Harold Biggs discusses a satisfactory 50,000 miles in a Fiat 500.
As if to celebrate the return to sanity of its country of origin, when passing over Highgate Archway on the morning of September 8th, 1943, my standard 1936-series Fiat 500 clocked its 50,000th mile. I was, at the time of the original test reports on the new Fiat 500, only interested from an academic point of view, and it was not until early 1938 that I actually drove one of these incomparable little cars. In May I was approached by one of my customers, of the so-called gentler sex, with the request to take her Riley “Gamecock” in part exchange for one. Having contacted my friend Owen Finch, then controlling West Weybridge Motors, one was located, the property of the late Eric Fernihough, of immortal fame as a world’s record holder with his Brough Superior. Finch brought this car up for a demonstration, and I was at once impressed by the roadholding, braking and general performance. The deal being completed, I collected the car from Weybridge and, of course, dropped in at the track for a few laps, and was surprised at being able to hold a speedometer 62 (actual about 58) all round the Byfleet.
The new owner ran the car throughout 1938, but, in the winter, began to be dissatisfied with its cold starting, being one of those people who pull out the rich mixture control, then the starter button, until something happens – in this case the battery running down. All this culminated in her leaving the car out one sub-zero night, which brought an agonised call that the cooling water had disappeared from its rightful home and reappeared in the sump. I consulted Fiats as to the likelihood of a cracked block, and they reassured me by saying that it was in all probability the core plugs behind the valve stems which had pushed out, thus saving the block. This was indeed true, but I shall never forget being towed up from Guildford in thick slush which obscured the windscreen, by one of my mechanics who believed in “safety fast.”
The freezing occurrence so frightened the owner of the car that in the spring of 1939 I took the car back in part exchange for an Austin Ten saloon, and FPE176 became my property. At first I used the Fiat for London work when spares were needed in a hurry, the ability of the little car to slip through traffic gaps being a great asset. I am sure that no faster car through pre-war London traffic exists; its acceleration away from traffic lights used to infuriate chauffeurs of lordly limousines, and some amusing incidents were experienced by their efforts to leave the aggravating “Topolino” behind. I was unconvinced that, on a long run, any respectable average speed could be maintained, until June, 1939, when I had occasion to go down to Bristol for Macdermid’s wedding. Early in June I had been down to Mac’s to see his rear-engined trials-special nearing completion, and had taken the late John Cumming with me in his light Railton, which was in the process of being run in. It was then decided to baptise the “special” at the wedding reception. Came the day before the event and I found that my Riley was in dock, the Railton was on the continent, my trials Austin was being rebuilt, and the only available car was FPE176. I doubted the ability of the little engine to stand being flogged for 120-odd miles, and it was with some trepidation that my wife and I left Putney on the morning of June 17th, at 10.27. Having discovered the technique for passing other cars of approximately the same speed (that is, continuing flat out to within six feet, to obtain the benefit of the slip stream, then whipping out and past) to my absolute amazement we averaged 87.2 m.p.h. for the whole journey! The convoy down to the church was of intense interest, led by the groom and best man in a Fiat 500. My own Fiat followed, and behind this came the “Three Musketeers,” Bastock, Langley and Green in the M.G. trials car, Ken Crawford bringing up the rear in an S.S. 100. The sight of so many top hats in sports cars had probably never been seen before, nor will again. I will not describe the ceremony or christening of the “special.” Suffice it to say that our return journey to London was done at about the same average speed, the consumption working out at 45 m.p.g.
This run completely changed my opinion of Fiats, so much so that we decided to use the car for our customary holiday in North Cornwall. Loaded with suitcases and surfboards, in appalling weather, thunder, cloudbursts and the like, we put 100 miles into three hours, and 264 miles into eight hours on that occasion. Returning, in better weather, long upgrades were climbed in third at a steady 40, and only two cars passed and got away, a Ford V8 coupé which, I observed, carried a B.A.R.C. badge, and a “Paris-Nice” Hotchkiss.
So it was that when war was declared I knew that the most suitable car in the circumstances would be the Fiat. My partner, who held a commission in the Territorials, took my Riley, and the business was closed down for duration. That Christmas (1939) I had proof of the robustness of Fiat construction. Travelling in fog over icy surfaces in the Epping area I had to pull out to avoid a car which had stopped, and the Fiat went into a broadside. I was just congratulating myself on getting the car past whilst in a slide, when I found myself on one side in the offside ditch. A car had been using me as a pilot through the fog, the driver had been rash enough to use his brakes hard on the ice, and he had rammed the Fiat’s rear. When put on its wheels once more I could proceed after a little panel-beating to the off-side rear wing, which was then inside the wheel instead of outside. Upon further examination, the body was found to be absolutely untouched; even the doors hung perfectly.
