Rock up at a bar and tell a potential taker-home that you have a yellow Lamborghini in the parking lot and the first image to pop into their mind will probably be a small banana. Because it’s yellow, of course. Tell them that you have a Fiat 500, however and you needn’t try any harder, unless you have one of the newer ones. Then you shouldn’t be out in public, especially if it’s finished in hearing-aid brown. The original Fiat 500 just has an appeal unmatched by anything. Older Mini’s come close, but who’s likely to be more romantic, Archibald or Giuseppe?
Time for a history lesson:
Launched in 1957, the Fiat 500 was an immediate success and the answer to economical post-war mobility. You could also get a positively capacious station wagon one called the ‘Gardiniera’ which had a generous 10cm longer wheelbase than the ‘coupe’. Between 1957 and 1975, nearly 4 million units were produced. Clearly a popular car then, but this comes as no surprise. Thanks to its clever packaging, it was both puny and practical. Three motors were available during the 18 years of the Cinquecento’s production – all air-cooled, rear mounted and varying in displacement from 479cc to 594cc. Ranging between 9.7kW and 17kW, these motors weren’t exactly powerful, but then again they only had to cart around 500kg’s. 500cc’s, 500kg and 500 seconds to 100km/h (not really).
The original 1957 model was called the Nuova 500 with the 500 D, 500 F, 500 L and 500 R being introduced throughout the vehicle’s lifespan. Changes included the addition of a sunroof, ashtrays, washer fluid pump and a few exterior trim and panel changes. In certain years, the engines also saw slight changes but the most significant changes were the omission of the suicide doors for the 1965 ‘F’ model in favour of safer and more conventional front-hinged doors and the addition of a synchromesh gearbox in 1972 for the ‘R’ model.
Now, before you curse the fact that you’ve paid for a history lesson or turn over to our exciting review of Volkswagen’s new Tiguan, this is where the good stuff starts!
In the heart of Sandton’s industrial hub, Wynberg, is a remarkable operation by the name of FUEL Customs. Here, a fellow with an impressive moustache, Trevor Woolfson, along with Louw Du Toit and Devon Randall give ‘romantics’ a new lease on life and gosh they are good at what they do, restoring Fiat 500’s to ‘better than new’ condition, usually to a customer’s spec. Leather seats, disk brakes and significantly more reliable engines, albeit original, are a few of the magical goodies they bestow upon these charming vehicles. Trevor and Louw manage the bodywork and interiors and Devon the engines.
After an expertly brewed cappuccino amongst their ‘ready for delivery’ vehicles, Trevor gave me a full tour of their small but efficient operation.
“This is our scrapyard” he remarks while gesturing at the pile of Lotus 7, Alfa Romeo Spider, Fiat 500, Abarth 600 and BMW E9 or ‘Batmobile’. Quite the scrapyard if you ask me. Talking me through the acquisition process, he explains that if they see a 500, they buy it. They’re rare as hen’s teeth these days so they’re snapped up at every opportunity and even in scrap condition, they’re still worth a pretty penny at around R50 000 a pop but you can’t really put a price on a legacy like the 500’s.
Using two different projects as a comparison, one in seemingly ‘good’ condition and the other so rusty it looks like a turd, he explains that the turd is in fact in better condition, despite its ‘cancerous rust’. A saddening occurrence that they encounter far too often are vehicles which are half-heartedly restored or patched up with more polyfiller than a celeb’s face, often badly too. This makes for tricky restoration work and hides many gremlins, especially the aforementioned rust. In this case, body panels are just replaced as it works out far more cost and time effective to just import and replace.
We then move on to a Fiat 600 (they do a few of these too) where he explains that again, rather than trying to patch up someone else’s shoddy electrical job, it’s better to just replace the lot. “The whole idea of these cars is that they’re meant to be used so there’s no point in compromising on quality, a mistake which will most certainly come back to haunt in the future.” explains Trevor.
Speaking of quality, the attention to detail which is paid right through the entire restoration process is truly phenomenal. Nearly all of the parts are either imported from Italy or fabricated in-house so as to achieve an almost 100% original product.
