Tag: Fiat 500

Welcoming the sweetness of summer with the Fiat 500C Dolcevita

Timeless design is something that can often be subjective, but there are a few things that the majority of designers can agree on that are not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion. The few things that come to mind for me are dominated by Italian creations, from the more mundane like the intrinsic shape of a piece of pasta to the colossal 2000 year old Colosseum. Italians know a thing or two about style, longevity and tradition and the Fiat 500 is a modern day epitome of exactly that. We dropped the top on the new Fiat 500C Dolcevita for a few days to see if it’s fresh and funky attitude was a step forward for stylishness. 

It’s small but deceptively big. While this is the definition of an oxymoron, if you haven’t had the opportunity to sit inside one, the first thing that you think to yourself is how spacious the interior is. It might not be palatially sized like the inside of a Rolls Royce but there is a wealth of head, arm and leg room despite its compact dimensions. Even height gifted people can commodiously sit in the rear without having to contort themselves into their most compact form, and this is all with the canvas roof closed shut. 

This is something that the 500 has stayed true to when other pioneers of the supermini segment over a half century ago have opted to produce not-so-mini cars in the modern era. The imperative of the post-war era saw automotive manufacturers in European countries scrambling to create accessible mobility. The original Fiat 500 predating 1957 was the solution of Italy. It was a car that was affordable for the masses, could fit a family of 4 and was compact enough to navigate the traditionally narrow streets of cities like Rome and Naples. It was the packaging miracle of the time.

The modern derivative dwarfs its original counterpart with all the additional safety requirements and the general upsizing to appeal to international markets but it still maintains its cute proportions from before. While the size definition is a contradiction in itself, so is the automated manual transmission.

From the driving perspective, this is the biggest let down. The 2-cylinder engine is punchy and has sufficient torque throughout the rev range, the suspension is plush over urban Johannesburg road surfaces and the compact dimensions make it nimble in corners while the short wheelbase allows for rapid direction changes. 

The automated manual transmission struggles to cooperate with all of the other moving parts of the drivetrain and dulls the sweet experience somewhat. The engine revs hang before the transmission up or downshifts, the actual gear changes have been modelled on the slowest change in history and it struggles to engage on steep inclines. This is simply the nature of AMT gearboxes as a whole, regardless of what car they are implemented in. Either automatic transmissions or manual gearboxes would be my preference but unfortunately the 500C Dolcevita is only equipped with the 5-speed AMT.

That being said, when driven in a sedate manner (as this car typically would) these gripes are far less noticeable. The experience is smoother and the gear changes are less obvious. It comes into its own trundling around stylish city centers at low speeds, almost as if it wanted pedestrians to take notice. Nevertheless it can still cope on highways. While the ratios of the 5 speed gearbox were initially a concern, the gearing is capable of national speed limit cruising too with plenty of grunt from the 2-cylinder 875cc turbocharged petrol engine to go beyond. 

It’s hard to grasp the performance figures for this car. The power plant only produces a maximum of 62.5kW and 145Nm but it also only tips the scales at just under a ton too. While you won’t be winning any drag races, it’s off the line acceleration and sprightly traffic spirit make the numbers seem inaccurate and irrelevant. Where you will be winning is with its frugal economy and compact ability to park anywhere. An optimistic 4.0l/100km is claimed from the manufacturer but our combined driving conditions without implementing the power-sapping eco mode yielded just above 5l/100km.

When it comes to the interior, it is difficult to believe that the only significant update to the fascia has been its HD 7” touchscreen bluetooth radio. It still looks timeless by today’s standards!

The retro styled tachometer and driver displays are vastly different from anything else but engaging and usable. The central bluetooth infotainment system includes hands-free operation, voice recognition and most importantly; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility which means you can easily play your favorite tunes while having your hair blow in the wind with the top down. 

The cabrio version of the 500 range comes with far less boot space and a highly restrictive boot opening which still manages to be sufficient for groceries and limited luggage. While the original Fiat 500 came out with a canvas cabriolet top to reduce production costs on metalwork, this Cabriolet Dolcevita is the opposite.

A base Fiat 500 Cult can be had from as little as R219 900 while the range topping 500C Dolcevita comes in at R324 900. All models in the range include a 3-year/100 000 km warranty.

The visually enhanced aesthetic of the Dolcevita does add subtle hints of bling and tech to the overall package but it just seems slightly too out of budget for the small, city car that it is. It does however make a stylish statement, unlike any other A-to-B runabout and that is where the 500 range reigns supreme. Despite its faults, it induces a grin from start to finish especially with the top down and sunny skies above. Its longevity in production means that it has been at the forefront of the Fiat lineup for over a decade, with each minor update containing as much character and charisma from the country of its origin. This is la dolce vita (the sweet life), just in time for summer.

Fuel Customs and the Original Fiat 500.

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!

Fuel Customs:
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!


Fuel Customs

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