If there is one car which makes the Mini look large and austere, then surely it is the ‘nuova’ Cinquecento; a car so perfectly proportioned and oozing character that only the Italians could create such a minute marvel.
Just as the Mini had far-reaching implications for Britons’ personal mobility and Britain’s motorsport scene, so did FIAT’s bambino in its homeland. The list of companies which added their own interpretation of Dante Giacosa’s cheeky little creation was considerable: Ghia, Savio, Pininfarina, Frua, Lombardi, Nardi, Bonetto, Moretti, Brutsch, Ede, Necker, Giannini, Michelotti, Steyr-Puch, Zagato, Fissore, Viotti, Canta, Vignale, Siata, Stevens, Ferves, Sessano, Caprera and Monterosa to name rather a few. Yet of all these great names, only one really springs to the fore when petrolheads talk about hot air-cooled FIATs: Abarth.
Unfortunately, whereas Coopers of all ages are a relatively common sight in old Blighty – even a T51 GP Cooper is usually met with a degree of nonchalance – the same though cannot be said about Abarths. In fact, the last time I tried to track down an original Abarth 595 or 695, I was told that there was only one in the UK – and of course, it was in the Channel Islands.
I was told the 126 engine was bored out to 800cc and that it had 79mm forged racing pistons fitted
So given their rarity, it is totally understandable why those in need of an Abarth FIAT fix, turn their attentions to building that most controversial of retro classic creations – the replica. Why spend ages tracking down an original, when you will always end up feeling slightly guilty about using it? The risk, the deterioration, the cost…
James Wheeler from (sadly no longer extant – Ed) Newbury-based Italian car specialists, Black & White Garage, has spent quite a few quid getting this Cinquecento back in shape. When we first saw it, lined up in a parade of its siblings at the Bristol Italian Auto Moto Festival, this little Abarth replica really did stand out. It’s not totally accurate – eg it’s still got its original single-clock facia – but it had such a presence that we knew we just had to get it featured on dep-o.
“This car is unusual, because it was sold new in 1959 near San Jose in California,” says James. “It’s an early suicide-door Cinquecento Sport which initially had three owners; the last of whom sold it to Keith Murphy, a chap who has loads of unusual small European cars. He had several Cinquecentos so, with this one, he decided to restore it and turn it into an Abarth replica.
“During the mid Seventies, FIAT North America shipped over a few 600cc 126s, just after they had been launched, to test the market… They decided it wasn’t going to happen and rather than take the cars back to Italy, they crushed them. However, the chap who was given the task of crushing these 126s removed the engines and gearboxes – which he wasn’t supposed to do. Subsequently, he slowly sold them and Keith bought his last engine and gearbox.
“I was told the 126 engine was bored out to 800cc and that it had 79mm forged racing pistons fitted, but, I’m not sure, I think it’s about 700cc,” says James.
The 126 twin cylinder has also a big valve head, Abarth heavy-duty valve springs, a Weber 40DCOE24 side-draught carburettor (which dwarfs the engine) and an exhaust system which is practically straight-through. Meanwhile, finishing off the drivetrain details are: a modified oil pump, Aeroquip braided oil hoses, an external oil filter and a 126 gearbox with close 3rd and 4th ratios.
It doesn’t really idle because of the large carburettor, but if you put your foot down, it absolutely flies
“On Keith’s first test drive in 1989, during which he couldn’t get it to run properly, this guy flagged him down and told him that he had to buy the car – which he did. Later the car was entered into one of the Pebble Beach auctions and was bought by Hans Hugenholtz, a Dutch racing driver who exported the FIAT to Holland.
“Its last Dutch owner tried to sell it a couple of times, unsuccessfully, and then we bought it through a Dutch dealer in October 2006,” says James. “During those 17 years in Holland, it must have only done just 500 miles… So when we got it, we had to basically run it in; and each time we ran it, it would break down due to teething problems.
“Since then we’ve changed the wheels, it used to have 126 steels and now it’s running on Abarth replicas. We’ve also finished Keith’s work by fitting a passenger seat and we’ve raised the lowered suspension at the rear because the springs had been cut down too far, making the wheels rub on the arches,” says James who is quick to point out it was built in the US in the pre-internet era. In other words, parts were obtained by either mail order or from plenty of holidays to Italy, complete with large suitcases.
