Motoring in the Fifties is an era that is now so remote that even the vehicles that were to become known as "people carriers" were not automatically naff. The French had the the svelte Citroë* Traction Avant Familiale; the British were offered the sturdy wood-staked Morris Isis Traveller; but the lucky Italians were presented with the incredible Fiat 600 Multipla. All of these vehicles are superior to the likes of the Toyota Space Cruiser or the Renault Espace (not least their appearance), but for transporting six passengers with style, verve, aplomb and a great deal of engine noise, the Multipla still has few equals.
The Multipla dates from 1951, when the Italian engineer Dante Giacosa was commissioned to devise a lightweight four-seater family car with a rear engine at a price within reach of the very Fiat workers on the Turin assembly line. The 1955 Fiat 600 achieved all of these goals and, for a mere 24 instalments, the average Italian could own their first new car.
Inevitably, the four-seat 600 was not quite large enough for the average extended Italian family, so Fiat applied the same formula to a model that would replace the old 500 Belvedere (the four-seater version of the Topolino) and also appeal to extended families and fleet operators alike.
Launched in 1956, the Multipla was essentially a four-door forward-control version of the 600 and was only 11' 7" in length – only 1' 7" longer than a Mini. To ensure the Multipla was as simple and mechanically robust as possible, Fiat largely employed the 600's 633cc engine and running gear, with the addition of worm and roller steering, strengthened gear ratios and front brakes plus front suspension sourced from the 1100 saloon. The steering column was universally jointed (to save on interior space) and the radiator was front-mounted behind a tiny grille.
Three different versions of the Multipla were listed – a four-seater with front and rear benches that could form a double bed when required; a six-seater that gained folding "cricket" seats between the benches; and the Taxi version, which boasted a single front seat alongside a luggage platform, and a division between the middle seating row and the driver.
It was the latter version that gave the Multipla its lasting fame. Although the four- and six-seat models were popular as delivery vans that could double as personnel carriers, the Taxi was the ideal hire car for Italian cities and became as much a Roman icon as the Austin FX3 was to London.
Production of the Multipla lasted until 1966, with the only real change being the replacement of the original 633cc engine with the 600D's 767cc unit in 1960. A few examples were exported to the United States, where the press response was favourable – "a happy and useful little chunk of machinery", claimed Motor Trend – and Fiat even made an ambitious attempt to offer their pioneering "people carrier" to the great British public.
Sadly, the cost of a RHD conversion, combined with heavy import duties, raised the Multipla's price to nearly £800, thereby placing it in competition with the much larger Ford Consul and the Hillman Minx. Despite this handicap, the Multipla managed to gain a rave review from The Autocar in early 1957: "Its qualities are such that it may well become one of the family in the United Kingdom in spite of the burden of import duty."
In terms of Fifties British motor writing, this was high praise indeed, but, sadly, the great Fifties British motorist could be a very conservative creature. Over the next eight years, Fiat sold fewer than 100 British-market Multiplas, compared with more than 20,000 600s in the same period.
A handful of models do survive in the UK, and their proud owners will often give helpful advice to the novice Multipla motorist, such as "all tall and heavy would-be Multipla owners should seriously contemplate a combined crash diet and limb reduction programme". Then there is the disquieting fact that even after you have levered yourself through the "suicide" door on to the front bench, there remains the slight challenge of a gearlever that is conveniently placed under your right kneecap. The pedals are not especially welcoming to any foot size under four, but at least the front passenger sits before the spare wheel that might just double as an airbag, whereas the driver has a left headlamp bowl mounted inches from his left kneecap. At least the dashboard is standard Fiat 600, complete with the rubber screen wash button, the hand throttle mounted under the fascia and that strangely evocative smell of boiled rubber common to all rear-engine Fiats of this era.
But on firing up the Giacosa-designed 767cc engine via the tunnel-mounted starter lever, the virtues of Multipla ownership soon make themselves known. The all-independent suspension makes for very light handling, the drum front brakes are surprisingly effective and the room enjoyed by the rear passengers compares favourably to the six-cylinder Fiat 2100 Berlina. The position of the gear lever proves a slight challenge to the sizeable motorist – the Multipla is one of the few vehicles that might be improved by a dashboard lever à la the 2CV – but the original Fiat Multipla appears a good deal faster than its 59mph top speed would indicate. There have even been cases of British owners taking their Multiplas on motorways against the might of sale reps' Mondeos – a true testament to the brilliance of its engine and aerodynamics (and the bravery of its owner).
The 600 Multipla was replaced in 1966 by the 850 Transporter, but the earlier model was still used as an Italian taxi well into the Seventies. Today, the Multipla name has been revived by Fiat but for many enthusiasts of Italian cars, it cannot quite compete with the image of a sea of green and black Multiplas careering through the streets of Rome or Turin in the early Sixties with verve and aplomb – words that are rarely applied to the Toyota Spacecruiser, for some strange reason.
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