I’ve been a fan of Fiat 500s for over 35 years, ever since our first camping expedition to Italy in 1980. Our annual family caravanning holiday to Cornwall was often a washout and following the same old experience in 1979 (remember the Fastnet disaster?) we decided that annual holidays in the UK were, in the future, to be a thing of the past.
The following year we left the caravan at home and with the car loaded to the gunnels with a tent and associated camping equipment we drove to Italy where we could guarantee the weather. It was the best holiday we’d had and together with our two young daughters we were smitten (so much so that we returned to the same village year on year and now have a second home there).
Fiat 500s were not a car I’d taken much notice of in the UK but in Italy they were everywhere and just like Italian wine they appeared to be more attractive when in their own country.
Back to the UK in the mid 1980s when it came to replacing our second car, we looked around for an iconic 500. It was in the days of the weekly “Exchange and Mart” magazine and despite living in a sparsely populated part of the UK there was a 500 advertised less than 50 miles away from home. The car clearly needing some TLC, but an offer was made and we became the proud owners of a dark blue 500L (the guy who owned it was definitely not mechanically minded and consequently the 500 was less than ideal for him).
I don’t recall the journey home with the Fiat so it must have been uneventful but I do recall spending many subsequent hours on the rusting bodywork.
We joined the Fiat Motor Club and attended a few rallies in and around Cheshire and the surrounding counties in the blue 500L. I even fitted a tow bar to it and used it to tow an Eldis Breeze caravan to classic car shows (The Breeze was a 6ft by 4ft replica of a full sized caravan used as a advertising promotion by Eldis Caravans) but by this time I’d fitted a 650cc engine to the car from a donor 126. The small caravan was not out of proportion to the 500 and it attracted a lot of attention on the Fiat Club stands.
Now is it me or is it a trait of classic car owning that having just one classic car is never enough? After a few years we had three 500s in the family, the blue 500L, a red nuova and a white 500F. Our eldest daughter was by this time learning to drive and the blue 500L was passed on to her (she even passed her driving test in it, much to the amusement of the examiner who’s wife had a similar one a decade or so previously).
The nuova was in a sorry state and eventually became a donor to the others. The white 500F was a different kettle of fish and was a one owner, low mileage car bought locally with every paper receipt for spares and consumables since new included in the package. The 500F was in perfect condition and it only ventured out in dry weather on special occasions.
But things were about to change in our household. Despite living in a delightful village in rural Cheshire in the perfect family house overlooking a golf course, I still had a number of unfulfilled ambitions to realise. One was to return to my roots and live in west Cumbria, another was to live in an old, traditional stone built house. I’d seen the ideal property during one of my regular trips to Cumbria. The farmhouse had been empty for 25 years and for sale for 15 years. It was derelict, without a roof and clearly there was no queue of people waiting to buy it but it was perfect in my eyes. We moved to Cumbria to renovate the farmhouse in early 1998.
We spent over 10 years almost full time on the house renovation project, doing everything ourselves. We enjoyed every minute and it was best move we’ve made. Unfortunately the 500F was neglected and resided in the barn and over the years was flooded to above floor level on a couple of occasions.
Fast forward to three years ago. I now had time for classic cars again and the 500F was becoming a priority. Despite it being started every six months or so over the previous 18 years the mechanics were in a poor state and the prospect of renovating the car and still having a 499cc engine was not appealing.
I stripped the car down to the last nut and bolt before giving it a respray and fitting new wheels, tyres, window seals etc, etc. I replaced the brake components in their entirety and purchased a brand new 650cc engine and gearbox from a guy in Poland.
Two years later it sailed through its first MOT in over 18 years and I eagerly planned an inaugural lunchtime outing into our beautiful county. It was then that the nightmare started!
Armed with a new MOT, insurance and road tax my wife and I drove to the local town for fuel before our foray into the mountains. We didn’t get more than a mile or so when the engine started coughing. The car reached the top of a hill before the engine cut out altogether and we coasted into the nearby village coming to rest outside an Italian restaurant (well we were out for lunch and the car was clearly very perceptive!).
Lesson number 1: When you’ve spent time and efforts renovating a car, replacing almost every active component, don’t forget to fully refurbish or replace the fuel tank. The car was fine until I filled the old tank up with fuel at which time the new fuel washed all the surface rust and debris from the inside surface of the old tank through the fuel system and into the fuel system.
After fitting a brand new fuel tank, flushing the new fuel lines and carburettor and fitting in – line filters in front of the carburettor the car was ready for its next trip, or so I thought.
The engine always started well and sounded good but that’s about as far as it got.
On or off the road, the engine would run perfectly for about 20 minutes before coughing and dying. It would restart when cold again but would not run for long. On the basis of the recent experience with the fuel tank, everything pointed to a fuel problem. When the engine faltered and stopped it sounded like a fuel problem.
Over the subsequent weeks and months I fiddled about and fitted a replacement carburettor (from the original 499cc engine). No change.
I supplied the fuel from a separate temporary tank, no change. I replaced the mechanical fuel pump with an electric one, no change. I replaced all the fuel lines (again), no change.
Evidently the fuel system was not the problem so I then concentrated on the ignition system but before that I tried various valve clearance and ignition timing adjustments.
I fitted electronic ignition, no change. I replaced the HT leads and fitted devices that allowed me to monitor the ignition sparks but there was still no change.
I rewired the whole ignition circuit, no change.
I changed the ignition coil (three times), no change.
I was becoming frustrated with the lack of progress and embarrassed by the breakdowns! It got to a stage where even my not so close neighbours were taking a tow rope out with them so they could tow me home. I no longer took the car out at weekends, there were just too many people around to see it falter. I’m a professional Engineer who’s spent some considerable time fault finding and fixing complex electrical plant and equipment and here was a micky mouse two cylinder engine that was baffling me.
But then I bought and fitted a new rotor arm, the best I could find, and ‘Halleluiah!’, the engine has run reliably ever since.
We took part in a 100 mile canter around the county with our local motor club last weekend and the car never missed a beat.
I chastise myself for not finding the problem earlier. Over the months it undermined my confidence in the car but hopefully that will return.
Of course the moral is: If you have a fault, work at it logically one step at a time (as I would do at work). Over the months I’d played at fault finding for a few minutes here or a few minutes there rather than dedicating a whole day or a whole weekend to investigating it.
Always replace parts one at a time and NEVER assume that because a component is new its going to work all the time.
So what’s next for the 500F ? Well, the latest plan is to drive it to Italy next year, over winter it there and drive it home the following year, but we’ll see! Happy motoring.