An Attractive Farina-styled Convertible, with Light Controls and an Exceedingly Smooth and Economical Engine
I AM indebted to Fiat (England) Ltd. for lending me for test one of the Fiat 1500 two-seaters which first appeared at Earls Court last year, not only because it was delightful to be able to imagine for a spell that I was a wealthy Italian living in a castle above the deep blue waters of Lake Como and motoring with the top down under perennially sunny skies, instead of being a poor overworked motoring writer condemned to the perpetual rains of England, but also because I thus discovered a very desirable little motor car.
The basis of the Tipo 118S Fiat 1500 is a very handsome and well-arranged body by Farina and the OSCA-type Tipo 118 twin o.h.c. 1,491-c.c. power unit of “square” dimensions. The result is a sports car delightful both to regard and to drive. The engine has its twin camshafts driven by double chains, uses a Weber 28-36 DCLD3 carburetter, has twin two-branch exhaust outlets, and develops 90 S.A.E. h.p. on a compression-ratio of 8.68 to 1.
Even before attaining the open road in this delectable Fiat, some of its outstanding merits become apparent. Thus the driver finds all the controls extremely light, and the engine uncannily quiet and as smooth as a “six,” quite belying the fact that it is a four-cylinder racing-type power unit.
The four well-chosen gear ratios are changed by a short, but not stubby, central gear-lever, spring-loaded towards the two higher ratios, which protrudes from the transmission tunnel that bisects the front compartment. This lever selects the gears with a light, smooth movement, and extremely rapid changes of ratio can be made. Only the two lower gears are apt to be noisy, emitting a mild hum, although the box makes a low “fizz” at all times. A faint tendency to hang up between neutral and the next gear is not entirely masked by rubber-mounting of the large knob on this slender lever. Bottom gear engages easily, reverse is equally easy to select beyond top, and if the lateral movements are rather great, generally the Fiat has a quite delightful gear-change. It is backed by a smooth positive clutch.
Driver and passenger have separate seats which give very complete support and great comfort. They adjust over a considerable range by means of levers not on the seats themselves but on the crossmember before them, so that the handles remain static as the seats slide—a nice touch of refinement. The Nardi wood-rimmed steering wheel is complementary to the beauty of the Fiat 1500 but is set rather high, so that its rim blanks slightly the view of the near-side front wing, both wings otherwise being in full view. This wheel carries a big horn push, bearing the Fiat motif, that sounds a penetrating note or just a mild warning according to touch.
Generally, the driving position is good, and the brake pedal is sufficiently close to the rather frail treadle accelerator pedal to enable the engine to be speeded up as the driver brakes. The wheel is slightly biased to the right of the driver’s ” mid-on” stance.
The hand-brake lever is set on the left of the propeller-shaft tunnel on left-hand-drive cars, quite conveniently placed, although you have to stoop slightly to reach it. An unusual feature is a big “grappling bar” between the seats.
The doors shut nicely and contain wind-up safety glass windows, fully lifted by four turns of the handles, which have rotating fingergrips. There are no door pockets but elastic-topped pockets are provided on the sides of the scuttle, and there is a generous space behind the seats, on which we accommodated two children for brief journeys. Each door has an arm-rest-cum-pull, possesses a simple “keep” and an internal handle neatly out of the way below the arm-rest. There are no quarter-lights and the windows tended to stick and to foul the hood when this was erect.
The facia layout and arrangement of the minor controls are very nicely planned. The facia is very narrow except for the hooded instruments. These consist of matching speedometer, reading to 200 k.p.h. in clear steps of 20 k.p.h., and a tachometer indicating up to “80,” or 8,000 r.p.m. These instruments have slender white needles moving in the same plane and reading with truly commendable steadiness. The red band occupies from 6,500 r.p.m. on the tachometer, but 7,500 r.p.m. is permissible when you are trying.
The speedometer dial contains the warning light for “dinamo” and the tachometer incorporates a water thermometer with red sector beyond the white, and an oil-pressure gauge which put its needle habitually to beyond the stop at 70 lb./sq. in., even when the sump level approached minimum, normal pressure being 85 lb./sq. in. The speedometer incorporates total and trip-with decimal distance recorders, and a “benzins” gauge marked 0, 1/2, 4/4, with a warning light when sufficient petrol for only about 40 miles remains.
