Falling for a Fiat 500
The 500 is technically my fourth Fiat. I've had a 1973 128SL (my first car), a '74 124 sedan, and a '68 850S sedan. (The S has two more horsepower. It really does.)
When I arrived at my house on Long Island, I knew my '67 Nuova 500 was waiting in the garage. I dropped everything I was holding and raced to see it. I opened the door, and there it almost was - half the size of the '53 Porsche 356 parked next to it, in a kind of saltwater taffy light green color.
Do I drive it? Do I eat it? Do I put it in my pocket and save it for later?
I don't know why I love Fiats. I love anything Italian, of course; who doesn't? But Fiats lack all the charisma and grand sense of occasion that makes me a little uncomfortable with the other Italian automotive brands. Fiat is an unassuming kind of company making unassuming cars.
But they're Italian.
I had been in a Cinquecento once before, so I knew the starting procedure. I pull the starter. The engine cranks but won't start. This, I could have assumed. As it cranked and cranked, I started to smile. It felt good. I felt like I was home again.
But wait, there's another lever next to the starter. The choke! Of course, the choke! Oh, how you want to choke these cars sometimes.
Suddenly, with the sound of a fur-balling cat, 18 hp of two-cylinder, rear-engine fury is at my command. Off I go in a metal suit that fits tighter than Iron Man's.
The last little Italian car I drove was the 850S, and as soon as I made my way down the road in the 500, I knew that my 850S was packing just a bit too much of a punch. This 500 was all I needed. I didn't think, "Less truly is more." I didn't have time. The roads out here are narrow and windy, and on twelve-inch tires, before I know it, I'm at the edge of wetness.
People are finally staring at me for a good reason. I look like I'm out of my mind. I'm rowing that gear lever; I'm working that model-car steering wheel. I'm banging my head off the metal side-window frame. Ow! My eyes are bugging out of my head like a zoot-suit wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon.
Next positive surprise: the heater works! Except the car doesn't have one. Whatever. Something warm is coming from somewhere, and the cabin's toasty.
Another important thing to remember about Italian cars: If it catches on fire, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. It just means it's time to get another one.They should have sold these cars out of a giant gumball machine. "Oh, I was trying to get a red one." It would have been fun, and it would have appropriately adjusted your expectations.
I've already bought a souped-up carburetor and manifold for the 500. But it doesn't need it. If you want a sense of speed, all you have to do is get out of this car. "Hey, I'm flying down this sidewalk!"
You know how sometimes you like to turn back and look at your car as you walk away? With this car, you keep turning around because you can't believe you're in a different location than where you started.
Two of my kids, Sascha, 7, and Julian, 5, have both driven it, with me doing the gears and the pedals. They have pronounced it their favorite car that I own. You think you're in a children's story in this thing. "...and then suddenly, the car started singing a happy song..."
The plain, dumb truth is that it's an absolute blast to drive. The steering is fantastic, the handling is sweet, and everything really does work. Every mile an hour is a huge treat. "I'm doing fifty-seven! Oh my god!"
I am planning on adding some things to tart it up a bit. Brakes have crossed my mind. Maybe some late-model Porsche paint and interior. Maybe some Abarth goodies. Maybe nothing. But I'm definitely not selling it.
I couldn't. I'd feel too bad for the next person who got it...
Ed. note: Mere moments after this was written, Mr. Seinfeld was puttering along in his 500 when its brakes failed. In a heroic move to prevent the involvement of the traffic around him, Seinfeld stopped the little Fiat cold by laying it on its side, Arte Johnson-style.