doesn’t come easier than here. A raft of clubs and specialists offer all the support you’ll ever need, parts prices tend to be low and there are loads of cars to choose from. You can also keep your Mini original or invest in a host of off-the-shelf upgrades. But as with the Fiat, rust is a major issue, so you’ve got to make sure you don’t buy a tarted-up heap – they’re very common.
CITROËN 2CV
CITROËN 2CV
Even more basic than the Fiat, but arguably even more charming, Citroën’s Tin Snail offers far more fun than you’d ever think possible from something with so little power. Values are on the up, but once again corrosion is a major issue so you must check the state of the separate chassis or that 2CV which just needs minor finishing could turn out to be nothing more than a parts car.
VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE
No car has ever been made in bigger numbers than the original Beetle, but don’t assume that they’re all the same. While the basic design didn’t change much throughout the Beetle’s production span, constant evolution means you need to home in on exactly which car is right for your needs. Yet again rot is an issue, but everything is cheaply available, and the social scene is second to none.

Verdict

500 has a massive following and is well- served by specialists around the globe, yet it’s possible to come unstuck if you don’t do your homework. But unless the car is really far gone, it’s amazing how even really tatty cars can be revived – as long as you don’t mind spending more on the car than it’s worth. Buy well and you’ll have a car that’s easy to work on, cheap to fix and restore (if it needs it) and an absolute hoot to use.

And if you can’t find a right-hand drive one at a price you can afford, don’t dismiss a left-hand drive one instead. It won’t matter that the steering wheel is on the wrong side, because you won’t be overtaking anything anyway!



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