Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, May 8, 2017

Go Electric, Young Man! The Story of the Electric Fiat "500"

The Fiat "500," manufactured from 1957 to 1975 was a true prodigy of engineering and it left a deep impression on popular culture in many countries. Above, driven by "Lupin Sansei" (ルパン三世), a Japanese Manga character created by Monkey Punch. In this post, I describe how we transformed one of these old cars to run on electric power.

Some ten years ago, myself and my friend Pietro Cambi had the weird idea of "retrofitting" Pietro's old Fiat 500, turning it into an electric car. To understand why we embarked in such a task, you have to consider that we were (and are) both "peak oilers"; but also we were (and are) both Italian and the Fiat 500 is a car that has a peculiar fascination for Italians. Nobody in Italy can forget how the 500 motorized Italians in the 1950s, at the time of the "Economic Miracle". For Italians, the Fiat 500 carries the same fascination that the French have for their "R4", the Germans for their VW "Beetle" and the Russian for their "T34" (this last one not exactly a car, though). 

So, we put this idea into practice in 2007 and it worked. It was, actually, rather easy. An electric car is so much simpler than a car powered by a combustion engine. Just look at the difference: 

You see? The internal combustion engine is a mess of pipes, cables, valves, and all sort of strange things. The electric motor is just what you see: a cylinder with a small fan on top. That's it. To make things even simpler for us, we took a motor of the same rated power (12kW) as the old engine and we connected it to the gearbox. In reality, a smaller motor would have been more than enough. Then, if we had been able to create something more sophisticated, we wouldn't have needed a gearbox, we could have connected the motor (better still, two motors) directly to the wheels. More efficient and even simpler. 

For more technical detail, you can see a post of mine on "The Oil Drum". We added lithium-polymer batteries and a control system. The result was a wonderful little car that ran very nicely with a range of nearly 100 km. It aroused a lot of interest, as you can see in this picture (h/t Chantal, professional model who kindly accepted to pose with the 500)

It also aroused some interest with politicians and we tried to have the government approve a law that favored the electric retrofitting of old cars. It didn't work; the law was rejected, also because the Communists (yes, there were Communists in the Italian parliament, at that time) voted against it. Apparently, they thought that the working class should only take the bus. 

Apart from the diehard Communists in parliament, our attempt to create a retrofitting industry was probably doomed from the beginning. We expected some resistance to the idea, but we were not fully prepared to the howls of disgust we received, directed at the concept of retrofitting and reusing old cars. Apparently, a rule of life is that prosperity comes from building as many toys as possible and discarding them as fast as possible (and he who dies with the most toys, wins). Repairing or refitting old toys is not contemplated by the rules, even though that would save energy and resources. Only subversives, madmen, and peak oilers could ever think of such a thing. 

Ten years have passed. From then, some more retrofitting attempts have been made, some again with the Fiat 500. And the lower cost of batteries has made the task much less expensive than it was in 2007. Still, retrofitting remains a very marginal industry where only a minuscule number of enthusiasts are engaged. 

You may call this result a failure but, rethinking about this story, I think we still did something good. One good result was to demonstrate how simple and practical an electric vehicle could be in an age when there were very few electric cars available. Of course, we were not the only ones who proposed electric prototypes; there were many others. But we added our little bit to a movement of ideas that was leading to something. Then, there came Elon Musk and his Tesla; the electric car is not anymore a toy for hippies, it is a serious commercial and industrial product, moving onward to conquer the market. 

More than all, I think that what we did was a step in a direction which we ourselves couldn't fully perceive at the time. We had this idea that a car needed not to be a huge, smelly, inefficient, destructive monster but it could be something simple, small, friendly, and unprepossessing (see below, Pietro Cambi driving the 500 in the Cathedral Square, in Florence)

Taken to its extreme consequences, the idea of a small and friendly car becomes something that has little to do with the concept of "car" as it was intended up to now. Add to it a GPS positioning system, make full use of the intelligent electronic systems we have nowadays, and we have a completely new paradigm. The car is not anymore a car, but just an element of a "TAAS" (transportation as a service) system, where we don't own cars, we share them. That's the direction in which we are going. And we are going there using electric cars. 


