We would challenge anyone today who is not a Fiat 500 aficionado to identify the differences between the Fiat 500F and its predecessor, the 500D. Yet there were plenty of improvements under the skin, such as doors that were hinged at their front edges, amber flasher lamps at the front, interior courtesy lamps, wipers which swept the correct arcs (for right-hand drive), and a little more power from the engine.
The 500 F Berlina developed 18 b.h.p. net at 4,600 r.p.m., and being a simple in-line two-cylinder air-cooled engine it was relatively easy to provide a big new-bore siamezed pair of cylinder barrels and pistons to increase the capacity to 594 c.c. A special camshaft, exhaust system, carrburettor and deep alloy finned sump completed the Abarth kit which, at introduction, cost £134 16s 8d in the UK.
Power with these modifications was raised to 27 b.h.p. at 5,000 r.p.m. Alternatively, the complete new car with conversion fitted, Abarth name plates and contrasting side flash, plus lowered suspension and a leather-covered steering wheel could be bought for £562 5s 10d, including tax.
When released, the standard 500F was still the cheapest car in most markets where it was sold, and despite rising production costs and the so-called temporary import surcharge, Fiat (England) Ltd. managed to maintain the price at £410. Yet far from being a basic economy car, the 500 came, for the time, brimming with standard kit.
Today we think of the micro car as perfect for the city, based on fuel consumption and ease of parking. However the 500 was much more than that, not a fridge on wheels, but a skateboard on steroids, able to flow with the traffic when needed, and slip through gaps that only a motorcycle might otherwise use.
We can expect much from todays small cars, such as the Mazda 2 which is a brilliant drive even though a little down on power. Wind the clock back and you would find being "underpowered" a common criticism on so many cars, but the Fiat managed to cruise happily enough at maximum speed and avoid the most common of complaints - and this with a two-cylinder engine!
That engine however needed fairly lengthy breaking in (a term oft used for pre 1990 cars) before its full performance was developed. Fuel consumption of around 43 m.p.g. was hard to beat, even if you were belting the bejesus out of it. Learn to use a light foot and you could expect better than 48 m.p.g., and even 50 m.p.g. was possible and reported by many drivers.
Climbing into the Fiat was easy, although a tall driver needed to duck their head under the top edge of the door opening. Once in, it was better to sit well up over the wheel as the pedals were designed for a near vertical angle of attack and the grooved metal pad of the clutch could jam under the foot if you stabbed at it too acutely. The starter and choke were operated by a pair of pull up levers on the tunnnel just behind the gearlever, a bit like twin-engined aircraft throttles. The technique was to lift the port one first (choke) and then the starboard (starter), keeping your right foot well away from the accelerator.
Whenever anyone tried a cold start using the throttle they had trouble; without it the starter wheezed into life rather bronchially and suddenly the engine was puttering on its own. Being a 4-stroke twin it sounded uncertain at first (half the firing impulses of the normal four most people were familiar with) but it pulled willingly from cold. Being air-cooled, warming up was fast and within a very short distance the choke lever could be pushed to the floor and forgotten.
There was no synchromesh as such in the 4-speed gearrbox, but dog-catch engagement as on a motorcycle. Changing up could be very fast by snatching the stout lever straight through from one ratio to the next, the 500 leaping forwards eagerly each time a higher gear engaged, but with a slight "crunch." For silent changes you needed to pause in neutral momentarily when moving up through the box, and to blip the throttle at the same point - with the clutch engaged when changing down. Often it was easier not to bother with the clutch pedal at all, many owners claiming that clutchless changes were no more difficult.
The gearing overall was very low, to make the most of the limited engine power, and in first the 500 ran out of revs above 15 m.p.h. Second just made 30 and third would go on to about 45, although there were advisory marks on the speedometer at appreciably lower speeds.
Fiat 500F Brakes and Braking
Pedal effort for braking was not as light as you would expect in such a small car and it took a full 100lb load to record a maximum stop of 0·97g. The 6.7 in. dia. drums were identical front and rear and showed no serious signs of fading when tested repeatedly from 45 m.p.h. The handbrake held without being forced, facing either way on a 1-in-3 gradient, and the 500 pulled away again, two up, without difficulty. Tests conducted at release showed that, during emergency braking, there was a tenndency for the tail to swing round, especially on wet roads, and when making high-g tests on good, dry tarrmac there was bad slewing.
Roadholding was well within the bounds of the performance available. At the limit, with only the driver on board, the tail flicked out, juddering sideways as the rear weight bias made itself felt, but with two up and a suitcase behind the front seats there was a much stronger tendency towards understeer. In the wet you needed to be more cautious and careful never to brake hard in anything but a straight line if it could be avoided.
With a wheelbase of only 6ft the 500 was pitched about by bumps and troughs in the road surface; but altogether the ride was reasonable without any violent bottoming of the springs. The seats were more comfortable than they looked, with the right kind of curvature for the driving position. Steering was light and preecise with no kick-back and responded quickly to correction at the wheel.
The first iterations of the Fiat 500 were often criticised in right-hand-drive markets for the arc of the wipers, however when the pivots were offset to the right, the driver's blade sweept up from the base of the screen practically to the pillar, clearing a good patch in the line of vision. Plunger operated screenwashers were standard. Apart from the physical difficulty of squeezing past the tipped-up front seat, it was not easy for an adult to sit comfortably in the back unless you bent your head forwards to clear the roof. More than two in the car was a big ask anyway, as performance suffered considerably. The back seat, when let down, formed a useful luggage platform; the front compartment was really only large enough for a shopping bag. Inside the car there was a letterbox slot under the centre of the facia for maps.
Each side of the ignition lock was a pair of tumbler switches for the lights and wipers. The key could be removed in either of two "off" positions; one isolated all the electrical circuits, including the lamps, whiie the other left these in service for parking. One of these dashboard tumbler switches was a master control for the arm on the left of the steering column which selected side, dipped or main beams as required, and flashed the dipped beams at any time. The reasoning behind tiny lamps on a tiny car was an odd one, but those on the Fiat did a reasonable job although the beams were "feathery," which made fog driving difficult - thus the common addition of fog lamps by many owners. Amber flashers front and rear were fitted, with little repeater buttons on the sides of the front wings.
The heater utilized warmed cooling air from the engine, with a flap valve on the tunnel behind the front seats - maybe not as effective as the petrol driven heater fitted to the Porsche 911
(which also had an air-cooled engine), but was no doubt much more economical. Little. swivelling bleeds under each side of the facia directed the air to the screen for demisting or to the foot wells. When first turned on there was a rubbery smell of hot trunking, but this soon passed off, and the heater gave a good blast of warmth, albeit without much sensitivity of control.
Ventilation was very "grown up" for the era, with large swivelling quarter-lights in each door, winding side windows and a folding sunshine roof as standard. Door catches had been improved with press button releases in the handles outside and polished alloy levers inside. There were sill pips for locking, and fold-away pulls on the trim panels for slamming.
So what does all that mean? Like any entirely new model, it was only natural that the Fiat 500 should mature. Thankfully Fiat resisted the temptation to enlarge the car, nor change the character - but maybe that was because it had become so damn popular. Just as collectable as the original Fiat 500, just as sexy, and one of the only micro cars that a bloke will look "seriously cool" driving. And while we can't give it a 5 star collectability rating, it deserves the 5 star cool rating...