About this time, I see from my diary, another epic run was recorded – on the North Circular Road the car covered 21 miles in a standing half-hour. This I consider exceptional for a standard job with passenger.
I did not use the Fiat a great deal during my time with the L.C.C. but, as I had to examine and pass the work of the majority of the best-known London firms in the Trade, I was in an excellent position to find out where the good fitters were employed. I decided that the most satisfactory jobs were done by the smaller firms, and I was fortunate enough to find one that was interested in Fiats and had a mechanic who was an expert craftsman – Butcher’s Garage, of Queen’s Gate Place Mews, and the mechanic, Bill Tilee, to whom can be given all the credit of the Fiat’s subsequent performance.
In April, 1940, to celebrate the arrival of a son and heir, the Fiat was re-cellulosed a real Tazio-scarlet by Whittingham and Mitchell. It was amusing to note their foreman painter’s absolute refusal to paint the wheels red; he was convinced that black would be more suitable, so black they were. I hadn’t a say in the matter! In the winter of 1940 I effectively cured for good and all the cold starting difficulties, by fitting a full-size 12-volt battery. Incidentally, I was amused by another “500” which was garaged in Queen’s Gate Place Mews and was the property of one, Cholmondeley, whom readers of Motor Sport will remember as owning the special 4-seater 8-litre Bentley built by McKenzie. He had transferred the battery from the 8-litre to the Fiat, and it was so large that it stood on the rear seat and only just fitted between the wheel arches. Looking inside the car it would appear to be an electric brougham. I often wondered how far the starter would have driven the car.
In January, 1941, at 27,284 miles, the car was re-bored, the crankshaft reground, rods and mains re-metalled and fitted by the excellent Bill; two universals, a routine replacement, were also fitted. The starter was overhauled and the ball-pins packed to cut out the colossal wheel flap from which all Fiats suffer at some time or another. A reconditioned carburetter was also fitted, this restoring lost m.p.g. At this time Butcher was fitting a Siata overhead-valve conversion to his personal green “500”; and I had the good fortune of trying this interesting little car. It had a maximum slightly higher than the sidevalve version, and the exhaust note was definitely harder and more impressive, but I still think that with the attention to detail one would give in the search for performance the side-valve engine could be made to develop sufficient power to equal that of the Siata engine.
During 1941 I did not use the Fiat much, but the “basic” fuel ration permitted the car to be used for attending the monthly meetings of the 750 Club, and I remember pulling out on to the Great West Road ahead of Secretary Capon in his Riley and keeping ahead down to the Osterley. Bunny Tubbs, of the Motor, who was with Capon, was convinced that I had a Siata head until the bonnet was opened. The end of 1941 saw me sufficiently recovered from illness to take over a position with Adlards Motors, and in January, 1942, I had the only crash experienced which damaged the car. Early one morning, inside the black-out period, I left home intending to get to my destination a little earlier than usual. The first bend seemed a trifle slippery, but, as this is always so, I thought nothing of it. The second, a left-hand semi-circle, saw me travelling quite quickly, and the car went straight on, then spun round – black ice! The rapidly approaching headlights of a lorry made me consider my past life, when suddenly the car dived to the near side and rammed the kerb really hard. I got out and felt very weak; the lorry had actually removed my off-side wing mirror! The road was so completely iced that it wasn’t until a policeman pointed it out at the “Elephant” that the near side wheel was shaped like an eight that I noticed it. Very fortunately for me there had been a “500” under our Putney branch when the flats there were blitzed. I was able to collect a wheel and take the car over to Butcher’s where the front end was straightened and the opportunity was taken of fitting new king pins and bushes, also a steering box bush, so banishing the wheel wobble bogey for good. I also borrowed a wheel from Butcher’s black fixed-head “500,” whilst another slightly buckled one was being trued. An amusing tale attaches to this black car. When bought it had a perpetual miss on one cylinder and a complete lack of compression or resistance on the same cylinder. When the head was removed it was found that one piston and rod were absent. Its previous owner said that a noise developed at one time and, on taking it to a garage in the Hatfield neighbourhood, she was told to leave it with them for a time. When the owner returned, the noise had disappeared but, she said, it had always seemed to run very roughly since. It says a lot for the sturdy little Fiat crank that it stood up to this abuse. Needless to say, it was with difficulty that Butcher obtained a con.-rod to complete the engine rebuild, as Fiat spares at that time were difficult to obtain.
