The motor-racing aristocrat Francis Curzon, the 5th Earl Howe, was already a much-admired and commanding figure in British public life when he took delivery of his third Fiat 500 in 1955.
Production had officially ended in 1954: registered new in October of that year, it must have been one of the last right-hand-drive cars built, its £575 price making it a hard sell against newer, cheaper local rivals.
It says quite a lot for the baby Fiat – by then a near-20-year-old design – that a man such as Earl Howe bought three of them.
Well into his 40s when he began his motorsport career, the Earl was an MP and a Royal Naval officer who had seen action at Gallipoli.
In civilian life he was a six-time Le Mans competitor who had won the 24-hour event outright, aged 47, in 1931.
As a driver, his reputation is comparable to the likes of Sir Henry Segrave (who also had a Fiat 500) and Sir Malcolm Campbell, although he is much less widely remembered today.
Ever the patriot, he would have preferred to stay with Bentley had it still been an independent firm building the competitive cars he had experienced as a works team driver at the end of the 1920s.
Born in Mayfair in 1884, Howe was a man who enjoyed the privileges of his position but was not a hedonistic playboy.
He had a sense of duty and public service, and used his political influence to champion the cause of the ordinary motorist.
He regularly attended the House of Lords, where he spoke out against the 30mph speed limit for built-up areas when it was introduced experimentally in 1935.
Post-war he came to the defence of small-horsepower motorists when the introduction of a flat rate of road tax for all cars (as opposed to the old RAC Horsepower tax rate) looked as if it was going to place an unfair burden on the owners of small-engined cars.
He co-founded the British Racing Drivers’ Club and was a key figure in getting motorsport activity restarted in Great Britain after 1945, lobbying for the conversion of former airfields into circuits.
Without the clout his name carried there would probably not have been a British GP in 1948.
He owned and used a wide range of exotica on the road in his time – most famously the fantastic Bugatti Type 57S Atalante unearthed in 2007 – but also had his choice of exciting post-war cars including an Aston Martin DB2/4, AC Aceca and Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing.
But these were for long-distance motoring: Howe lived at 22 Curzon Street in Mayfair, and had long favoured small cars for use in London, beginning with Austin Sevens and MGs, in which he could make faster journey times through traffic, he claimed, than in any of his big sports cars.
At what point the Earl became conscious of the baby Fiat is not known but, in the years leading up to WW2, he would have been increasingly aware that the 500 was Europe’s premier economy automobile and certainly the most significant development in small-car design since the Seven.
Prior to this, Fiat (England) was selling them at the rate of 60 a week: not only to regular punters, who liked their manoeuvrability, but also to the likes of Charles Brackenbury, Charles Martin and Rob Walker, racing drivers affiliated with Brooklands where, in 1938, there was even a two-lap all-Fiat 500 race.
Designed by Antonio Fessia, the ‘little mouse’ was garnering rave reviews for its big-car-in-miniature attributes that included hydraulic brakes, 12-volt electrics, four forward gears – with synchromesh on third and top – and independent front suspension.
These were all features scarcely common on much larger vehicles, never mind runabouts costing as little as £120.
Good for 50mph and 50mpg on 13bhp, the 500, with its chassis drilled to save weight, was powered by a four-cylinder, water-cooled sidevalve 569cc engine mounted well forward under a low bonnet line, this thanks to the radiator’s behind-and-above positioning.
Inside, there was legroom for two six-footers, a decent amount of luggage space, but no bootlid.
Of the three Topolinos Earl Howe owned, all had a roll-back convertible top but only one was a four-seater, a model exclusive to the UK.
All were finished in the blue-and-black Howe racing livery and all three were retained by the 5th Earl until his death, aged 80, in 1964.
Two of them lived in London and were used for trips to the House of Lords, while the third resided at his country house in Penn, Buckinghamshire.
After his death, Earl Howe’s final Topolino was sold to a Douglas Liddell of Putney in 1965; it then moved to Chelsea in 1967, where it was owned by a Mr De Clermont. John Henry Clark of Worcester Park became the fourth keeper in 1969.
A 1977 letter published in Motor Sport from fifth keeper John Lourne reveals that it was still in good, original condition at that time, with only 25,000 miles on the odometer.
Bicester Heritage founder and CEO Dan Geoghegan unearthed RYF 858 in 2016.
“I went to look at a Minor Traveller, just up the road in Wheatley,” he recalls. “I didn’t buy it, but the owner mentioned he had something else…”
Still in its Howe colours, the tiny car was tucked away in a dry garage, apparently untouched for decades.
