If you are over the age of 30 when reading this, you will very likely have heard of the Fiat 500 and have the image of this, or the later Nuova - “new” in Italian - 500 in your mind. OK, fine you will definitely have this image in your mind, because the first two pages of every Past Blast are a glorious spread of the featured car before the captivating writing part begins. If you are still in your twenties, teens or tweens, you may be a bit confused. Surely the “Fiat 500” that you saw the other day parked at a coffee shop or driving around with a bunch of other Italians was a bit larger, of a different colour and definitely a modern car? What’s going on here?
Let us explain. 2007 saw the revival of the 500 nameplate by Fiat on a modern homage to the original Nuova 500 which was the rear engined successor to the model that you see here, which was produced from 1936 to 1955. Of course, Fiat hails from Italy, and the car’s nickname “Topolino” translates to “Little Mouse”, and also “Mickey Mouse” in Italian. Look at it again. Can you not see the mouse now?
The Fiat 500 Topolino was produced in three models. Model A (1936 to 1948) and Model B (1948 to 1949) had the same body style, with a swept back front and longer, vertical grilles. Model C introduced in 1949 saw a restyling of the frontal aspects to a more flat shape and wider, horizontal grille design although the technical aspects remained unchanged from the Model B.
In terms of body style, one could have a two-door saloon, two-door convertible, two-door van or three-door estate. The sole powertrain choice was a 569cc in-line four cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through a conventional four-speed manual gearbox. The engine put out 13bhp at launch in the Model A until 1948 when it was upgraded to 16bhp for the Model B and C. The top speed is around 53mph (approx. 85km/h).
At a time when cars had tall, vertical, bluff frontal areas, the Little Mouse’s lowered aerodynamic nose afforded great forward visibility. This was possible by mounting the engine in front of the radiator as is apparent when the bonnet is opened. While the car was planned to be sold at 5,000 Lire, the launch price was nearly double that, at 9,750 Lire. The price was later lowered to 8,900 Lire, however the Little Mouse proved to be quite a hit and total production figures exceeded 500,000.
1955 saw the Little Mouse bow gracefully into retirement, to be replaced by the Nuova 500 in 1957.
The 1954 Model C example featured here hails from the Gawarammana stables in Kandy, owned by Professor Indika Gawarammana and cared for by him and his son Rajeev. They are the fourth owners of the car. It underwent a complete restoration and engine rebuild from the renowned Mr. Gunasena in 2010. The car starts up on first crank and putters away as Rajeev moves it to diferent angles for the photo shoot. This 500 truly is in great condition and regularly gets its legs stretched on weekends and holidays. Note the roll-down sunroof, not ideal in Colombo of course, but perfect for the cool hill country climes where this car spends its days. No radio, USB charging or screens. No power steering or automatic gearbox with paddles. Just you, a tiny engine puttering away and a manual gearbox with the road ahead and the sky stretching above. Now isn’t that motoring nirvana for when you want to relax?
How and Why of Bug Fiats
Talk about a Fiat 500 in Sri Lanka, and people would immediately think of the Nuova 500 and the later – Retro - 500. But chances are that (the older generation in Sri Lanka at least) may have heard of the “Bug Fiat”. And that name is fondly allocated to the 500C in local motoring slang. However, rather than the car having being named as a “Bug” Fiat just because it looks like a bug; this name has a more colourful history.
Edward Mason was a Motoring Journalist in Sri Lanka who did a motoring page in the Sunday Observer for many decades. He was born on November 26, 1915 to a respected planting family in the Kegalle district.
His interest in cars began with his father's three-wheeled Morgan! During his life of 86 years he contributed immensely to transport and road safety in general and motoring and racing in particular.
After a stint in the Army, Edward Mason began his motor racing on December 7, 1947 when he entered his little Fiat Topolino for the circuit meet organized by the Ceylon Motorcycle Club at Ratmalana. In the first race there were three Topolinos and Paddy Philips beat the others. Mason confessed, "It was my first experience in racing and it cut me down to size." In the next event for cars under 1,000 cc. in his own words he had the cheek to enter the little Fiat of 500 cc. against more powerful vehicles. He sprang a surprise leading the more powerful Renault 4CV, Morris Minor and Standard 8 over a lap, but had bad luck missing a turn and losing valuable seconds in getting back to the track. J.P. Obeysekera took the lead in the Renault followed by R. de Livera in the Morris and the little Fiat finished third despite the detour!
In the Monsoon Reliability Trials which commenced on June 5, 1948 from Torrington Square and covering 461 miles, Mason entered his diminutive Fiat but no one was willing to be his navigator! He knew the roads well and won the event despite not having a navigator. It was his first win and earned the nickname of 'Bugs' Mason for having driven the diminutive bug-like Fiat to victory.
From then on, Edward Mason became Bugs Mason… and the Fiat 500C became the Bug Fiat!
“Uncle Topolino” – cemented on the silver screen
The Little Mouse has starred in so many Italian and Hollywood films from the time it was introduced, that it is impossible to keep track of them all. So here’s one for the younger generation. Recall the film franchise “Cars”, more specifically “Cars 2”. Now think about the main character Luigi’s favourite Uncle? Why it’s Uncle Topolino, isn’t it? And guess what he’s based on, a 1937 Fiat 500 Topolino! He’s married to Mama Topolino (based on a Renault Dauphine) and is the village’s tyre shop owner, giving advice on tyres and more to Luigi. Now isn’t that a nice tribute?