The little Fiat has come a long way.
To mark 60 years of the Italian supermini, we’ve wrest a current Fiat 500 from its urban comfort zone for a loop of Scotland’s spectacular North Coast 500
Corks are popping in Turin. Prosecco is being skilfully spilled down throats in celebration of the Fiat 500‘s 60th birthday.
And with good reason: the Nuova 500s that left the city’s Mirafiori plant on 4 July 1957 became the first of four million, and two million more have been shifted since the 500 badge was revived a decade ago.
The little Fiat has come a long way. As has our particular example, a sportily trimmed petrol 1.2 S. Born at the Tychy plant in Poland, it has been brought by us to the still, hushed gloaming of Glen Torridon in the Scottish Highlands. We’re 1400 miles by road from Turin, but it might as well be a million. Even the Romans didn’t make it this far. It’s 10pm and photographer Luc Lacey is eking out a shot from the remaining light. In half an hour, we’ll be in a lochside hotel, making our own toast with a whisky that has been hiding in a cask since before the millennium. Yes, we’re celebrating the 500’s big six-o with a lap of the North Coast 500.
Our journeys began earlier that day: mine from Edinburgh by road, Lacey’s from London by air. We met at Inverness Airport. The 500 had proved a surprisingly adept cruiser on the long slog up the A9. We know it’s accomplished in town, too – easy-going, nimble and small enough to dock where others daren’t – but will it be a fish out of water on the 500 miles of helter-skelter tarmac that make up the North Coast 500? With just 68bhp and 75lb ft, it’s likely to be the least potent car out here. And despite its tiny kerb weight of 865kg, 0-62mph takes 12.9sec. Given just three days to cover the route, the little car faces a big challenge.
With the rear backrests dropped to accommodate Lacey’s photographic kit, we’re paying homage to the 1957 car’s two-seat layout. Not much we can do about the rest, though: front-engined, frontdrive and front-hinged doors all contradict the original. Our car has five times the power, twice the weight and it’s 30% longer, too.
We begin with an easy westward hop from Inverness to Glen Ord Distillery, where ancient alchemy has been transforming barley, yeast and water into whisky since 1838. Manager Alastair Orr shows us the wooden washbacks filled with warm, swirling, beer-like brew and the six enormous copper stills that turn it into single malt. The distillery is a regular stop-off on the route – they’re expecting a group of Porsche owners that afternoon – and samples are provided for drivers to enjoy later.
We press on into verdant Glen Carron, where the treelined road narrows to a single lane – like much of the route – that’s flanked by increasingly steep hills. The surface roughens, and although most scars, bumps and ridges are tidily rounded off by the 500’s strut front and torsion beam rear suspension, tyre roar from our car’s optional 16in rims becomes quite prominent. Lacey’s solution is to fire up the impressively slick Uconnect infotainment’s optional Beats sound system, which belts out his library of maudlin beep-boop commendably.
The engine itself – quiet when dawdling – get louder as we push the revs but is never overbearing and remains smooth. It will pull from low down but does its best work between 3200rpm and 5800rpm. Despite carrying a 200kg payload of bone, blood, meat and luggage, 68bhp does us just fine on the flat.
With blind bends and passing places aplenty, we’re having to work the gearbox hard, though. Its light, medium-throw action has enough tautness to reassure and doesn’t mind being slammed down a ratio – vital in low-powered cars, where momentum is king. The shifter’s raised position by my left knee is ideal for our compact cabin.
We bimble along Lochcarron’s neat waterfront of shops and houses, then rise over the headland towards Ardarroch on a corkscrewing road that’s part weathered single track and part gleaming, EU-funded two-lane. There’s a chance to throw the Fiat around a little here and it responds pretty well. Body roll stays within reasonable limits, the front end is surprisingly tacky and the soft, bounding ride deals neatly with undulations where something firmer, such as an Abarth variant, might become reactive and skittish. On the other hand, turn-in is a bit lazy, the helm weighting feels quite artificial and there’s no real feedback. Hardly serious concerns for a city car that starts at £11,615, but Ford got more from a similar footprint in the original Ka.
Then it’s on to Bealach na Bà – the Applecross Pass – where we take our turn among the enormous motorhomes, rented saloons, vintage Kombis and anguished cyclists climbing the famous, writhing mountain track. Here, the engine strains more than it will anywhere else, but despite their urban origins, the 500’s tight turning circle, super-light City steering mode and automatic hill-hold come in handy while shuffling about on the mountainside for Lacey’s camera. At the summit, we’re rewarded with epic views back to the sea. It’s the kind of monumental landscape that leaves you feeling humbly Lilliputian. At the Applecross Inn, we take on seafood sustenance by the tranquil bay. Then begins the golden hour – that heavenly slot after tourists retreat but before sunset – when the roads are empty.
The Applecross Peninsula is ours, a playground in which to push the 500 to its limits where performance machinery wouldn’t break a sweat. The coastal blast is punctuated by an imposing stag standing sentry by the road and a rabble of Highland cattle roaming over it. Then it’s into the otherworldly ‘knock and lochan’, where the road dodges between low, craggy peaks and glassy little lochs. I’d rather be in a 104bhp Twinair – …read more