This diddy Fiat 500 arrived in boxes – now it looks fresh out of one!
NNever buy a car that’s just a box of bits, the experts always tell us. All sorts of parts might be missing, and you’ll have no feel for what the car was like before it came apart. ‘Yes,’ says Colin Hitchcock, ‘I know it’s a big no-no but I wanted a project to do.’ Now he’s done it, and very nicely it has turned out. ‘I wanted it to be in the spirit of the original 500 as launched in 1957 rather than an exact restoration, so I’ve made a few changes. People look at it and smile when I’m driving it, especially teenagers when I put the klaxon on. My wife Julie enjoys driving it, too.’
Colin’s Fiat is a 1973 500L, the (relatively) posh version launched late in the little car’s life. The L model featured front and rear nudge bars, bright metal trim around the windscreen and rear window, a bigger instrument pod, ribbed trim in black vinyl, a covered dashboard and carpets. Colin’s car, though, has lost the bars and the black vinyl.
Instead its dashboard is finished in the cream colour used for the pod and steering wheel of earlier 500s. As for the seat covers, door trims and sunroof, their materials are reproductions of those used in the very first 500s. It’s all set off beautifully by the period pale blue paint.
Making a start
Such visual niceties were far down the list when Colin found the Fiat, originally Brighton-registered, in March 2014. ‘It had been in Scotland, half stripped down, and a lady in Swindon called Helen bought it with the intention of restoring it. She finished the stripdown, had it chemically dipped and coated, and then she had a minor stroke and couldn’t finish it. So, the Fiat sat in her garage for five years before she eventually put it on ebay.
‘I went to have a look. She was quite passionate about it and really didn’t want it to go to a dealer. She agreed to end the listing early for £1200 on
condition I took it back to show her when it was finished. I’ll be doing that soon – she’s already seen the video.’
Colin collected the crumbling Fiat and its associated boxes of bits in a Transit box van, and headed back east along the M4. Once he had it all back home, just outside Reading, Colin’s first task was to go through every component to find out what was missing. Everything was there except the rear brake drums and a bumper, discarded through terminal wear and terminal rot respectively. And, of course, the already chopped-off sills, front wings and quarter panels.
‘Next, I tried to understand the work involved in repairing the body,’ says Colin with the logic of one whose day job involves making intricate tooling for plastic mouldings. ‘The acid-dipping had removed all the rust, so as the Fiat sat in the garage the weight of the roof and doors gradually crushed what little steel was left in the lower sections. The bulkhead had sunk by about two inches and there was hardly any structure left along the lower sides apart from part of one inner sill. All that was holding it together was the centre tunnel.’
Jack of all trades
So, Colin jacked the collapsed superstructure back into position, and set about chopping out the remaining rotten sections. New panels, pattern items from a supplier in Scotland, were fettled and gradually fitted as he progressed, to maintain a viable structure. He used a method suggested by his father, who had worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham for many years. ‘I used self-tappers to position the panels until the whole car was ‘tapped’ together, and then I plug-welded where there would have been spot welds originally. Finally, I unscrewed all the self-tappers and plug-welded the holes.’ ‘It was starting to get back to where it should be structurally, so the underside was next. But it was difficult working above my head. I tried to do two welds and there was splatter everywhere. I needed to turn the car upside down.’ But how? By building a structure out of wooden fence posts and getting a bunch of friends from Colin’s cricket club – bribed with coffee and bacon rolls – to pick the Fiat up, rotate it and set it back down on the posts. Now it was time to weld in the new floors. ‘I taught my son Nathan to Mig-weld,’ says Colin proudly, ‘and after half an hour’s practice he was
‘The bulkhead sunk by two inches – the centre tunnel was holding it together’
THE RESTORER Paint apart, Colin Hitchcock carried out all the work on the Fiat in his single garage, encouraged by his wife, four children and two spaniels. His daily driver is a BMW 5-series GT. ‘You could probably fit the Fiat in the boot,’ he observes.
You would never believe that the steering wheel was originally black.