Vintage enthusiasts generally are against modifying vintage cars. But sometimes an impecunious enthusiast craves improved performance, yet can only afford an elderly chassis. So, keeping an open mind, we present these notes on how that famous car, the 501 FIAT, was made to look and go better than when new.—.ED.
I HAD one of those fine old 501 FIAT cars and drove it many thousands of miles with great satisfaction. Mine was a 1923 model with a heavy English body, and a large vertical screen which was common at that time. After I had driven it for two or three years it seemed to me worth spending time and trouble on to improve the performance. I felt sure that with its very large frontal area drastically put down, and a much lighter body the result might be surprising. It certainly was! About this time I saw a similar car advertised for £6 and went to look at it. To my surprise I found that it had done considerably less mileage than my own, and was in good running order, so I bought it. I had in mind the alterations I wanted to make and yet I didn’t want to lay up my car for a longish period. First I stripped off the Italian body and made as near a scale drawing as possible. I then superimposed the proposed alterations, and as this seemed all right I proceeded to make a template of the side member of the chassis; I was aiming at underslinging the back of the car. It may be remembered that these cars were considerably upswept at the rear and were very high off the ground and inclined to roil on corners. There was a cross member about half way between the gearbox and back axle. My idea was to cut the frame in half about 8 ins, in front of the cross member, turn the back half upside down, and rejoin the two halves. I did this to the template and offered it up and all appeared well, so I cut the frame, turned the back over, procured two 1/2 in. steel liners which were a driving fit in the frame (they were about a foot long and secured with three bolts on each side of the cut), and this made a very rigid job. To make doubly sure the actual join was also welded. The spring pads were not a fixture, but able to revolve on the axle, so all I had to do was to turn them over; similarly, the springs were turned upside down and refitted, two or three leaves having been taken out in view of the much lighter body I intended to fit. The axle was now between the spring and frame, and if the car had been designed with this alteration in view it couldn’t have been arranged better. Nothing else was required. The frame sloped down towards the back, and I should think the back was lowered about a foot. No alteration was needed at the front end, but the car had no front brakes. So I found a front axle off a 1926 car which had, and bought it and fitted it to the Special.
The steering was very considerably raked, this being easily effected by means of a wedge-shaped casting and longer bolts. The radiator, which was extremely high, was lowered something like 8 ins, and at the same time sloped back and with a rather smart stone guard which I made and a pair of Lucas headlamps the front of the car was entirely altered. Lowering the radiator made it necessary to cut a hole for the starting handle this was beyond me, but a very skilful friend did it and it never gave any trouble.
I have always disliked standing on my head under the scuttle to get at the gearbox, so partly for this reason, and partly for appearance, I brought the scuttle close to the wheel. This resulted in it being much farther back; so giving a long bonnet which, when opened, left the whole works easy of access; modern cars might with great advantage copy the accessibility of these old cars. The new instrument board was covered with engine-turned aluminium, which looked very nice but nearly wore out my thumb doing it with a piece of emery cloth!
Both gear and brake levers were cut down, as the seat was now much lower. The dash tank was replaced by one at the rear and an Autovac which I got from a car breaker functioned faultlessly the whole time I had the car. I would vastly rather have one than an electric petrol pump. The engine was stripped and found to be in good condition. The bearings were taken up a little, and it was decided to fit aluminium pistons in place of the rather heavy cast-iron ones. At the same time the cylinders were re-bored, and a Ricardo aluminium head fitted (Ricardo made a standard head for this car, among others). There was a Solex carburetter, but I do not remember whether it was on the car already. This completed the alterations to the chassis.
Any enthusiastic amateur with a decent workshop could have done the same, except for bonnet and wings, which I had specially made. I think many otherwise good jobs are spoilt by trying to do work which is a specialist’s job, such as making a bonnet, and if this looks amateurish it spoils the whole thing. The wheels were steel artillery and were retained. At the time when I made this conversion I had a boat builder’s shop and some skill in woodwork; so that the body presented no particular difficulty. A light frame was made and covered with three-ply, with felt between the panels and frame at all points Of contact. The panels were covered with black leather cloth put on with croid glue, the joins being covered with aluminium moulding. Before the car went on the road the leather was well coated with polishing wax and it never looked shabby as long as I had it.
There were two bucket seats, useful room for suit cases, and a tonneau cover. The body had two doors, but owing to the right-hand gear and brake levers a really movable seat was essential, otherwise one could not get either in or out without great difficulty. I had never seen a sliding seat which was anything like satisfactory and I decided to make my own idea. I got some fairly heavy angle brass which I screwed to the floor, then I got some of those chair castors which instead of wheels have balls in the bottom. These were fastened to the seat so that they just fitted easily between the angle irons and ran on them like rails. This was a perfect success. I had only to pull a spring-loaded pin, and the whole seat rolled backwards or forwards without effort. Dunlopillo cushions made the seats very comfortable. The inside of the body was also panelled with leather-covered ply, but this was green, with green carpet to match, and green wheels.
The finished job looked very smart and attracted interest wherever I went. There was a hood which folded almost flat, and the spare wheel was carried on the hack. So far as performance went the car exceeded all my expectations. I can best describe it as feeling as though the brakes had been on and someone had suddenly taken them off. The car was much faster, and more lively, in fact it was difficult to believe that it was the same car. The pistons and new head undoubtedly contributed, but I think the great reduction in weight and wind resistance were chiefly responsible. The car was never very fast by present-day standards, but she could and did on many oecasions cover fifty miles in an hour on good roads, without making any special effort, and she kept on month after month with absolute reliability. Altogether this was a most pleasant and economical car to drive and I felt the work done on her more than worth.while. The car was given to a nephew who was killed in the Battle of Britain, but I heard that it was seen going strong long afterwards ; if it is still going, I should very much like to hear from the present owner.