The facia treatment is wood fillets flanking a shallow plated band. Before the passenger is a Farina motif, a neat spring-loaded pull-out ash-drawer, a cigarette lighter (which glows at night), and a horizontal grab handle. The under edge of the facia is crash-padded.
On the driver’s side of this unusual facia is a tiny plated tumbler switch which, in the Fiat style, puts on the lamps, side, headlamp, full beam or headlamps dipped being selected thereafter by a long stalk-lever on the left of the steering column. Next to this is the ignition key-cum-starter, and all the remaining minor controls consist of similar tiny switches to that for the lamps, these being set in line below the facia, an unusual but very effective arrangement. From left to right, these switches control the wipers (the switch being held down to park them), interior lamp (adequate, although shining on the floor), heater fan, and facia lighting. There are also a choke knob, rubber button for the screen washers, and hand-throttle set down by the steering column. The facia top-lining is removable to give access to the instruments. The interior lamp lights when either door is opened.
Below the centre of the facia are two plated levers selecting ” Chiuso,” ” Interno,” ” Cristallo,” ” Freddo ‘ and” Caldo ” on the efficient heater, and cold air applied to the screen really does give full demisting even under humid conditions.
The direction-flashers are controlled by a rather-too-short left-hand stalk above the lamps-switch stalk, and they tend to self-cancel rather too willingly. The mirror is mounted on the facia and gives a rather restricted view; it has smoked glass. The bonnet release lever for the forward-hinged bonnet top panel is close to the left-hand aide of the sciatic and functions well. The heater/ventilation fan is noisy but not aggressively, so, and the screen wipers are reasonably quiet and very efficient.
The foregoing details probably make dull reading unless you are personally interested in purchasing one of these Fiats, but from them it should be possible to appreciate the excellent detail evident in this handsome Italian car. Another refinement is the clustering of the warning lights for lights-on, flashers in action, and lamps full-beam before the driver where they can be easily reached so that they can be dimmed at night by rotating their glasses. There is a receptacle for an inspection lamp up under the facia. The seat squabs tilt forward to give access to the shelf behind them but the driver’s is then apt to sound the horn inadvertently.
It is refinements like the foregoing that place the Fiat 1500 above the common-run of cars, but an outstanding aspect of the Farina body is the cabriolet hood. This can be easily raised or lowered by one occupant front within the car, and in “impossible” weather remained fully water-proof. It took an inexperienced operator a mere 21 seconds to raise this excellent hood, and he lowered it in 31 seconds, two simple but strong toggles pulling the hood onto the screen rail. When lowered the hood disappears into the well and is covered by a leather-cloth apron. Thus the Fiat 1500 is a true convertible, ideal for our quickly-changing climate. Apart from the grab handles provided for the passenger, there is an ingenious footrest which can be folded forward to give support to short persons, leg room in the car being extremely generous.
On the road the Fiat 1500 lives up to the quality found when closely inspecting it. Gear-change, clutch, and throttle could hardly function more lightly and smoothly, which is in keeping with the silent, smooth manner in which this Fiat runs. When opening up there is that harsh, purposeful note beloved by enthusiasts, but even then the car is never noisy.
The brakes are in keeping, providing silent, extremely powerful retardation for very low pedal pressures. Although in emergency stops the back wheels tend to lock, the car pulls up in a straight line.
The gear ratios are satisfactorily high and consequently bottom can be used effectively for acceleration in traffic, while in the higher gears the twin-cam engine, which runs like a turbine, is always well within itself, normally turning within the 4,000-5,000 r.p.m. band, whereas 6,500 or even 7,500 r.p.m. are permissible. The makers give the maxima after running-in as 31, 50, 71 and 106 m.p.h., respectively, but this seems on the conservative side. For example, I saw nearly 44 m.p.h. in first gear and 65 m.p.h. in second gear, by speedometer readings, without exceeding 6,500 r.p.m. Likewise, some 81 m.p.h. (indicated) came up in third gear without pressing the very willing engine very hard. No opportunity arose to time the Fiat flat-out, but it obviously exceeds “the ton” by a very comfortable margin.
