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

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week - Words David Simister pho­tog­ra­phy Richard Gunn

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.

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