THE DARK DAYS ARE OVER

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By Stuart Grant and images thanks to Henrie Snyman

Post-war 1950s motoring was dominated by a class of car that we now refer to as the ‘people’s car’. It was a time for living life and mobilising the masses. America saw the birth of the Tri-Five Chevrolet, while Germany and France employed pre-war designs in the form of the Volkswagen Beetle and Citroën 2CV. The British plodded along in dated machinery until the Mini launched in 1959, and the Italians used Fiat Toppolinos when they needed more than a scooter to lug the family around – until ’57 that is, when the Fiat 500 (or Cinquecento) hit the road.

To be a ‘people’s car’ the above offerings were produced in large quantities, were simple to maintain, practical, affordable and (the European offerings at least) minimal in specification. They all did the job, won over the hearts of all that used them, and gave us wonderful stereotypes from the land of origin. Say ‘Chevy’ and the picture of young rock and roll fans hitting a diner, the mention of Beetle pops up images of a grey Bug fighting Berlin traffic, and it isn’t difficult to picture a beret-wearing Frenchman driving a comical-looking 2CV complete with baguette and basket of eggs across a farm field. To me the Fiat 500 means a large man squeezed in and driving manically through Rome, or up to Mama in the mountains.

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And it only took a few minutes on a historic Johannesburg pass to see why Giovanni and the rest of Italy are such spirited drivers and fans of motorsport. There is no other way to drive a 500. Not only do you have to keep the momentum going because of the miniscule power, but the little Italian begs to be driven this way. It is like the Thomas the Tank Engine of cars, chugging “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can” from its 500cc two-cylinder air-cooled engine, egging you on to keep the fancier, faster cars behind you, hairpin after hairpin.

Going to the village for some prosciutto becomes a Grand Prix as Mr Hyde kicks Dr Jekyll out the small driver’s door. Turn on the ignition key, pull the choke lever below the handbrake, and then lift the lever next to this to crank the starter motor. Seating is of the upright type, which allows for relatively decent rear occupant legroom. Pedals are typically Italian and offset a touch to the left. With the air-cooled engine up to operating temperature and the choke released, a blip on the throttle shows the perkiness of the engine. Select first gear, give a bit of gas and release the clutch, and the 500 takes off in a nippy manner, where no gap in the traffic is left empty for long. Second gear pulls well, and before you know it you are heel-and-toeing into every hairpin you find, attacking the corners with gusto as the direct steering carves the shortest line up the hill. Top speed is claimed at 95km/h, but to be honest we never got close – or we don’t think so as the cockpit was so busy that we never even checked the simple gauge.

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Stopping power comes from tiny drums all round sitting behind wheelbarrow-sized 12-inch wheels that swing dramatically into positive camber as the Fiat fights the tight turns and sloping road surface.

Over the years, the Dante Giacosa-designed 500 evolved, but from the first 1957 Nuova (New) 500 through to the swansong 500 R of 1975, very little changed. Sure, the Nuova became the 500 D in 1960 where it lost its full-length fabric sunroof, got window winders and gained an extra 4hp to total 17 thanks to a bigger 499cc power unit, but the overall platform of the saloon remained basically the same. Fiat did however add some versatility with the introduction of a station wagon version known as the Giardiniera or 500K in 1960, which remained in manufacture until 1975 and was crowned the longest running 500 production unit. But back to the saloon 500. Even before D production came to an end the 500 F, also known as the Berlina, hit the streets. Changes were minimal again, with the most notable being the fitment of ‘normal’ non-suicide doors. A new model, the 500 L or Lusso, was launched in 1968 and overlapped F sales until 1972 when it gave way to the 500 R (Rinnovata). The L differed from the F with a more modern interior and a chrome nudge bar above the bumper.

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With times and economies changing, and with the launch of the more modern-looking 126 model imminent, Fiat launched the final 500, the R. It made use of the coming 126’s 594cc engine but lacked luxuries that the previous 500s had, like a fuel gauge. Sales weren’t good but the very basic R lumbered on until 1975 as the more modern 126 took off. Despite its more contemporary lines the 126 was also heavily based on the original 500, so the little machine obviously got it right way back in the ʼ50s. So right, in fact, that even the Germans made the 500 under licence as an NSU or Neckar, and the Austrian-made one was done by Steyr-Puch.

Of course the 500 wasn’t the only city or ‘people’s car’ from Fiat. The firm had the slightly larger 600 that sold from 1955 through to ’69 in its arsenal. In reality the 600 would be a more comparable vehicle to the likes of the Beetle or 2CV in size and performance than the little 500 but the latter’s cuteness – emphasised by the fun-loving colours that most were painted in – and popularity tugged at all our heart strings, so the Cinquecento beats the German and French offering in the popularity race and we’ll stick to that point.  

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If the love of pasta or a need for more seating arose there was, however, a bigger (and arguably cuter) machine on offer in the form of another engineering solution by Dante Giacosa, the 600 Multipla. Looking like a minivan that shrank in the wash, the 600 Multipla, which is only 50 centimetres longer than the original Mini, is good to hold six people and was a popular option for Italian taxi services. A 600 platform was used but a front bench seat was placed over the front axle and the rear bench sat in front of either a 633cc or 767cc four-cylinder water-cooled engine.

Despite these bigger engines on offer the Multipla doesn’t do much better than the 500 in the performance race, with a top speed at 92km/h and a zero to 80km/h sprint of just under 45 seconds. Not surprising when you realise that at 700kg it weighs 200kg more than the 500. Swing the suicide door open and step inside the Multipla. The moving of front seat over the axle means that the steering column runs through the floor between your legs and you have to thread your feet around it to meet the pedals. Slightly taller occupants need to duck a bit to see the full picture through the windscreen, too.

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Like the 500, the rear wheels are driven by a four-speed gearbox but the extra weight, length (3 531mm against the 500’s 2 970mm) and width (1 448mm vs 1 320mm) immediately tones down your driving style. With the Multipla you get in, load up the family reasonably comfortably and drive from A to B. With the 500 you get in, squeeze the family in and race from A to B.

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The Fiat Multipla is Italy’s iconic people-carrying car but the title of Italian People’s Car goes to the cheap (back then at least) and cheerful (and still is today) 500. Drive one of these brightly coloured babies around and it will bring a smile to both users or onlookers – just like it pulled people out of the dark war shadow 63 years ago and made every Italian driver a potential Formula 1 World Champion… in his or her head at least.

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