FAMILY SALOON - Italian Style

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An Appraisal of the Fiat Millecento

FROM the vast Fiat industrial empire in Turin comes the Fiat 1100, one of the world’s brighter family cars. On the very day when President Giovanni Gronchi and his lady paid their State Visit to London’s Guildhall, I was asked by Peter Saabor, of Alan Betts Associates, whether I would like to test the latest example of the Fiat Millecento. Soon I was on my way to Wembley to take over this outwardly insignificant little saloon from Mr. Pell, the English Sales Representative.

Making my way home along the tail-end of the North Circular Road and A.30, it took me some time to appreciate the finer qualities of this family Fiat. On first acquaintance the driver seems to sit “up in the roof,” the brakes are embarrassingly sudden, and the engine noisy, nor does the ride and “feel” suggest the excellent handling qualities which are appreciated on longer acquaintance. As the miles fly by you come to realise that in other cars you merely sit lower than in the Fiat—soon all feeling of being pent up by the roof and side pillars vanishes and throughout the rest of our test no sense of impaired visibility was experienced. Indeed, forward visibility is excellent, with both front wings in clear view, and another feature which endears this Fiat to the fast driver is the splendid driving position, the thin-rimmed wheel being set well clear of the facia and the bench front seat affording sufficient support as well as a high degree of comfort.

Let me state right away that the Fiat retains a steering-column gear-lever. This, situated on the left of the steering column on right-hand-drive cars; is excused, for two reasons. In the first place, the Fiat does have a bench front seat, which, if only to enable a child to be carried beside the front-seat passenger, justifies a column gear-change. Then, this gear-change on the Fiat 1100 is the finest of its kind. The lever is short and rigid and moves smoothly and with real precision. The lower-gear locations are above top and third, and reverse is easily selected, beyond top-gear position. The lever is spring-loaded to the higher gear positions. I prefer a floor change mainly because muffed changes occur with a column lever due to human inability to make the right movement every time with the hand in the air and the gate less easy to visualise subconsciously than is the case with the lever where the hand drops on to it. But, that explanation apart, I have no criticism to make of the Fiat steering-column gear-shift.

Less well done are the braking arrangements. The Fiat-Baldwin brakes are too sudden for smooth progressive retardation, although powerful foolproof brakes otherwise. After some experience of them it is easier to make progressive stops but every so often anyone less than Fangio will make the tyres squeal a little without having to make an emergency stop. However, the action is notably light. The hand-brake lever is a very ordinary affair, unpleasant on the English version of the car because it bus been left on the near side of the propeller-shaft tunnel, where it is much too far away, necessitating bending to reach for it, persuading the driver to “ride the clutch” when halted on hills. Its action and reliability are impeccable. If the brakes do not gain full marks, the Fiat’s minor controls are highly commendable. On the right of the steering column is a long stalk operating the lamps (after these have been ” lit ” by means of a tiny tumbler switch on the steering-column control box), thus providing for instantaneous flashing or dipping of the headlamps with a minimum of effort. Above this lamps-control is a shorter lever for the self-cancelling direction-flashers. In connection with both these controls, each of which has an excellent action, this small Italian saloon possesses some interesting items. Thus the lamps indicator window shines when the sidelamps are “on,” instead of indicating headlamps’ full-beam, presumably on the sensible assumption that no-one but a clot will leave a car in the garage with the headlamps alight but many of us might omit to douse the sidelamps. Then, in conjunction with the direction-flashers, the warning light is in the form of a transparent knob, movement of which reduces the intensity of this warning light for night driving. Facia lighting is of sensible intensity but not controllable. Incidentally, the Fiat uses very full flashing equipment, at sides as well as on the rear of the car.

The oval speedometer, with its four indicator windows or gauges, is hooded and placed immediately before the driver. This speedo meter is absolutely “up-to-the-minute” in being of ribbon type, the ribbon running from loft to right to indicate speeds from zero to 90 m.p.h. This replacement of needle by ribbon is quite attractive, if less easy to read than a conventional speedometer, accentuated on the Fiat because the marks on the scale merely have figures every 20 m.p.h., and line-indications every 10 m.p.h. There is a total mileage recorder but this is devoid of decimals and no trip recorder is provided. The indicator windows, from left to right, comprise the aforesaid sidelamps-indicator with dynamo-indicator incorporated, oil warning light, a “reserve” fuel warning, intended to draw attention to a low petrol level but rather erratic in action, and a fuel gauge reading merely 0, ½, 4/4, but sensibly pessimistic about its zero warning. The other controls consist of knobs under the facia, controlling, from left to right, the very efficient heater, cold air, choke and hand-throttle. As there are only four, the locations are easily memorised, so the fact that apparently irrelevant letters and unidentifyable symbols are used on these controls is of little consequence. There is a fan, brought in by a small facia switch, to render the heater effective when the car is stationary, but this is not normally needed, so efficient heating is accomplished without noise. Between the knobs is a central, rather seductive, rubber push that operates the screenwashers.

