Curbside Classic: 1959 Fiat 600 Mutlipla – The Original Mini-Van?

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(first posted 7/7/2013)    Lately we’ve had quite a lot of mini-van discussion hereabouts. So no, I’m not going to really try to argue or defend the headline, as it’s essentially a semantic argument. But there’s no question that in Italy and other parts of Europe during the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Multipla certainly played that role. The VW Bus/Samba–very much a full-size van–was largely a commercial vehicle, so ardent adherents to the Church’s stand on birth control who needed something to haul their brood on weekends and get them to their own workday livelihood, the Multipla was pretty much the obvious choice –if you could afford one, that is. If not, you could always hail a Multipla taxi. Just don’t be in a hurry.

The Multipla may look like a ridiculous little toy car, the kind you’d expect Goofy and his pals to be driving in some circa-1959 cartoon adventure, and so it is; there’s just no getting around it. It’s a classic cult-mobile that always attracts attention–in fact, it received a steady stream of cheers of approval at this street-corner parking lot where I found it posing for a photo shoot. No, this is not the typical Eugene daily-driver CC, but sometimes we like to stretch the mold a bit.

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Joe Potter, who is associated with The Sports Car Shop, is a master restorer of all manner of vintage iron and alloys, but little Fiats have become his specialty of late. And in our regular walks by his shop, we’ve had the pleasure of watching this basket case transform into a…rolling basket. Here’s their full write up with the “professional” shots (including this one of his daughter), but I’ll try to add a little color and commentary since I did spend some seat time in one of these long ago.

By seat time, I mean rear seat. Multiplas, like the 600 sedan from which they  derived, were quite common in late-Fifties Austria. They had no competition; if you needed something cheaper than a VW bus or its ilk, the Multipla was the way to go. These were especially loved by tradesmen and small-shopkeepers able to haul their baskets of goods or tools and materials in the back, especially in the version with fold-flat seats, pictured above. This arrangement was one of two rear-seating options, and indisputably the precursor of the Stow-and-Go seats of today.

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There were two versions of the Multipla: a three-row six-seater; and a two-row 4/5-seater that had a proper bench in the rear and lots of storage space behind it. Quite similar to the original Caravan, actually. And yes, these were imported into the U.S., but not in large numbers.

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The Multipla arrived in 1956, fitted with the sedan’s 633 cc, 21-hp water-cooled four. A Motor magazine test at the time measured a top speed of 57 mph, 43 seconds for the shuffle to 50 mph, and a recorded 32 mpg.

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The key to hauling a family of nine or so (don’t forget grandma and grandpa) up to a mountainside picnic was in the gearing: The Multipla sported a 6.11-to-one axle ratio, and that’s driving tiny 12″ wheels. I’m actually surprised at Motor’s 57 mph; must have been a tailwind. Those little Fiat fours will rev, given the chance.

This Multipla has been rebuilt–not to original specs, but with the idea that its future owners, who may well pay some $50k for their latest toy, will actually be able to take it out into modern traffic. A Fiat 850 engine has been built for the task, but it sports a compression ratio suitable for today’s fuel, an Abarth 30/70 grind cam, a Weber two-barrel carburetor and those nice, swept headers sported by 850s. This allows the engine to drive a transaxle from a 600 sedan with a more reasonable axle ratio.

The bark from its dual pipes is lively, like an angry chihuahua. Even with the sedan’s ratios, first gear will get you a couple of car lengths before it’s time to start rowing the gears. And in the case of the Multipla, a car length is all of 139 inches, or 3.5 meters. That’s a half-foot (200 mm) shorter than today’s basic MINI. Never has space efficiency been practiced more successfully.

Of course, a few compromises are necessary to make that possible. The driver has to keep a bit of a wide stance, as the shaft for the steering is right there between the legs. I suspect women were not assumed to usually be Multipla drivers. But once seated, the position and room are not bad; I was able to get situated reasonably. The suicide front door helps one to slide over the front-wheels hump. And if you’re worried about crush zones and such, please note the carefully placed “air bag” in front of the front passenger’s legs.

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Stephanie, who loves the current 500 but has decided it’s too small for hauling stuff in the back, was all over the Multipla when we first ran into it at the shop. If it had an automatic, she’d have snagged it. Plenty of room for plants, or our only grandchild (my son’s big dog).

Once you’re ensconced, the visual rewards are well worth the effort of getting there. Has there ever been a more delightful scene in one’s lap? No wonder the neo Fiat 500 made a very deliberate effort to recapture the 600’s toy-like IP.

And this steering wheel even has the sign of the Scorpion, Carlo Abarth’s logo. Appropriate, too, since if Abarth had done a version of the Multipla, it would probably have been fairly similar to this one.

Time to go; this Multipla has some hauling to do.

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