Curbside Classic: 1963 Fiat 600 D Multipla – For A Fistful Of Lira

If you hailed a taxi in Italy back in the ‘60s, this would likely have been your ride: a green and black Fiat 600 Multipla, driven at (relative) breakneck speeds through the streets and piazzas of Rome, Naples or Milan. Minuscule compared to a London cab, it could probably fit in the back of a Checker, but it got the job done. In terms of efficiency and bang for your lira, nothing could beat it.

But the biggest little Fiat ever made was not confined to metered hauling. Many were also used as family cars – sometimes fitting more passengers than the six that could theoretically be accommodated. Italy’s then numerous coachbuilders also found it very useful, making Multiplas into anything from workaday vans and pickups to elaborate wicker-upholstered one-off beach cars.

Many have declared the Multipla to be the first minivan, and a case can certainly be made for that, though there were others before it, as we’ve discussed before in some detail. But from a Japanese perspective, it’s more like the first modern kei van. It fits the 660 era (i.e. 1990 to the present day) dimensions almost perfectly – only the Fiat’s length disqualifies it from getting a yellow number plate, by a paltry 10cm.

Maybe that explains why I’ve seen a few of these about the place – including, quite recently, an absolute basket case. Just like the Mini, the Beetle or the Renault 4, the Japanese love and respect diminutive foreign cars if they are iconic and display ingenuity in their use of space. I’m not sure if the Multipla could be called iconic outside of the Italian context, but it’s certainly a superbly eloquent lesson in efficient space utilization.

The Multipla premiered in January 1956 at the Brussels Auto Show as a late addition to the 600 range. In effect, it was like a completely different car using the same platform, complete with its teeny 2-meter (78.7-inch) wheelbase and 633cc OHV water-cooled 4-cyl. rear engine mated to a 4-speed manual.

One key technical difference with the Fiat 600 saloon is, notably, the front suspension. The standard 600 had a single transverse leaf spring, whereas the Multipla was given more compact a coil setup similar to the Fiat 1100’s.

With just 100cc per passenger, the first series Multipla was a tad kinetically challenged, even though things improved in 1960 with the 600 D. Our feature car is one of these later Multiplas, the “D” denoting a number of small details (new taillights, that sort of thing) and one important evolution: a 767cc straight-4 producing a whopping 25hp (DIN) – just 4.5hp more than the 633cc, but every little helps.

Still, a fully-loaded Multipla is no Ferrari. Max speed with nobody inside was about 100kph (60mph), but with six adults, that would probably have to be revised down pretty dramatically. But who’s in a hurry when they’re in a taxi anyway?

Peering inside, I got visions of the Jaz alarm clock I had when I was a teenager. Found it in my grandfather’s attic – it was definitely from the same era as this car. It was precisely the same shade of light green we see on the dash here, with radium-painted numbers and hands that looked a bit like this Fiat’s speedo. Funny what memories can be triggered by random CCs.

There were two seating arrangements available for the general public: a four-seater, with a capacious rear space for cargo, and a six-seater. This is the latter sort. Genuine taxis, for their part, were of a third type, with the cargo space being next to the driver. Our Multipla here is not a taxi, just a familiare cunningly dressed up to look like one.

And a pretty good recreation it is, too. But the Multipla came at a time when anything and everything that came out of Italian car factories was destined to be modified, rebodied or otherwise customized by the country’s many carrozzerie – and even an oddball like the little egg-shaped Fiat was fashionable fuoriserie fodder.

The obvious play was to turn the Multipla into a working vehicle, like what OM did with their furgoncino (top right) or the Mantelli pickup truck (bottom left). Adding a little extra space at the back was also possible, like the six-door Pulmino produced by Coriasco (top left). A more deluxe four-door take on this idea was also done by Scioneri (bottom right). The Multipla was also cast in the role of ambulance, hearse and high-roof van. These variants aimed to be affordable and so used as many Fiat body panels as possible.

But then came the beach cars, and boy did the creative juices start flowing! Ghia’s Jolly (top left) was the first and perhaps the most affordable of the lot – and several were made. Pininfarina’s wood-trimmed Eden Roc (top right) was obviously a cut above, but like most of these, was a one-off. Vignale made a couple of very daring designs (middle right, bottom right) in 1956 and 1957, as did Boano (bottom left) around the same time. Seating arrangements were all completely different and innovative. Interestingly, Fiat Centro Stile also got in on the action with their Mirafiori (middle left), which had a detachable glass top. Five units were made by and for Fiat to ferry VIPs around their Turin factories.

So ubiquitous was the Fiat 600 platform and so ingenious was its cab-forward derivative that the Multipla was also made in foreign countries. Steyr-Puch made them in Austria, as did SEAT in Spain, the latter version being slightly restyled. A few Italian-made units were also modified by Abarth – with a little extra oomph – for use by their dealers.

A genuine Roman taxi would have had a roof rack (and a taxi sign), but I guess that the owner of this beauty figured it would harm the aerodynamics. It’s anyone’s guess what engine is actually in here, but those twin pipes certainly point to something a little more powerful than the stock 25hp. To be fair, not a few actual taxis got the Abarth 903cc engine back in the day…

Fiat built just under a quarter million Multiplas from 1956 to 1965. That is a very respectable score, given the niche nature of the beast — not the mention the fact that it cost nearly twice the price of the 600 saloon. Famed Fiat engineering director Dante Giacosa, who claimed to have lost more sleep over this vehicle than any other he was involved in, must have felt vindicated. And his boss Agnelli must have been relieved that the gamble the company took with this innovative concept paid off.

It takes lire to make lire, I suppose. Home, please, signor cabbie. And don’t spare the 25 horses.


Related posts:

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

Cohort Outtake: Fiat 600 Multipla – Found In Berkeley, Natch, by PN