It was probably 15 years ago that a little Fiat 500 emitting the most unnatural of sounds overtook me coming out of a Shuto-ko toll booth. There was a big ‘Powered by Honda’ sticker across the back window, which I believe explained why it sounded exactly like a high-revving Japanese bike engine. It was so fast off the line and it just machine-gunned through the gears leaving me absolutely stunned.
I’ve never seen that car again, nor have I been able to track it down online. But now I think I’ve found the next best thing: the Team Ciociaro Corse 500 Maxi.
This is the automotive equivalent of putting a car on a strict diet of anabolic steroids and cocaine-laced slabs of meat. And that meat will have to be accompanied by a spicy Wasabi sauce, as this particular machine has been given a bit of a twist thanks to the man that imports the model into Japan, Takada-san.
So what are we exactly looking at here?
In essence, it’s beautifully simple – the nostalgic 1950s lines of the original Fiat 500 mated to a chassis and power-train developed for high speed corning. It’s called the 500 Maxi.
Despite having road registered the Maxi in Japan, Takada-san primarily uses it for hill-climb events, and with 180hp in a 630kg body with widened front and rear tracks, you can imagine how much of a little weapon it is!
As you might expect, there’s very little that is carried over from a production-spec 500. In fact, it’s only the front windshield and lights that remain, as the entirety of the FRP exterior is custom-built in two large main pieces that are moulded to resemble a muscular take on the 500 body shape.
The front end sports a large air dam and grille section, while a pair of quick-release pins keep the composite bonnet in place. The roof scoop is purely to supply air into the cabin, and if that isn’t enough you can slide open Lexan side windows for extra cooling. As they are in many vintage race and rally cars, Vitaloni mirrors are held in position with a support bar, otherwise they’d fold downwards at speed as the hinge isn’t strong enough to hold them up. That’s Italian engineering at its finest right there!
Both the front and rear cowls have integrated blistered and vented fenders to contain the increased tracks and tiny O.Z. Racing wheels (14-inch front and 15-inch rear).
These are shod in Continental Sport Contact 2 tyres, 195/40 at the front and 225/40 at the rear for massive levels of grip.Tubing It Up
Opening up the front end you can begin to see a little more detail of the tube frame chassis that lies beneath. It’s all built using chromoly steel and custom fabricated front and rear suspension pick-ups. The adjustable dampers are custom made for this application and the rears are adjustable from the interior, making that end easy to adjust depending on the driving conditions. The gasoline tank has been positioned up front.
The cabin portion of the tube frame includes multiple floor bars for extra strength and steel sheets to box the lot up, including the front and rear firewalls. A stock 500 dash is squeezed behind the main cross bar and joins up with a custom center console.
That’s were all of the switchgear is positioned, including the ignition key and the most comical addition of them all – the ETC toll card reader! The one-off shifter falls easily to hand in its elevated position, and right next to it is a blue anodised hydraulic handbrake for making hairpin bends far easier to tackle. On the roof you can see the adjustable air vents that have been added behind the scoop as well as the main center bar that further adds rigidity to the custom chassis.
Once you spot the Aprilia dash cluster you really begin to understand what this car is all about. But more on that once we lift up the car’s rear cowl…
The cabin is, of course, extremely compact, but you will be surprised how comfortably two fully grown adults can fit in there. To keep passengers from awkwardly bumping into each other, the Maxi runs a pair of OMP buckets with Sabelt harnesses.
This is by no means the only massively-widened Fiat 500 we’ve ever come across; there are many lurking in Italy and who could forget the Murciélago mix-up.
But what the Maxi 500 has over most of those other cars is a superb sense of proportion. It just looks… right. A small spoiler holding up the third brake light is integrated into the trunk lid, which of course on a 500 gives you access to the 500cc 2-cylinder engine that powers the car. Except you won’t get great access to the engine though that small opening.
You are far better off just lifting the entire rear cowl, which like the front is moulded as a single piece.Mid-Engine, Bike-Power
The naked chassis beneath will leave you momentarily stunned as you attempt to figure out what the hell is actually going on back here! Basically, the chromoly tube frame stretches rearward from the cockpit to triangulate and create the stop mounts, onto which the coilovers are mounted. From there, a smaller tube frame stretches downwards to create the rear subframe, onto which the lower arms and anti-roll bar are mounted.
Like I mentioned earlier, these custom dampers are adjustable from the cabin so that the driver can fine-tune how the rear end responds on the fly.
Now we get into the slightly more complicated portion of this build. You see, the Team Ciociaro Corse 500 Maxi actually comes powered with a 2.0-liter Lancia Thema 4-cylinder engine and matching transverse-mounted gearbox. This FF layout works great for the RR setup in the 500 Maxi, sending drive directly to the rear wheels, but Takada-san wanted to do something different with the first car imported to Japan. So he ditched the Lancia motor and transmission and opted to fit a much lighter and more powerful 1000cc Aprilia bike engine out of an RSV4 superbike. And it’s mounted right up against the firewall for a true mid-engined layout. With it, Takada-san wanted to use the Aprilia’s 6-speed sequential gearbox, but employ a proper rear end with a central diff and a pair of driveshafts rather than doing a chain-drive setup that’s more common with bike-to-car conversions. For reverse, there’s an electric motor that you can engage with a simple flick of a switch when the gearbox is in neutral.
For the conversion, Takada-san sourced the rear end out of a vintage Mitsubishi GTO and fitted it onto the subframe. Simple in theory, slightly harder in execution.
Unlike the air-cooled engine that the stock 500 runs, the V4 Aprilia motor is liquid-cooled; the stock bike radiator positioned right behind the passenger side rear scoop.
As you can imagine, it gets all the air it possibly needs.
The more I sat there looking at this fun little car the more I appreciated its pure mechanical simplicity.
The 1000cc engine is muffled by a custom stainless steel exhaust sporting only a small silencer.
But that’s a very good thing as it adds such a crazy soundtrack to the little 500! I mean, listen to the thing! Takada-san wasn’t shy about revving it either…
Takada-san hasn’t really had the chance to drive the car much, as soon after finishing the build back in 2013 he had a little incident during a hill-climb race. Following that, the Maxi has spent the last two years being slowly repaired at äpr Racing Constructor in Atsugi, a Super GT race shop that has a ton of experience with similar one-off creations.
The Maxi was literally completed the day before I dropped by to shoot it, and as you can see from the video, Takada-san was very happy to finally be back in the driver’s seat!
With a supercar-like power-to-weight ratio this 500 truly is a joy to throw around, and with the bike engine sitting right up against the firewall it has a far better and more natural feel through the corners.
Takada-san has begun importing these cars into Japan and might also offer the bike engine conversion for those that want the exact same package as his demonstration car. I’m hoping lots of people go for it, as it’s one car I’d love to see much more of. Tsukuba Super Battle maybe? We’ll see…
Dino Dalle Carbonare