Monday, May 26, 2014

Another Pint Pot Post (Fiat 600)

Scale: actual size.

OK, I have a soft spot for pint pots.  When I waxed poetic about the Citroen 2CV, Hotshoe was mystified.  "Why?  What is the point or advantage of that car compared to, say, a Jeep?"  I don't have an answer, except that these cars charm me and Jeeps don't.

A Wheeler-Dealer episode about restoring a Fiat 500 reminded me of pleasant times with the Fiat 600. The dealership where I had my summer jobs sold Fiats: the 1100 sedan, the 1500 Cabriolet, and the 600. The owner's wife drove an 1100, and we sold a few.  The 1500 cabrio had a tough row to hoe against the British sports cars and Alfa Romeos on the showroom floor.  I don't recall that we sold many 600's.  (This was at a time when VW Beetles were becoming a common sight on the streets of the Midwest.)  Some of our 600's were courtesy rentals for service customers.  So there was always one around, and I drove them when the little Morris Minor dealership truck was off the lot.

The 600 was a fun car.  Its 767 c.c. inline 4 engine made it a foot-to-the-floor-all-the-time proposition, even though it weighed only 1400 lbs.  I never saw the 600's claimed top speed of 68 m.p.h., but that little engine liked to rev and was fun to row around town with its 4-speed box.  Braking was only OK with drums behind those 12-inch wheels.  The 600 had a transverse leaf spring in front, cleverly mounted to double as an anti-roll bar, and semi-trailing arms in back with swing axles.  I didn't push the 600 to its handling limits.  The rearward weight bias, swing axles, and gripless cross-ply tires had my full attention and respect.  But inside its envelope, it was agile and precise.

Above and below: A British resale ad might say "No mod cons."  If you wanted a radio, the dealership I worked for
would put one in for you.  But there was no "radio delete" panel in the dash.  This is why a 600 cost about $7000
in 2014 money.  Until I researched this post, I didn't know the car's top speed was 68 m.p.h.  But even in 1963
I knew the 80 m.p.h. speedometer was wildly optimistic.

Above: the rear-mounted water-cooled inline 4 was quieter than a Beetle's air-cooled mill, and supplied a heater/defroster
that actually worked in winter.  The 600's 32 horsepower wasn't that far off the Beetle's 36, especially in a lighter car.
But the Beetle's 17% larger engine had more torque and made it feel like a faster car.

Below: when Carlo Abarth bored the block to 0.75 or 1.0 liters and added a d.o.h.c. crossflow head with radical cams
and large carbs, the 600's engine became quite the little hot rod.  Especially in a Fiat-Abarth aluminum coupe body
atop a 600 floor pan with fully independent Abarth rear suspension.

The Wikipedia article on the 600 says that it was an "urban car."  Not really.  Or at least no more so than the prewar Fiat Topolino, the 500, the 2CV, the Morris/Austin Minor, the Mini Minor, or the Volkswagen Beetle.  They were the Italian, French, English, and German ways of putting their nations on wheels.  Part of their charm was their difference.  The engineering problems of basic transportation were solved by Alec Issigonis in 1960 with the Mini: a transversely mounted water-cooled engine driving the front wheels.  Everybody makes Minis now.  But not until:

     the Germans tried rear engine (air cooled) rear drive (Volkswagen)
     the French tried front engine (air cooled) front drive  (Citroen)
     the Italians tried rear engine  (water cooled) rear drive (Fiat)
     and the English tried front engine (water cooled) rear drive (Morris)  

The Europeans abandoned separate body-and-frame construction for sheet steel unit bodies long before Detroit did because a small car had to be a light car.  But Volkswagen used 15-inch wheels because the Beetle had to get down Germany's Autobahns.  Italy didn't have Autobahns, so the 500 and 600 got by with 12-inch wheels and smaller engines.  France prizes a comfortable ride, so the 2CV had remarkably supple suspension and was developed in tandem with Michelin's radial tires.  The Morris Minor was, in my opinion, a conventional car because the English are a conventional people.  Issigonis was Greek by birth and his Mini Minor solution was the most radical: a transverse engine and 10-inch wheels to maximize interior space.  While his 10-inch wheels didn't survive--couldn't survive the advent high-speed highways--his basic architecture has become the industry standard.

The Fiat 600 was in production from 1955 to 1969.  And Fiat sold a bunch of them, directly or under license, in Spain and Latin America as well as putting Italy on wheels.  The new Fiat 500 is a worthy spiritual successor, even if its architecture is straightforwardly Mini.  And the Abarth model is a worthy successor to the 600's that Carlo Abarth hot-rodded back in the day.

What could be better in the fun department?  The Abarth Edition, of course.

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