The Fiat 500: in a league of its own


Don’t ask how it happened, but last weekend I took three Fiat 500s to the pub.

In fact three of us took one each to a pub, had a swift half, swapped, drove to another pub, swapped again and drove home. All were early ‘60s suicide door examples, all still sporting crash gearboxes and 500 engines one or more of which might have been developing something close to the full 18bhp.

I can’t remember when I last pulled up outside a boozer almost (but not quite) helpless with laughter, but I should do it more often. Of course part of it was the sheer incongruity of both the number and type of transport in use but in the main it was simply the fun we’d had on the way. We were able to drive these little rear-engined mini-masterpieces as fast as it was possible to make them go without once even looking like we might be troubling a speed limit.

My proudest moment came driving the red one which I’d been told had the best engine and using it to sail past the blue one which was pretty slow, even by Fiat 500 standards. Only then, as a sharp downhill right hove into view, did I remember the red one also had by far the most inept suspension of the three and my attempt to get it sufficiently slowed and turned in briefly brought to mind images of squirming early Porsche 917s trying to slow for Mulsanne while travelling almost exactly 200mph faster than me.

On the way home, this time in the white one, which had been properly set up and was just too easy by comparison, it occurred to me that amid all this jolliness lay a serious point. We’d actually been driving other cars all day, cars with proper performance and point-to-point pace and the Fiats were intended merely as petit fours to round off the day. In the event, and once they were safely back in the garage and we were nursing something slightly stronger, the three of us agreed it was the little 500s that had been the unexpected stars of the show.

Of course a lot of this is owed to Dante Giacosa and the team that designed the timeless 500. More fun to drive than a Mini, better looking and quicker through town, it is my favourite small car. But even he could not have predicted the traffic conditions of the early 21st century and how that would play into the 500’s hands. It’s not fun despite being slow, it’s fun because it’s slow. If you drive a 500 as fast as it will go, it will just about keep up with the normal flow in traffic. Which means all you need to do is wait for a gap in that traffic and because you’ll neither gain on the cars ahead, nor will those behind gain on you, you might as well have the road to yourself. And should you slowly catch a car in front, don’t bother trying to overtake because unless it’s another 500 with a sick engine, it won’t be possible. Instead hang back for a couple of minutes and buy yourself another chunk of traffic free road.

Do not mistake me, very fast cars like the Ferrari F12 I wrote about last week will always have their place both on road and track and for a two-week driving holiday in Europe it would be near enough peerless. But for 20-minute country lane trip to the pub, the bar has been set by an arthritic Fiat 500 with dodgy rear suspension. It will take a surprising amount to beat it.

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