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That time a Fiat crashed through a Motorama and came out the other side with fins

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy John Olsson.

Everybody remembers the day like it was yesterday. Careening out of control, the Fiat 600 smashed through the doors of the 1955 GM Motorama in Boston. Nobody was hurt, thank goodness, but as the little Italian car bashed into one big American show car after another, it started to pick up subtle design cues like a cartoon character changing outfits as it bounced through a dressing room. When the dust cleared, something new lay at the heart of the wreckage: the Arcturus.

Or, at least, so goes any one of a thousand (semi-)plausible explanations for the car that Calder Smith spotted on a trailer not long ago and asked us to investigate. Not the correct explanation, mind you, but an explanation nonetheless, and one not far off from John Olsson’s concept behind the Arcturus.

“‘Italian microcar meets Motorama Concept Car’ was the philosophy when building this car,” John wrote, noting that the idea germinated as a daydream in high school English class in 1978.

However, the idea didn’t actually sprout until more than 25 years later, when John bought a 1960 Fiat 600 out of Dublin, Georgia, not far from his home in Smyrna. “Not a terribly bad car considering its age,” he said, but he still needed to cut out and replace the rusty floors and rocker panels before he could get on with the “topectomy.”

Once he had the top off, John went to work reshaping pretty much everything aft of the doors. He sliced and diced a pair of 1956 Pontiac quarter panels to fit the Fiat’s wheel openings and cut apart the hood from a 1953 Chevrolet truck to span between the fins. He also notched the quarters to accept the ends of a 1956 Buick bumper and, rather than simply popping some Pontiac taillamps into the quarters, massaged them enough to accept 1955 Dodge bezels with 1953 Chevrolet lenses.

Moving forward, he cut down the Fiat 600’s doors and re-hinged them to open in the conventional style. He chopped the windshield 3 inches and custom-built the convertible top (using a frame from a Fiat 850) and side curtains to fit.

At the front, he opened up the grille then mounted bumperettes built using parts from a 1956 Buick front bumper and 1951 Mercury accessory grille guards. A 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air surrendered its trim insert panel to form the gauge panel, which also incorporated 1959 Ford reverse lamp housings for gauge bezels.

Even the color — Crocus Yellow — came from a 1956 Chevrolet.

As custom as he made the body, John decided to use simple Fiat 600 bucket seats and power the car with a Fiat four-cylinder engine. The latter, though, was no ordinary 633-cc stocker; instead, he fitted a 903-cc from a Fiat 127 and hopped it up with a Weber 32 PICT carburetor from a Fiat 1200, a 4-into-1 header, a full stainless exhaust system, an Autobianchi A112 water pump, a seven-angle valve grind, and an electric cooling fan. While the 600 D transmission remains stock, John did swap the rear coil springs for those from a Fiat 850 and mount 13-inch wheels from an 850 (with 1965 Buick Skylark spinners).

Other than some of the sheetmetal, one of the few things he scratch-built for the car was the Arcturus nameplate, which he designed in SolidEdge and cut with a CNC laser. The “Arcturus” name, he said just seemed to fit the car.

In total, John said he used parts from 20 different cars in building the Arcturus, which took the field at this year’s annual Forged Invitational custom car and bike show on Georgia’s Jekyll Island and has been displayed at Bruce Weiner’s microcar museum and the Lane Motor Museum.

Not bad for a now-40-year-old high-schooler’s daydream. Maybe we should all dig out our old sketchbooks and re-evaluate the feasibility of those dream cars zooming through the margins…