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past & present

1973 fiat 500 & 2008 fiat 500

1957 saw the launch of Fiats iconic 500 Bambina we caught up with fans of the old and new 500
Words Ben Dillon Photos Dan Wakelin


original Fiat 500 or Cinquecento (Italian for 500) as it was known across Europe, is an icon that for many is the ultimate expression of simplicity in design and function. Designed by Dante Giacosa to cater for the growing number of Italians who in the late 50s were trading in their Vespas for vehicles with more wheels and greater passenger carrying capabilities, it was launched as the Nuova 500 in 1957 and carried on from where its predecessor, the Topolino, left off in providing cheap transportation for the masses. The difference with the 500, as compared to the Topolino, was in the design which stands now as one of the most iconic car shapes ever.



past & present Reviving a legend

Exactly 50 years after the release of the original 500, Fiat launched the new 500 which borrows more than a few styling clues from the original. It has brought new buyers to the Fiat fold (possibly lured away from the Mini) and continued the passion for those who loved the original. Giovanni Nustrini is one such enthusiast, and his passion for the little 500 has played a starring role in his life and that of his family. Giovanni is the proud owner of this lovely 1973 Fiat 500 F-model which has been in his possession since 2002. Far from being the first 500 Giovanni has owned, this yellow Bambina is one in a succession of such cars that leads back to his childhood when his father owned one, but it wasnt until 1982 that Giovanni first got to have a 500 to himself. The Nustrini family ownership of various Fiat 500s over the years is a tale in itself, with Giovanni and his siblings engaging in hand-me-downs and purchases of Bambinas for a very long time. Even now there are a few still floating around in the family, as Giovannis sister also has a 500 that she uses regularly.

roof design which didnt retract as far as the Nuovas. The F model, which was produced between 1965 and 1972, was sold alongside the D (in 1965), and differed only in that it did not feature the trademark suicide doors of the D. It went on to become the staple of the range. Giovannis 500 is an F-model, one of around 5000 that were produced in New Zealand. A more luxurious model, the L (Lusso) of 1968, was sold above the F and while being mechanically similar, the L had a much more modern interior than the minimalist F. A variant of the 500 which proved to be long-lived (19601977) was the K or Giardiniera, a station wagon version of the 500 which featured the engine laid on its side to create a flat loading surface. It was the only model to continuously feature the suicide doors. The Giardiniera is a much sort after model and one which Giovanni would love to add to his stable. The final version of the 500 before the 126 replaced it was the R or Rinnovata, which came standard with a larger 594cc engine producing 17kW (23bhp).

Conception and Revision

The Bambina in New Zealand

With the little Fiat attracting such a vast following it comes as no surprise that for many, the 500 was seen more as a part of the family than a mere conveyance. As such, the 500 was known by several different names around the world which included Bambina, a name originally coined by the New Zealand Fiat distributors in New Zealand. Oddly enough, in Australia the masculine form bambino was used. The Cinquecento label as used in Italy spread through the rest of Europe and stuck in the UK, where it is still known as such. The original Nuova 500 was the first model available in 1957, and featured a 479cc engine which produced a heady 9.7kW (13bhp). It had a full-length folding roof that went all the way to the back of the vehicle in addition to rear-hinged suicide doors. Initial sales of the Nuova were sluggish, so Fiat upped the power of the two-cylinder unit to 11kW (15bhp), which helped start the little 500 on its way to global success. Replacing the Nuova in 1960 was the D model of the 500, which looked much like the Nuova but differed in engine size (499cc), with 12.6kW (17bhp) as standard, and in the opening

NZ production of the Bambina took place at Turners VW factory in Otahuhu, which is where Giovannis yellow F-model was born. The early part of this cars life is not exactly known, but what is certain is that while not being a show-star, this 500 is one of the cleanest original cars in New Zealand. Until recently the Bambina had been sitting in the foyer of Giovannis aviation business ( as a static piece of art but, with the recent rise in petrol prices Giovanni pressed the car back into service to help ease commuting costs. The incredible part of this story though is that after four years of standing still, the 500 burst into life first turn of the key. The engineering of the Bambina is a real surprise in that there is a functionality and purpose to all parts of the car that is almost Germanic in its logic. The air-cooled two-cylinder engine is said to be incredibly reliable and, as evidenced by hot Abarth versions, eminently tuneable. Also having the engine behind the rear axle line ( la the VW Beetle) helps handling which I can attest to after some hard cornering with Giovanni at the wheel.

An unusual feature on the original 500 is a small lever that is connected to the accelerator and acts as a basic cruise control. Just what Fiat had in mind for the lever is open to speculation, but what it was almost certainly used for at some time probably involved the roof being open, driver and passengers sitting on the roof and feet being used to steer the car. That is if we had to guess about its use.

the newer car looks petite and crisp, a worthy successor to the styling ideas that Giacosa gave the world
Strangely, the old 500 has more ground clearance than the new, but this is the only respect in which the original can boast any dimensional advantage over the new 500. The original is such a pure design with very little ornamentation and such petite proportions (the front tyres are 135/70R12s) that it is very appealing in a less is more way. The Bambina is so different to the new 500, which is packed with multiple airbags and a Bluetooth connection, that I genuinely prefer the original over the reincarnation.