  1. The reason for your failure is easy to understand. Just compare the two business models.

    Retrofit old Fiat 500's (and VW Beetles) with a simpler and more economical power train and make them last another decade or two. So easy that people might actually do it themselves. Sell them to students and workers who have little money. End run the assembly factories, auto companies, and sleazy salesmen with their army of politicians on the payroll. What were you thinking?

    Design the most complex electric car possible and build your own battery out of thousands of laptop battery cells. Price it so high that only the Important People can buy it. Invest all your free cash flow in currying political favors to keep the subsidy funds flowing into the Ponzi Pool. Use the billions accumulated to fund your escape from Earth to your own space station on Mars, accompanied by 20 breeding females. Terraform Mars into an Eden populated by a new race of half silicon/half carbon beings, all descended from You.

    See where you went wrong?

  2. My dream car! But all you get today is glitzy dinosaurs of tech no-logy.

  3. I occured to me a while ago, that all the combustion powered cars we produce today, will probably run out of gas during their lifetime. If we stop producing cars now, my guess is that we would very probably have all the combustion engines we need, to last us to the end of the availability of gas for personal mobility, and to destroy our climate while doing so.

    Here in Germany about 5 million peoples jobs are related to the auto industry, which produces more than 550000 cars each Year and actually increase production eevery year.

    As there will not be enough gas to go around in 20-30 years, all the work and the ressources we use to enlarge our combustion infrastructure is a total waste. We only produce useless heaps of scrap it to keep our economy running and our people busy. Too busy to see what is really going on?

    The crazyness of it all never stops to boggle my mind.

    1. Apparently the number of cars sold is increasing most years by 3 -4 %. EVs, while showing strong growth are still representing less than 1%, so not really denting the overall growth of ICE cars on the road yet. Something must give well before 20-30 years.

  4. Ugo
    I like the DIY refit by a couple of crazy middle-aged guys: all-Italian large and beautiful young lady and a very modest little car with enough energy. Dream on, as they say. Smile.

    Ugo, do you know what the lithium batteries cost these days? I saw some organised as stacked packs for a bicycle refit project a few years ago. They might even be easily clipped on or off for charging?

    You might need easily exchangeable batteries, because presumably it is typically more useful to recharge at night when the sun is offline. I checked Wikipedia for Italy's electricity production, which is mostly Natural Gas with some imports and hydro. This is not a huge amount of CO2 per Italian person compared with other countries, but given the combined inefficiency (energy losses) of electricity generation and storage in batteries, the electric car is not quite so efficient. Electricity of the kind that is available to date significantly reduces your kilometres per litre of gasoline equivalent quoted in that great Oil Drum post of long ago.


  5. Not quite OT... this morning I bought a bottle of Coca Cola for the first time in my life: my daughter started pestering me for it this morning.

    You see, the bathroom washbasin has clogged up and she thinks pouring Coca Cola down it can solve the problem.

    We'll see :-)

  6. My dream of retrofitted car is a Fiat Panda (1-st type) with 4 motorwheels: a 4x4 car without transmission gear (all controlled via 4 electronic inverter and software).

  7. I suggest reading and substitute lithium for the lead used in the analysis. I know this isn't the gist of your article, but do you really think the battery narrative is any better than the fossil fuel narrative? Unless the battery contains abundant materials that can be recovered using a small input of energy during recycling (life cycle assessment), Cassandra has become a Cornucopian.

    1. This is why, according to Philippe Bihouix, the EV of the future = Bicycle.

  8. i find this one fascinating Especially for when roads will fall in disrepair like at the end of the Roman Empire

  9. Same endeavo(u)r Down Under



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)