We then take a quick jaunt out the back of the workshop where in-amongst a row of pending projects sits a newly re-welded shell of a 500, on its roof. Nearly all of the body panels on this particular model have been replaced and it is plain to see that this car has probably seen more licks of paint than the podium of a stripper-pole – another previously-rushed job.
Back in the workshop, we make our way along the end of their production line. One of the vehicles is perched up on a jack with its wheels off, allowing me to catch a glimpse at the meticulous installation of the disc brakes. Also imported from Italy, the setup is designed specifically for the 500 and allows for a safer and more modern system to be installed, without detracting from the overall experience. Once the wheels are back on the vehicle, there is no visible difference to an original with its flaccid drum-brakes.
All in all, these vehicles can take up to 4 months to complete with prices for a fully-specced (no lane-keep here, sorry) Fiat 500 nearing the R400 000 mark. Pricey, yes, but worth every penny and far cheaper than a banana mobile or an Air-Max and gold-chain magnet (that other famous Italian brand).
Trevor explains that customer colour preference is rather interesting and usually comes in waves. “A client will walk in and see a finished red car, and he’ll want a red car. Another client will then spec a green one, only for the client after him to see that green one and then want a green one.” People want what they can see and this I can understand because wow would I love to own one of these. FUEL are to the 500 what Singer are to the 911 – true artists.
As well as the Fiats, FUEL also work on slightly smaller restoration products which take between 3 and 4 weeks to complete. Also in the workshop during my visit were 2 Alfa Romeo Spiders, one a Duetto, an Imperial Maroon Jaguar Mark 2, a Mercedes-Benz W123 which looked factory fresh, a Sunbeem Alpine and an Alfa Romeo 156 with its ‘Busso’ V6 on full display! As if these weren’t eye candy enough, a clutch of Vespa’s could also be found next to all of this, fitting as that’s where both Trevor and Louw’s routes lie. They’ve now been running FUEL for the past 2 years and share their premises with Devon who operates under the name ‘Performance Racing Developments’.
Other interesting finds in the workshop were an incredibly valuable Fiat 600 Multipla (not as eye-searingly ugly as the repugnant, modern-day interpretation) and a tastefully restored 1969 ‘Bullnose’ Mini, complete with racing seats and a 2.0-litre 16-Valve Toyota motor, scary stuff!
The costs involved in running an operation such as this are eye-watering, complete with body shop, spray booth, scrapyard and delivery bay, but with die-hard petrolheads Trevor, Louw and Devon at the helm, FUEL Customs represents the pinnacle of restoration through passion. Go and check them out on Andries Street in Wynberg, just a stone’s throw from Sandton. Their coffee is good, too!
+27 (0) 829081963
Up until now, nearly every single one of my pieces on here has been a review or repost of some sort mostly cars, occasionally tech. Today, however, I write a desperate plea, a plea which I am 100% sure will go completely unnoticed by the group of people to whom it is directed…anyway!
Cult cars – people love them.The Jeep Wrangler, the Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat 500, Land Rover Defender, Mini Cooper, every single Saab, ever – the list goes on. Some of these vehicles disappeared into the abyss, only to make a retro and snazzy comeback 30 years later, except for the woeful New Beetle, while some just carried on and on and on with a bit of plastic being added to the dashboard here and there. They’re great, all of them, and each ‘cult car’ appeals to a different type of person for various reasons.
I am a huge fan of Mini’s, and I even have one. It’s black, and his name is Sebastian, and yes he may have been made by the German’s but anyone with half a motoring brain will realise that modern MINI’s are great. Well, sort of… The original resurrection of the MINI name by BMW in the early 2000’s was a shot in the dark for them, but couple German engineering with a cheeky brand identity and you’re sure to find success. Part of this success, however, is down to how great MINI’s are at many things – they’re cute, fun to drive and have loads of appeal.
The original new MINI, the R50/R53 was BMW’s first attempt at this, so they played it safe and borrowed bits from other manufacturers. It was nippy and little and rattled a lot but golly it was a sweet looking thing and reminded us of why we loved the original Mini so. Engines from Chrysler were probably not the best idea but huge success meant that the next model, the R56, would see more BMW and less…not BMW.
