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Autotorque by Donn Anderson

 

Fiat’s new 500 is creating headlines the world over, and Italy is going mad with baby Fiat fever.

Donn Anderson looks back at the car’s ancestor, the 500 Bambina and describes the new one.

Older cars are disappearing from our roads at a high rate simply because of the economics of either running or restoring them.

Fiat’s iconic 500 is a vivid example. The 500 is one of the most significant motoring stories of 2007 with the new generation version going on sale in Europe just a few days ago and set to arrive here early next year.

Because of the heritage and styling similarities with its predecessor, plenty of attention will be focused on the original fifties 500 (pictured this page).

It was New Zealand’s cheapest new car back in the 1960, and you could actually buy one without going on a waiting list.

More than 5000 of the baby Fiats were assembled here between 1961 and 1969, and the fleet was swollen by limited numbers of imports.

Yet, remarkably, there are just 360 still running on our roads. A survival rate of seven percent seems abysmal for an outstanding small car but such are the harsh realities of economics.

The Fiat 500’s New Zealand adventure is related in a book by Auckland broadcaster Todd Niall, appropriately named “Bambina”.

Todd still drives the 500 he bought 30 years ago and his book is clearly a labour of love.
When a new and improved 500F model arrived in 1965, Rob Elliott, the managing director of local Fiat distributor, Torino Motors, reckoned the baby Fiat needed a new identity.

Volkswagen had its Beetle and BMC the Mini, so Elliott thought the 500 could be called Bambino – little boy in Italian.

The firm’s advertising agency was concerned this might be taken as a reference to the baby Jesus, so the Italian word for little girl was adopted – Bambina.

It proved highly successful and the name was even adopted by Fiat in Australia. When the car first went on sale in New Zealand, the dealers agreed to reduce their margin so the Fiat could retail at just 499 pounds ($998).

The price soon settled at 646 pounds ($1292 with decimal currency). If the pricetag sounds cheap, think again.

It’s equivalent to around $20,000 in today’s money and is actually more than current entry-level small cars like the Kia Picanto, Holden Barina, Toyota Yaris or Suzuki Swift.

There’s no indication yet on pricing for the 2008 model 500 but some speculate that the car may be relatively expensive – not up in BMW Mini territory, of course, but still costly.

It’s a pity the new generation 500 (pictured facing page) won’t be a truly budget car like its predecessor.

Fiat will need to be careful with pricing for the car to have a reasonable chance in the local market.

But instead of sub-$20,000 retail, there’s a probability of the sticker price being the wrong side of $30,000.

Despite the retro appeal and glamour, this will make sales hard going for the Polish-built baby.

The new car is 3.55m long (slightly less than the current Mini) compared to a mere 2.97 metres for the 1957 car that had a 479cc, two-cylinder air-cooled motor producing a miniscule 13hp.

The old Fiat was rear engined; the new is front-driven and offers petrol and diesel engines.

By the time the first built-up 500s arrived in New Zealand in July 1959, engine output had been boosted to 15 bhp and the fixed door windows had been replaced by wind-ups.

Our market received the sunroof version of the Nuova 500 with a half steel, half roll-back fabric roof in place of the original model’s full-length soft top.

The 500D version from 1960 had 17bhp and from 1972 a larger 594cc engine was fitted with 23bhp and a synchromesh gearbox for the first time.

New Zealand sales peaked at 769 in 1966, but began to decline with the arrival of Japanese cars.

By 1972, micros like the Daihatsu 360 and Honda N360 and 600 were the coming force, yet they would never be remembered like the baby Fiat.

The 1968 sales of the 500 at 355 were well down from 581 the previous year.
In 1973, the last year in which the model was marketed here, 109 were sold.

Auckland-based special repairer of 500s, John Collins, recalls how the price of used 500s fell away in the 1980s and 1990s to the point where people would sometimes give them, away.

Then in the late 1990s and into the new millennium, traders shipped many of New Zealand’s better examples to buyers in Japan and the United States.

At one point 68 good examples were exported from Christchurch within 18 months and some were stolen for export.

At its peak, Collins estimates his business had more than 800 customers.

“[Bambinas] were an engineering masterpiece – simple, and easy to fix once you had worked out the quirks,” he said.

The 500 was the original city car, smaller, lighter and almost as well packaged as the Mini.

The old 500 with its weak structure, poor crash standards, high noise levels and lack of comfort, isn’t a car for today. But in 1960 it was a brilliant package, offering so much within so little.

With a top speed of just over 90km/h, the 500 won the 1962 Mobilgas Economy Run with 57mpg.

Promoting such standard features as a “waterproof” sunshine roof, factory underseal, windscreen washers, a heater/demister and automatic courtesy lights, Torino Motors advertised the 500D as, “A small car, yes, but a real automobile!”

Niall’s Bambina book ($39.95 from Iconic Publishing) records a fascinating story about a classic small car that many New Zealanders still regard with affection.

Liberally illustrated, the book is written in both English and Italian. Ironically, Todd may sell more of the publication in Italy than here.


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