In top the car is geared at just under 20 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m., so that an 80-m.p.h. cruising speed can be held without exceeding much above 4,000 r.p.m., which is chicken-feed to the OSCA engine. While on the subject of performance I must confess that wet roads prevailed for most of the test, discouraging the recording of acceleration figures, which were ruined by wheelspin. But during one break in the floods I repeatedly timed the Fiat to cover the s.s. 1/4-mile in 20 secs. exactly, two up, and 0-100 k.p.h. (indicated) occupied 11 1/2 secs. The 1/4-mile sprint was concluded at an indicated 82 m.p.h. in third gear. First gear is as high as 13-to-1 and some hesitation after the clutch has fully engaged probably added over a second to these times;
As to handling and suspension characteristics, the car rides very comfortably except over bad roads, when there is too much up-and-down movement of the back axle on its leaf-springs. This can throw the car off course at speed, although the faster it is driven the better it rides under such conditions. Otherwise it is a “sure-footed” car, glued to the road on Michelin” X” tyres.
The steering is notably light and smooth, does not transmit kickback or vibration, and has very mild castor-return action. It is high-geared, at 2 1/2 turns lock-to-lock, but somewhat spoilt by lost motion, amounting to about one-eighth of a turn of the splendid Nardi wheel, which gives a feeling of vagueness around the straight ahead position. The under-bonnet steering linkage is certainly astonishingly complex! This is a car to corner fast, with no protest from the Michelins, however, with quick, light steering that masters rear-end breakaway.
The Fiat 1500 asks to be driven fast and is a usefully quick car on cross-country journeys, while on long runs its restful manner of motoring is particularly pleasing. Under the circurnatances it proved unexpectedly economical of the 100-octane petrol which we fed it. Including driving in London traffic, consumption came out at 24.4 m.p.g. on a tankful. The absolute range, of interest to a rally driver able to afford to fill the tank to the brim and not adverse to re-filling from a can, is 220 miles. The bayonet filler cap lives under a locked flap in the near-side back wing, with a drain hole in the well. At times a faint smell of petrol invaded the car. The tank would appear to hold rather less than the maker’s figure of 8.4 gallons. In a total mileage of 737 the oil level fell to the minimum mark on the dipstick, needing 2 1/2 pints to restore it.
I have commented on the effectiveness of the convertible top under English flood-weather conditions. The car was, indeed, entirely raintight in freak downpours, except for two drips of water on the driver’s right foot, entirely excusable under the circumstances. There were a few rattles from the body and a creak from the region of the driving seat; the hood is taut and does not flap, and the doors shut nicely.
With the bonnet open the fascinating racing-type engine is revealed. The slender dipstick is accessible between the exhaust pipes but the hydraulic reservoirs are to some extent masked by the air-cleaner above the Weber carburetter. The detail work should delight engineers. The bonnet panel props open on its own but the prop has to be broken manually before it can be shut. The apparent air-intake on the bonnet is a dummy. The engine starts easily with hardly any choke and never runs on. It needs careful warming up, however.
The boot lid is lockable, afterwards being opened by depressing a push-button. The lid has to be propped open by hand, which I dislike. The capacity is generous, although luggage has to be lifted up into the well-type boot, in which the spare wheel is under the floor. When up, the hood has a big plastic rear window.
At night the Carello headlamps give a rather too-concentrated beam and the cut-off when dimmed is remarkably short.
To sum up, the Tipo 118S Fiat is a delightful car, of great appeal to the keen driver, so pleasantly light are the controls, so unusually smooth and silent is the engine. Yet this is no “boulevard” car, in spite of its indisputably handsome lines, for there is very real performance available if the tachometer needle is taken up towards “the red”. Moreover, this Fiat is a truly practical convertible. Those who like the Italian way of motoring but regard the Alfa Romeo Giulietta as excessively expensive in this country, should look into the merits of the Fiat 1500, which is selling well in Italy and costs here a total of £1,844 after import duty and purchase tax have been paid. I certainly felt that I could go on motoring indefinitely in this Fiat without tiring of its sensible detail layout and the pleasure to be derived from its excellent response and controls. This is too, the very car for rear-engine types, because the engine is set surprisingly far ahead of the front wheels, the hubs of which are roughly in line with No. 4 cylinder!
I cannot resist one final comment— Fiat issue a book of safe motoring hints, translated into English. On page 49 you read: “ALWAYS KEEP TO THE RIGHT : YOU WILL NEVER REGRET IT!” If this is a political injunction I am in full agreement, but if it is a traffichint Fiat drivers in this country are likely to become rather thin in the land! W.B.