By on August 11, 2011

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.


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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37 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1968 Fiat 500 (595) Esse-Esse Abarth...”

  • avatar

    Well that was fun!

  • avatar

    When I was in high school, a friend of mine’s father had one of these. Just the regular 500 not the Abarth version. It was quite a hoot to go roaring(?) down the country roads of West By God Virginia in this little roller skate. I guess if we’d gone off the road it would have been a classic Darwin at work experience. No seat belts, no crush zones, no airbags. A 10 mph collision was probably fatal, but it was a lot of fun to drive.

  • avatar

    Every driving enthusiast worth his salt spends at least some time driving around Italy in a very small car with the windows down and the radio off. It truly is the last word in motoring, in my opinion.

    Thanks for this piece. Took me back.

    I’d like to read your driving impressions of the same roads, but in a Piaggio Ape.

  • avatar

    I’m something of a fan of later Fiats, namely the 128 & 131, but there’s something to be said for these little firecrackers. I’ve never been able to fit into a 500, mostly because of my height (and now, weight), but I do respect what Fiat was able to do with these little buggers. And Carlo Abarth just amped it up…

    I was in Germany in the late 70’s and an acquaintance of one of my cousins had a 128 Abarth. To my big block American mind, I thought this thing won’t go fast at all, boy, was I wrong…

    I had a couple of Yugos years ago (they were really inexpensive as used cars, but a total crapshoot due to maintenance), and I liked that they looked a little like some of the old 131’s I saw in Europe.

    Sounds like you had fun over there. Bellisimo!

  • avatar

    Thanks for a great article.

  • avatar

    And THAT is what’s missing in cars today! Personality…engagement…reward. Yes, yes…today’s cars are infintely safer, more fuel efficient…blah, blah, blah. Oh, for one afternoon with the windows down, driving gloves on and a clear blue Italian sky before me!

    • 0 avatar

      AKA, the four wheeled equivalent of a Meriden-built Triumph Bonneville, preferably a four-speed 650. You don’t drive it. You live it. You are part of it – or you’re wasting your time.

    • 0 avatar

      This story reminds me of the first time that I got to drive my former roommate’s 1971 BMW 2002. I hated it at first, but after a couple hundred miles, I really got to understand the Ultimate Driving Experience!

  • avatar

    Great story! I particularly like the speedometer and the wiper bar.

  • avatar

    Horrid cars the Abarth had enough power to be fun but the actual 500 was awfully slow and poorly made incapable of reachijg the speed limit on a flat road point one uphill and it stops take off the rose tints these were terrible cars

  • avatar

    Bryce: “Driving a slow car fast” – research it. On some of those roads, taking an apex at 30 kph was an act of steel balls.

    • 0 avatar

      That phrase perfectly illustrates why my 1981 VW Rabbit diesel was one of the most fun-to-drive cars that I have ever owned. I even leaned forward in it on freeway on-ramps, willing it forward . . . (I tried to stop doing this but somehow it just came naturally).

  • avatar

    @Samir Syed:
    “the way a cappuccino goes down on a sunny afternoon”
    Wait, what? AFTERNOON?

    “Every driving enthusiast worth his salt spends at least some time driving around Italy in a very small car with the windows down and the radio off.”
    +1. It was quite an experience.

  • avatar

    This is the kind of story that will keep me coming back to TTAC for another couple of years, at least.

    • 0 avatar

      Other than TTAC and Curbside Classic, there’s no other place TO go, or worth your time, IMHO!

      Might as well stick around and have fun and be informed and entertained and share experiences!

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    Finally followed a new one, red, maybe base model, likely an automatic, on Boston’s Southeast Expressway in northbound traffic this morning at maybe 9:20. Traffic was easing.

    Exit 13, cyclically hydraulic traffic jam lifts for a short interval, it rolls forward at 15-20 mph over a crevice, no visible shudders or anything, the right rear wheel just dips and returns. Cell phone did not leave driver ear and the wheel did not wiggle.

    Pass it slowly, he is 6 foot, whiskers, not overly fat, occupies almost entire interior.

    Its really small for USA. Clean looking. I want one to drive around in. Won’t modify it much.

    • 0 avatar

      This week I was on a business trip to Portland. I rented a Chrysler Town & Country to schlep my co-workers around in. When I turned it in I saw that National had cinquecentos in the Emerald Aisle lot. Next time I’m getting one and telling the rest of them to rent their own damn van.

