The obvious automotive experiences in Europe are the Autobahn and the Nürburgring. Less obvious was Spa Francorchamps however one of the most fun things you can do in a car on holiday is not high speed at all. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s reasonably obscure too. Driving a vintage Fiat 500 through the streets of Rome.
Size Does Matter
The first and possibly most amusing part of the day is the question of fitting a 6’6” frame inside a very, very small car. The Cinquecento is tiny. We were looking up at Smart cars thinking how big they were. Thank goodness I’m not heavy-set. I managed to fold my legs up behind the steering wheel, first gear was sort of under my knee up against my calf muscle.
That wasn’t such a big deal. First in the 500 isn’t synchronised, so you only use it at a complete stop anyway.
How we Came to Drive the Bambino
I only started to consider this after a chance conversation with a colleague who had planned a similar experience in Tuscany. Some Googling later I found a company on the internet called Rome 500 Experience. They have a handful of 500s for guided, chauffeur driven tours, or drive yourself in convoy tours. No prizes for guessing which one I went for. We opted for the 3 hour tour, although as I write this on the plane on the way home, a big part of me wishes we stepped up to the full day. If you do consider this yourself and you have the time, take the longer option as highly recommended.
There’s a First Time for Everything
I’ve been lucky, through my work, to drive a lot of different types of cars over time. The little Fiat marked a couple of firsts though. First time with a non-sychro’d first gear and first time in a left hand drive manual. That was the daunting bit. First time shifting right handed, in a 1971 Fiat with no power and a weird pedal box in Roman traffic. This could get interesting.
I needn’t have worried. The little Fiat was a total hoot to drive. Fun in all the ways cars aren’t these days. It was noisy, uncomfortable, cramped, the only instrument was the speedo and it lacked all modern ideas of safety. We had all the windows and the canvas roof open, so we were sitting out in the breeze on a beautiful cloudless Italian day. It was delightful.
Reviewers often write at length about character and ‘X-factor’ and the 500 has those in spades. It really is a reminder of what we miss out on with modern cars. Engineers work on making them better – smoother, quieter and more comfortable – and they are better. But they don’t make you smile like the Fiat.
You really have to drive it. It’s two cylinder air-cooled engine was noisy, but it speaks to you through noise and vibration. NVH? I doubt it’d even been heard of in 1971. The gears have a relatively long throw but the gates were easy to find and the stick always slotted home with a delicious mechanical feel. The steering was typical 1970s rubbish, but then there was no weight to make that a problem.
Rock Stars for the Day
Everywhere we went, the Fiats drew a crowd. Especially our 1971 model with the two-tone paint and white wall tyres. Whenever we stopped, tourists and Romans alike would gravitate to the cars. They’d take photos of them and pose with them. We were the centre of attention everywhere, the little Fiats bringing a massive smile to all. I even had crowds trying to stop me while I was driving to get a photo!
The best part about the joy and respect the 500 brings people, is that the traffic tends to part around you. You’re slower than the traffic, that’s just a reality of having only 19 horsepower. So you need to wring its neck a bit. Rev it out then point it where you want to go. Julia said not to worry too much about the traffic, when Romans see a 500 they tend to give it a wide berth because 500 drivers are nuts. Roman traffic is a bit like that anyway. Even if there are lane lines painted, they’re more like a suggestion than the rule. Like most of the rest of the road signs. Turn signals? Sometimes.
It’s no racetrack, but something entirely different. However, as my travel partner will attest, the smile on my face driving the Cinquecento was just as big as the one after doing the ‘ring.
Disclosure statement: I received no incentive, discount or gratuity for writing this article. Rome 500 Experience was not made aware this would be written thus we received no special treatment. The recommendation is exactly that, we had a great time. The colleague I mentioned also holds his Tuscan 500 tour as the highlight of his trip, as do both girlfriends who sat in the respective passenger seats!