Search This Site

Monday, March 16, 2009

Guide to the Fiat Nuova 500

Never had a chance to drive a Fiat Nuova 500? Are you curious? Well with this guide, you really get the feeling of what it's like to live with one of these gems.


The operation was divided into three stages. First you had to insert the key into the switch at the center of the dashboard and turn it to the right. Then you had to lift the choke and carburettor lever on the left behind the gearshift between the two front seats, modulating the height on the basis of the outside temperature. It was a fine art. You learned it with practice, and it helped to avoid flooding the engine or causing it to malfunction. The third and last part was to pull the other lever up, which was connected to the starter motor. One turn, two turns, sometimes a small bang, the 500 gave a shudder… and that was it. The two-cylinder engine had started with its unmistakable sound. As the engine temperature increased you could lower the first lever. But if you did it too soon, the engine would hiccup and lose power… So you lifted the lever again slightly and the engine ran more smoothly, until it had warmed up and you could lower the lever altogether.


The technologies of the 1950s and even later, meant that the battery had to be treated with great care. And not only because the 500’s battery was tiny, stuck in the front boot next to the spare wheel. The manufacturer recommended ‘every 2,500 kilometers, when the battery is rested and cold, check the electrolyte in each cell’, adding distilled water if necessary, verifying the levels again in the Summer and checking the terminals every 10,000 kilometers. But in spite of all this, in those days batteries seemed to have a mind of their own. They decided when they were going to ‘go on strike’, and you never knew when, or why.


There were two, one that opened the doors and the other for the ignition. No duplicates were provided, and you had to note down the serial number immediately, so that you could obtain a copy from the Fiat network if one was lost or damaged. Anyone who has had a 500, of whatever series, will remember that the keys were made of very light metal, which deformed easily, but which could also be heated with a cigarette lighter in Winter if the locks froze in the cold weather, to open the doors.

Quarter lights

The two glass triangles were needed to regulate the quantity of outside air that entered the interior if you did not want to lower the two side windows to change the air. When it was wet, they helped to demist the interior of the windscreen. And because of the minute size of the ashtray on the 500, well-mannered smokers also used the quarter lights to tip their ash outside, while the less well-mannered, unfortunately, tipped out their fag ends. The quarter lights were also very useful to car thieves: by twisting one slightly (they were hinged precariously to the frame) and fiddling with the seal, the window would not be irreparably damaged but would open sufficiently for a hand to reach the lever and release the door.


‘Bear in mind that a few minute’s advantage gained by covering a certain distance at excessive speed may mean considerable extra expense in terms of fuel, tires and maintenance. It is like throwing money out of the window, while common sense can save money’. This advice, which is pertinent today in spite of the rather old-fashioned tone, was contained in the 16th edition (1963) of the booklet ‘Advice for users’, a sort of collection of ‘guidelines for good motorists’ that Fiat enclosed with every Owner’s Handbook on its cars. ‘Avoid useless acceleration’, the text went on, ‘and do not remain in lower speeds when the engine is over-revving, avoid sharp braking and slow down by exerting less pressure on the accelerator. Consider the vehicle as a living being that has its own needs and limits, like all organisms, beyond which it is best not to force it. Do not expect more than it is able to give, only use the whip in exceptional circumstances, give it hay and oats, store it carefully in the stable and if it has problems, have them looked into …’.

Fiat refrigerator

This does not seem to have much to do with the Fiat 500, but in a way, it does. The well-being of the 1950s and 1960s in Italy was due partly to the car and the increase in mass motorization, but also to the development of ‘white’ home appliances, cookers, refrigerators and washing machines. In the Lingotto plant, Fiat also manufactured refrigerators and washing machines, which were extremely sturdy and efficient, as the many people who had one or saw one work can testify. The home appliance sector was not marginal for the company, and numerous reports by the Board to the Stockholders proudly refer to ‘the considerable developments of the electric home appliances that we (the company ed. note.) make at Lingotto’ among the Complementary and accessory activities.

Grinding the gears

This is a rough term, even linguistically, which referred to the need to double clutch, i.e. touching the accelerator between one gear and the other with the clutch pedal depressed, which was typical of the 500 and ‘cinquecentisti’. The ‘masters’ of the double clutch would do so when they changed down and up. For many people, if it was executed perfectly, double clutching improved the performance of the 500, it certainly made gear changes easier, and represented an action typical of the car and of the times for anyone who ever drove a 500 even for a few minutes.


The heating on the Fiat 500. It was decidedly rudimentary, regulated by a lever at the back of the tunnel on the right, behind the passenger seat, and therefore practically unreachable by the passenger without a great deal of arm-twisting. Only the driver could easily control the lever which, when it was turned to the right, directed hot air from the engine bay into the interior of the car, and through a pipe up to two slits on the facia. The small size of the 500 cabin, a sporting spirit and the younger age of most occupants, meant that the 500 was never considered a ‘cold’ car. If anything, at times, it was almost too hot.


There were 3 on the Fiat 500: one to illuminate the instruments, one for the external lights and one for the windscreen wipers. They were all on the facia, each one a small flick switch surrounded by a knurled ring nut. One of the distinctive features of the 500, apart from the switches, was the legendary black rubber pump for the windscreen washer (to the right of the steering wheel under the edge of the facia, and it had to be held down, just the right amount of time, to prevent it from clogging). Then there was a manual accelerator, positioned under the document pocket below the facia on the latest series (from the F of 1965).


