Long before cars had large engines and roared around the countryside, there was a movement towards small, economical vehicles. One of the leaders in this field was the Italian car company FIAT Spa of Turin. They designed a real, small, car called the Fiat Tipo 500, but known universally as the ‘Topolino’ (small mouse). Powered by a 596 cc, side-valve, water-cooled engine, putting out about 13 hp, the new car was amazingly economical, giving around 38 mpg. The Fiat had many surprising features, like 12-volt electrics, when the average British-built car, and its German contemporary, the famous Volkswagen, were managing with a 6-volt battery and the terribly weak headlights that went with it. There was also a rather attractive ‘convertible’ available, with a full-length ‘roll-back’ roof, just like the much later French-built Citroën 2CV. One design quirk was the fact that the radiator was placed behind the front-mounted engine; the radiator was not fully obscured, however, only the bottom half being ‘masked’. Since the top section of the radiator would be the hottest, this wasn’t too bad. This design feature had some unexpected advantages; in freezing weather, the radiator would be warmer than if it were mounted at the front, and it also allowed the Topolino to have a steeply sloping front end, with better aerodynamics and superb visibility for the driver.
Admittedly, the acceleration was best described as ‘glacial’, and the top speed only a shade over 50 mph, but the car did prove very popular, even in the U.K. One of the purchasers of a Topolino was Dorothy Clotilda Shuttleworth (1879 – 1968), who paid £120 for a new, bright blue Fiat in 1937 (U.K. registration, ‘FPG 102′). The car was used by Mrs Shuttleworth on local trips, and for shopping in Old Warden, Bedfordshire. A widow, Mrs Shuttleworth had one son, Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth, who was heir to the family agricultural business, and the large estate at Old Warden. Richard Shuttleworth was a noted racing driver, pilot, and collector of old aircraft. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1939, and was killed in the crash of a Fairey Battle light bomber, on the night of 1st/2nd August, 1940, when undertaking a night-flying sortie from RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire. After this, Dorothy Shuttleworth dedicated herself to the management of the estate, and in 1944 set up a charitable trust, The Richard Ormonde Shuttleworth Remembrance Trust, the aims of which were ‘agricultural and aviation education’. An agricultural college was set up, and hangarage expanded on the grass airfield (laid out by Richard before the war), to house the Shuttleworth Trust’s collection of aircraft and vehicles. This opened to the public in 1963, and is now one of the most significant collections of vintage flying machines in the whole world.
The Fiat was found after the war, stored in one of the buildings on the Old Warden estate, and as you can see has been superbly restored by members of the Shuttleworth Veteran Aeroplane Society. It is driven on the airfield, and displayed, during some of the regular events which take place at Old Warden. The Topolino was ahead of its time, and along with the licence-built French version, the Simca 6, is avidly collected to this day.