In isolation, the newer car looks petite and crisp, a worthy successor to the styling ideas that Giacosa gave the world. Next to the original, however, the new 500 looks decidedly bloated, especially at the rear end. Side by side, the difference in size between the two Fiats is patently obviously with the newer 500 dwarfing the old. The disparity in size is almost cartoon-like, with the newer car looking like the older one comically filled to bursting point with helium.

The Modern View

Our featured new Fiat 500, owned by Mary Patterson Giovannis partner is the perfect complement to their original yellow F model. Marys car is the 1.3 JTD diesel model and was one of the first in New Zealand. Originally Giovanni wanted the super popular white with iconic Italian tri-stripe, but worldwide demand for that particular colour combination meant a long wait, which didnt suit Giovanni who, after seeing the new 500 on a trip to Italy, had to have one on his return to New Zealand. The red car was subsequently acquired and has provided Mary and Giovanni with the perfect counterpoint to the old 500. It seems likely that the desire within Fiat to capture a segment of the nouveau pastiche-pie must surely have stemmed from the success of the reborn Mini, which has been a sales hit throughout the world for BMW. Given the historic importance of the 500 to Fiat (and the sales precedent set by the Mini) it would have been bad news had the designers made a mess of the new 500, but walking round it you really can see that it has the old 500s design DNA. The lights at the front, the little moustache on the nose (Giovannis original F-model came without one), the waistline crease below the windows are all trademarks of the original. Despite being front-engined (the original 500 has the engine in the back), even the rear looks similar to the original. Of course, it is nowhere near as petite as the original and does look a bit portly from the rear but the original lines are still there, however distended. The new 500s are all about style and the interior is a key point in this respect. It is really very classy and looks great, but just like the original Cinquecento the driving position for a tall driver is not that accommodating. The seating position is quite high, and the steering wheel is adjustable for rake, but not reach. Thats



past & present

1973 Fiat 500

Engine: Capacity: Bore/stroke: C/R: Max power: Transmission: Steering: Suspension: Air cooled, rear mounted two-cylinder 499.5cc 67.4x70mm 7.1:1 16.4kW (22bp) at 4400rpm Four-speed manual Worm and roller F: independent by wishbones and leaf spring, telescopic shock absorbers R: independent by trailing arms, coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers Drum/ drum 125x12-inch 1840mm 2970mm 1320mm 1325mm 1121/1135mm 520kg 95kph 5.5l/100km

Just like the original there is something that attracts you to the new 500. It really does have a lot of character
where the problem starts as the 500 has enough legroom for tall people, but this comes at the expense of having to adopt a gorilla-like driving position. I couldnt get comfortable in the new Fiat, but in the older, smaller F-model it was not as difficult to find a comfortable position. Strange that at 192cm Im too tall for the new 500 but the old Fiat was fine! Just like the original there is something that attracts you to the new 500. It really does have a lot of character. This appeal is attributable to the original styling, but the new 500 is a little bit more than just a modern take on the Giacosa idea. The interior atmosphere is first-rate with the materials used on the seats, dash and steering wheel giving a quality feel and making the inside of the 500 a nice place to be. The centre console plastics look a bit shiny, but the functions for the heater/radio are easy to use and the circular design is very chic and makes the older car look incredibly Spartan in comparison. The driving experience, like the looks of the car, is unique and requires a different driving style. Much like the older car with its non-synchromesh gearbox, the new 500 has a slightly vague throw, but this is part of the experience, as it allows you an exaggerated arm gesture every time you change gear, if you are so inclined. As with the original 500, back-roads are what the new car enjoys and are where you can have some fun. The suspension has a tendency to pogo a little over bumps and along uneven roads, which can be annoying on the motorway, but on back-roads it adds to the excitement and adventure. The new Fiat is a bouncy, buoyant character that has fun when you have fun.

Brakes: Wheels: Dimensions: Wheelbase: Length: Width: Height: Track F/R: Kerb weight: Performance: Max speed: Economy:

2008 Fiat 500 1.3JTD

Engine: Capacity: Bore/stroke: C/R: Max power: Transmission: Steering: Suspension: Front-mounted, fourcylinder diesel 1248cccc 69.6x82mm 17.6:1 56kW (75bhp) at 4000rpm Five-speed manual Dualdrive electronic F: independent by MacPherson struts R: torsion beam Disc/drum 14-inch 2300mm 3546mm 1627mm 1488mm 1414/1408mm 980kg 175kph 4.2l/100km

Brakes: Wheels: Dimensions: Wheelbase: Length: Width: Height: Track F/R: Kerb weight: Performance: Max speed: Economy:

The Passion

When asked about what attracted him to the Bambina, Giovannis answer is immediate: Simplicity. Its hard to argue with this idea when everything from the early model suicide doors to the hand operated window washer add up to make the original a triumph of both form and function. Dante Giacosas idea for a simple yet beautiful design hit its mark 50 years ago, and the fact the new 500 is being so warmly received now by enthusiasts like Giovanni and Mary is proof of that original appeal.