The mass of lubricants required by the Fiat 500, and the short interval between oil top-ups or changes underline how cars have evolved, as in the case of the battery mentioned earlier. Today, when fluids only have to be changed after tens of thousands of kilometers, it is difficult to accept that on the 500 the engine oil level had to be checked every 500 km, and changed every 10,000 km or 6 months; when the engine was new, the running-in oil had to be replaced after 1,500 km and then again after 4-5000 km.

There were also three types of ‘grease’ needed to lubricate other mechanical parts. The Fiat 500 was an extremely sturdy car, but roads, materials and technologies required activities and remedies that are unthinkable today. For example, every 20,000 km, Fiat asked that the door hinges be lubricated ‘using a brush dipped in engine oil’.

The precious 16th edition (1963) of the booklet ‘Advice to users’ contained some advice about driving in traffic that is worth rereading. ‘Using the horn and flashing headlights is not an insurance policy against accidents. Misusing them will only earn you unflattering comments from other people’.

Or: ‘Avoid any nervous reactions when you are at the wheel; do not get angry with other road users and refrain from retaliating (sic) against drivers of other vehicles: the road is not a race track’. And finally, ‘remember that driving well is no more difficult than driving badly, and make sure that anyone you know will be able to praise your skill and prefer you to be at the wheel rather than other people’.

We must underline that the booklet was written 44 years ago.


The ‘Advice to users’ also recommended that ‘if the car is not used for some time, it is best to scatter naphthalene, camphor or similar products on the upholstery in order to prevent attacks from moths’. The interior of the 500 was upholstered with plastic fabrics, but Fiat decided it was better to be safe than sorry. As for the tires, the booklet recommended removing them, storing them in a safe place, and ‘dusting the insides of the tires and the inner tubes with talcum powder’.

The advantages of plastic

This material is considered cheap if it is used on a car today. But on the Fiat 500 L of 1969, where the L stands for Lusso or Luxury, Fiat underlined several times in the Owner’s Manual that the polished and black plastic materials used for certain components were not just aesthetic but ‘made of plastic’, a material which, 30 years ago, evidently represented a ‘plus’.

We should also mention the 500’s ashtray again. It was assembled in a single piece, with chrome plated metal for the surround and the opening tag, while all the rest was painted mat black; it had to be removed from the facia to be cleaned (considering that it held a maximum of two butts). The result was usually ash all over the interior, and an invitation not to smoke.

Control panel

The speedometer and mileage counter was round, under a light plastic dome with the numbers indicating the speed against a black background. Inside the pointer was red and the speeds were marked with small disks that indicated the maximum speeds as well as a numerical mileage counter, without decimals. At the bottom there were four telltales: a green one for the side lights, red for low generator or battery charge, red for the fuel reserve (not present on the first versions) which was illuminated when there were from 3 to 5 liters remaining in the tank, out of a total of 22, and another red one for low oil pressure. The 500 L, or Lusso, on the other hand, had a rectangular control panel, which looked enormous on the 500’s small facia, and was derived from the larger panels of bigger models.

And what about a radio

Fiat did not offer one, not even as an option. From the mid 1960s Autovox and Voxson radios began to appear, and some people fitted a German Blaupunkt which provided the best sound quality, even if it was more expensive. Because it was impossible to fit a radio into the facia, it had to be mounted on two slides attached under the facia, together with the single loudspeaker, which limited passenger legroom to a certain extent. The aerial emerged from the edge of the nose next to the bonnet and was anchored to the driver’s side drip channel.


The front seats moved on two metal runners and the position could be adjusted with a lever. To access the rear seat, the squab of the front seat was folded forward, lifting and inclining the entire seat (cushion and squab). To load luggage the rear seat could be removed and the squab folded. On request (standard on the L), from the late 1970s, the squab of the front seats could have 4 adjustments. And after the 4th position, the squab rested on the rear seat.


Always useful; to change the air inside, to make the 500 feel like a cabrio, to celebrate some sporting event (who does not remember the nights of the Mexico 70 World Cup when flags and celebrating fans emerged from the roof of the 500), but also to give a unique car a unique feature.


These were initially supplied in a canvas and then a plastic bag. Two spanners of various sizes, a punch, a double screwdriver, an Allen key for the spark plugs, the crank to fit the wheels to the hubs and the jack. It was actually an extensive assortment for a runabout, which reflects the period in which the 500 was built, a time when doing your own repairs was a point of pride. In addition to which, the simplicity of the 500 also made for fast emergency repairs.

Running in

For the first 700 km, Fiat advised motorists not to exceed 15 km/h in 1st and 60 in 4th, and from 700 to 1,500 (first maintenance between 1,500 and 2,000 km) 20 km/h in 1st and 75 in 4th. A second maintenance check was envisaged at 4,000 km at ‘the Service Stations that Fiat has established in Italy and abroad for better assistance to its customers.

Performance and maximum gradients negotiable in the various speeds by the 500 F (engine 499.5 cc, 18 bhp) as indicated in the User’s Manual: 23 km/h in 1st, 40 km/h in 2nd, 65 km in 3rd and approximately 95 km/h in 4th. Gradients: 26% in 1st, 13% in 2nd, 7% in 3rd and 3.5% in 4th.

Engine bay

This could be opened by a lever, but the lid could also be removed completely. This solution was very popular with mechanics when they had to carry out longer, more complicated operations entailing more than a simple check and top-up.

The guide to the Fiat 500 concludes with a pumpkin. In the story of Cinderella, the pumpkin is transformed into a carriage and allows her dream to come true because ‘dreams are desires’. The 500 was certainly no pumpkin, but it was transformed into a dream car in its 18 years of life, accompanying people’s dreams and making them come true. And it did so 3,893,294 times.

The above was courtesy of Fiat Group Auto Press.

No comments: