Classic test: Fiat 508S

All things light and beautiful

Lips and fingers are turning blue, much like the air. It’s cold, it’s early and we’re stuck in a 4mph car-conga. Coulsdon in Surrey during rush hour is not the ideal place to be learning the intricacies of a pre-war race veteran, not least one with a centre throttle. Repeating the mantra ‘The middle pedal is not the brake’ appears to be working, though. A clothing-averse young lady – all dyed hair and meaningful tattoos – shouts something from the pavement before breaking into a half-smile, but it’s hard to hear her over the surround-sound fanfare proffered by the angry four-banger up front. Other road users merely look frustrated but nevertheless reach for their mobiles and take a pic. They all do. Smile for the camera. OK, a grimace will do at a pinch. 

Scroll-forward a few hours and it’s a different story. Once free of hectoring commuters and into open countryside, you’re afforded a beautiful Walter Mitty-like vision of what it might have been like to race this car in period. Exhilaration conquers fright, composure is regained and this glorious little Fiat 508S casts a poetic spell. It may lack much in the way of physical presence, but it’s the sort of car you know you will discuss with a thrill in your voice in weeks to come. It rattles the senses, that’s for sure.

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Fiat has a rich history of making small and attractive roadsters with mainstream appeal – and then not marketing them properly, if only in the UK. Think of the 850 Spider, the X1/9 and the lovely Barchetta. The 508S foretold them all and never had much of a presence in Blighty, but it punched above its flyweight in competition. This particular example is a case in point. Given that Fiat had formally abandoned motor sport in 1927, it’s remarkable that it made any kind of sporting car at all, but it was of humble origins; something of a parts-bin special. The regular 508 was presented at the 1932 Milan Motor Show and featured a sidevalve 995c engine, developed by Bartolomeo Nebbia, which produced 22bhp. A year later, Fiat released the cycle-winged Corsa and the less skimpy Sport Spider, with Carrozzeria Ghia providing outlines that borrowed styling cues from the Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport, albeit transposed onto smaller canvases. 

Just as night follows day, these small-displacement sports cars soon began appearing on track, the Corsa being forever known at the ‘Coppa D’Oro’ following a class win in the eight-day, 6000km Coppa D’Oro del Littorio that was staged in 1934. It also inspired a tuning industry, with Giorgio Ambrosini’s Siata concern being very much to the fore. In France, where the 508 was made under licence by Simca at Suresnes, Amédée Gordini created his own alloy cylinder head for the model. He won the Bol d’Or 24-hour race outright in 1936 and thus a legend was born. Throw in class wins on the Mille Miglia, at Le Mans, the Targa Florio, the GP de l’ACF and the Ulster TT and it isn’t hard to understand why the 508S is so highly regarded.

But then so few made it to these shores, at least in period. As is so often the way with small-series Italian machinery, a degree of confusion surrounds precisely how many were made but it’s widely held to be no more than 500. This figure includes licence-built 508Ss produced by Simca and also NSU in Germany. Later cars featured OHV cylinder heads and most – but not all – had four-speed transmissions. Some 48 OHV cars were imported into the UK in 1935-36 as bare chassis in right-hand-drive configuration, British bodies being identifiable by their taller rear dorsal fins relative to their Italian counterparts. That and the aluminium skins, rather than steel. Of these, a dozen remained unsold and were sent back.

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The 508S pictured here is arguably the best known of these locally-bodied cars, thanks largely to the efforts of the brilliantly monikered Christopher Le Strange ‘Dickie’ Metcalfe. The Wakefield-born, Reading-domiciled army officer-turned-civil service mandarin enjoyed a remarkably long run of success in a wide variety of cars. He began competing in 1929, aged 22, aboard a Morgan-JAP. This was in turn replaced with the ex-Douglas Hawkes Horstman, the engine from which was subsequently installed in a chain-drive Frazer Nash chassis and clothed with a special body by Abbotts of Farnham. Jump forward three decades to 1963-64, and Metcalfe transformed the then 10-year-old Aston-Butterworth Formula 2 car into a 1100cc Coventry Climax-engined sports-racer. A few years later, he raced and modified a Lola MkI before acquiring a Cooper F3 car that he altered in his own inimitable fashion. As late as 1979, when he was in his eighth decade, Metcalfe was winning races and sprints aboard a 1150cc Holbay-Ford-powered Lotus 23C which featured a cut’n’shut McLaren M1A body. 

The car with which his name is inextricably linked, however, is this 508S. The car was registered in May 1935 and made select appearances at Brooklands before being laid up during World War 2. At the end of hostilities, Metcalfe celebrated by driving the Fiat to Rome and back before once again venturing trackside. He claimed silverware at Goodwood, Snetterton and Silverstone in addition to taking class honours in the 1952 Boreham 100-mile race. The car is pictured in Motor Sport’s report on the race, flanked by Mike Hawthorn and Ken Wharton’s duelling Frazer Nashes. All told, Metcalfe reputedly racked up 26 wins to the mid-50s, in addition to countless second and third places, before you factor in results in hillclimbs and sprints. 

