FIAT’s 500 practically needs no introduction. The original car, back in 1957, was Italy’s Mini - only it was two years ahead of the famous British model. It was a tiny, characterful city car with a small engine at the back and plenty of room for four, and became the vehicle that accelerated car ownership across the nation. FIAT sold four million across an 18-year production run.
It was a defining car for the brand, and something it tried to recapture across the decades - first with the 126, then the Cinquecento (which is Italian for “500”) and Seicento. However the rise of “retro” in the early 2000s gave FIAT the opportunity to bring the looks of the original 500 back on a modern platform - and it has proven wildly successful.
The Robert Giolito/Frank Stephenson design is a common sight on the UK’s roads, and FIAT has sold almost three million models since it introduced the new 500 in 2007. However, just like the original, there’s opportunities for improvement; enter Abarth.
Abarth was originally a sports and racing car brand, but it became so intertwined with FIAT in the 1950s and 1960s that FIAT bought the marque in 1971. Known for its tuned 500 models, like the 595 and 695 SS, the Abarth name faded from use over the decades until FIAT resurrected it as a standalone brand again in 2008.
The modern Abarth is responsible for some pretty sprightly cars, with the entry level Abarth 500 running some 33% more power than the top of the range FIAT 500. Models with the £3,240 SS kit - officially called “esse esse” - gain even more power, along with bigger brakes, lowered suspension, and unique wheels, to transform a fairly humble city car into a surprising hot hatch.
There’s a certain uniqueness to this particular Abarth, as it was supplied new to the UK roads as a press fleet vehicle. These are the cars that manufacturers send out to motoring magazines for road test reviews and features, and they’re typically of high or unusual specification.
That means that if you happen to have a copy of a car magazine from 2011 and there’s a review of the Abarth 500 in there, it will likely be this car. However, it also has a considerably bigger claim to fame, as a Top Gear star.
This 500C appeared in a 2011 episode of the BBC show as part of a triple test: the presenters each had to choose a hot hatchback, and put them through a series of challenges in Italy. Richard Hammond picked the Abarth 500C Esseesse (James May chose a Renaultsport Clio, Jeremy Clarkson a DS3 Racing), and as well as driving the narrow streets, the car had to endure a bizarre scavenger hunt.
The cars ended the episode in a head-to-head race around the Monaco Grand Prix circuit - which in the case of the Abarth meant having Aston Martin Red Bull Racing F1 team boss Christian Horner as a circuit tutor. It’s certainly seen some famous occupants!
Following its stint on FIAT’s press fleet, the car made its way to its current owners in March 2013, where it has remained ever since. Across its nine-year life thus far, it’s covered almost 33,000 miles - less than 4,000 miles a year.
The 500C comes with the original owners’ folder, which contains the handbook, the maintenance schedule (stamped up to 13,000 miles, covering FIAT’s ownership) and information about the “esse esse” kit.
All of the car’s MOTs have taken place under the current owners, and the certificates are all present. There’s also documentation for work carried out by the current owners - including a recent change of brake discs and pads as flagged on recent MOTs.
The Abarth 500’s interior is pretty similar to the regular FIAT 500’s, but with appropriately sporty touches. The dash piece gets the same colour scheme as the exterior, with a white upper section and a thin red stripe beneath.
This vehicle was specified with a red leather interior with white contrast stitching - in all four seats, front and rear. That red leather continues onto the door cards, and metal pedals complete the sporting theme. You’ll also not spot FIAT badging anywhere, with the classic Abarth scorpion in its place.
Despite the rigours of the Top Gear scavenger hunt - which saw the Abarth carrying a bike and large portion of tree - the car’s interior is pretty close to spotless. Everything is unmarked, and all the electronics operate as they ought, including the all-important roof mechanism.
With its black-over-white body colour and red stripe, along with the model-specific, 17-inch, white alloy wheels, the Abarth 500C doesn’t entirely blend in from the outside either. For the most part this is still factory fresh and free of obvious blemishes, scratches, and marks. The exception is a small patch in the lower valance behind the nearside rear wheel, no more than 2cm long.
There’s a small amount of kerbing on some of the white Abarth wheels which are specific to the esseesse kit, but it’s quite localised and only on the two front wheels. They fit over some pretty large brake discs - also part of the kit - which were recently replaced.
The roof too is free from any signs of wear or damage, and all folds away as it should. It operates in two stages, opening the top of the car first and then folding down onto the rear - which also drops the rear spoiler and screen - and there’s no issues in the process.
Underneath there’s patches of surface corrosion and some rust on exposed bolt heads, but it is generally clean and there’s no signs of major corrosion, damage, or leaks.
Abarth uses the same 1.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine in its 500 as FIAT does in the lower order models, but it’s turned up to 133hp from 100hp courtesy of a turbocharger. The Esseesse turns that up further to 158hp, and in this model adds a five-speed manual gearbox rather than the earlier five-speed automated shift.
The car fires up without any issues or undue noises - aside from the ones it’s supposed to make through the quad exhaust. On tick-over and low speed manoeuvring there’s nothing to raise any eyebrows, and in general the Abarth appears to be in fine fettle.
As well as being a top notch hot hatch, the Abarth 500C is a pretty rare sight on the UK’s roads - even more so in Esseesse form. Throw in the car’s starring role on the world’s most-watched motoring program and the appeal speaks for itself!
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