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Friendly Fiat

Like Mickey Mouse, the Topolino is popular everywhere.
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The Simca Cinq has a horizontal bar grille, blended-in headlamps
and a front bumper. The Fiat 500 Topolino has the heart-shaped
grille and freestanding headlamps. This duo is expected to return
to the Iola Old Car Show in 2009.

Jim Rugowski, of Greenville, Wis., did not set out to buy a 1951 Simca Cinq (the French-licensed version of the Fiat 500 Topolino). Nor was he looking for a 1936 Fiat 500 Series I Topolino. He was actually hoping to buy a 1939 Fiat 500 Series II Topolino that Shin Yoshikawa had advertised in an enthusiast magazine.

Yoshikawa, of Lebec, Calif., is a renowned automotive artist and journalist. He is famous for his cutaway drawings of cars, which have appeared in many books and magazines. He also authored the book “Toyota 2000GT.”

“Shin advertised his 1939 Fiat 500 — the Italian version — and I called him to buy it.” Rugowski recalled. “He was so apologetic, because he had sold the car, but then he said, ‘I think I have another Topolino you’d like,’ and he told me about the [1951] Simca version.” Rugowski bought the car. “But remember,” he added, “I originally wanted his 1939 model and that’s why I bought the 1936 Fiat, later on.”

The first Fiat 500 A: Series I and II
1936 was the first year of the Fiat 500. It arrived that June and was soon nicknamed the “Topolino.” In Italian, that meant “little mouse” or “Mickey Mouse.” Fiat boss Giovanni Agnelli wanted a car that was cheap to build, cheap to operate, comfortable and practical. Dr. Antonio Fessia was put in charge of the project and the result was the world’s smallest four-cylinder, water-cooled, rear-wheel-drive production car at a price of 8,900 lire.

Fiat management had originally set the price point at 5,000 lire, but not everything went as planned. In fact, there had been an experimental Tipo 500 with an air-cooled two-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive as early as 1931. When it caught fire during testing, with Agnelli riding in the car, this prototype was doomed. However, the idea of a car that could seat two adults in front and either two children or 50 kg of luggage in the rear was a winner.

Drawings of a tiny Fiat called the “Zero A” were seen as early as the summer of 1934. Design engineer Dante Giacosa — who was in his 20s at the time — is credited with development of the Fiat 500 engine and chassis. With a 52mm x 67mm bore and stroke, the engine displaced 569cc and produced 13 hp at 4,000 rpm. A simple A-frame chassis was used. Rudolfo Schaeffer drew the streamlined body work, which lasted mostly unchanged until after World War II.

A prototype was tested in October 1934. It had the engine in front, with the radiator behind it. The car performed well. It had a top speed of 85 kmh (53 mph). However, the Zero A was found to be a bit too noisy, so Fiat went to work to solve that problem. The crankcase was redesigned at this time, too.

The Fiat 500 Series I Topolino sold well. In Italy, fuel was not cheap or plentiful, so the car’s 48 mpg fuel economy was a key selling point. Salon (sedan) and van models were offered, but a sunroof coupe was the most popular version. The car was essentially made for 12 years, but after the first 46,000 units or so were produced, the rear suspension was changed from quarter-elliptic springs and radius rods to more conventional semi-elliptic leaf springs. This occurred in 1938, and the Fiat 500s with the upgraded design were called Series II models. In all, 122,000 cars in the two series were built between 1936 and 1948.

The one-year Fiat 500 B

The one-year Fiat 500 B that bowed at the Geneva Auto Show had only minor cosmetic changes from the prewar models. The hood latch was the most obvious alteration. Other updates were completed to the floor, instrument panel and steering wheel. The big news was a revised four-cylinder engine. It still displaced 569cc, but instead of being of a side-valve design, it had overhead valves and this added 3-1/2 hp. Late in the year, the Fiat 500 B Giardiniera station wagon joined the line. It was constructed with steel, wood framing and laminated plastic panels. This was the only year that the four-passenger “gardener’s wagon” had the prewar-type Topolino front sheet metal. A total of 21,000 Fiat 500 Bs were manufactured.

The next-generation Fiat 500 C
Fiat 500 Topolino buyers were treated to a complete restyling in 1949. The new Fiat 500 C now had headlamps that were flush with the front fenders, a horizontal-slot grille, an “alligator” hood and many other modifications. An aluminum cylinder head was adopted, and a heater-defroster system became standard equipment. The station wagon returned using the new front sheet metal and was soon available in an all-steel Belvedere Estate version. Fiat built 376,370 of these cars between 1949 and the end of Topolino production in 1955. In total, more than a half-million Fiat 500 Topolinos were made between 1936 and 1955.

