When I arrived in Rome after a 5-night cruise along the French and Italian coastline, I was having driving withdrawals. Despite attending the Monaco Grand Prix earlier, I didn’t get to actually drive anything, for obvious reasons, so I was eager to get behind the wheel of something, ANYTHING really. My itch ended up being scratched by a car that I could barely fit inside — but it was perfect for the occasion.
Looking at a map of Rome is like looking at a bowl of spaghetti, and I use this trite simile because it’s the most accurate way to describe the roads. Once inside the outer loop that surrounds the city, the roads are a tangled mess of infinite angles. Since these ancient roads weren’t designed for vehicles, something small for American standards, like a Kia Sportage, looks like an elephant in the herd of Roman traffic. Trying to drive a Ford F-150 in the city center would be a disaster similar to a visit from Godzilla.
So most Romans use small hatchbacks to get around, and thanks to a fan of Oversteer, I was given the opportunity to drive the famous Fiat 500. It was the original, vintage version, which makes the current 500 we have in America seem large. The car I drove was a 500L, which back in the 1960s, the L stood for luxury — and those luxury features included bumper guards, along with a strip of leatherette glued to the dash. The sunroof was an essential feature for me, since opening it was the only way I could sit up straight. With my head above the roofline, I could easily reverse into stalls and check my blind spots, but any sudden braking would have resulted in some broken teeth, or worse, if my face slammed into the A-pillar.
Once I crouched my neck inside, though, I had a great time driving this peppy little car. The owner, Adriano, and my wife were able to fit inside with me as we toured Rome, and he mentioned that his family of four full-sized adults used to travel all over the country in a vintage 500. This clown car circus act is something we would laugh at in America, but it was a normal sight in Rome. The Fiat 500 was immensely popular and was seen as a very practical car.
Nowadays, the Italians have upgraded to more spacious commuters, like the Fiat Panda and the Dacia Sandero, and despite the old 500 being an icon, Adriano told me they aren’t very desirable classics. Apparently, they are very easy to steal, so the owners cannot leave them outside overnight, and most Romans don’t want to deal with the maintenance of older cars. So, Adriano has ended up assembling his own little hooptie fleet of his own on the cheap, and rents a garage in the city center to store his four old Fiats, along with a Mercedes 190e.
None of the cars in Adriano’s current collection cost more than $5,000, and he’s created a decent little side business exporting these cars to other countries, where a nice vintage 500 could bring over $15,000. Driving one felt similar to driving a Volkswagen Beetle, since it has a similar rear-engine, air-cooled setup — but the 500 is much smaller and has way more personality. The handling and gearbox felt sharper than the VW as well, and I couldn’t believe I was having so much fun driving something with less horsepower than a top of the line John Deere riding lawnmower.
Since I cannot fit inside of a vintage 500 comfortably, I probably would never own one, but I get the appeal. It has the fun personality that most economy cars lack, and if you’re not proportioned like a giraffe, it would be fairly practical as well. I can’t say that I was comfortable, but it was way more fun seeing Rome in an old Fiat 500 than a cramped tour bus. Find a Fiat 500 for sale