Mayfair is associated with Society, sartorial fashion, the London Season, debutantes and Fiats. With Fiats because, since the war, AW Lea and WJ Caswell have specialised in selling and servicing these famous little cars at Mayfair Garages Ltd, which you cannot fail to encounter if you turn left out of Oxford Street opposite Selfridge’s clock and proceed to the far end of Balderton Street.
On the occasion of my visit I found something like a dozen Fiat 500s in stock, ranging from an externally rough 1937 coupe, priced at £195, to a reconditioned 1949 500B coupe with ohv engine, as used in the current 500C Fiat, listed at £495. Verily, Mayfair Garages provide “Topolinos” for most purses.
Their more expensive examples are thoroughly reconditioned before sale, both mechanically and in respect of rust-proofing, re-upholstering, fitting new carpets, hood, wings, and new or only 25 percent. used tyres, etc. These Fiats then carry a three months’ guarantee.
Another activity of the firm is its comprehensive exchange-basis spares service for 1937-39 Fiat 500s, of which about 14,000 are believed to exist in this country. In the stores we saw fully-reconditioned components ranging from complete engines to relined brake shoes, and including carburetter assemblies (both Solex 22 HD and SU), clutch plates, radiators. dynamos, Marelli and Delco-Remy distributors, Veglia speedometers, Marelli wiper-motors, etc. Reconditioned engines are supplied either rebored to standard oversize or resleeved to the normal 52-mm bore. With new Covrao pistons, new valve gear, reground crankshaft, etc the charge is £45 rebored, £50 re-sleeved, plus your old engine, fitting approximately £5 extra. The same useful service extends to gearbox assemblies (£28), differential assemblies (£17 10s), and the spares already named. Incidentally, vane-type oil pumps on early engines are rebuilt into the later gear-type pump.
Special engine beds are used to facilitate engine reconditioning and there is a basement test-room in which such units can he “run-in” after assembly. One of the mechanics is Sergi Balsamino, who thus has the distinction of working in the heart of London’s West End on cars of his own nationality.
In addition, respraying and re-upholstering to customer’s choice is undertaken on the premises, and Mayfair Garages supply replacement hoods, loose-covers, running-boards, carpets, spare-wheel covers, luggage grids and similar “beautifiers” for Baby Fiats which have outgrown their first-birthday freshness.
I had hoped perhaps to find a Fiat 501 service-lorry about the place or to learn the secrets of Topelino tuning-for-speed, but I was told that the supply of spares and the sale of well-tuned, reconditioned 500s fully occupies the firm, although occasional 1,100 and 1,500 Fiats pass through their hands, and they are also agents for the Corgi, MGs, and Auster aircraft.
Looking at all these “Topolinos,” appropriately at a time when petrol had just jumped up another 11/2d a gallon and rumours of a tax-concession to cars of under 8 hp were in the air, I remembered vividly past experiences with these game little cars.
Of demonstrating youthful driving-prowess(?) to a slinky young thing from a gown-shop, until vanity was nipped in the bud, or more accurately on the radiator grille, as we rammed the car in front—my fault, not the Fiat’s ! Of being offered, by the late “Flem” Harris the loan of a “Topolino” for a week-end, providing I first drove a dazzling pin-up girl and a photographer out in it so-that her picture could grace “Flem’s” motoring page in a women’s journal. (The offer, I recall, was sufficiently attractive to overcome the painful shyness of callow youth !) If being nearly suffocated in John Eason-Gibson’s “Topolino” during a One-Hour High-Speed Trial at Brooklands, because he would insist on driving with roof and windows shut “to help the streamlining”.
