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The 1969 Fiat 500 Peter Cheney drove felt like a shopping cart with a windshield. In this photo, his son's 6-foot-7 friend Jack O’Hara towers over the little car. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

The 1969 Fiat 500 Peter Cheney drove felt like a shopping cart with a windshield. In this photo, his son's 6-foot-7 friend Jack O’Hara towers over the little car.

(Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

They don't build cars like they used to - and that's a good thing Add to ...

The human memory is a notoriously flaky device, deleting and altering data in ways that confounded Sigmund Freud himself. What you may remember is one thing, but reality is another.

Which brings us to the Fiat 500, a charming little car that I drove extensively back in the 1970s during my student years in Brussels and Munich. Back then, 500s (best known as Cinquecentos) infested the cities and towns of Europe. The 500 was perfect for its place and time: cheap, cheerful and imbued with minimalist Italian style.

I had some incredible experiences with Fiats in those halcyon days of my youth. I owned a Fiat 600, and drove 500s many times (including a memorable date with a flight attendant who happened to be on a layover from Houston). How could I not love a car that gave me experiences like that? And so, in the misty, water-coloured hallways of my memory, the 500 occupies a sacred position, forever carrying me down cobbled streets with a beautiful woman, its two-cylinder motor singing away behind us as it propels us toward a romantic assignation.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend John, a classic car dealer, announced that he had a 1969 Fiat 500 in stock. Did I want to drive the 500 so I could compare it with the 2013 model I was testing? Of course I did.

What came next was a reminder of the vast gulf between automotive myth and reality. Driving a car you enjoyed as a youth can be like meeting an ex-lover – things may be different than you expected, and not in a good way.

The 500 was tinier than I remembered. It sat in a corner of the garage like a metal lunch box that happened to have wheels and windows. The Fiat resembled a prop car that clowns drive into the centre ring of a circus. (That impression was later reinforced when my son’s friend Jack O’Hara, a 6-foot-7 hockey player, stood next to the Fiat – it looked as if Jack could toss the 500 into the back of an SUV to use as a spare.)

The 500 was surprisingly spacious inside. Young Jack actually managed to wedge himself in for a brief test, and my wife and I fit fine. We could stretch our legs, and the back seat had enough room for a couple of small children or a suitcase.

I soon realized why the Fiat had so much interior volume despite its small size – unlike a modern car, the 500’s systems took up hardly any space. The two-cylinder engine looked like something from a model airplane; it sat in the trunk, taking up about as much room as a woman’s purse. The 500 had no air conditioning system, no radio, and no gas gauge. Our feet stuck out into the Fiat’s flimsy nose, which was unencumbered by modern add-ons such as crash protection beams and a power-steering system. We were soon off on one of the spookiest drives we’ve ever had. Under way, the 500 felt like a shopping cart with a windshield. The skinny shifter had all the heft of an uncooked pasta stick. We were the smallest vehicle on the road – Toyota Corollas loomed above us like battleships, and the faintest puff of wind threatened to knock us off course (driving on bias-ply tires in a vehicle that weighs 30 per cent less than a Smart car takes a certain mindset).

Even though we are small-car buffs, my wife and I felt incredibly vulnerable. The 500 had no seatbelts, and our feet were millimetres away from the front bumper (a piece of chromed steel that looked like a glorified paper clip). The brakes were nearly useless, capable of only the gentlest retardation, no matter how hard I mashed the pedal. I had a sudden, irrational urge for a handgun, so I could shoot myself in the head if I saw a crash coming.

In my memory, the 500 had been a poor man’s sports car, zipping me through Brussels. Now I realized how flawed my recollections actually were. Heading down Spadina Avenue in Toronto, my throttle foot was nailed to the floor, but we were barely moving. No surprise, given that the Fiat’s motor came from the factory with only 15 horsepower (and it was probably producing even less than that now, given that its piston rings and valves were 44 years old).

When I was a teenager, the Fiat had seemed powerful enough. I realized that my youthful adventures had been in a machine with less power than many garden tractors, and that I had been going a lot slower than I thought. Now the world had changed, but the Fiat had not: back in 1970s Europe, 15 horsepower was common, but in North America today, even the most humble economy car comes with at least 100.

Keeping up with traffic wasn’t easy, even though I was flat-out at all times. I found myself scanning the little rear-view mirror non-stop, like a pilot watching for enemy jets bearing down on his Sopwith Camel.

In the spirit of road-testing thoroughness, I wondered if I should head out onto the expressway, to see how the Fiat handled at highway speed. But I quickly rejected the idea as automotive suicide. Keeping up with traffic on a city street was hard enough.

It was time for a change of plan. We turned off into Kensington Market, where the clogged streets were perfect for the Fiat. Tootling along at walking speed, the little car was in its element – the sun beamed down through the opened canvas top, and pedestrians smiled at our tiny machine.

I realized that was about as close as we would get to the environment the 500 had been designed for back in the 1950s – the narrow, crowded streets of postwar Europe. In that world, a machine such as the 500 made sense. It fit in tiny parking spots, and it was perfect for lugging home a couple of baguettes and a basket of fresh produce. Working people could afford it. If they were willing to squeeze, an entire family could fit in a 500.

My own Fiat had shown me the intelligence of the design. My car weighed just more than 500 kilograms, but could carry four adults and luggage, and used little more fuel than a motor scooter. But times have changed. We expect more from our cars now – power windows, air conditioning and seat belts.

I like those things, and yet I still find myself pining for the elemental simplicity of my long-lost Fiat. I loved that car, and the times it gave me. But my test drive of the 1969 Fiat showed me that Thomas Wolfe was right – you can’t go home again.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: @cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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