Horrendously unreliable, plasticy, expensive to maintain, expensive to buy and, not to mention, VERY unreliable were certainly not the reasons why the R56 was such a success, but nobody cared. And to this day, nobody cares and R56’s are still regarded amongst MINIacs as MINI’s hay day.
Francisco drives one too, it’s also black, and we both love how boosty and unassuming our cars are. They’re properly quick and just the right size to be thrown around, gripping in the corners just like MINI’s do., with a throaty growl and street-cred to match.
But now we arrive at the bit where I beg and plead. In my opinion, the new MINI Cooper S is too soft. The F56 is fast and reliable and finally has a BMW motor so it won’t break but it’s so big and too refined and to be honest, nowhere nearly as fun as an R56. There’s very little about the F56 that’s actually MINI and it’s a shame. As an everyday car, it’s great but having recently had the new Fiat 500 on test, I found myself lamenting in the fact that the new MINI is just too much. It’s too big, too expensive and too much (I never thought I’d ever say this) of a BMW.
The time has come for MINI to make the Rocketman Concept – a little runabout with a punchy turbo motor, cheeky looks and MINI handling, not 1 Series handling. The 500 with its grumbly two cylinder motor, diminutive proportions and the reasonable asking price is an incredibly sensible town car. If your name is Fiona and you run a florist. I certainly do not fit that description, though and look ridiculous in a Fiat 500, especially in the sort of blue your gran would describe as ‘soothing’.
So please, MINI, make us a manly and sensible city runabout?
In 1962 the first ever turbocharged passenger cars came to the market, some of you might remember them. The Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the Oldsmobile Jetfire. These vehicles didn’t last long due to reliability, over coming years after their release turbocharged cars would come and go and many manufacturers went down the turbo route. This came to an end though because they were not yet as efficient as naturally aspirated engines and turbo lag was also very prominent.
Things started to change when the first Turbo Diesel came to the market In 1978, the Mercedes- Benz 300 SD, followed later by the turbodiesel VW golf in 1981. Since then, turbocharged vehicles have steadily become more popular, especially in performance based cars as it is much easier to produce more power. In more recent times as technology has improved, turbocharging is now being used as a way to reduce emissions in our everyday vehicles. Smaller engines can be utilized, and exhaust gasses provide a way to spool turbos.
Even with the turbocharged setup producing more power and becoming increasingly popular, here are six reasons why the naturally aspirated engine is still a much better choice :
- Noise – To this day, there is nothing better than the sound of a naturally aspirated performance engine. It’s generally louder and quite frankly sounds better. With the addition of individual throttle bodies, the sound gets even better. Turbocharging reduces the noise and brute of an engine; Formula 1 is a prime example. Give me an naturally aspirated V8,V10 or V12 engine any day!
- Revs – N/A engines can rev much higher and produce power much higher up in the rev range, meaning longer gear ratios and less time spent shifting. Only very recently with the improvement of technology have we seen turbo engines starting to rev a little higher. The noise of a V8 at over 10,000rpm is something dreams are made off.
- Throttle Response – even with the reduction of turbo lag is recent times, you cannot beat the throttle response of an N/An engine, it gets even better with a fly by wire system!
- Fastest Nurburgring lap time – the fastest ever production car lap time was set by an N/A car – the Radical SR8 LM. Its peak power comes in at 10500rpm and hit the limiter at 12500rpm.
- Fewer things to go wrong – With turbocharged setups comes more technology, more moving parts, more pipes, more sensors and more complex electronic mapping. More chance of things breaking and going wrong!
- N/A is special – There may have been a time when a turbocharged car was special, but times have changed. Everything nowadays is being turbocharged, and it’s just not unique anymore, it’s common. No one likes common, hence why Porsche built the 911 R, a truly special N/A vehicle. Stick a turbo on it and It kind of loses its mojo.
There you have it, some of my reasons as to why naturally aspirated engines trump the turbo setup.
N/A all the way folks.