From 126 to Seicento

"Living with Small Fiats", or "Life in the slow lane" for nearly forty happy (if eventful) years....!

Seen in the University car park.....

The Fiat 500 - the ultimate Fiat collector's car, precursor of the 126

The first Fiat 126
During a visit to Italy in the early 1970's we hired a little red Fiat 600 and were delighted with the whole concept of the rear-engined nippy little car. At that time the Fiat 126 had just been announced but was not available in the UK; there were Nuova 500s around every corner. However, my wife fell in love with the 126, - they were everywhere in Rome and proving popular so we resolved to get one one day. Meanwhile the late Bill Boddy, writing in Motorsport of which he was editor, had described the new 126 as a modern day Austin Seven. He was referring to its simplicity and I believe it was Stirling Moss who was quoted as having said words to the effect that it goes around corners downhill, faster than anything he had driven before.  (I think it was "like a rat down a drainpipe!") All this was music to my ears!

During a 'rationalisation' of our transport later on in the seventies, we sold my late father's Rover 80 - too big, too heavy and too slow - and someone made a silly offer for my "Friday afternoon shift" MG which I couldn't fail to refuse so it was replaced by a VW Scirocco GLS.  Therefore when a Fiat 126 was spotted in the local paper, we had a look and eventually bought it as a second car. The owner was elderly and the Fiat had been his wife's car but having two cars was costly on a pension so the little Tufa Yellow 126 was delivered from Yeovil to us where it was now also to share a garage, not only with the Scirocco but with its vintage counterpart, a 1929 Austin Seven.

We ran the yellow car for twelve years and found it a pleasure to drive. A combination of rear engine, rear wheel drive and positive steering made the handling a sheer delight and after I had chopped three inches off the gear lever to accomodate my left leg, the gearchange was almost perfect. It had the fold-back sun roof of the early model and the 594cc air-cooled engine, designed originally in 1953 for the 500 model, which buzzed along very well indeed. One peculiarity of the car was that whenever I visited a meeting of the local Stationary Engine Club about twice a month on the top of the Mendip Hills, the Fiat would misfire on the way home, going down on to one cylinder. It never did it at any other time but I could guarantee it would do it every time on these occasions. It would be OK next day and I never found out why. WHY?  It also needed frequent attention to the steering king pins and joints despite constant greasing. My wife used it around and about locally for mobile-hairdressing transport and I used it in between when working in Bristol; it was ideal in the traffic and like magic in the snow. It had a healthy appetite for rear tyres with its swing-axle suspension but the front tyres were the originals from new (made in Italy!) when I sold the car at fifteen years old with about 67,000 miles on the clock!!! Parts were no problem at all - and I had also bought another, an M.O.T. failure, and broken it for spares. Later on I bought yet another 'spare' in similar condition which my friend's young daughter had "heavily inverted" on an icy road one frosty morning - thus giving me my own "off the shelf parts service". This latter one had the very rare little Fiat-Voxson radio about the size of a packet of twenty cigarettes with ball shaped speaker fitted. The tuner part could be removed for security and would fit a pocket or handbag, leaving the power supply base behind on the dash. I retained it when I sold the last126 but it can be still used every day - if you only need Radio Bristol that is!!  More recently I have passed it on to another Fiat enthusiast.

For a week I was a Two Fiat owner

Elbowed out by a younger cousin...........!

Another Fiat 126 - from Poland!
After twelve years, ever more frequent purchase of yellow spray cans, body filler, and glass fibre made us decide that the end for HYC 664N was nigh and I  mentioned  to my wife that I had spotted a later model, a three year old Azzura Blue 126 in the work car park. She realised from this that the yellow car was doomed to the 'big scrap heap in the sky' soon, even though it had a long MOT.  One day I penned a note along the lines of "If you wish to sell the Fiat in the near future, I could be interested if we agree a price" and stuck it under the wiper blade of the blue one with my internal work phone number.
This blue one had FSM on the boot lid which I knew meant that it was made in Poland. At the time, I could never find what FSM stood for and it was open to some conjecture, the main translation being "Fairly Slow Motor "- or even stronger....! Eight years on into ownership and with the advent of the internet, I found out that it means Fabryka Samochodow Malolitrazowych as that was one of the Polish car factories in Tychy (very apt ! - even more so as it means "Factory of Low Litrage cars"). In Poland the model was nicknamed "Maluch" or "little baby."
To cut a long story short, and as you will by now have gathered, within a few months we became the proud new owners of Fiat number two - with a boringly impersonal (and most difficult to remember) Bristol registration number.......C843BHU .

Luckily someone  wanted an old cheap car for his wife who had just passed her test "to bash around in the traffic for a few months (quote!)", a deal was struck and the ochre yellow car which had served us so well, departed into another county. The "new car" was quite radically changed from the yellow one, with a smart steering wheel, rack & pinion steering, key start (rather than the cable pull on the floor), rocker switches, better seats, a fold-down rear seat making a load platform and a bigger 652 cc engine with more torque for the same 23 bhp output. Someone had fitted a neat aftermarket glass sunroof, no substitute for the fold-back one however. But it was slow! The first mod was to fit a carburettor from the earlier model which had better richer jetting and seemed to give it a little more urge. It was a 'changeover' model car; later cars had decent relays for the electrics for example and so far its 'achilles heel' has been the electrics. The first owner had been in Bristol and sadly at that time for whatever reason, it had been in the hands of a British Leyland garage; the most problems I encountered in the first year of ownership could thus understandably be directly traced back to poor aftermarket repairs, and bad servicing workmanship generally, something which BL was renowned for. The clutch cable gave problems, the weld on its release arm broke in Weston super Mare but I managed to drive home twenty miles by changing gear without using it. One day on my way to work, the clutch again felt funny and within minutes the cable tube broke away from the floor, luckily by now I was in the car park. However, if I had to think of any improvements to the main design, I would suggest better electrical switches with relays, better fixings for the clutch cable tube, and above all, a fuel tank holding more than four gallons.

