1965 Fiat Multipla
1965 Fiat Multipla. Click image to enlarge

Join Autos’s Facebook group
Follow Autos on Twitter

Article and photo by Bill Vance

One of the most unusual vehicles to reach North American shores in the 1950s was the Fiat Multipla (meaning all service). It was based on the tiny Fiat 600 sedan, and could be called one of the original minivans, albeit a kind of miniature version. Its purpose was to pack the most usable space into the smallest possible dimensions, a quest in which it succeeded admirably.

Following the Second World War, Fiat returned their small, well-engineered, pre-war designed two-passenger Fiat 500 “Topolino” (little mouse) to production and built it until 1948. Thinking there would no longer be a market for such a small car, Fiat did not replace the Topolino.

But there was still a need for basic economical transportation and Fiat was finally convinced to introduce a new 500 in 1956. It was a tiny sedan powered by an air-cooled, vertical two-cylinder, 479-cc, 13-horsepower engine in the rear, not the front as in the original Topolino. Its performance was marginal, but it filled a need for a vehicle that was economical to buy and operate (6 L/100 km; 47 mpg).

Fiat had also introduced the 600 two-door sedan in 1955 designed by Dante Giacosa, creator of the original Topolino. It had a water-cooled, overhead valve, inline four-cylinder engine located in the rear. While the 600 was a much more useful car than the 500, it still had its space limitations which Fiat addressed with a minivan version called the 600 Multipla.

In the Multipla the front seat was shifted forward. The driver and front passenger sat directly over the 12-inch wheels. The spare tire was mounted vertically in front of the passenger, whose feet fitted under it. There were two rows of seats behind the front one that could accommodate four more passengers for a total of six. It was very space efficient, and the fact that it was not quite the rectangular box-on-wheels shape of the groundbreaking Volkswagen Micro-van gave it a certain styling panache. Whereas the VW was vertical front and rear, the Multipla’s front slanted back slightly and the rear end sloped off in a mild fastback.

The 633-cc overhead valve, four-cylinder engine was nestled behind the rear axle and drove through a four-speed manual transmission with synchromesh on the top three. Because of the heavier loads the overall rear axle ratio was lowered from the car’s 4.82:1 to 5.39:1, which made the little engine turn a busy 5,000 revolutions per minute on the highway.

All mechanicals except the front suspension were lifted from the 600 sedan. In order to provide sufficient passenger room over the front axle the regular 600 front suspension was replaced by the wider independent coil spring unit from the larger Fiat 1100 sedan. Rear suspension was independent with swing axles and coil springs.

There were four doors, with access to the front seat via two rear-hinged “suicide type” doors. Rear passengers entered through a large front-hinged door on each side of the unit construction body. For commercial use all rear seats could be folded flat for a cavernous cargo space. When in passenger mode, bystanders were always amazed to see six adults emerge from a vehicle only 3,531 mm (139 in.) long riding on a 2,000 mm (78.7 in.) wheelbase.

As would be expected with a tiny 21.5 horsepower engine and a 708 kg (1,560 lb) curb weight, the Multipla’s performance could only be termed modest. Road & Track (10/’57) tested a Multipla, which they dubbed the “rolling toaster,” and reported zero to 80 km/h (50 mph) acceleration of 32.3 seconds and top speed of 95 km/h (58.8 mph). This was with a driver and observer aboard; we can only speculate on performance with a full six passenger load. Fuel economy, as expected, was excellent at 6.7 L/100 km (42 mpg). The engine was later enlarged to 767 cc, which raised horsepower to 29 and improved top speed to 100 km/h (62 mph).

The multi-purpose Multipla filled a niche for small roomy passenger and cargo haulers and became quite popular in Italy, particular in taxi service, with a front seat removed to make room for luggage. It was ideal in the crowded narrow streets of Italian cities.

The Multipla was manufactured from 1956 to 1969 during which approximately 130,000 were produced. While some reached North America, it didn’t come close to the popularity of the larger VW minivan.

The Multipla name was resurrected by Fiat in 1998, but by then many manufacturers were offering small minivans and it didn’t have the impact of the original little people mover. That first Multipla was just the kind of vehicle that many people needed, well regarded enough to prompt Fiat to cash in on the nostalgia by bringing back the name.

Connect with Autos.ca