The metal facia of the Fiat contains a somewhat small cubbyhole with non-lockable lid equipped with a simple catch. Below this there is a useful parcel’s receptacle, in front of the passenger. On the back of the front-seat squab is a much-appreciated parcels’ net, which will take a ladies’ umbrella, and there is also the usual useful shelf behind the back seat. So, although in the modern trend door-pockets are lacking, there is adequate stowage. When it comes to real luggage the boot is commendably spacious, notably so for a car of modest size. It has a lid which locks and which props open and releases automatically, while the spare wheel lies under the floor of the boot.

Reverting to the minor controls, the wipers are controlled by a tiny facia switch which is depressed to self-park them. The dash lighting is controlled from a matching switch on the steering-column control box. A knob in the centre of the pleasant two-spoke wheel, labelled “FIAT.” sounds a useful horn.

Each of the four doors has an armrest, and the designer gains marks for lilting anti-draught plastic screens to all the windows which makes quarter-windows in the front doors unnecessary, but loses marks for not using trailing front doors, although the rear doers trail. The simple alley rustproof handles move downwards to lock the doors; a safety-first feature whether intended or incidental, and the driver’s door possesses a simple, easily operated lock, with its own key, a second key being provided for ignition, which, turned, actuates the starter.

The front windows need 5½ turns from up to down, the back ones, which only go half-way down, just over 3 turns. The bench front seat adjusts easily, with the locking lever well placed on its right. There is a propeller-shaft tunnel but it is not too pronounced. The front-wheel wells slightly restrict front-passenger leg room. The high seat limits head room but contributes to the sense of control the driver has over the car. There are twin anti-dazzle vizors, matching the roof upholstery, but there is no mirror on the passenger’s. Spring-up “pulls” are provided to assist the infirm to leave the back seat, and there are roof lamps in each rear corners additional to a lamp in the rear view mirror, the latter actuated by opening the front doors. The screen-wipers, by the way, function with the ignition “off,” which I like.

The interior finish of Continental cars, even inexpensive ones, is no longer unduly spartan and this applies to the Fiat 1100. There is the aforesaid somewhat restricted centrally-mounted anti-dazzle mirror, incorporating a lamp, and lidded ashtrays for front and rear compartments. The bumpers have ample wrap-round, all glass is Securit safety, and the screw-thread petrol filler Cap on the rear near side is lockable. The doors shut rather “tinnily.”

The bonnet-lid props automatically but has to be released by hand over the four-cylinder 43-b.h.p. alloy-head o.h.v. engine, with oil-filler on the valve cover, is a big Fiat air cleaner. The dip-stick is accessible, the Solex carburetter has a drip-tray, there is a rubber cover over the battery, transparent plastic fuel pipes, and the Foredit screen-washer reservoir is easy to replenish. The lubrication system incorporates an Italian Fram filter. A very worth-while point is the fitting of under-bonnet lighting. The steering linkage is unusual and easily studied, as it is located largely under the bonnet forward of the bulkhead. This latest Fiat Millecento has been somewhat restyled, the rear lamps quite large and the central spotlamp now omitted from the radiator grille. The car provides ample accommodation for five, with much luggage. Incidentally, the individual item of a transmission parking-brake is retained.

On the road this Fiat exhibits far more “personality” and a better performance than its modest, if handsome, appearance suggests. It used to be said that Turin bred mountain-tested cars of outstanding quality. This remains true.

This particular Italian car has soft suspension (coil-spring i.f.s., ½-elliptic leaf rear springs, anti-roll bar) which permits quite a lot of up-and-down motion, yet the Millecento hustles round corners quite impeccably, with just a trace of understeer, roll not being present to any noticeable degree. The steering is extremely light once the wheels are rolling and, although there is some lost motion which rocks the steering wheel at times, this is sensitive, accurate steering, with sensibly mild castor-return, the wheel transmitting scarcely any vibration and no kick-back. It would be even more sensitive had there not been about an inch of free movement at the wheel rim-the car had run about 6,000 miles. The ratio calls for just over three turns, lock-to-lock, for a turning circle of 34½ ft.

