Everyone knows Tuscany and Sicily, two more Italian icons, but Piedmont is often overlooked, ignored, left unknown. How many people know that Turin is the principal city of Piedmont and was the first capital city of Italy, even before Rome? I saw a quiz show recently and a contestant was asked 'where is the city of Turin?' The contestant answered, 'Canada'.. Well, that says it all. And how many people know that what is probably Italy's greatest icon was designed and built right here in Piedmont?
Rated by many as the most beautiful car ever conceived - and I mean people like F1 drivers Michael Schumacher and Jean Alessi, as well famous motoring journalists and the guy that gave us the Mclaren F1 road car, designer Gordon Murray, the FIAT 500 is one of the greatest Icons of the 20th century.
The Fiat 500 was born in Turin and for the most part built here. 3.5 million were sold and one million are still on the roads today, even though production stopped 35 years ago. Testimony to what is a great and much loved design. But the Cinquecento (500) was more than a style statement. It changed the way Italians lived, it got them off bicycles and Vespa and onto 4 wheels. It cost only €250 (a year's wage at the time) and was very cheap to run. Launched in the centre of Turin with much fanfare on the 4th July 1957, this little car was destined for the history books - design brilliance and the bringer of massive social change. On the 4th July 2007 FIAT launched the all new 500. Just another retro-design car to cash-in on past glories? No way. I owned one for a while and I have to say it's a brilliant car. Not only did the body shape echo the pen strokes of Dante Giacosa (the designer of the old 500) from 51 years ago but it oozes modern style, driveability, good design and excellent engineering. I miss that little car so much!
The old original 500 always catches my eye though. No one can resist going 'wow!' when they see one. I always dreamed of having one and with prices low it seemed a good time to start searching.
I started studying the secondhand car Web sites here in Italy and it seemed possible to pick up a reasonable one for not too many Euros. One looked promising, in Casale Monferrato. It was beige (not the greatest colour..) but the seller said it was like new. We got on the Moto Guzzi and blasted through the beautiful hills of the Monferrato. The car was awful. The only thing 'like new' was the paint job, covering a few buckets of body filler. He claimed it had been done 6 months before, but I think 6 minutes would have been closer to the truth. Disappointed, but we had learned. We were going to have to ask more questions before going and spend a little more money.
Something looked interesting in Lodi. It was a little odd though. It had French licence plates and that made us very suspicious. But the car looked great so we had to ask more questions. The owner explained that it was registered in Italy but he'd bought it to restore from Paris. Many more questions and we drove the 170km to see it. To cut a long story short after some strong haggling on the part of my wife a good price was agreed, hands were shaken and an appointment set for the next day to change ownership (changing ownership here is straight forward but maybe a little different from most other places - if you want information, drop me an email).
So here, we present our little Fiat . It's a 1969 FIAT 500L in sugar paper blue. In beautiful condition and she really turns heads. Her name is Sophia. She's sitting in front of me now as I write on this beautiful hot day. The sun is burning and the sky is as blue as her paint job. She's 41 years old but looks great!
Part 2 - Fiat 500 and Spanner Heaven
It's easy to forget how difficult old cars are to drive. We're so used to modern cars that are more like armchairs with surround sound and effortless engines. Climb into something that was designed and built more than 40 years ago and suddenly the 1960s seems like the stone age. Crunchy gears with no synchromesh (if you're young and reading this, ask your dad, or grandpa), uncomfortable seats, bad brakes and out-of-breath engines. But then there's the maintenance. Spanner heaven!! Try doing something to a modern car. I have a Golf and the most work I can do on it is wash it and check the window washer fluid. Sophia loves being touched, she's all hands on. Strip the head off after breakfast, clean the piston crowns, new gaskets and have it running again before lunch.
Sophia, my FIAT 500, wasn't used much by the previous owner. She sat in a garage for 2 years so when it came to giving her a good check over there were a few challenges. My 1969 L has drum brakes front and rear (ask your grandpa). Getting them off was a nightmare. I had to make a bracket with 10mm bolts to ease off the drums. They were locked solid. As it happens the brakes were fine. A bit of copper slip was applied to avoid the same fiasco next time. Then there was all the usual bits that anyone should change - air filter, spark plugs, points, condenser, distributor cap. She'd been running fine. The engine had had extensive work by the previous guy - re-bored, head skimmed, etc.
