Front row SEAT

A motorised bubble that could only hit sixty if it had a following wind, the SEAT 600 opened up Spain – but it was a four year wait to get one.

In the mid 1950’s Franco’s Spain was probably better known by the early tourists than by the Spanish themselves. Unless you were a government official or wealthy enough to be able to afford the 100% import duty on foreign cars that the government demanded, you’d seldom venture far from your village unless you had a good pair of shoes or a donkey. Designed by Dante Giacosa, the Fiat 600 was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1955 and, under an agreement between Fiat and the newly launched SEAT, Spain was allowed to produce the car under licence. This dumpy little work-horse mobilised the Spanish nation.

The idea behind the SEAT 600 was the same as that for the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle; to give the freedom of the road to the general public. When the first motorised bubbles began leaving the factory on 27 May 1957 they were immediately swallowed up by advanced orders and though production had been estimated at 10,000 – 12,000 cars a year, by the end of the first year almost 100,000 sales were on the books. Four months later SEAT stopped taking further orders, and even after massively increasing production a waiting time of 3 – 4 years was the norm, although many people took the option of buying a convertible, which had a considerably reduced waiting time. And you got what you were given. When someone remarked that eventually you would be able to choose a colour, the mere thought of it was dismissed as a pipe-dream. And being popular didn’t make them cheap.

When an average wage for a professional person was 2,000 pesetas a month, and SEAT charged 80 pesetas an hour for servicing the 600, the car itself cost a whacking 53,000 pesetas – about €11,000 at today’s prices, for something that could only take four adults if the two in the back bent forward and, flat out, wouldn’t get you up to sixty miles an hour. But it sold, …and sold, …and sold. Financing was very easy – pay cash and it’s yours. Almost a year’s wage, 20,000 pesetas, was demanded as a deposit, but when you collected the car four years later you had to pay the full selling price and claim the deposit back. Delays became a business opportunity for intermediaries, who would happily get you a new car in a matter of months instead of years, just so long as you were prepared to fork out twenty or thirty percent extra.

The little bubble became so famous that in 1966 Scalextric produced a 1:36 scale model of the car and, in later years, Paya, the first toy factory in Spain, made a model of the SEAT 600.

For seventeen years the SEAT 600, with only modest alterations, rolled off the production line of the factory in Barcelona. Over three-quarters of a million of the little round car were produced and sold as faraway as Columbia (to where the first 150 export models went in 1965 and was a major market until end of production), and Finland where, in the early 1970’s it was voted the top selling car for three years running. As the last car left the ramps on 3rd August 1973 the workers placed a placard on it which read, ‘You were born a principe, you die a king.’

More than any other product of the period, the SEAT 600 is seen as an icon of the economic resurgence of Spain after the Civil War. It is part of recent Spanish history, with each owner able to relate it to a special time in their life; the honeymoon and the 600, the 600 and the first vacations, the long delays to acquire it.

In the cluttered workshop of Taller Florentino, a garage so close to the Castillo of Denia that it could practically serve as guardroom, Florentino Palacios carefully moves his angle grinder as he restores the body of one of the rarest cars inSpain. Almost forty years ago in Valencia he rebuilt the same car, putting together the mangled pieces that were left after a shunt with a train. Then he just worked on it; now he owns it, a one-off, hand-built Seat 600 Sports car. The waiting time for a SEAT in the early days might have been a few years, not many waited as long as Florentine did to get their hands on one, or at least one as special as his Sports version.

“I first saw it when I was working in a garage in Valencia while I was doing my National Service. When we finished it a lawyer bought it, but years later I was back in the garage again and there it was. He’d got fed up with it and put it up for sale.” As it rests on the thick hydraulic jack, looking like a smaller version of a Triumph Spitfire, Florentine smoothes his hand across the newly burnished metal. “There’s one of the original cars from the first batch made still in use in Barcelona. They are so simple, so basic and such good quality that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were still around to see the hundredth birthday of the first car off the production line.”

For Florentino the beauty of the vehicle is its simplicity. “Even people who knew almost nothing about mechanics could do their own repairs. Modern cars are all electric and the more electrics you have the more problems you have. Take away the battery and you are stuck, but with a 600 you could practically stick a sail on it to get it moving. It virtually ran on air anyway.” He bought his first car when he was twenty, and has owned a 600 ever since. “The SEAT 600 wasn’t just a car, it was a complete change of life for the Spanish people.”

While Florentine won’t be around to celebrate the 100th birthday there will be plenty who will. The SEAT 600 has become something of a cult amongst young people and, just like their parents, it becomes their first car when they collect their driver’s licence. At the moment they are affordable, about €4,000 for a fully restored version, but they are getting more difficult to find, usually in poor condition, and more expensive to repair. But they are carefully being restored by aficionados, and throughout Spain clubs are starting where young people can meet with an older generation who, like Florentine, have spent their life working with these cars. “Mind you, they are so simple you can fix them with a penknife.”

In the back of Florentine’s garage you can vaguely see a series of dust covered domes, his stock of SEAT 600’s which will, one day, look as sparkling as the green one outside his garage door. For the moment though, everything has to wait for the gutted and bare metal chrysalis resting on the hydraulic jack to emerge as a brilliant butterfly. Colour to be determined.