By now, you’ve all seen the Fiat 500, the cute, spunky and unusually compact economy bubble that sports an increasing presence on American streets. In short order, the 500 has assumed the mantle of the culturally important, true small car, wrested without a fight from MINI Cooper. Because, redesigned for a third time since its 2002 launch, the Cooper along with the rest of the MINI line has lately blown years of New Years’ diet resolutions sky high, ballooning to a permanent state of sizeable being-ness.
But if the Mini is no longer small, what then to say of the Fiat 500’s stylistic inspiration, the original Nuova 500 of 1957, an iconic machine that ran more or less unchanged through 1975, yet continues to say “Italy” through the present day? Oh, and it says small. Yes, it’s smaller than a modern 500. Way smaller. It’s Old School small. Small from back when small really meant small. Back when ordinary Americans didn’t drink 72-ounce sodas and weigh 275 lbs. Back from when more Europeans were poor and the tiny 500 – all 1,100 pounds of it, gassed up and ready to go -- marked a big step up in the mobility stakes.
How much smaller this car is than anything we’re used to driving would be revealed when we found ourselves sailing around Manhattan in one the other day, an orange peach of a survivor with but 5000 kilometers on it from new. A late production car, owned by Ted Potter of Essex, Connecticut, ours’ was a 1972 500R, “R” for “rinnovata,” which sounds better than “refurbish,” which is what rinnovata means. “R” definitely doesn’t stand for racing, with this late production 500’s 23 horsepower total substantially higher than the 14 standard ponies of 1957, but still no great shakes, even in the context of a car that weighs only 1,100 lbs. In fact, sailing might not be the word. Until you get it up to highway speed puttering would be a more accurate description.
Start it up. You turn the key, but only to switch on the ignition. To engage the starter you must lift a spindly lever next to the spindly emergency brake on the transmission tunnel, alongside the spindly choke lever you use to enrich the mixture being delivered to the air-cooled, 650cc (the ""Big Block" of Fiat twins), two-cylinder engine residing in the rear trunk. Fed by a gasoline tank in the front trunk -- boldly unshielded -- it’s a packaging solution that appealed to many space efficient thinkers back in the day of rear-engined cars, VW, makers of the Beetle included. The fuel supply residing in the front trunk, just ahead of the windscreen, requires you to open the front lid to replenish it. That’s when you realize that the small (under 7 gallon tank) is pretty much right above the front-seat occupants’ knees. Doesn’t sound safe, but one might point out that you’d surely be dead before gasoline dripping on your chinos would be your number one problem. These guys took their space efficiency seriously, all right. Companies build experimental safety vehicles all the time. In this experiment, they were testing out no safety. How would that work out? Not too badly apparently – more than 4 million were sold.
It’s kind of fun to drive and plausible, if not desirable, parkway transportation. Even when you find a 500 like this one in rude good health, the air-cooled engine makes noises like a washing machine with spun bearings, while the gearbox emits its own unique designer set of graunching and whirring noises. It grows on you, this unpretentious, abstemious machine, shuttling around, going about its business. To call the acceleration of the 500 leisurely would be comical overstatement. It goes – up to 70-something miles per hour on the highway -- but no further promises can be made.
I didn’t have a door lock key for Potter’s 500. But I didn’t worry leaving the 500 briefly unattended outside of a Tribeca hotel. My reasoning: Few of today’s generation of thieves and drug addicts are familiar any longer with the ancient practice of turning a key then finding a separate pull starter; fewer still will expect said pull starter in the form of a lever on the transmission tunnel. This should thwart most evildoers. Then again, even if it didn’t, you have to ask yourself, if a couple of crackheads were rolling down the FDR in a vintage Fiat 500, how far would they really get? Not just because the otherworldy lack of acceleration or broken washing machine noise would set their delicate drug addled sensibilities on edge, but because they’d stick out like a sore thumb, causing, experience would suggest, everyone to come up and talk to them, every time they came to a stop light.