Capsule Review: 1968 Fiat 500 (595) Esse-Esse Abarth

Samir Syed
by Samir Syed
capsule review 1968 fiat 500 595 esse esse abarth

I haven’t been to Italy, in 21 years. My cousins and I are having dinner together for the first time in 21 years. If I didn’t already know it, I’d have learned it now: males with Italian blood are obsessed with cars. My cousin Nicola even works for FIAT, in the seaside town of Termoli.

“Are there Fiats at Chrysler stores in Canada now?” he asks.

“Just the 500,” I inform.

“That’s not the real 500,” says Angelo, his younger brother. Two hours later, we’re in my Nonna’s garage. He pulls the tarp off a stunning, perfectly restored 1968 Fiat 595 SS Abarth. “Quest’è la vera Cinquecento!” he informs me.

The trip from Montreal to Casacalenda, off the Adriatic coast, took 12 hours. My BlackBerry says 11 AM, my body says 5 AM. I haven’t slept in almost 36 hours. I am covered in airport guck. Now, somewhere in the Italian countryside, I’m going to drive a car without power steering, and 4 drums for brakes.

My cousin and I are shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow in the Esse-Esse. The cockpit is dominated by two things: a speedometer and an ashtray. These form perhaps the most succinct depiction that I’ve ever seen of the stereotypical Italian male persona. “Per capire l’Italia, devi guidare la macchina del popolo,” Angelo says. (“To understand Italy, you must drive the people’s car.”)

The roof encroaches upon my head; I have to adopt a Quasimodo-like hunch to get my eyes below the top line of the windshield and actually see out of the car. Obviously, Italians were shorter in the 60s.

I fire it up. It sounds like a cross between a Harley and an AMG V8.

“Il motore fa quanti cavalli?” I ask.

“27.”

I stall it twice just getting it out of the garage. The throws on the stick are epically long, like a day without bread. The friction point feels like it occurs randomly along the pedal’s journey, at a different point each time. My cousin says this transmission is going to feel different than what I’m used to. No shit.

At first, I’m frustrated. The cobblestone streets give the Fiat a serious case of epileptic tribulations. The town is an interconnected network of tiny, maze-like streets across rolling hills. Every intersection is a new challenge – combining octogenarian pedestrians, elevation changes, and ground effects in varying degrees. Every time we stop, facing uphill, I’m nervous about stalling. I can’t even use the parking brake to cheat, because, well, it’s a 43-year-old car and the parking brake hasn’t worked since Berlusconi’s first term in office.

Eventually, I manage to assemble a decent circuit around the village’s confusing streets. As the laps pile on, and I’m getting used to the car, I feel its personality emerge. I start to understand why Angelo wanted me to drive it.

First, the steering. The wheel is small; rotation requires a more than casual effort. It’s incredibly direct, lively without being twitchy. The front wheels react instantaneously, and bite immediately. It’s actually becoming fun to guide the car through the narrow streets of the old world.

I never fully understood the transmission, but I learned to work with it. Angelo forbade power shifts. He even forbade quick shifts. Everything had to be smooth, gentle, the way a cappuccino goes down on a sunny afternoon. Every time I put the hammer down, the Cinquecento responded enthusiastically, propelling me through the streets and up hills without trouble. Coupled with the sound it made, it was perfect driving nirvana.

Eventually, we left town and hit the mountain roads. We drove the sinewy mountain roads between Larino and Casacalenda. By drive, I don’t mean it in the newer American sense: casually direct a power-assisted-steering, with one hand while the buttery chassis isolates the driver from road’s more interesting features. Here, we drove. We drove with two hands on the wheel, looking not 50 feet beyond us, but 500, to know what we’d have to do. The shifts and revs had to be matched or the car’s performance would suffer. Braking distances had to be respected – there were no discs to save us, let alone ABS. Every curve, every hairpin, was full of excitement and required utmost concentration to execute.

Angelo and I were having the time of our lives. Driving the Fiat here was a man’s game. If you timed everything correctly, the 500’s engine would reward you with a thunderous roar. Driving lines had to consider elevation changes and deterioration. The 12-km drive left me with a profound respect for those who journeyed across this mountainous country in a Cinquecento.

As we pulled in to the garage, I began to reflect on how my experience had improved my understanding of Italy, as Angelo had suggested it would. My mind kept drifting to the VW Beetle, another car that was also una macchina del popolo. The Bug’s status as an automotive icon is beyond dispute; the Cinquecento itself was reverse engineered from the Bug.

However, the Italians understood what was missing from the Beetle. It was all left-brained, a perfectly built-car for a defined purpose. This would never suit the country of Da Vinci, the mathematician who painted the Mona Lisa. The car for il popolo d’Italia had to be more – it had to satisfy the left-brain and inspire the right. Enter la Cinquecento.



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  • Ciddyguy Ciddyguy on Aug 12, 2011

    Great story and I love the current 500, having test driven the 2012 Sport with the 5spd. I'm figuring out how to wring the funds (lease with a buy out about a year later?) to get one here before long to replace my aging Ford Ranger.

    • See 1 previous
    • Ciddyguy Ciddyguy on Aug 15, 2011

      @Banger I can understand your feelings as these ARE great trucks, but like everything else, they have a finite life. Right now, it's 19YO and has 234,700+ miles on it and it's definitely getting long in the tooth.

  • GeneralMalaise GeneralMalaise on Aug 12, 2011

    A fantastic read!

  • Pianoboy57 I've always thought the 300D was just about the perfect car. Mine would have been green like my current Outback is. Once upon a time there was a Volvo diesel at the nearby BHPH lot. Too bad nobody rescued that one. I did have the privilege of owning a TDI Sportwagen and I would have kept my 02 Passat if it had been a diesel wagon. A few years ago I used to see older TDI Passats for sale on CL by owners who claim to have taken good care of them. Too bad you can't get a diesel in an Outback.
  • ToolGuy "A 920-volt electric system is rumored to enable faster charging times than any EV on sale today." If you can find a compatible charger, that is??Differing voltage standards -- yet another way to slow down EV adoption.Engineers R Awesome™
  • SCE to AUX "without a must-have feature or selling point, the VF8 won't be top-of-mind for buyers"Yep, that's the problem with any new product, let alone an entire aspiring brand. I think they hoped the battery subscription would be a helpful distinctive, but they discovered that it was a negative instead.Perhaps they got their product launch guidance from Ford.
  • Art Vandelay Hey, I drove one of these in Grand Theft Auto V
  • MrIcky I remember driving one too, as a rental. My thoughts were 'it's fine'-the engine was good (pretty sure it was the v6). Then I read everyone was saying how bad they were and I couldn't quite figure out what the fuss was about because it was fine. I drove a Ford Fusion of roughly the same era and I thought the 200 was nicer to drive. The why wouldn't you buy a Camry/Accord question seems to be a question of actual sale price.
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