  • avatar

    I had a 195? 500 in about 1957 in the Poughkeepsie NY area. I actually enjoyed its eccentricities. I dispute that it was a horrible car since I remember it with pleasure.

    I also dispute that construction was shoddy. Mine was well built and had a super paint job. The troubles I did have mostly centered around the exhaust pipes vibrating loose. When the racket got too loud, I would stop and use my trusty wrench. I finally re-tapped the cylinders and installed safety wired aircraft studs.

    I also occasionally had to stop and re-gap the points.

    • 0 avatar

      “I also occasionally had to stop and re-gap the points.”

      Bear in mind, even the shoddiest modern car is vastly more reliable than almost anything made before 1980.

      Since the first time I drove a friend’s Beetle when I was in high school (in the late 90s, mind you), I’ve been enamored with the idea of driving a tiny, slow car– it’s rewarding to have to wring every bit of grunt out of it, rather than just stomping on the gas pedal and aiming.

  • avatar

    Bravo! Wonderful story.

    One question; what is going on with the windshield wipers, are they perpetually in the up position?

  • avatar

    This account sounds very close to the experience I feel (and will feel next Sunday) every time I visit my buddy in Missouri when we get into his 1961 Volvo PV544! I’m sure the Volvo is, by comparison, well-ahead of the little Fiat, but it’s still an adventure and add to that my friend still drives like we were still in high school! Basically, neither one of us has appreciably grown up much over the years (my wife says it keeps me young) and wind up having a great time driving around the countryside looking for car parts or booze or food or, usually all three! I’ll give a full report after next week if anything relevant to any topic on here (or on “Curbside Classic”) appears!

    • 0 avatar

      I have spent quite a lot of time behind the wheel of both- a 1965 PV544 Sport, and a somewhat modified 1971 500 (650cc engine from a 126, different gearbox, wider wheels). They’re both a lot of fun to drive- but the Volvo is a whole lot more comfortable, and being FR not RR probably handles better, though I’ve never driven the 500 outside of the city. The Volvo probably has better performance (but then, it’s the “sports” model with a whole hundred horsepower) everywhere except from a standstill, where the absurdly light 500 will beat Porsches away from the lights to about 15 mph. The 500 is like driving a go-kart, the Volvo feels like a real car- but one where you point it where you want to go (rack-and-pinion steering FTW) and it just goes there. I’d probably rather have the 500 in a city, and the Volvo if I had to drive any distance.

      One more thing: If you think the 500’s gearbox throws are long, you should try the Volvo. The gearstick comes out of the floor, but there’s a 3-foot-long stick between the floor and your hand, so it moves like a truck column shifter- throws of 6 inches to a foot, and in a vertical plane.

  • avatar

    Zackman: Why not ask Ed if you can submit a capsule review? Take lots of pictures and what not!

    pgcooldad: No idea, it was a perfectly Sunny day. I don’t think that car is allowed to see rain/snow anyways.

  • avatar

    Perfection is boring.
    Perfection is forgettable.
    It doesn’t engage us.
    It doesn’t need us.

    What makes us unique, is our imperfections.
    What makes us memorable, is our flaws.

    A Camcord does not need you.
    It just needs your bank account.
    It is so gentle and undemanding, your 90 year old grandma can drive them.
    In a McDonalds world, flawlessness may be profitable, but people can’t love something uninteresting.

    Our favorite cars aren’t the ones that demanded nothing from us. Our favorite cars are the ones that earned our respect.

  • avatar

    Samir: Wonderful story! Made me dream off. Great writing. Took us there with you.

    As to the only negative return, well..some will just never get it. I for one don’t really even care to try to explain. If you have to ask…

  • avatar

    About 1964, I was living in Wappingers Falls, NY, flying C-119s in the reserves out of Stewart AFB, across the Hudson. I had to take the ferry across to Newburg to fly. Folks would always grin on the ferry when I would unwind from the Fiat in flying gear.

    The engine looked like a motorcycle engine with separate cylinders. My 500 used to leak a little oil around the cylinder bases and oil would pool on the crankcase that had a little cast-in ridge all around. When someone tailgated me, I would accelerate (as such as it was able), the oil would slosh on the muffler, and I would see the tailgater disappear completely in a cloud of white smoke. It never failed to get them off my butt.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      “…to replace my aging Ford Ranger.”

      Say it ain’t so, ciddyguy! I and the Banger Ranger weep for your soon-to-be loss.

      • 0 avatar

        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.

  • avatar

    A fantastic read!

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