Five Classic Trials Autobianchi Giardiniera
Europe’s green-fingered types loved the Fiat 500’s load-lugging cousin. Four decades after the ‘Gardener’ ceased production, it now makes an addictive classic – as long as you keep it planted
T here’s a glorious mismatch between numbers and sensations when you punt an Autobianchi Giardiniera – one of Italy’s smallest load-luggers – along narrow British roads for the first time.
Where you’d usually be confronted by an array of dials and gauges, there’s just a single readout to muse over when you’re on the move – a two-tone speedometer mounted neatly on top of the steering column, with a trio of lights beneath ready to flicker should issues with oil, water or fuel arise. The numbers on this imported Italian market car hit with you the figures in km/ h, of course, but from the excitable way it tackles corners, you’d swear blind that it’s calibrated in the more familiar – and faster – mph.
That’s the Fiat 500 for you – thrills made all the more accessible by its emphasis on abouttown agility, not asphalt-blurring oomph. But we reckon going for its bigger cousin actually delivers more driving fun.
The Giardiniera – essentially a 500 estate made by Milan-based subsidiary Autobianchi until the late ’70s – is the result of some very clever thinking. Trying to cram all that estate car packaging into a portion of the Fiat 500 where the two-cylinder engine was already doing its bidding shouldn’t really work, but by turning the motor on its side, Turin’s engineers managed to create room for 200kg of clobber laid out on a completely flat floor, in a car just 8.5in longer than the tiny urban tearaway upon which it’s based.
The wheelbase is also four inches longer, but the end result is a car that’s airier and more accommodating than the saloon. It’s a pity that Lingotto didn’t engineer an extra set of doors to really up the practicality ante, but then the rear bench seat is easily accessible through the rear-hinged suicide doors, a feature retained on the Giardiniera long after the saloon adopted front-hinged doors.
But that’s where the sensible streak stops. In every other sense the baby Autobianchi is Fiat 500 to its core, and all the better for it.
The whole driving experience is dominated by the sideways-mounted two-cylinder engine, which elicits an excitable chatter whenever you depress the tiny clutch pedal and slide the gearlever in search of another cog. It may be able to muster only 17.5bhp, but it always feels much more energetic than it really is. And you can’t help but smile when this willing little motor starts to sing its heart out as you wring the absolute most out of it.
It’s the same story with the sensations you pick up through the spaghetti-thin two-spoke steering wheel; it feels so light that you feel like you could almost flick the car through tight turns with a single finger. And when you do, the front end darts through the bends with almost startling immediacy. You soon learn that the trick to driving it quickly is to judge its tiny proportions and exploit its flyweight handling. Certainly, it distinguishes itself much better in a series of tight bends than it does flat-out on straighter stretches of road.
The Giardiniera may be bigger than the saloon, but it still generates the sort of smallcar fun you can easily end up hopelessly addicted to – and with this one, you can take your mates along for the ride. Chances are they won’t believe the numbers either.
Minimalist interior feels cheerful, bright and airy thanks to the big windows and folding fabric roof.