In the end I became so nostalgic that Mr Lea dispatched me into the maelstrom a the rush-hour traffic in a well-used 1937 coupe, just to keep me quiet. Before I had emerged from the outer-belt of the Metropolis beyond Hounslow I was thoroughly at ease in the little vehicle. The design of the Fiat 500 is so eminently sensible that it remains one of the best economy-cars the world has seen. To enumerate-there are the ”hollowed-out” doors to gain elbow room; that radiator-behind-engine layout to achieve extreme accessibility and a low bonnet-line: the simple ”pull-over” hood, which converts the virtually open body into a snug coupe: the big shelf behind the seats, which acts as luggage platform, a sofa for up to three children, or temporary seat for an adult; the clever ifs that has been proved on far-faster cars–Coopers, for instance; and the compact dimensions and 4.00/4.25-15 tyres which spell lightweight (exactly 10 cwt, without occupants, but with one gallon of petrol).
Nor are there many concessions to austerity—only the manually-operated direction-indicators, single screen wiper, combined head and sidelamps (on early models only), and absence of cubby-hole, door pockets, clock and ammeter. Against this I found a mileometer with tenths-calibrations (but no trip-recorder), two rear-view mirrors, sun-visor, a useful horn, big Metron “olio” gauge, which sat steady at a reassuring 25 kg/sq cm, dash-lamps with push-button switch, “pulls” on the lockable doors, a man-size petrol tap within easy reach, and a useful “reserve” position, parking lamps, hand-throttle and easily adjustable bucket seats.
It would be stupid to pretend that the Baby Fiat has any pretence to sports-car performance. But it will easily work up to and hold 50 mph, and it is satisfying to row it along with the gear-lever, the tiny sv engine revving happily, buzzing like a bee up to 40 mph in third gear. Do this, and many cars of twice the size are left well behind. I found that it was possible to put over 38 miles into the hour along A30, a road on which lorry-traffic has a far more adverse effect on a tiny vehicle than on more accelerative cars. The hydraulic brakes were adequate but it was the outstandingly good roadholding and accurate steering which enabled the little Fiat to get along so well. It runs very smoothly, if rather noisily, at 40 mph, but the gear-lever—a very long one, with which a ham-handed driver could presumably inflict severe-punishment on the selectors-in there to be used, the engine disliking anything less than 20 mph in the highest cog, for instance. But, remember, the capacity is only 570 cc, which makes the old and current Austin Sevens-almost “outsize” in comparison !
On the early version tested rear suspension is by 1/4-elliptic springs, but there was very little tendency to roll on corners; the steering asks 2 turns from one taxi-lock to t’other and is smooth and devoid of return-motion, if rather “dead” in feel. The suspension provides outstandingly comfortable riding for a small car, and all controls, minor and major, are very well placed.
The clutch called for some care in engagement but was otherwise smooth. The engine proved quite easy to start from cold and never fluffed or faltered, although it was prone to a good deal of muffled pinking on “Pool,” in spite of the aluminium head.
When we tired of surprising the Eights and Tens along main roads, we turned the Fiat towards Andover and the 70 square miles of desolate yet attractive country which lies thereabouts, with Inkpen Beacon, the highest chalk hill in England, as its dominant feature. Ever since reading AG Street’s description : ” . . too wild a country for modern civilisation to visit, it contains no railway, no main road, and no large villages, a country of narrow winding lanes, small valleys, steep hills, high downs and rabbits innumerable”, I had intended to explore this fascinating “back o’ beyond. A small car seemed called for and what better than this Fiat 500 ? The slick gear-changes between all the ratios of the four-speed box, the ample power from the little engine, and the comfortable springing were eminently suited to the steep, narrow lanes which were just as AC Street had described. I had hoped some old cars might dwell in this old-country and, sure enough. an Edwardian Darracq was encountered almost without search. One of the delights of the little Fiat is of course its economy. Fuel consumption, checked after ascertaining the degree of optimism of the mileometer, averaged 46 with no attempt to economise. The car tested had an SU carburetter with air-filter, fed from the gravity tank via an SU electric pump; I am told that the Solex carburetter gives over 50 mpg. The absolute dependability of this reconditioned Fiat was another quality convincingly proved during the trial, during which about 600 miles were covered with no trouble of any sort save for the temporary self-detachment of the speedometer cable. On those two scores alone, apart from the other attractive features, these reconditioned pre-war Fiat 500s should appeal to many readers, with whom Mayfair Garages will be glad to discuss their claims. WB.