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A classless unpretentious machine


They say history usually repeats itself and that we don’t necessarily learn by our mistakes. Dig around in the archives and you may be forgiven for thinking all old cars are classics. They’re not, of course, but there are obviously shining examples of an automotive past.

And in these every troubled times, many of us are partial to a slice of the past. Even if we think things were better than they really were, who cares?

In less than a year the all-new Fiat 500 will be officially unveiled and is likely to be available in New Zealand by early 2008.

Hopefully the recreated 500 will be a modern baby car with much of the charm of the original 1957 model that became more of an Italian icon after production ended in 1975.

Not all retro cars work. The Mini has been a huge success story even though it is a relatively expensive car in today’s world, unlike the original.Based on what the new Fiat 500 will cost in Europe, expect the 2008 model to be priced around $24,000 in New Zealand.

To succeed, the baby Fiat has to be no more expensive than this and, ideally, it should be less than $20,000. Alas this seems too much – or too little – to be expected.

Though the new car will look much like the cheap and cheerful old 500 Cinquecento, it will be larger, front-wheel drive and safer.

How much larger depends on safety requirements and customer demands for more interior space.
The 500 was never as roomy or as fast as the Mini and nor did it handle as well. Never make the mistake of thinking this Fiat is a driver’s car.

Back in the early 1960s, the Fiat 500 was the cheapest new car assembled in New Zealand.
During those pre-decimal currency times, a new 500 was around 600 pounds, or what would be $1200.

For an extra couple of hundred dollars you could have a new Mini 850, or maybe you could not.
In a nation then starved of new cars, this was the real difference. Though a brand spanker 500 was available off the floor, with no salesperson insisting on a trade-in, the Mini was in short supply.
You had to order and wait, and then be offered an unrealistically low price for your old car.
Meanwhile the Fiat offered Continental flair and the unusual standard offering of a canvas sunshine roof that fitted the fun image perfectly.

The market never considered the 500 a classic, preferring to regard the car a low-cost baby that wasn’t too safe if you happened to have an accident.

Unladen weight was a meagre 505kg and some buyers had concerns about the rear-engined design that left little bulk up front.

With petrol prices around 10 cents a litre, fuel economy was never an issue, but the easy availability and individuality made the package attractive.

Even if motorists didn’t care about pump prices, the air-cooled motor was frugal
and the modest top speed of 60mph (96km/h) meant little chance of breaking open road speed limits.

Despite the tame performance, they raced 500s in the long distance Pukekohe production races.
I’ve just been in southern Italy for a week where I was surprised how few old Cinquecentos were still in use.

Yet every time one appeared, I was enthused by this great car. It’s an Italian institution that’s about to be revived, and that gives cause for celebration.

Given the hype and excitement surrounding the new model, now might just be the time
to look at buying one of the older 500s.

Once the new car is on the road, prices of the early generation 500 are likely to firm,
a scenario that has occurred with the original Mini.

Since the arrival of the BMW Mini in Britain, prices for good used old models have gone up.
Owning old and classic cars can be a nightmare, but small models like the
500 and Mini are cheap to operate and usually inexpensive to maintain. They are,
of course, also easier to store, given their modest dimensions.

The 2.9m long 500 is shorter than a 3.1m Mini and its 24-horsepower, two-cylinder engine is hardly costly to run.

The last models were fitted with more powerful 650cc Fiat 126 engines but were never assembled
in New Zealand and are difficult to find.

Locally built cars that were put together by Motor Holdings in Otahuhu, Auckland, had a four-speed gearbox without synchromesh on any of the gears, so you need to have some mechanical sympathy to change ratios smoothly and quietly.

Towards the end of the production run in Europe, the 500 was given a more modern synchromesh transmission.

Though the cars basically looked the same during their 18-year production life, some panels changed in 1965 when the “suicide” doors were dumped.

Restorers say 500s have suffered over the years from being perceived as cheap cars no one wanted to spend money on.

They rust badly, too, so the ideal situation is to find one as new as possible that someone else has already restored.Apart from its diminutive size and Italian reputation, why was the old 500
such a success?

Why would the Cinquecento be voted one of the sexiest cars in the world 30 years
after the last one was built?

Largely it’s because of the chic car’s cute shape that looks as good today as it did four decades ago.

British motoring commentator James May, one of the hosts on the BBC Top Gear television programme, reckons the 500 works irrespective of age, beauty, wealth and position.

He quips even a nun in a 500 seems to telegraph a faint procreative urge.
This is a car everyone wants to love – a cuddly little friend that’s much more than
a shopping basket.

Like the Mini, the Fiat 500 is personal transport for royalty and working people – a classless, unpretentious machine for rich or poor.

The car is coy and has heaps of character and a degree of honesty that is lacking in
so many vehicles. This is a simple car for simple people and yet has raw appeal for even the wealthiest.

I can’t wait for the new 500 to arrive since it will revive a great piece of automotive history and will surely be a fitting tribute to the original. 

Auto Trader New Zealand