In May of this year the car suddenly started to boil and water appeared in the sump. I at once assumed that the core plugs were leaking and, as I had to go away on the Saturday, drained the sump, put two cans of “Neverleak” in the radiator and completed the journey, taking care to drain the radiator when standing. On my return I was disappointed to find that at Butcher’s Garage they were too busy to look at the car and I had to take it to another firm able, I had hoped, to do the job. Owing to my core-plug suggestion they took the unit out, only to find that the head had perforated over No. 2 bore. A new head was obtained from Fiats and the engine decarbonised. The car was, at this time, doing a 38-mile journey each day and having to give the service one expects from any public transport vehicle, so the absolute minimum of time could be spent on maintenance.
One weak point about these early “500s” was the electrical equipment, and I was fortunate enough to have a service generator and starter so that I could change over these components whilst the defective one was being skimmed, undercut and re-brushed. The consumption of generator brushes seemed inordinately high. Hereabouts I had oversize pins made for the rear shock absorber mountings, as they had become noisy. At 41,000 miles new front hub taper-bearings became necessary, the wear being apparent on fast S bends and at 42,000 miles the clutch appeared to be going to cause trouble as it became very fierce. Again I was forced to take the car to another garage, who dismantled the clutch and said that it was all right. but that the gear lever turret was cracked, This being of alloy I had it changed for the later pattern malleable turret. The clutch continued to give trouble, finally going up solid in Queen’s Gate Place Mews outside Butcher’s Garage. In one working day they had the unit out, replaced the clutch toggle fulcrum pins (one of which had broken) with the later 8 mm. type, and the car was on the road again.
Later on I had, during a decoke, the 12 mm. plug holes tapped out to take 14 mm. plugs, so that I could have a range of plugs available if the compression ratio was ever raised. At the 46,000th mile a tinkling noise from the front end demanded investigation. This turned out to be all the front spring leaves broken save the master, which stood between myself and disaster. Here again the job was done in the day, this being of ultimate importance as, owing to my health, it was inadvisable to travel long distances by train. At 48,000 miles the starter outrigger bearing collapsed, letting the armature make contact with the pole pieces, with a resultant dead-short, much smoke, and smell. This was overcome, the car having to be started with the special long handle I made for it, the standard handle-cum-wheelbrace being useless.
For a good many thousand miles I had been listening to the back axle with growing apprehension and so, when I went away for the short summer holiday this year, I left the car with Butcher. Bill found that the differential case races had practically disappeared and that the pinion race was not feeling too good. These parts were replaced, and I trust I have avoided a major hold up, as axle parts are practically unobtainable. This axle overhaul marked the 49,000th mile, and we are nearing the end of the tale. No other trouble manifested itself except that on the night we invaded Sicily the car played the despicable trick of burning out its indicator light and letting its cutout stick in, at one and the same time. This resulted in the battery running itself flat overnight. Fortunately, I managed to get a tow sufficiently fast to provide sparks from the coil, and I hereafter drove up to town with the hand throttle well open and picked up a charged battery from Butcher’s, my reaction being immediately to fit a battery master switch, which is religiously used at all long stops.
That, then, is my 50,000 miles in the Fiat. I daresay that I have experienced all the troubles that they are heir to and which have been exorcised from the later, half-elliptic-rear-suspended series. I have, by the way, had some further trouble since the 50,000th mile, with the brake master cylinder losing fluid. With glee I removed the master cylinder from Reg. Canham’s ex-George Symond’s 1939 “500” to fit whilst my cylinder was overhauled, only to find that the late “500s” had a 1-in, master cylinder against the 1936 series 3/4-in.; new cups and pistons for the small pattern are absolutely unobtainable, but with his usual resource Butcher located a cylinder assembly at a breaker’s, and I am now having mine ground out to 7/8-in. to take the smallest English-made piston.
Brakes I have not mentioned, but I have had mine relined every 10,000 miles, and no doubt the larger pattern fitted to the 1938 Fiat would last longer. I am making no claims for mileage per gallon, but will just say that it is very, very good considering all my journeys are inside the London area. The speed is still satisfactory, and whatever happens the car owes me nothing at all. All I could wish for is one of the later series, which gives better riding and has the starter, clutch, oil pump and brakes modified to cope with the defects of the 1936 series. A worth-while fitting to all Fiats is an S.U. pump, as this cures the starvation caused by the gravity feed when running with a low head of fuel and the annoying hold-ups caused by dirt in the reserve-tap position. All Butcher’s Fiats have had pump feed, and I have a pump in my garage awaiting fitting, but the 50,000 miles have been covered as standard, ex-Turin.