Wednesday July 20, 2016
Written by Andy Roberts
Some motorists think that the ‘People Carrier’ emerged in the early 1980s along with Wham singles and boasting about owning a Betamax video recorder.
However, in 1956 Fiat created the original Multipla by modifying their rear engine 600 saloon into a four door six seater, with the front occupants sat above the axle.
The main sales feature was the packaging, which was easily as brilliant as any Renault Espace; you could choose between twin benches that folded to make a double bed, or a front bench and four individual seats that folded completely flat into the floor.
Fiat also offered a taxi version with a luggage platform to the right of the driver, which did partially solve the slight challenge of passengers and their suitcases.
Several Multipla drivers favoured roof racks and any picture of Italian traffic of the late 1950s or 1960s will have at least one shot of a 600 Multipla so heavily stacked with suitcases that it resembles a mobile leaning Tower of Pisa!
The rear accommodation could never be described as ‘luxurious’ - anyone expecting such decadent fittings as ashtrays or headlining was very disappointed - but there was a remarkable amount of headroom.
As for safely features, these were limited to the spare wheel facing the front seat passenger.
As one who has driven a 600 Multpla, I can confirm that accommodation for the front seat occupants was not quite as comfortable.
The backrest has a choice of a few positions, but the cushion lacks any form of adjustment so unless the optional canvas sunroof was specified, any large motorist had to hover over the steering wheel in the fashion of a praying mantis.
It was also a good idea to ensure that your left kneecap did not hit the nearside headlamp bowl and that your right kneecap did not encounter the gear lever. Just to make matters even more entertaining, the pedals were a) not designed for anyone who wears a Size 12 shoe and b) mounted either side of the steering column.
But these issues are of less important than one simple fact – the Fiat was tremendous fun to drive. 0-60 was entirely theoretical as the top speed was around the 57 mph mark, but any Multipla sounds as though it is about to break the sound barrier when travelling at a mere 30.
A RHD version was available but sales in the UK were limited; import duties meant that it cost as much as a Hillman Minx – and few pipe smoking tweed-jacketed drivers would pay £799 for a ‘foreign car’ that looked like a B-film alien spaceship.
Most Britons would have encountered the Multipla on their TV screens as the Italian set episodes of The Saint often featured Warren Mitchell as an Italian cabbie, but one prominent UK customer was the taxi operator, Tom Sylvester.
He used the Fiat as a London minicab, a move that was not very popular with Austin black cab drivers and a Movietone newsreel captured their less than joyous reactions:
Sales of the Multipla ceased in 1966, and although Fiat revived the name in 1998, no car can replicate the unique charm of one of the pioneer people carriers.
Or, to quote the brochure, its ‘fine lines’ and ‘pleasing appearance’.