The joys of a 1964 Fiat 500

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Andrew Frankel

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I fear I may have been taking my own advice a little too seriously. Almost exactly a year ago in this very slot I wrote about driving three Fiat 500s to the pub and how the memory had eclipsed entirely that of the faster, more expensive cars I’d driven earlier the same day. Yesterday I bought one of them.

Regulars may recall that not only on this site but also in the magazine I have long advocated the merits of small, slow cars with no power relative to large fast ones with enough energy to power a small town. The argument is quite simple: cars are most fun when travelling at their design limitations, and the more readily accessible those limits are, the more fun you’re going to have.

I’ve used it to extol the virtues of the Toyota GT86 with its moderately endowed 2-litre engine and Prius tyres, and I’ve used it to explain why I sold my old Porsche 911 and bought a Peugeot 205GTI. I’ve even wheeled it out to explain the appeal of my 1929 Alvis Silver Eagle. To get the most out a Ferrari F12 you need to be not only very rich and really rather skilled, you need also to go somewhere that’ll not lock you up when they find you exploring its phenomenally high limits. In any of the others named above, I need to go very little further than the end of the lane on which I live.

Still, if you believe all principles are extendable only indefinitely you may yet ponder the wisdom of buying a 1964 Fiat 500 whose engine is both smaller and less powerful than that of the Honda ride-on mower next to which it now sits in my shed. It’s a ‘suicide door’ 500D of which there are fewer than 75 in the UK. And yesterday as I woke to the prospect of driving it 150 miles just to get it home, it is fair to say I wondered too.

No longer. Armed only with a daughter and a map, we plotted the most direct course from Peterborough to the Lower Wye Valley, a route that, save one junction of the M1, involved no motorway at all.

Use such roads and early on a Sunday morning, you can have the country to yourself, even in August. As the day progressed traffic increased but the unintended genius of the 500 is that if you drive it as fast as you can make it go, it just about keeps up with modern cars so you’re never held up. And on the rare occasion you sense you’re delaying someone else, it’s so small you can dart into the smallest gap at the side of the road to let them pass.

But best of all and like all great driver’s cars, it keeps you busy. Driving is not simply guiding a car from one place to the next, or at least it shouldn’t be: it is about working to extract the best from the vehicle so your journey from A to B becomes a collaborative effort. In the 500 that work involves managing its wonderful light but non-synchromesh gearbox, and keeping its tiny engine working right in the upper reaches of its rev range where what little performance it possesses is delivered. It’s about thinking ahead far enough to avoid using its tiny drum brakes and judging just what diabolical liberties you can take to ensure the next corner really won’t require a lift – it is so narrow most roads assume almost double their usual widths, giving you a choice of lines through each corner you’d never even notice in a normal car. Most of all it’s about getting to its maximum sensible cruising speed (about 55mph if the speedo is anywhere near accurate) and doing everything your skill, talent and guile can muster to stay there. And with its perfect steering, featherweight mass and absurdly compact dimensions, it kept us entertained from start to finish.

It took exactly four hours to do the 150 miles including getting both fuel and lost, which is fewer than I’d anticipated. It may be the longest journey it’s ever done in nearly 50 years on the road and from now on it’s going to be used for going to the pub, seeing local mates and taking the kids to school ten miles away. I promise you this: knowing what I know now, if I had a choice of this Fiat or brand new £200,000, 200mph supercar for that journey, it is to the 500 I’d turn every time.

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