The Fiat 500 is famously quite mouse-like – that’s where its whole heritage stems from. But that doesn’t mean these cars have to be meek; look at James Raper’s Abarth 500…
When Fiat’s Nuova 500 launched in 1957, it replaced the classic 500 ‘Topolino’ which had been kicking around since the mid-1930s. ‘Topolino’ translates as ‘little mouse’ (and, interestingly, is also what the Italians call Mickey Mouse), and the rodent DNA could be traced right through the new-for-1957 model – it was small, cheeky, able to squeeze into improbably tight spaces, and fuelled by stolen cheese. OK, maybe not the last one…
The Nuova 500 was a cultural icon, so it was inevitable that Fiat would try to appropriate and cash in on some of its ingrained cuteness when the new-wave Fiat 500 launched in 2007. Critics were suspicious of the unashamed retro styling cues, although the massive sales figures suggest that, along with contemporary rival offerings from the MINI camp, the public can’t get enough of cute retro city runabouts.
The 500 we have before the lens today, however, is not cute. Nor is it in any way mouse-like. What it is, in fact, is very angry indeed, and a little bit scary to boot.
A large part of this is owing to the Trofeo Race Series that became part of the BTCC TOCA package back in 2008 – works motorsport shells were mated to Punto EsseEsse engines to create 180bhp race cars: the Abarth Assetto Corse was the result. It’s this race livery that you see here on James Raper’s 500, lovingly applied by the vinyl junkies at Paintkillers. This is more than just a baby Fiat with a flash wrap, of course – it’s essentially a custom-built and road-legal Assetto Corse racer, with a whole bunch of unique tweaks that’d never have occurred to the works race team.
So, how do you come up with the idea for a build like this? Well, in James’s case he’s no stranger to small Fiats – although it’s safe to say they’ve never been quite as aggressive as this one. “This is my third Fiat,” he explains. “I had a Seicento Sporting in yellow, then a Punto in blue which I put wheels and springs on and fully smoothed the back end. After that I actually moved on to a Mk7 Fiesta Zetec-S with a huge audio boot build, then a smoothed SEAT Ibiza, which was slammed on some Cast 13 wheels. After that I got a Jaguar X-Type to try and be sensible – although that didn’t work out too well.”
No, we can see that. So why a 500 this time? “I chose the Abarth because I thought it looked amazing and had a lot of character,” reasons James. “I bought it with the intention of making it stand out from the rest, as I hadn’t seen many around me and those that I had seen were standard ones driven around by middle-aged people! I bought one to see what they could look like when done properly…”
Admirable sentiment, and he wasn’t just paying lip service to the idea either; a quick glance over the spec list reveals that James was deadly serious about proving that the teeny Fiat platform could be turned into something cool. The Abarth is a strong base, thanks in large part to its effervescent 1.4-litre turbo motor, and there are plenty available on the second-hand market.
Finding one and finding a good one are naturally two different things, but this guy lucked out by coming across a solid example just ten minutes away from his house. How fortunate is that? He found it advertised online at 8pm on a Friday, and was driving about and raising hell in it by 11am on Saturday. Nice when things just work out, isn’t it?
“When I took it for a test drive, the salesman suggested I give it some stick – and I knew from then that I was having it,” laughs James. “They told me I’d have to wait a week for them to prep it, but I told them not to bother because I was so desperate to drive it.” It turned out that the desperation wasn’t just for the driving, but to crack on with the project.
Showing true commitment to the Fast Car ethos, he dropped into STG Performance on the way home and immediately had it booked in for a cat-back exhaust system. No sense twiddling your thumbs and procrastinating, is there? And then, in the twinkling of an eye, James had found a good deal on a set of JOM coilovers and had them fitted at Crisp Tuning; by this point he’d admitted to himself that he was fully committed to the project, and forked out a small fortune to get a high-end CAE shifter sent over from Germany. That was shipped home on a 48-hour service – because, as you’ve probably deduced by now, James isn’t the sort of person to muck about and he really doesn’t like to wait – at which point it was back to Crisp Tuning to get the mighty lever installed.