Although both cars had excellent paint finishes, if anything the later Polish one was better made generally and proved more durable. While owning a 126, we enjoyed waiting while someone found they could not quite just squeeze into a parking space - so that we could just nip in easily when they drove away in disgust. We were able to avoid all the problems common to water-cooled cars, anti-freeze, hoses, pumps, thermostats and the like! No-one ever wanted to steal it for a ram-raid or a bank robbery and we soon got used to the remarks about 'lawn mower engines' and 'mobile hair driers'. Eventually however the inevitable 'march of time' hinted that the ideal concept of air-cooled engine with rear wheel drive would reluctantly have to give way to the dubious 21st century 'improvements' of the cheekily styled Cinquecento. (see below**)

.......And there is Life after the 126! Enter the Cinquecento........

The blue Fiat was sold during late 1999 with many regrets and some reservations. What better for a young driver to learn some "roadcraft" with long MOT and low tax? However I was later to learn that at its MOT, six month's later, unfortunately it fell victim to the phrase so beloved by the MOT tester  - "beyond economic repair". In answer to the many potential questions about spares, - "No!",  I have at last sold all the spares, engines, transaxles etc etc and nothing is left.
The new millennium brought another era of Fiat motoring for us in the shape of a secondhand 900cc Cinquecento L542PYD in Racing Red. It was admittedly very easy to drive (despite having too many gears with ratios badly-chosen for the torque curve), with most mechanical parts simple to work on. It was very roomy inside, boasted no trashy extras, but.....but..... but.... it was not air-cooled, and not rear wheel drive...........!...

Cinquecento in Racing Red

"Fiona" the Fiat

So far, (40,000+ miles on), I have learnt a lot about Cinquecentos, mainly totally substantiating my remarks above about the virtues of air-cooled engines and of having as few electrical components as possible!
The car developed a hydraulic tappet rattle which I intended to do something about but before I got around to it, eventually it suffered overheating which was evidently a blown head gasket. The local garage, Brents of Bishop Sutton near Bristol, did a superb job on the head, replacing the hydraulic tappets at the same time. A month later, more overheating plus an occasional 'hiccup' and a flash of engine management light, necessitated a new radiator, thermosensor, and thermostat. What bugged me ever after was - which came first, the blocked radiator or the head gasket failure? The hesitancy was probably the MAP sensor (manifold absolute pressure) (replaced) as it was not completely cured by a new throttle potentiometer. These problems plus a new offside front wheel bearing and a new suspension strut on the other side (caused by BANES council Highways Department's total avoidance of necessary road maintenance), an exhaust, Oh - and a call out to the RAC for a clutch cable - somewhat destroyed the popular idea that the Cinquecento even at 55mpg, is a cheap runabout...........however I rather got to like it..........!

Moving one does!......

Seicento Mia a Seicento
In January 2006 I spotted a newer blue Cinquecento for sale; however on enquiring, the owner had just that moment sold it. Disappointed but still looking, soon afterwards I saw a Seicento Mia advertised on the work noticeboard. I phoned. The ad had only been placed fifteen minutes previous to my call  and suffice it to say the next day I again became a two-Fiat owner for a few weeks while I went right through the "new" one, relining brakes etc, servicing, and 'seeking and sorting' any possible developing problems. The Cinquecento was sold to a young man in Oxfordshire, and was last heard of in Brighton with frequent runs to Dorset; however I am totally delighted with the simplicity and better reliability of the Seicento. Again, as with the Cinquecento, the nearside drive shaft seal needed replacing but by now I had the necessary tooling. I did however, have to call out the RAC when again as with the red car, six months into ownership the Seicento's clutch cable failed. Full marks though to the RAC, I was on the road again within a half hour of their arrival!!

The blue Seicento is a basic model, it even has a few of the useful features of the previous car missing such as the internal boot catch, the "charcoal filter" ( what was all THAT about!?) and the temperature gauge and it is best described as a "funky" style rather than the "chic" of the red one. It is so basic that it never even had a locking fuel filler - it has now!! It has no power steering - why would such a light car need it?
A spate of draining the battery in two days of inactivity, even after a new one was fitted, was eventually traced to the Pioneer radio, an elaborate affair- too elaborate in fact, so its total removal cured that problem. I don't miss it!! I have since heard this is a common problem with after-market radios! Should have kept the Fiat-Voxon!

Herewith a useful and interesting fact with Fiat and I believe common to many if not all Italian cars. When the wheel bolts are replaced after a wheel change, put the bolt nearest the valve in first and tighten. The hub cap slips over the head of this bolt loosely (one hole is oversize for this purpose)  and then the other three bolts can be added to hold the hub cap on . The first bolt thus holds the wheel steady while you operate on the others.

Again I am pleased with yet another small Fiat, a pleasure to drive, reliable and with that certain 'something' that the usual bland, boring, gadget-bedecked, modern motor car does not provide - (with perhaps the exception at a price of the likes of Caterham and Morgan) - and that is FUN......! Still, there is always the Austin Seven

"That which is well done, however humble - is noble"   (Henry Royce)


Revised slightly March 1999...updated 25th February 2007 and
photo added 18th April 2007. Totally updated Sept 2007. Link added Dec 5th 2007. Revised March 2012.

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