After giving her a good check over and replacing these parts she seemed fine. I went out with my son following on his Vespa as we intended to do some filming. 1.5km down the road she spluttered to a halt. I managed to coerce her into going again. 500m later - stop! I checked everything but in the end had to make her suffer the indignity of being towed behind the Golf. One of the things I had done was clean the carburetor. It was advised in the Haynes manual. I could only assume I'd left something inside the tiny channels that mix the fuel and air so stripped the carb again, and again, and then again. I spoke to a local Fiat mechanic in Montà d'Alba, he advised I check the shape of the carburetor base, and indeed it was warped. I filed it down then used a flat sander to get it as even as I could. It ran better so we took her out. 5km later - stop! After towing her back I left her for a week, read every forum and the Haynes manual. I'd run out of answers.. Someone said on the UK FIAT 500 forum that his 6 year old daughter can fix these things. I was thinking of giving her a call..
Something I'm always asked about the car is parts availability. In actual fact it's truly amazing. It's possible to buy everything and nothing is particularly expensive. I discovered a few locals shops. One is in Neive. We'd arrived there one morning around 10am to find no one around. Lights were on but the shop was locked. We waited about half an hour as I needed the bakelite base for the carburetor. Eventually a man came along with a wheelbarrow overflowing with FIAT 500 carpets. He completely ignored us and opened the shop. I asked if he had the part and he replied 'no'. That was the whole conversation. We thought that maybe he was having a bad day but a week or two later we telephoned for another part and he was just the same 'no'. So it seems his whole life is a bad day and he doesn't seem to sell anything.
Driving through Alba
The immaculate interior
Essential engine maintenance
A truly beautiful design
There are also a couple of places in Turin. I usually go to 'Passione 500' but one day I was desperate for a part and I discovered one on the Web a lot closer called Julcar, in the south of the city. It was a nightmare to find being tucked away down a grotty back alley behind residential apartment blocks. No signs. It's possible to find only if you've been there before.. They have everything there but the owner, it seems, wants more. I was with my wife and one of the things you have to get used to living in Italy is men flirting with your wife. Usually I don't mind it too much but then you get these guys that act as if you're not there. And I always find that strange, well strangely dangerous for them. We got the part and left. Later I discovered I needed something else (welcome to old Fiat world!) so for ease went back to him, this time just with my son. He didn't exchange a word!
Anyway, back to the problem. I'd run out of ideas. I'd put all the old parts back on, changed the head gasket, checked the timing, cleaned the distributor, repaired the carburetor. Then I realized, there was one thing I hadn't exchanged for the old part - the condenser (ask your grandpa!) Vrrrooooommmmmmm!!! said the little 2 cylinder 500cc engine. It was a bad condenser..
I'd bought it from Passione 500 in Turin. Andrea that runs it is a really nice guy. Really helpful, knowledgeable and he never flirts with my wife. He told me he had had exactly the same problem with his own 500. He had got a bad batch of condensers. It was a fault in the manufacturing. Well, at least everything had been checked and replaced now. Andrea gave me a new condenser but I still haven't fitted it. I'm not sure I will. It's all part of the Fiat 500 experience. And in a way, it's a lot of fun. My wife had helped me strip the head off - it was her first time.
Now she runs really well. We get a top speed of 110km/h which is amazing. We even checked the speedo following in the Golf with walkie-talkies. It's dead accurate.
Sophia spends a lot of her time in the garage, especially as we've had a really wet Autumn. But when we let her lose it's always an experience that puts a smile on your face, and makes most of the people we pass smile too. She's not fast, she's not full of technology and her gears crunch a bit but there's still plenty of life in her.
My son and me love photography - stills and video - so we got really excited (boys!) when we saw the new Go Pro HD camera. It gave me an idea that we still haven't had chance to fulfill but I'm come back to that another time. The GoPro HD is a tiny digital camera that shoots high quality video and stores it on a small SD card. It's waterproof, shock proof and you can stick it anywhere. On your surf board or your Fiat 500 roof. I tried to find a supplier in Italy and eventually came across Athena Evolution Srl based in Alonte. Michele was brilliant and despite problems with my credit card sent me a GoPro Motorsport complete with suction pad and motorbike bracket. We haven't had too much time but when we have used it we've had great fun. It can be a bit fiddly but you soon master it. Getting out of the box was a major job! There's no screen on the back so you have to get used to its angle potential and guess when it comes to knowing where to point it. We also set it wrong a few times. One afternoon we went out with the Vespa and Motor Guzzi and I realized I'd set it to photo.. my son wasn't happy with me. An hour's riding and two still photographs of the road.
"Andrea, who runs Passione 500, is a really nice guy. Helpful, knowledgeable and he never flirts with my wife”