Apart from a faded sunroof and crusty bumpers, the entombed baby Fiat was sound and original, right down to its green seat trim and Bluemel’s numberplates, as fitted by the Holland Park agent who had supplied the car to Earl Howe.
“I was keen to keep it as original as possible, including the chips and marks in the paint,” says Dan, “but we had to rechrome the bumpers and replace the sunroof.
“A lot of work went into getting the engine just right, and obviously it had to be gone right through mechanically.”
The engine bay is beautifully detailed, with period-correct red-and-black ignition leads, a brake reservoir that looks like a cocktail shaker, and a radiator that looms above the tiny engine and feeds warm air into the cabin via funnels that run either side of the fuel tank.
Topping up with petrol naturally means lifting the bonnet.
Although less than 11ft long, the Fiat is a well-proportioned and elegant little car, with fittings and features that seem beyond its station in life, such as the combined rear-view mirror and interior light, sunvisors, remote-action vent flaps on the side of the bonnet and a proper glass rear window in the sunroof.
The front numberplate looks out of scale with the car and, when you only have 16bhp to play with, you can’t help but speculate that it must knock something off the top speed – an honest 60mph in the 500C.
Being a ‘C’, this car has the squared-off nose and extended tail, the twin tail-lamps, overriders and indicators.
What you can’t see are the semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers, and the overhead valves in the more powerful 16.5bhp engine introduced in the short-lived 1948-’49 500B.
Or the extra half-gallon capacity in the five-gallon fuel tank that still sits on the engine bay bulkhead but, on the 500C, delivers fuel via a mechanical pump rather than gravity.
The rear-hinged doors, their internal trims dished to give extra elbow room, open wide for easy entry.
The amazingly well preserved bucket seats are more comfortable than they look, but big feet tend to get tangled up in the steering column when using the slightly snatchy clutch and soggy brake.
To fire up, you press the key in to get live ignition and pull a knob out of the dash a good 4in to engage the starter.
There is nothing tricky about driving the Topolino, but it gives back what you put in.
Its light and precise steering has an amazing lock, and the car has a responsive, go-kart feel that must make any journey fun, exploiting a cheeky character that chimes perfectly with the way the car looks.
The engine is fairly smooth and very flexible, pottering along in top from low speeds without complaint.
It is surprisingly civilised in some respects, with a ride the defies its light footprint and upper gears that don’t grind or moan.
You can move the long, robust-looking lever quickly between third and top, but need to match road speed to revs to get a quiet change into second, which, like first, is of the low ‘Alpine’ type typical of a car bred in the mountains.
If the Topolino avoids the garden-machinery feel of its rear-engined successor, you still have to admire the grit of those brave souls who campaigned these cars in the Mille Miglia.
People did cover long trips in them, including our racing Earl.
When he was stationed near Glasgow in WW2, Howe took the first of his Topolinos, FYO 892, with him.
Rivers Fletcher told a story about the Earl giving a girlfriend a high-speed run in the car around the Glasgow suburbs “to prove to her he was a racing driver”.
Keeping momentum must have been key, but you would not gain many friends today holding up traffic on steep inclines.
The noise, poor rear vision and the general terror of mixing with giant modern vehicles tends to make the Topolino as much as a social history lesson as a car.
The Earl lived in much less risk-averse times.
Rear vision? I doubt he was much bothered about what was behind when he used his Fiats to drive the 1.7 miles from Curzon Street to the House of Lords: past The Ritz, right on to St James’s Street and left on to The Mall.
A racing change into second, right on to Horse Guards, left on to Great George Street and the approach to Parliament Square.
Handy as they were around town, the 500s were not particularly reliable: Earl Howe’s daughter recalled having to help the family chauffeur push-start the little cars.
It seems at least one of the trio was kept as a source of spares.
His reluctance to part with them may stem from the fact that, pre-1954, no new Fiats were being sold in the UK.
This car, so sensitively and sympathetically brought back to life, is thought to be the only one of the Earl’s Topolinos to survive.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Bicester Heritage
Fiat 500C ‘Topolino’
- Sold/number built 1936-’54/519,646 (all)
- Construction steel chassis, steel body
- Engine all-alloy, ohv 569cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 16.5bhp @ 4400rpm
- Max torque 22lb ft @ 2900rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, with synchromesh on third and top, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, transverse leaf spring rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, anti-roll bar; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering worm and sector
- Brakes hydraulic drums
- Length 10ft 5¼in (3181mm)
- Width 4ft 2¼in (1276mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
- Wheelbase 6ft 5½in (1968mm)
- Weight 1344Ib (610kg)
- 0-50mph 37.8 secs
- Top speed 58mph
- Mpg 45-55
- Price new £575
- Price now £15-40,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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