“We also fitted the raised engine cover and we had to rebuild the Weber, because the seals had dried out and each time we ran it, more fuel leaked from it than went into the engine. It was just a catalogue of jobs we had to do, just to get it to run properly, but now it’s fine.
Unfortunately, the Abarth replica’s last owner did lose interest in the car and it was just left outside – leaving puddles to collect in the footwells and dents in the doors (luckily Keith took the unusual step of sheeting both the inside and the outside of the floors with a layer of GRP for rust prevention). James is reluctant to repair the dents because it would mean mismatched paint and, anyway, it adds to the corsa attitude of the tiny tearaway.
It has a bit of problem: the fuel pump can’t keep up with the carburettor!
One of the big talking points are the supersized headlamps. Now, the headlamps of US-spec Cinquecentos were of a similar size to this car’s but, as with many Federalised imports such as the Moggy, the looks did take a bit of a battering as the lamps were mounted in raised pods. Speaking from memory, I could swear that I have seen period pix of Abarths sporting larger headlamps such as these, but can I find proof of this? Of course not, apart from a large nagging hunch.
“A lot of people in the US convert the front panel, but what Keith did when he restored this was fit VW Beetle headlights and modify the front panel, which is made from a mixture of GRP and steel,” says James. “At first, I didn’t really like it, but now I do – it’s something different, having big lights on a tiny car. The bonnet used to have a roundel decal, but when we removed it, some of the paint came with it – so we had to paint the bonnet and we used the same ‘Black & White’ theme as our Giulia Spider’s bonnet.
“It is UK registered, but I’ve just kept the California plates on because I still have the original California title. It was never registered in Holland and because the guy I bought it from didn’t know anything about the car’s history, without the title, neither would I,” says James, proving that for once a disinterested owner was a blessing.
“I ended up Googling Keith’s name and it came up with his details; he was over the moon to find out that the FIAT was still around and that the car is still in such good condition,” says James.
“It doesn’t really idle because of the large carburettor, but if you put your foot down, it absolutely flies; and because it’s so noisy, people always hear you coming before you arrive…” says James. “I haven’t really taken it to too many events yet, because it has a bit of problem: the fuel pump can’t keep up with the carburettor! It’s okay cruising around, but as soon as you ask it to sustain a high speed for any amount of time you have to coast on the clutch, so that the fuel pump can build up pressure again. So I really must put in a larger fuel pump…”
So what about the nitty-gritty of pub ammo – what’ll she do, mister? Well, power figures aren’t really on the cards, because these little FIATs were never about headline-making tarmac-shredding horsepower. Nothing illustrates this better than the factory figure for the Cinquecento Sport which was just 21.5bhp (only 1.5bhp down on early 126s).
However, because it doesn’t weigh much, it does take off like a mouse strapped to a rocket. Talking of which, thanks to that big burbly off-beat exhaust note, there is a slight touch of V1 Doodlebug to this replica’s exhaust note. As you can see and hear in the video footage, it really does fly around corners.
Knowing the attraction of Italian cars, you can bet that every single ounce of information from each of its precious MPH will be fed straight into James’s central nervous system. His grin says it all – no nanny safety systems, no power-assisted flim-flam and no several pounds of numbing sensory-deadening nonsense to dilute the experience.
It may not be fast, but it is addictive.
Black & White Garage’s Abarth 695 SS Replica
US-spec 1959 FIAT 500 S, de-bumpered with engine cover props, GRP floors, modified GRP and steel front end with VW Beetle headlamps and Alfa Romeo Duetto side repeaters used as front indicators.
Bored out 700cc FIAT 126 air-cooled parallel twin engine, forged racing pistons, big-valve cylinder head, Abarth heavy-duty valve springs, side-draught Weber 40DCOE24 carburettor, performance exhaust system, modified oil pump, Aeroquip braided oil hoses, external oil filter, finned Abarth alloy sump.
Rear-engined, rear-wheel drive with FIAT 126 four-speed gearbox, close ratios fitted on third and top gears.
Front: independent with single wishbone and transverse leaf spring, Koni telescopic dampers. Rear: independent via coil springs, Koni telescopic dampers. Lowered ride height.
Front and rear: single-circuit, hydraulically operated 180 x 30x 4.2mm drums, with cable-operated handbrake activated on rear drums.
10inch Abarth replica steel wheels.