Remarkably, The Autocar dedicated a four-page feature to the Fiat in December 1952, evaluating the car with the sort of rigour usually reserved for new machinery rather than an 18-year-old competition veteran. Dennis May reported: “Commercially, the 995cc sports ‘Balilla’ Fiat never seriously challenged the British competition in the under-a-litre class back in the 1930s, a fact that in retrospect inclines one to the belief that a lot of people didn’t know what they were missing. True, the Turin sauceboat cost about £30 more than the comparable MG and Singer lines of the day, speaking from memory, but in a number of respects, notably economy, simplicity, steering accuracy and effortless cruising above the dreaded mile a minute, the Balilla was a hard ’un to beat.”

He went on to add: “As supplied, the sports Balilla engine gave 36bhp at 4400rpm, but more horses – quite a lot more, were there for the conjuring. The man who did most of the conjuring was V H Tuson… [The car] differed little, either inwardly or outwardly, from its pre-war self, but one visible feature – the forward-facing air scoop on the bonnet – dates from comparatively recent times. This was a present from ex-Brooklands man Cyril Watkinson, who shifted his sphere of activity to the aircraft world some years ago, and comes off a Gypsy Six. Metcalfe doesn’t delude himself that any measurable ram effect is created at a mere 82mph, but before the scoop was added the carburettor intake mouth was a whit close to the inner face, probably resulting in rather fuggy breathing. The Fiat has lapped the modern Goodwood circuit, i e with chicane included, at 68.7mph which, when considered in relation to its 82mph maximum, is really quite a feat… It says, in fact, all that needs saying on the subject of the Fiat’s cornering power and Metcalfe’s intrepidity in cornering it.”

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According to correspondence between dealer Frank Lockhart and historian Michael Sedgwick, ownership passed to a Cheshire enthusiast in 1955. It arrived at Lockharts Service Depot Ltd in Dunstable two years later, the proprietor writing not altogether coherently: “The body, as far as I know, is the original two-seater with special light alloy wings, TT regulation. Also a light alloy six-gallon fuel tank by Galley, special shock absorbers and 15in road wheels with 500×15 Dunlop Racing tyres, 46bhp… It is now bored out to 1040cc, peak revs in top, 4500rpm.”

The car was sold thereafter to T D L Rose of Harpenden who kept it for a year before moving it on to David Manning. He continued to race the car throughout the 1960s. It was subsequently owned by Cyril Hancock who initiated a full-blown restoration at some point in the early ’80s. The Fiat later made its way to Italy where a dealer, not fully realising the car’s competition pedigree, set about denuding it of its period modifications. Fortunately, the 508S was acquired by Paul de Turris in 2015 before it had been stripped of the bulk of its period mods, even if the original Metcalfe-era engine had been replaced with another Tuson-tuned unit several decades ago. The Surrey-based marque authority is keen to maintain the car’s thoroughly British identity and hopes to exercise the old warhorse in competition at some point in the future.

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Following a debrief that comprises mostly of “Enjoy yourself” and “Don’t crash”, first contact with the Fiat is freighted with mixed emotions. First of all, there’s the small matter of getting into it, a situation made that much easier thanks to the cutaway flanks. Once in, however, the steering column rather gets in the way of the pedals, while the steering wheel juts into your chest. The throttle pedal sits some way proud of the brake and clutch, so a fair amount of ankle articulation is required, but you soon acclimatise. You have little choice.

On the road and free of traffic, what surprises you is how flexible the little four-cylinder engine is. You don’t expect it to have even trace elements of torque given the clearly high state of tune, but no. It pulls from low down in all gears. It sounds great, too, all fizz and bluster that makes you want to try that much harder. Truth be told, the centre throttle isn’t an issue. It really isn’t that difficult to master. Successful double de-clutching is something of a lottery, though, but the actual gearchange is a joy. A quick-shift modification performed back in the early ’50s means you barely need to move the lever in order to engage the next cog. It isn’t quite your rifle-bolt cliché, but there is remarkably little movement across the gate. 

In every other respect, the 508S is typical of its age. You soon revert back to vintage car mode and generally let it do its own thing in its own time. It’s all about maintaining momentum. The car handles much better than preconceptions might have you believe, the steering being disarmingly rapid and pleasantly light at speed. On smooth topography, the car displays admirable road-holding. With greater familiarity, you imagine it would be easy to throw the car around with abandon as it seems to pivot around you. You feel part of the car despite the slightly perched driving position, more on the car than in it. So often with cars
of this type, every part of you feels violated by journey’s end, the lack of meaningful suspension ensuring that the seat springs explore areas of the anatomy usually reserved for someone with a qualification. That isn’t the case here, though. It’s surprisingly supple, all things being relative. 

This is a car that demands to be driven, and driven hard. It patently isn’t keen on dawdling. It makes you appreciate the efforts of Metcalfe who drove the Fiat to and from meetings all the more, not least because he claimed he could complete the 54-mile journey to Silverstone from his home in Reading in just 65 minutes. Somehow we doubt it would be possible to do the same today, but it would be fun trying. 

Thanks to: Paul de Turris