Topolinos across the globe
Fiat 500 Topolinos were also built in other countries, under license from the Italian automaker. The Fiat 500s were made in France as the Simca Cinq (Simca 5). Simca (Ste. Industrielle de Mechanique Carrosserie Automobile) built Fiat automobiles under license for many years. The little cars were also manufactured by Steyr-Puch in Austria and by HSU-Fiat in Germany. The first car Rugowski purchased was a Fiat 500 C-based Simca Cinq with overhead valves in a cast-iron head.

Restoring the 1936 Fiat 500 A
Rugowski is a collector who tends to purchase cars that he feels have significance in automotive history. His diverse collection includes models such as a 1953 Nash-Healey roadster, 1954 Kaiser-Darrin, 1960 Triumph TR3A roadster, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car and 1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. He knew the historical significance of the Fiat 500 A and tried to buy Yoshikawa’s 1939 Fiat in April 1996. Instead, he wound up buying the Simca Cinq. Later, in May 1999, he bought a 1936 Fiat 500 A being offered by Coling Bros., a consignment dealer from Wylie, Texas.

“The car was advertised in AutoWeek,” Rugowski recalled. “The dealer sent pictures and would not budge on price. We bought it on the basis of pictures and did not know the pictures were 30 years old. Restoring the car turned out to be a struggle and getting parts was, without a doubt, the biggest problem.”

The Topolino is a bit over 10-1/2 ft. long and rides a 6 ft.-6-3/8-inch wheelbase. It is slightly more than 4 ft., 2 inches wide and stands a little over 4-1/3 ft. tall. When loaded, it weighs just 1,642 lbs. It features a coil-and-distributor ignition, thermo-syphon cooling and 4.00x15 tires. A gravity carburetor feeds the diminutive flathead engine. It has a 12-volt electric system and four-wheel hydraulic brakes. The four-speed gearbox is connected by shaft to a 4.875:1 rear.

“With the flathead, power is lacking a bit,” Rugowski admitted. “I wouldn’t take it on the interstate, but the first time I drove the car after the restoration, I really flogged it around the neighborhood. People were standing on their lawns waving and the little kids really went crazy, because they relate to little cars.”

The car required an extensive restoration. Rugowski had floor pans made in Holland and other parts had to be made in England. “We got incredible help from a man in Switzerland, who is recognized the world over as an authority on old Fiats,” he said. “He has an incredible network of connections for used and new manufactured parts and he was reasonable, too.”

Rugowski warned that he had to purchase Swiss Franc bank notes to buy parts. “You have to buy these in advance of the actual time of parts purchase, so you can lose in the conversion, and this made the parts more expensive, but the actual prices were reasonable,” he said.

Rugowski disassembled every nut and bolt of the car. He restored the mechanicals himself and had parts all over his basement. The body was sent out to be dipped. “The floor pans looked like Swiss cheese after that,” Rugowski recalled. “The paint stripper told me the only thing you can do is electrolytic prime it. The primer goes everywhere then; inside all the channels. If you strip to bare metal, you have to do this, because you cannot spray paint in the channels and all.”

After all of the sheet metal was located, the car went to Valley Auto Restorations in Hortonville, Wis., to have the body work and paint completed. “I also found a great stitch guy who worked for an airline,” said Rugowski. “The man in Switzerland sold me reproduction material for the 1936 seats, and the trimmer, Barney, did all the upholstery in the car.”

Restoring the 1951 Simca Cinq
The 1951 Simca Cinq was delivered in July 1996, about three months after Rugowski bought it. “This car was in good condition, but the engine, transmission, suspension and exhaust needed a little work,” he said. “I had Fondy Auto Electric in Appleton, Wis., check the starter and generator. The starter had an unusual switch and it was bad, so I had to fabricate some changes to make it work.

“I also had to do some rebuilding on the distributor, as it was jumping all over the place.”

The man in Switzerland was very helpful in researching the car. “He must have spent a fortune copying manuals and it was all free; he even paid for the postage,” said Rugowski. “He was excited about the car. He said both of my cars would be very sought-after vehicles in Italy.”

Rugowski also purchased literature on his cars from P.J.’s Auto Literature in Reinbeck, Iowa. C. Obert & Co., of Santa Cruz, Calif., also helped with parts.

The Simca Cinq, being the same as the Fiat 500 C, has the aluminum-head engine with overhead valves which produces 16.5 hp at 4,400 rpm. It also has a fuel pump, larger 4.25x15 tires, a 130-watt dynamo (starter) and weighs in loaded at about 1,763 lbs.

Rugowski showed both Fiats at the Iola Old Car Show; the 1936 Topolino was a class award winner at The Masterpiece of Style & Speed concours in Milwaukee last August.

He said that kids get the biggest kick out of his dark green duo. “They love these Italian ‘Mickey Mouse’ cars just like they love Mickey Mouse cartoons,” he laughed. “They love them because they’re little.”

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