Driving a 1971 Fiat 500 anywhere else in the world would be another vintage thing-to-do. In Florence, it’s almost an everyday experience, and that is the charm of it!
I was as excited as my three year old to see the little cars in green, blue and yellow. Putting it the other way would be more exact though it might not be the norm! The vintage Fiat 500 cars were parked in the welcome area next to the wide gate of the Florentine estate, just before the winding road started its journey to the villa further up.
You can’t blame the child if he mistook the quaint little automobiles for toy cars. For a moment, with him standing almost as tall as their beltline, even I thought they suited him nicely! But in the real world, driving one of them wouldn’t really be child’s play. To start with, it required basic competence in shifting gears, and then some more!
All of them had names. The beige one was Jockey. The red one, Parla. That’s what happens when something outlives a generation, still looks cute, and has a cult appeal that’s way bigger than its diminutive self. Fernando was a 1971 Fiat 500L that was 6 cm longer than the regular model, and was given to us especially because that was all the bullish protection our three-year old would get, as there were no seat belts in the rear. The 500 Touring Club that managed the fleet had fitted the front seat belts to ‘modernize’ the cars. So my wife would have to carry him just as mothers did in the seventies – on her lap, with her hands locked in a restraining embrace. She could share her seat belt, too, but what did reassure me was the speed we would be pushing that day, with a 16 hp engine that sounded somewhat like mini generators at wedding parties. The rectangular speedo (another telltale sign of the L version) showed 120 km but a forty five year old chassis, and common sense, suggested that we stick to the halfway mark.
As it happens, this wasn’t our first glimpse of a ‘vintage’ Fiat 500 on our Italian holiday. Cinquecento, as the Italians called it (the first half meaning 5 and the latter 100), could be found parked along streets, slightly sideways in most cases, for fear of rolling away perhaps! They still took people to office – and back – wearing a smile of cheerful commute as they did in 1957. The examples we found on the villa grounds looked like they were from the seventies or late sixties. They looked cute rather than venerable and did not demand to be handled with delicate hands, as they were rather well maintained.
The 500 in the name closely referred to its 499 cc engine and how much it weighed in kilograms! Much like the Beetle, this people’s car too had its engine fitted in the trunk. The hood provided for a couple of suitcases, the spare tyre and wait for it… the fuel tank! I caught a glimpse of it when we stopped to fill the tank – it wasn’t that big anyway.
Driving on Tuscan roads was actually a huge part of the experience. The olive gardens, the hillside vineyards, the grape crushing, the moss-clad brick walls, the Renaissance villa where we started our journey and were headed back for a poolside lunch – all of them together made this drive special and unforgettable. But, nothing like the feeling of holding the pencil-thin steering of the old Cinquecento and easing the stick into place with bated breath, without grating the gears.
The forty five year old Fiat was no jalopy but my son was fast asleep as though in a limo. Through grunts, rustles and the groan of a two-cylinder four-stroke engine in a scarcely padded cabin, Italy’s old favourite rattled on about the good old days to a happy guest behind the wheel! Sleeping, driving, sightseeing, or simply breathing the Tuscan air, we were building a great appetite for the winery visit, wine tasting and the Mediterranean lunch that awaited us.
Our visit was in an August, towards the end of the Tuscan Summer. The Tuscan Picinic Fiat 500 Tour is available all year round for USD 180 per person and lasts around 5 hours, including lunch. You can book the tour directly on 500touringclub.com or check out your options on viator.com.