Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The SEAT 600


Think of the SEAT 600 like the Beatles. The SEAT 600 is, or was, a car of enormous social and cultural significance. It wasn't simply a car it was a symbol of the new Spain. In the 16 years between 1957 and 1973 when it was manufactured 800,000 were sold. As Spain began to move from a backward rural economy of donkeys and peasants to the modern European nation that is today it was the SEAT 600 that put Spaniards on the road.

When the Seiscientos was introduced most private vehicles on the road were microcars, three-wheeler vans and motorbike side-car combinations. To travel long distances the only real option was public transport. Small as the SEAT 600 was it was a proper car with room to carry the family to the other side of Spain. Anyone of a certain age will have stories of a the 10 foot long 600 miraculously transporting three generations of family and all their luggage to one of the new seaside resorts.

The SEAT 600 was a direct copy of the Fiat 600 designed by the Italian engineer Dante Giacosa and introduced at the 1955 Geneva Motor show. It was not a complicated car. It  did 40mpg on 72 octane fuel and had an electrical system that relied on just 3 eight amp fuses. Its 633cc water cooled engine produced only 21.5hp but, as it weighed in at just over half a ton, the engine and four speed gearbox could get it up to about 60mph with a following wind. It had the engine at the back and a small boot at the front. Mechanically it was sound and car's only real problem was the cooling system. Apparently most 600s went about with a bit of wood propping open the engine cover to stop them from overheating.

The company that built the car, SEAT (Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo), came into existence in 1950 with an agreement between the Spanish Government and Fiat. The Government had 51% of the stock, Fiat 7% and a consortium of Spanish banks the other 42%. The factory, which was in Barcelona, produced its first car, the SEAT 1400A, in 1953. Initial production was only five cars per day. As production stepped up SEAT looked for a new car to produce alongside the 1400 and they chose the 600. The first Spanish 600 rolled off the production line in 1957. It went to the son of a General.

The 600 had lots of nicknames but one of them, el ombligo, the bully-button sums it up. Why the belly-button? Because everyone has one. Within three years of the model being launched the waiting list had reached 100,000 cars. Supply couldn't match demand so, in true Spanish style, they closed the waiting list. Unless you had a friend in the factory or in Government you would have to wait years to get one. In 1967 nearly half of all cars on the road in Spain were SEAT 600s.

You still see plenty on the road today. If you're caught behind one try not to grumble as you wait for a good place to get past. Think of it as an opportunity to inspect a bit of motoring history.

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