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Fiat’s bambino a little cutie

The plague proportions of the Fiat 500’s road presence of the 1950s and 1960s has abated but the appeal of Italy’s people’s car appears to have failed to dim.

There must be something in the shape that crosses generations because it has also spawned the most successful “retro” model — also called the 500 — with Fiat still selling 80 cars a month despite the latest edition being 11 years old.

You can see the reason why the cute shape of the Fiat 500 has been so enduring but little prepares you for the shock of how small the original 500 really is.

It’s not just the 2.97m length — by comparison, the latest 500 is 3.5m long — but the compact cabin and the shrunken proportions of everything in it, from the switches to the speedo, pedals and door handles.

Its size makes it adept at fitting into compact spaces.Its size makes it adept at fitting into compact spaces.
Camera IconIts size makes it adept at fitting into compact spaces.

All, in fact, follow its self-explanatory nickname of “bambino” except for the large-diameter steering wheel that intrudes into the front passenger’s space.

Entering the cabin isn’t particularly easy despite the wide doors, and the seats were designed for people with less lard than drivers of today while the steering wheel comes affectionately close and the floor pedals bundle themselves under too-big size-9 shoes.

The simplicity of the car is unsettled only by the starting procedure. After turning the ignition key in the metal dashboard, one of the two floor-mounted levers between the seats has to be pulled up for the choke and the other spring- mounted lever to engage the starter motor.

Fiat 500.Fiat 500.
Camera IconFiat 500.

The sound is what you’d expect from a two-cylinder air-cooled engine, consisting of an angry rant that even at idle never seems comfortable.

This is in complete contrast to the forward motion which can best be described as progressive and, at worse, gutless.

There’s only 16.2kW (the 0.2 must be important) being cranked out by the 500cc parallel twin but the performance is aided to a degree by the featherweight 520kg of the car. By comparison, the “new” Fiat 500, with a 1200cc engine, weighs 950kg and has 51kW.

Beneath the postage-stamp accelerator pedal is a very modest 35.3Nm of torque and all this is rushed through to the rear wheels as efficiently as possible. Well, efficient by the standards of when the car was first launched in 1957.

Fiat 500.Fiat 500.
Camera IconFiat 500.

Patience and a good understanding of the vague four-speed manual gearbox is required. Though the go factor is not impressive, actually being in the car is quite relaxing.

Enviable travel brochures and videos showing tranquillised models smiling at the joy of touring Tuscany in these micro-cars come quickly to mind. It all looks romantic and thoroughly soothing and it’s easy to see why these cars are not cheap despite their years and budget-priced beginnings.

Patience — both yours and fellow traffic — aside, the car is a fun drive. It is clearly nimble and when the conditions are right, will hold a neat line through a corner with the big steering wheel allowing plenty of leverage.

Its size obviously makes it adept at fitting into embarrassingly compact spaces and nimble enough to circumvent some traffic snarls. Yet it is tall enough to be obvious to other motorists.

There is a natural comparison with the Citroen 2CV from the same period. Which did its job better and which is the better drive and ownership experience?

Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.
Camera IconFiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.

Subjectively, the 2CV is a better car to drive, despite its weak performance and structurally basic build quality. But it feels more like a car and has more liberal accommodation that makes it more liveable.

Inside, the 500 may be compact but the full-length fabric roof and big glass areas make the outside meld to the cabin, relieving any danger of its occupants sinking into the depths of claustrophobia.

There’s room for two adults and two children but not much more. Forget looking for the glove box and don’t bother with door pockets.

There is a front-mounted luggage space but it’s tight, prompting Fiat — and canny accessory suppliers — to sell luggage racks to bolt on to the engine cover and even relocate the spare wheel to the bonnet lid.

The Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the postwar need for budget motoring.The Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the postwar need for budget motoring.
Camera IconThe Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the postwar need for budget motoring.

The tiny Fiat sits on 12-inch wheels with 125mm-wide tyres — the example here has Michelin XZX rubber but a showroom-fresh car would have worn Pirellis — with its spare mounted near-vertical under the bonnet.

Nothing extraordinary about the brakes (drums) or steering (rack and pinion) or suspension (torsion bars) which reflects the postwar budget with a simple package at an affordable price.

When launched in 1957 the 500 “bambino” was designed for a postwar market that wanted personal mobility but at a price that wouldn’t upset the fragile disposable income of the time.

It was a parochial purchase for Italians and mirrored the mood of the era in France with its Citroen 2CV, England with the Morris Minor (later, the Mini) and Germany with the Volkswagen Beetle.

Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.Fiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.
Camera IconFiat 500’s canvas roof, instrumentation and luggage space reflect the times.

The example here is from 1969, though it could be equally from 1957 or the last year of the bambino’s production, 1975.

This is a 500F — the letter indicating it is the base model — so it is in its rawest state. There was a 500L that was identified by a more modern dashboard with horizontal speedo, pleated vinyl door inserts and the deletion of the “moustache” that flanked the Fiat logo on the nose. The 500L also had a front bumper over-rider, which this example has as an option.

Fiat 500F

Price new $1278

Price now $40,000

Built 1969

Engine 0.5-litre two-cylinder petrol

Outputs 16kW/35Nm

Transmission Four-speed manual

0-100km/h Friday

Fuel thirst 5.5L/100km

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