From Basket Case To Picnic Baskets: My 1967 Fiat 500F
Story and photography by Stefan Graichen
I think everyone should own a Fiat 500—a real 500, not the new one, which while a nice little car, is not the same as the original in the same way that driving a Mini today is not like driving one 50 years ago. An original Fiat 500 is happiness in automotive form. Just look at it! Has there ever been a car with this much glee imbedded in such a small space? The charms of the Cinquecento have been extolled time and time again though, so I’ll leave it at that and get on with the story of this particular example.
Years ago, I decided that I wanted a project. I’d had plenty of experience building motors for friends and acquaintances, as well as lending my time toward other miscellaneous mechanical projects from time to time, but I never really bore the fruits of that labor save for maybe a test drive here and there. It was time to work on a car that once finished, wouldn’t leave my garage. In deciding what form this would take, I came up with some criteria: it had to be something “classic,” it had to fit within my budget, and it had to be a car that was important enough to be worth the time I was about to sink into it. Like many of us, I’ve been into cars from a very young age, and have always had an appreciation for the Italian creations from the ‘60s and ‘70s. However, not everyone has the means to acquire and restore vintage Ferraris and the like, so I chose the humble Fiat.
It’s not a particularly rare car, and it certainly isn’t a fast one, but even so, it is arguably one of the most important to come from the country that has also given us the likes of Miuras and GTOs, and so I was excited to get to work on one and make it my own. Its simple design would lend itself to a straightforward restoration, and taking on this project would allow me the chance to really get to know the Fiat 500 as a full car and not just a friendly facet at a vintage car show. The design, like the Mini, is full of clever solutions to solving the issues of space, and being able to tear the car down to a shell and rebuild would grant me an intimate knowledge of what it was like to engineer this car so many decades ago. So, I had my model picked out, and it was time to find one.
I bought this car about two years ago, and as you can tell by the sprayed-on “69” on the side, it wasn’t in the most dignified condition. That was fine though, because it meant it was cheap, and living in London I wanted a right-hand drive example, which this was. Plus, the car was an F model, which includes the lovely round creme-colored speedometer and matching steering wheel.
When the car arrived at my garage, it was a true basket case; the body was basically a basket full of parts that were at one time attached to it and not resting inside in a haphazard heap on the floor pans! I poked through the grimy lump to assess how much of the car was there, and it turns out—shocker, I know—that not everything was included in the pile of parts. For instance, there were no seats, certainly no glass, and the rest of the missing pieces that were meant to be included in the sale never materialized either, which meant I had to hunt around on the Internet and through friends to find the stuff, much of which was no longer produced nor readily available. That was okay though, as I believe this is part of any restoration process, and while it can be frustrating at times it is also supremely rewarding when you find what you’re looking for.
I rebuilt this car from the engine to the gearbox to the bodywork, and really everything else on this car besides spraying on the Alfa Romeo red (color code 501 for the Alfisti out there!). It took me two years of work when I could fit the time in around my full-time job, and now that it’s finished I couldn’t be happier. Knowing that I built it all in my little garage just strengthens the connection I’ve already formed with the quaint Italian city car. It simply makes me smile, even just passing by and stealing a glance at it. Of course, driving it is the real joy though, and while I don’t take it on highways for obvious reasons, doing 30mph around town in the 500 feels like three times the speed when your legs are pressed up against the doors and you can just about reach back to touch the rear glass!
Though I’ve tweaked some small things to make the car more usable in today’s traffic, I still tried to keep everything as original as possible otherwise, including the tan and cream vinyl interior that I matched to the original sales brochure from 1967. Yes, it has an Alfa hue on it, but I believe that can be forgiven from the purist’s perspective. Perhaps my favorite add-on though is the picnic basket affixed to the rear, which elevates the charm of the car to an even great level, at least in my mind. I love this car; I love the age and style it represents, I love driving it, and I love that I can call it mine. (Though I would also like to build an Alfa Romeo GTV 1750 one day too!)