To drive the little Fiat fast is a rare pleasure, a combination of good handling, “quick” steering and the excellent driving position making this family saloon a “driver’s ” car. It was embarrassing to have the slogan “Fiat Leads the Way” displayed in the back window-it made ambitious drivers lean on our rear bumper, and we do net blame them. But usually only much larger cars could do anything about it !

The engine encourages fast Motoring. It is noisy by our standards, from a suggestion of a slack tappet at low speeds to power-roar and some exhaust burble as speed rises. But how it gets the car along !

The absolute maximum is somewhat below 80 m.p.h. but the Fiat reaches 70 m.p.h. very quickly and cruises at this speed quite comfortably. In the lower gears speedometer-speeds of 29, 46 and 65 m.p.h. are attainable and although in normal driving rather lower speeds will be used, maxima of well over 40 in second and over 60 m.p.h. in third gear are very acceptable. Yet, lively as the engine is, it offers a surprisingly good top-gear performance, the Fiat running down to 20 in this 4.3-to-1 ratio. Quite appreciable hills can be ascended in top if the revs. are reasonably high as climbing commences, although, naturally, once the revs. drop a change-down is desirable to maintain the very respectable performance.

Measured by stop-watch this performance represents 0-50 m.p.h. in 14 sec., 0-60 m.p.h. in 20.1 sec., and a s.s. ¼-mile in under 23 sec. Such briskness could excusably imply a fuel consumption of around 30 m.p.g. or less. Not it bit of it-the Fiat 1100 returned 36.1 m.p.g. of National Benzole during a check which embraced 50/50 fast driving and local pottering, with several cold starts. This is beyond criticism, especially as the range on a tankful exceeds 300 miles.

The headlamps give a very good beam and are effective when dipped.

The engine finds mid-priced petrol acceptable; it does not “pink” or run-on. It required only a pint of oil in 1,500 miles’ running but consumed a surprising quantity of water. It appears to be used to a warm climate, calling for a good deal of choke and warming-up for morning starts in England. No trouble developed, apart from loss of cooling water and some noise from the speedometer drive.

If engine-noise is fairly high, wind-noise is commendably low and very few rattles come from the body. The seating is particularly comfortable, and although the pedals are small they are nicely located, with a treadle accelerator having visible linkage, and ample space for parking one’s clutch foot. The clutch action is very light and faintly fierce, with some lost-motion at the pedal. The Pirelli “Extraflex” tyres (English-made) have a prominent tread and howl mildly when direction is changed at quite low speeds or if the brakes are applied not at all fiercely. This no doubt contributes pleasant background music to the Italian acetic but does draw attention to the car when such is not merited. The Cavello headlamps are hooded and the test-car had a small label on its screen proclaiming it a “Friend of TV.,” i.e., electrically suppressed.

Nothing else about the Fiat 1100 suffers from suppression, and there will he many drivers who will fall for the excellent performance, economy and subtle charm of the Millecento. On 1,089 c.c. it does more than many 1½-litre ears, although it is no lightweight ! It is priced at £578 10s., which import duty and purchase tax inflate to £869 2s.–W. B.

THE FIAT 1100 SALOON

Engine : Four cylinders, 68 by 75 mm. (1,089 c.c.). Push-rod-operated o.h. valves. 7.0-to-1. compression-ratio. 43 b.h.p. at 4,800 r.p.m.

Gear ratios : First, 16.59 to 1; second, 10.23 to 1; third, 6.75 to 1; top, 4.30 to 1.

Tyres : 5.20-14 Pirelli “Extraflex” on bolt-on steel disc wheels.

Weight : 17 cwt. 0 qtr. 0 lb. (without occupants but ready for the road, with approximately two gallons of petrol).

Steering ratio : 3 1/10, turns, lock-to-lock.

Fuel capacity : 8¼ gallons. (Range approximately 301 miles.)

Wheelbase : 7 ft. 8 in.

Track : Front, 4 ft. 0 in.; rear, 3 ft. 11¾ in.

Dimensions : 12 ft. 4 3/8; in. by 4 ft. 9½ in. by 4 ft. 10½ in. (high).

Price : £578 10s. (£869 2s. inclusive of purchase tax).

Concessionaires : Fiat (England) Ltd., Water Road. Wembley, Middlesex.

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