Rock up at a bar and tell a potential taker-home that you have a yellow Lamborghini in the parking lot and the first image to pop into their mind will probably be a small banana. Because it’s yellow, of course. Tell them that you have a Fiat 500, however and you needn’t try any harder, unless you have one of the newer ones. Then you shouldn’t be out in public, especially if it’s finished in hearing-aid brown. The original Fiat 500 just has an appeal unmatched by anything. Older Mini’s come close, but who’s likely to be more romantic, Archibald or Giuseppe?
Time for a history lesson:
Launched in 1957, the Fiat 500 was an immediate success and the answer to economical post-war mobility. You could also get a positively capacious station wagon one called the ‘Gardiniera’ which had a generous 10cm longer wheelbase than the ‘coupe’. Between 1957 and 1975, nearly 4 million units were produced. Clearly a popular car then, but this comes as no surprise. Thanks to its clever packaging, it was both puny and practical. Three motors were available during the 18 years of the Cinquecento’s production – all air-cooled, rear mounted and varying in displacement from 479cc to 594cc. Ranging between 9.7kW and 17kW, these motors weren’t exactly powerful, but then again they only had to cart around 500kg’s. 500cc’s, 500kg and 500 seconds to 100km/h (not really).
The original 1957 model was called the Nuova 500 with the 500 D, 500 F, 500 L and 500 R being introduced throughout the vehicle’s lifespan. Changes included the addition of a sunroof, ashtrays, washer fluid pump and a few exterior trim and panel changes. In certain years, the engines also saw slight changes but the most significant changes were the omission of the suicide doors for the 1965 ‘F’ model in favour of safer and more conventional front-hinged doors and the addition of a synchromesh gearbox in 1972 for the ‘R’ model.
Now, before you curse the fact that you’ve paid for a history lesson or turn over to our exciting review of Volkswagen’s new Tiguan, this is where the good stuff starts!
In the heart of Sandton’s industrial hub, Wynberg, is a remarkable operation by the name of FUEL Customs. Here, a fellow with an impressive moustache, Trevor Woolfson, along with Louw Du Toit and Devon Randall give ‘romantics’ a new lease on life and gosh they are good at what they do, restoring Fiat 500’s to ‘better than new’ condition, usually to a customer’s spec. Leather seats, disk brakes and significantly more reliable engines, albeit original, are a few of the magical goodies they bestow upon these charming vehicles. Trevor and Louw manage the bodywork and interiors and Devon the engines.
After an expertly brewed cappuccino amongst their ‘ready for delivery’ vehicles, Trevor gave me a full tour of their small but efficient operation.
“This is our scrapyard” he remarks while gesturing at the pile of Lotus 7, Alfa Romeo Spider, Fiat 500, Abarth 600 and BMW E9 or ‘Batmobile’. Quite the scrapyard if you ask me. Talking me through the acquisition process, he explains that if they see a 500, they buy it. They’re rare as hen’s teeth these days so they’re snapped up at every opportunity and even in scrap condition, they’re still worth a pretty penny at around R50 000 a pop but you can’t really put a price on a legacy like the 500’s.
Using two different projects as a comparison, one in seemingly ‘good’ condition and the other so rusty it looks like a turd, he explains that the turd is in fact in better condition, despite its ‘cancerous rust’. A saddening occurrence that they encounter far too often are vehicles which are half-heartedly restored or patched up with more polyfiller than a celeb’s face, often badly too. This makes for tricky restoration work and hides many gremlins, especially the aforementioned rust. In this case, body panels are just replaced as it works out far more cost and time effective to just import and replace.
We then move on to a Fiat 600 (they do a few of these too) where he explains that again, rather than trying to patch up someone else’s shoddy electrical job, it’s better to just replace the lot. “The whole idea of these cars is that they’re meant to be used so there’s no point in compromising on quality, a mistake which will most certainly come back to haunt in the future.” explains Trevor.
Speaking of quality, the attention to detail which is paid right through the entire restoration process is truly phenomenal. Nearly all of the parts are either imported from Italy or fabricated in-house so as to achieve an almost 100% original product.
We then take a quick jaunt out the back of the workshop where in-amongst a row of pending projects sits a newly re-welded shell of a 500, on its roof. Nearly all of the body panels on this particular model have been replaced and it is plain to see that this car has probably seen more licks of paint than the podium of a stripper-pole – another previously-rushed job.
Back in the workshop, we make our way along the end of their production line. One of the vehicles is perched up on a jack with its wheels off, allowing me to catch a glimpse at the meticulous installation of the disc brakes. Also imported from Italy, the setup is designed specifically for the 500 and allows for a safer and more modern system to be installed, without detracting from the overall experience. Once the wheels are back on the vehicle, there is no visible difference to an original with its flaccid drum-brakes.
All in all, these vehicles can take up to 4 months to complete with prices for a fully-specced (no lane-keep here, sorry) Fiat 500 nearing the R400 000 mark. Pricey, yes, but worth every penny and far cheaper than a banana mobile or an Air-Max and gold-chain magnet (that other famous Italian brand).
Trevor explains that customer colour preference is rather interesting and usually comes in waves. “A client will walk in and see a finished red car, and he’ll want a red car. Another client will then spec a green one, only for the client after him to see that green one and then want a green one.” People want what they can see and this I can understand because wow would I love to own one of these. FUEL are to the 500 what Singer are to the 911 – true artists.
As well as the Fiats, FUEL also work on slightly smaller restoration products which take between 3 and 4 weeks to complete. Also in the workshop during my visit were 2 Alfa Romeo Spiders, one a Duetto, an Imperial Maroon Jaguar Mark 2, a Mercedes-Benz W123 which looked factory fresh, a Sunbeem Alpine and an Alfa Romeo 156 with its ‘Busso’ V6 on full display! As if these weren’t eye candy enough, a clutch of Vespa’s could also be found next to all of this, fitting as that’s where both Trevor and Louw’s routes lie. They’ve now been running FUEL for the past 2 years and share their premises with Devon who operates under the name ‘Performance Racing Developments’.
Other interesting finds in the workshop were an incredibly valuable Fiat 600 Multipla (not as eye-searingly ugly as the repugnant, modern-day interpretation) and a tastefully restored 1969 ‘Bullnose’ Mini, complete with racing seats and a 2.0-litre 16-Valve Toyota motor, scary stuff!
The costs involved in running an operation such as this are eye-watering, complete with body shop, spray booth, scrapyard and delivery bay, but with die-hard petrolheads Trevor, Louw and Devon at the helm, FUEL Customs represents the pinnacle of restoration through passion. Go and check them out on Andries Street in Wynberg, just a stone’s throw from Sandton. Their coffee is good, too!
+27 (0) 829081963