After jutting inland, we track the River Dionard – so shallow of gradient as to be barely moving – then skirt along the vast, tidal sands of the Kyle of Durness and into Durness village, our first stop on the windswept north coast. With some relief, we find an unmanned 24-hour petrol pump. It’s best to fill the tank whenever you can up here.
Durness is a remote, beach-studded haven with an unlikely claim to fame. John Lennon holidayed here man and boy and became an early casualty of the North Coast 500, binning his Austin Maxi in 1969. He’d no doubt have approved of nearby Balnakeil Craft Village, though. A product of the same era as the Nuova 500, it was a Cold War early-warning station but is now an artists’ commune. As I stroll past its revitalised buildings, it’s hard to imagine the sinister threat that created them.
Another dusk scamper on deserted roads – this time along Loch Eriboll, occasionally a sheltered hideout for Royal Navy ships – has us tickling the 6100rpm limiter en route to our hotel in Tongue. Although there are drums at the back and pronounced dive under hard braking, the reassuring stoppers remain up to the task, too.
By day three, the best roads and biggest landscapes are behind us, but our journey back to Inverness is studded with intrigue nonetheless. Firstly, our Fiat momentarily takes pride of place at the tip of Britain in front of the former John O’Groats Hotel. As one of the regional starting points for the 1926 Monte Carlo Rally, it was from here that Victor Bruce in his six-cylinder AC became the event’s first British winner.
In Wick, we stop at Ebenezer Place, officially the world’s shortest street – effectively just one address. It’s a squeeze even for our tiny city car and we have to park nose out: the street is only 17cm longer than the 500 is wide. And near Golspie, we visit grandiose Dunrobin Castle, seat of the Earls of Sutherland. With 189 rooms, its own train station and sprawling formal gardens overlooking the Dornoch Firth, it’s an overwhelming sight, incongruous on this remote, rugged coast. The spired castle hosts a vintage car rally every August, which would no doubt have pleased the fourth Duke of Sutherland, first president of the RAC.
The odometer ticks past 500 miles before Inverness Airport, where I deposit Lacey. By the time I’m back in Edinburgh, the Fiat has covered 916 miles in three days. Away from its natural habitat, the car has done remarkably well. I’d gripe about the seat squabs, which tilt rather than lower properly, and the roar from our upsized wheels. And keener, more natural-feeling steering would have enriched the driving along twistier roads. But the 500 was amply roomy and its modest power didn’t stop the fun, nor did its generous ride quality prevent us from grabbing the scruff of its neck on those memorable, traffic-free evening sorties.