Small engined Fiats on the Gerlos Alpenstrasse

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Sitting at the base of the Gerlos Alpenstrasse in the Austrian Alps lies the small village of Hainzenberg. As alpine villages go it is largely unremarkable, which given the stunning beauty of this part of the world is no slight against it. It is just another breathtaking little town full of guest houses and quaint little shops, but it isn’t a destination in itself so unless you’re in need of a coffee break or a place to rest your head you typically keep meandering on through. After all, the best roads in Europe are found right here in Austria and one of its crown jewels, the Gerlos Alpenstrasse, is just a few minutes away. Better to spend your time driving than shopping for knick-knacks.

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Of course, there’s always an exception to any rule and a chance encounter with a branch of an Italian Fiat 500 Club is as good an exception as any. These are the cutest cars in the world and the passion the Italian’s have for the Cinquecento is almost beyond belief.

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In fact, the passion the Italians have for anything automotive is almost beyond belief. Whilst the Formula One liveried 500′s were what first caught my eye as I rode past on my Vespa, it was something a great deal rarer that caused me to stop.

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When was the last time you saw a Lombardi Grand Prix on the road? I must confess that this little bus had me completely stumped – I had no idea what it was and it took an email to some friends in the Fiat club back home in Australia to identify the car. The owners, and in fact everyone on this run, were warm and friendly toward me but unfortunately their enthusiasm didn’t translate into a single word of English. My Italian ran only to ordering uno espresso, so sadly despite my best efforts I wasn’t able to learn anything at the time about the sleek little sports car.

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Later research revealed that the little Lombardi was launched to the world at the 1968 Geneva motorshow, and was built on the chassis of the rear-engined Fiat 850 Coupe. It only had a 27kw 843cc engine but it weighed in at just 630kg and was apparently good for 160km/h. Dad saw one brand new on the showroom floor of Champion’s in Light Square, Adelaide, when he went in to purchase an 850 Sport Coupe brand new but it cost almost as much as a new Jaguar E-type at the time. Surprisingly they didn’t sell that many, and Dad drove away in his 850 without a second thought.

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Moving on from the Lombardi and looking past the strangely McLaren-Mercedes liveried 500, I found a rare pair of 500 derivatives.

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Proving that anything new isn’t really new was this original Abarth 695 esse esse.

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Complete with trademark propped open engine cover, the Abarth 695ss was a tuned special developed by Carlo Abarth for racing and sold for limited road use. With a bigger engine and many bespoke parts like larger carburettors, forged engine internals, a finned Abarth sump and a special suspension setup, the 695ss differs greatly in the details from a regular 500.

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The other car of interest was a Puch 500, built by the Austrian company Steyr-Puch. By 1954 the post-war reconstruction effort of Europe was well underway but the Graz based company didn’t have the cash to develop a new car. A deal was struck with Fiat to supply the body, and Steyr fitted their own 12kw flat-2 engine which was ironically smoother and more suited to alpine driving than the in-line engine found in Fiat’s own 500. Production continued until 1974 when Steyr began producing the 500′s replacement, the 126, under license from Fiat in their Graz facility.

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A little while later the Italian’s piled back into their 500′s and sped off with a friendly wave, at maximum RPM of course.

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I’ve no idea where they were heading next but it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and it would have been an absolute pleasure to be tearing through the Alps in these little machines. Fast, certainly not. But fun? Most definitely.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

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