Great cars: The Fiat 508S Sports Balilla

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In it’s day the little sports version of the Fiat 508S Balilla was a much sought after car, which left a very profound mark on the sporting scene in Europe and, most notably, in this country. Yet it was a development of the ordinary Fiat Balilla, which did not pretend to be anything more than useful family transport. With, however, the proviso that in the just-pre-WW2 era most Continental small saloons possessed better handling and other aspects of control than their rather more soggy and less inspired British counterparts. Starting at the unquestioned summit, with the splendid Lancia Aprilia, other foreigners, like the Fiat 500 Topolino (compare with the Austin Ruby), two-stroke DKW, and the 1100cc Fiat Balilla pillarless saloon, I regard as making this all too clearly evident.

These good cornering and steering characteristics in sporting versions of modest economy cars from Italy, France and Germany were apparent in the very attractive sports Fiat Balilla, as discerning British trials, rally and racing amateurs were quick to realise. They soon saw that they were in for something rather special, in the class of low-priced, competition cars of modest engine size. At this time, in the 1930s, there was a prolific amount going on to attract the sporting motorist – long distance road rallies, mud-trials, the long-haul MCC historic trials, and racing for amateurs and the more experienced at Brooklands and elsewhere. For these pursuits the smart little sports Fiat was significantly useful…

This Tipo 508S made its appearance in 1934, with the push-rod overhead-valve version of the former sidevalve 65x75mm (995cc) engine, which developed 36bhp, the compression ratio as high as 7.1:1 in spite of the cast-iron head. But it was the high gearing and light weight of the 508S Balilla which gave it a performance competitive against that of current British small sportscars. It may have been the influence of mudtrials that had endowed the latter with low gearing, whereas the high ratios of the Fiat allowed it to attain 60mph in the third ratio of its fourspeed gearbox and a top pace of over 70mph, the highest gear being 4.3:1, compared to the PB MG’s 5.75 and the Le Mans Singer Nine’s 5.57:1. Moreover, the Balilla had close ratios and this, with a 11.5cwt overall weight, endowed it with a useful effortless cruising gait. Indeed, that 60mph in third was reached at 4400rpm, when our small sportscars would be revving at some 5000rpm, and there were hydraulic brakes to aid the exploitation of the Fiat’s lively demeanour. The wheelbase was 7ft 61/2in, and those gear ratios were 14.4, 8.6, 5.7 and 4.1:1. Even so the 0-50mph time was 18.6sec, compared to 20.4sec. for the MG-P-type, with 0-60 in 30.4sec against 32.2sec; which may get Abingdon advocates on my back…

The three-bearing engine had full pressure lubrication and a downdraught Zenith carburettor, and the standard 508S had a 10-gallon petrol tank. The high gearing was aided by 17in tyres, at first on bolt-on disc wheels though knock-off hubs became available as soon as the dictates of competition work demanded them. So, an attractive mechanical specification. The price was about right also – £299 in 1934, against £222 for an MG Midget, but soon reduced to £288. Nor was the attractive sports two-seater’s affinity in the region of body styling and fascia layout to that of a Zagato Alfa Romeo ignored. How could our sporting fraternity resist it?

In fact, the Fiat 508S was very much the car to which many British drivers turned for competition sorties. But only very small quantities of the sports Balilla emerged from Turin, home of Italy’s giant which, owning most of that country, made me respect these cars, even to wanting to own them. For whereas about 113,000 Tipo 508 were built between 1932, when the saloon models were introduced, and 1937, a mere 500 508S cars are thought to have been made, including the NSU, Simca and other variants. 200 of these were sidevalve three-speed Series 1 models, the remainder fourspeed 508S Balillas, not all of’ which had the ohv engine. (Before I am accused of being a top statistician I must say that I owe this information to the Fiat Register and to David Venables, who owns one of these 508 Fiats to the 1935-36 IT specification.) All that remain, it seems, are some 50 to 70 cars, and it is doubtful if more than 18 are still in the UK. It has been rumoured that anti-Italian feeling over Abyssinia may have curtailed sales there, so that of the 48 series-2 ohv 508S cars which Fiat originally imported in 1935/36, a dozen were returned. They came to England as bare but rhd mud-guarded chassis, clad here with bodywork which had a slight tail fin as a distinguishing feature.

On the competition front, what a fine record! One can point to class wins in the Mille Miglia, at Le Mans, in the 24-hour Spa race, the Targa Florio, the GP de l’ACF and in the Ulster TT. As late as 1952 Metcalfe drove a Balilla to a class victory in Boreham’s International 100-mile sportscar race.

Amateur drivers also chalked up numerous successes. They were encouraged to purchase the Fiat 508S when Fiat Ltd got Dudley Froy and J Wren to do a 1000-mile stint round and round the Brooklands Mountain circuit on the eve of the 1934 Olympia Show. They averaged 55.11mph (in spite of the 1700 corners) and 21mpg, and used five pints of oil. I was told that Wren did the bulk of the work, Froy turning up to cover the final triumphant laps…

Then there followed all those good performances by drivers such as Tuson, Metcalfe, Westwood, Tenbosch, Ian Smith, A C Dobson, Elsie Wisdom, Miss Chaff, Stanley Tett (who won a Blackpool Rally), and many others. The LCC Relay Races at the Track saw a trio of Balilla three-car teams in one of them, and A C Westwood’s ‘Black Diamond’ team of these Fiats is well remembered. Added to this there were many more Continental successes which space does not allow me to list, but of which a win in the small-car category of the 1936 Monte Carlo Rally should be noted, and that with a Balilla saloon, from which the Spyder sportscars were developed. It has been said, in jest of course, that even Frazer Nashes cannot equal the Fiat bag of successes…

Most certainly great little cars, which achieved much and made many friends while they were in production from 1934 to 1937.

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