“The shifter is by far my favourite modification,” he grins. “It totally changes the way the car drives, making it feel like you’re driving a race car all the time!”
With this massive dose of inspiration spurring the project on, the ideas started tumbling in an endless spiral of delicious awesomeness. Shane at STG Performance once again found the keys in his hand, as James charged him with the task of custom-fabricating a rollcage, and it was at this point that Joe at Paintkillers was drafted in to apply that polar-bear-cool race livery. This again totally transformed the car – James reckons people started shouting ‘It looks decent for a Fiat!’ at him in the street, gawd bless the Great British public – and things really were getting a bit bonkers by this stage.
“I kept booking it in to STG for crazy things to happen,” James grins, just manically enough for us to step back a little and subtly make sure we’re fully acquainted with the exits. “The custom exhaust was next – it’s got a side-exit, and also a teardrop front-exit; it’s switchable on a remote-control valve, so I can have a loud or a quiet option.” Ingenious stuff, although we would suggest that ‘quiet’ isn’t exactly the word. This thing snorts and rasps like a jar full of enraged wasps – ‘quiet’ is loud, and ‘loud’ is LOUD.
“Then Shane at STG told me he’d like to try and make a race-style rear diffuser as he’d never made one before,” he continues, “so I gave him the keys and let him work his magic! After that I finished the interior off with a set of Corbeau Clubsports which I found on eBay getting sold locally for an absolute steal.” This all adds up to a full-on race car vibe; the outside makes its own statement with the nouveau-retro livery mixing with snorting pipes and Abarth EsseEsse rims (along with those yellow lights, we just love yellow lights), and the interior must make for a hilarious experience when pottering to the shops – that CAE shifter, the buckets and harnesses, the cage, the window nets, plus the fact that it’s all stripped out… it’s more Hangar Straight than High Street, and it totally reframes the 500’s inherent cheekiness.
“Since the car has been completed, it’s got into a lot of the big shows and even took home the Judges’ Choice award at Elsecar at the Races back in April,” says James. All of which is testament to the quality of the build – it’s not just a bunch of zany ideas that have been thrown together to make a point; it’s a bunch of zany ideas that have been flawlessly executed and beautifully engineered.
There are few things as cool as a road-going race car, and the fact that this one also happens to be a Fiat 500 must take a few people by surprise as it buzzes amongst the commuter traffic. It may have the DNA of a mouse, but it’s evolved into some sort of enraged tiger… which is obviously impossible and not how evolution works, but that is sort of the point. James built this car to prove that this cutesy little runabout could be cool and, by achieving a number of seemingly impossible things, that’s precisely what he’s done. It’s a mouse that roars. And that’s one of the scariest concepts we can imagine.
TECH SPEC: FIAT 500
Abarth Assetto Corse livery (wrapped by Paintkillers), custom aluminium rear diffuser by STG Performance, canards, bonnet vent, yellow light tints, stubby aerial, quick-release bumper fasteners.
1.4-litre turbo, custom Ramair induction, custom blow-off valve, 2.5-inch custom decat exhaust system by STG Performance with front-exit teardrop and side-exit – on remote-control valve, intercooler with custom hard piping by STG Performance, remapped to 175 bhp by West Yorkshire Tuning, 5-speed manual with CAE shifter.
7×17-inch Abarth EsseEsse wheels, 16mm rear spacers, JOM coilovers, DNA Racing Components lightweight lower arms, OMP racing front upper and lower strut braces.
Stripped rear, custom rollcage by STG Performance, Corbeau Clubsport bucket seats, OMP 350mm deep-dish steering wheel on Sparco snap-off boss, Broadway rear view mirror, window net, love-heart tsurikawa handle.
STG Performance for listening to my stupid ideas and putting them into place, James Cowley for encouraging my ridiculous ideas, my girlfriend Chelsea for putting up with me and the car, Dave, Jim Novak, Crisp Tuning, and Paintkillers.
Words Joe Partridge Photography Simmy Photography