Fiat Nuova 500 Buying Guide
The Fiat 500 is proof – as if you needed it – that the best things often come in very small packages
How much to pay
• Project £2500-4000 • Good £8000-12,000 • Concours £18,000+ •
Running costs ★★★★
DIY Friendly ★★★★
If you want lots of fun every time you go for a drive, and you want those around you to smile, you need an economy car. It’s the cars that put nations on wheels that tend to be the most enjoyable, whether it’s the 2CV, Mini or Beetle – or the Fiat Nuova 500 that arrived in 1957.
Over a 20-year production run almost four million Fiat 500s were made, each one powered (if that’s the right word) by a tiny two-cylinder engine that produced plenty of noise but not a lot of forward motion.
Most Fiat 500s were two-door saloons, but a pint-sized estate (dubbed Giardiniera) was available too. Choose a saloon and while there were various iterations offered, there’s little to separate them if you limit yourself to the factory cars.
However, Giannini and Abarth produced some hotter versions and these are now very rare, sought after and valuable. They’re also recreated sometimes, so if you’re looking at a costly hot 500 make sure that it really is what it claims to be.
Your AutoClassic Fiat 500 inspection checklist
Don’t expect a quiet engine, but if it’s really raucous the timing chain has probably worn. Oil leaks from the rocker cover or sump gaskets are common and easily fixed, but if the dipstick is being ejected from the engine a rebuild may be needed – or it could just be a failed valve in the oil filler cap.
Oil can also leak from the pushrod tubes and fixing this means removing the cylinder head. But everything is available very cheaply and it’s easy to do the work on a DIY basis. Blue smoke from the exhaust on the over-run points to worn valves and guides; budget for a reconditioned exchange cylinder head.
A thermostatically controlled air vent should open once the engine is warm. It can fail, but usually in the open position so there’s no damage. But if the engine overheats the head gasket will probably fail, leading to the engine running badly. The outlet pipes either side of the engine will also be pressurised (put your hand over them to see if they are) and the fix is a new gasket. A correctly adjusted fan belt will cut the risk of overheating, so check its tension.
Gearboxes last well, but with no synchromesh they can get damaged by ham-fisted drivers; trying to engage first gear on the move will probably break it, so see if the car jumps out of first and reverse when it’s on the move. If the gearchange is especially nasty the linkage probably needs adjusting. There’s a Metalastik bush in there that perishes after years of being soaked in oil – once that’s disintegrated the only solution is to renew it.
Oil leaks can be caused by overfilling the gearbox or weeping joints; there aren’t any gaskets, which doesn’t help to keep things oil-tight. A major gearbox leak takes 5-6 hours to fix which can be costly. Driveshaft gaiters can leak too. There were two types of driveshaft fitted, with those fitted before the 500L being slimmer. Many cars have had the thicker items fitted, but all parts are available.
Suspension and brakes
The worm and sector steering box is simple and durable but the idler bushes can perish, leading to vague steering. Uneven tyre wear points to worn track rods. Exchange steering boxes are available, or for some extra cash you can convert to a rack.
The suspension is simple, but even if the front kingpins are greased they can still wear. The front suspension can also suffer from a worn single transverse leaf spring, so see if the car sits level from head on; any leaning to one side means a new spring is needed. If the spring has really had enough it may have broken and the telescopic dampers that assist this leaf spring can also wear.
The biggest potential suspension issue is at the back: corrosion within the swing arm. If this has cracked or corroded the arm could break away so you lose control of the car, but the parts are readily available and it’s an easy DIY job.
The all-drum braking system works fine if it’s maintained. If the car has been standing, one of the wheel cylinders may have seized, so see if the car pulls to one side when you apply the brakes. Replacement wheel cylinder seals don’t last long so check for leaks from perished rubbers.
The 500 can rot badly, so if there are signs of significant rust, much worse is likely to be hidden. At the front lift the bootlid and analyse the battery tray, which rots once the drain holes have got blocked so the tray fills with water. Check the wings and wheelarches; take the wheels off for a thorough inspection. The whole length of each sill also needs to be analysed closely as bodged repairs are common.
From inside the car check the floorpans and inner sills for rot; lift the rubber mats or carpets to do it properly. Expect corrosion in the door bottoms too, as the felt window seals rot away and the drain holes get blocked so they fill with water. The front-hinged doors of post-1964 cars can be sourced but the rear-hinged doors of earlier cars have all but disappeared. The shallower windscreen of these earlier cars is also hard to find.
The outer panels are just as vulnerable as the inner ones, with everything susceptible to rust, especially anything aft of the B-post. The metal at the base of the rear screen dissolves and the engine cover can too, especially around the air vents.
Apart from a few early cars, all 500s came with a sunroof. The material ages so it’s no longer weatherproof, but an entire new roof (covering and frame) is available very cheaply. The roof’s retaining catches should be metal but sometimes cheap plastic replacements are fitted instead, and they break.
High-quality interior trim is available in red, tan or black. If it’s all seen better days you can buy a complete set of replacement seat covers along with a carpet set. You can even buy a repro rubber mat set for the 500 F.
The electrical system is simple but can give problems. The fusebox that sits in the nose is usually reliable, but the wire that connects the ignition coil with the distributor goes brittle and breaks down so the engine cuts out or refuses to start. A new wire should fix things.
- 1957: The 500 debuts at the 1957 Turin motor show, with suicide doors and a roll-back sunroof. There are Economy and Standard editions, the latter featuring hub caps, an upholstered rear seat, a boot badge and drop windows in the doors.
- 1958: The 21.5bhp 500 Sport arrives with no cloth roof (to stiffen the bodyshell); within a year there’s the option of a shorter cloth sunroof.
- 1960: There’s an increase in engine capacity (and power) to 499.5cc and 17.5bhp, and the 500 Giardiniera (estate) appears. This becomes the longest-surviving 500 as it stayed in production until 1977 – although later cars were built by Autobianchi rather than Fiat.
- 1965: The 500F debuts, with front-hinged doors, a larger windscreen and an 18bhp engine.
- 1968: The Lusso, or 500L, arrives with extra trim inside and out, radial tyres and a fuel gauge.
- 1972: The 500R goes on sale, powered by the same 23bhp 594cc engine as the new 126.
- 1975: Production of the 500 ceases, with nearly 3.5 million made plus another 327,000 or so Giardinieras.
Heated up 500s fall outside the scope of this guide, so we’ll focus only on standard factory cars. You’ve got a choice of saloon or estate editions; the latter are rare but worth seeking out for their added novelty value.
Stick with the saloons and there’s little to separate them – especially as quite a few now feature upgraded engines, gearboxes and brakes. That’s not a bad thing as a Fiat 126 engine makes quite a difference to a 500’s usability; it’s easy to overlook just how limited the standard car’s performance is, until you have to undertake a long journey.
Early cars with suicide doors are very scarce, so you’re likely to have to choose between a 500F (with round dials and lots of character), the 500L (slightly more luxurious but with a revised dash that incorporates a rectangular speedo, so it doesn’t have the charm of the older car) and the 500R. The latter is easily the rarest of the lot and it’s also a bit more usable, in that it has a 594cc engine so it’s a bit more powerful. But not much.
There are more ropey 500s about than good ones and a lot of terrible cars masquerading as tidy. However, pretty much any 500 can be revived if your pockets are deep enough. Buy well and you’ll have a car that’s easy to work on and cheap to maintain while also being an absolute hoot to drive.
Picture courtesy of Fiat