Yes, this is the ‘Speed’ issue… but speed is relative, and you’ll have as much fun in a tricked-up Fiat 500 as you will in a supercar.
What a laugh these things are. Standard 500s are slow but highly amusing so, unless you’re set on a rare pre-1965 model, we’d always recommend a tuned example.
Abarth versions are the ones that we all hanker for, but in fact they’re few and far between. Factory-built Abarths are as good as non-existent in the UK and extremely rare even in Italy. Most ‘Abarths’ were fitted with Abarth tuning kits by dealers: Radbourne Racing in the UK. These kit-fitted cars have Fiat, not Abarth, chassis numbers.
Mostly, though, you’ll find replicas, and often the only way you’ll tell the difference is with expert help. And replicas are often better-built anyway.
As standard, the 500 had just 17bhp and a non-synchromesh four-speed gearbox. Unless you’re set on originality, the later, more powerful, stronger Fiat 126 engine and matching synchromesh ’box look identical and transform the driving experience. Add a few goodies – cam, carb, exhaust –and you move up to another level.
With uprated springs and dampers, a disc brake conversion and a couple of extra instruments, you’ll be flying. Relatively speaking.
‘FIAT 500 PRICES are firmer than they’ve ever been,’ says Tony Castle-Miller (above) of Italian car specialists Middle Barton Garage.
‘A halfway decent 500 will cost you £6000-7000; £3000-4000 will just buy you problems generally. A nicely restored car could be as much as £15,000, or £20,000 for an Abarth 595 and up to £30,000 for a 695SS. Pre-1965 cars are lovely but are too rare to mess about with.
‘Abarth replicas are often better than the real thing in terms of usablity – a really good one will be £20,000. For ultimate power the 695 is the one, but a 595 is actually nicer and utterly bulletproof.
‘If you want to build a replica, all the parts are there, but do it properly! With a Fiat 126 engine and gearbox and £1000 of parts – carb, exhaust, cam, clutch, sump – you can get a great little motor. Then spend £500 on suspension and £750 on disc brakes, and don’t forget the Abarth instruments and steering wheel!’
IN A NUTSHELL
FIAT BUILT THE 500 down to a remarkably low price – so it’s no surprise that rust protection didn’t come as standard. The steel was cheap, the paint was thin; the rust can occur anywhere.
Then again, the structure is simple (and small!) and all panels are available, and at decent prices for the 1965-on cars. All the panels except the engine support are different on the pre-’65 models, and replacements are harder to come by and more expensive, but they are out there.
Check ’screen surrounds, door bottoms, sills, arches, valances, floors, under the spare tyre at the front, under the battery... You get the idea. Also look under the rear ’arches for creases in the structure, just behind the bump stops, caused by rear corner impacts. These can push the engine and gearbox forward, causing gearshift and driveshaft coupling problems, as well as affecting suspension alignment.
All this is fixable, with a full professional bodyshell restoration costing around £7000. Curiously, the hardest part is usually the doors – they take work just to get them to fit, but equipping them with trim, winders, locks, quarterlights and so on is time-consuming.
Mechanically, virtually all parts are available for 1965-on models, and most can be found for pre-’65s. A worn engine will be clattery, oily, hard to start and prone to stalling when hot – and these air- and oil-coooled engines run really hot on long runs. Gearboxes have straight-cut first gears, so will be noisy, but shouldn’t whine otherwise. Listen out for clonks from the driveshaft couplings.
The standard drum brakes should be good so, if pedal travel is long or performance is poor, then a rebuild is probably needed. Suspension is simple and trouble-free.
As for trim, interior and exterior, parts are available (though, again, early cars can be tricky) and there’s not much of it anyway.
SO MANY CHOICES. Rare pre-’65 or more prevalent later model? Standard or modified? Replica or real Abarth? One thing’s for sure, it’s rarely worth trying to get away with a ‘cheap’ (sub-£7000) Fiat 500.
We’d recommend not being too precious about finding a genuine Abarth, unless you’re a collector. You’ll have more fun in a decent replica, but make sure it has uprated suspension and a high-quality disc brake conversion, rather than just a hot engine.
You can go mad, right through to using the Fiat Panda 30 four-port cylinder head and a Weber 40DCOE, but best bet is a Fiat 126 engine and gearbox (especially the BIS unit) on Dell’Orto DZX carb, or Middle Barton’s sidedraught conversion with a fruity exhaust and a fast road camshaft. Enjoy!
1965 FIAT 500F (unmodified)
ENGINE 499.5cc in-line twin, OHV, air- and oil-cooled, single Weber carburettor
POWER 22bhp @ 4400rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual with combined final drive, constant mesh on second, third and fourth. Rear-wheel drive
SUSPENSION Front: upper wishbones, transverse leaf spring, telescopic dampers. Rear: semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
BRAKES Drums, front and rear
PERFORMANCE Top speed 59mph. 0-60mph Er…
Fiat 500 Club
Abarth Club GB
42 Middle Barton Road,
Duns Tew, OX26 6JN
Middle Barton Garage
Middle Barton, Oxon
OX7 7BH, UK.