Although Born During Tumultuous Times, The Fiat 500 ‘Topolino’ Has Proven Perennially Lovable.
Photography by Armando Musotto
The 1930s were fateful and tumultuous years for Italy. Marred by armed conflict, broken lives, and bloodshed. As we assess and look back from our comfortable modern safety, sitting in front of our computers, it doesn’t take a historian to realize these were not happy times. Destruction and warfare can be prerequisites for certain types of progress, but is it necessary? Probably not. But we make do with the history of the world, and we try our best to learn from the mistakes of our past. But it’s important to look for the good things produced by bad situations.
It was certainly more of a footnote than a headline to what else was going on back then in Europe, but we can also remember that the early 1930s were historically significant years for the Italian automotive industry—it was the effective start of Italian industrialization.
Given the industrial backwardness and the enormous weaknesses that our country was suffering at the time as a result, Benito Mussolini’s government called upon Italy’s most industrious entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves and change the situation with novel ideas to bring the boot back in vogue.
From 1930 onwards, the industrial conditions of our country definitely improved, but 1930 was specifically important for the automotive sector, for it was then that Mussolini summoned Senator Giovanni Agnelli (founder of FIAT, in 1899) to invite him to build an object that would become a symbol of a new, more wonderful Italy: the Fiat 500. You may be noting some parallels to another fascist European country, and a similarly iconic car for the masses…
In the interwar period, the Italians needed to move, to turn around, to restart the economic processes of growth, and to do so they had to abandon the old transportation systems for something more individual, and the automobile—already present in Italy, but far from widely used—seemed to be the perfect figurative and literal vehicle. Mussolini gave Agnelli a mandate: the car was not to cost more than 5000 lire, an honest and affordable price, and an ambitious plan.
The project, unfortunately, in the first period of development had to deal with the impossibility of producing a vehicle at that price, and the outlook wasn’t too cheery. Agnelli entrusted the project to Oreste Lardone, who, with the idea of ”everything ahead,” succeeded in producing the first prototype of the car that would become the 500. The final design, however, was entrusted to Dante Giacosa, a young engineer and designer who is now considered one of the masters of the Italian school of motoring.
Giacosa perfectly consolidated the ideas of Agnelli and Lardone, and derives the model of the car from the existing Fiat Balilla, making a smaller version that also introduced substantial technical innovations that allowed it to be produced very cheaply; the radiator was above the engine to save the water pump, the frame had two V-beams from the front to the rear, and the four-cylinder engine had side valves, for example.
Further cost-and-effort-saving elements in the design of the engine were the feeding of fuel by gravity (resulting in the elimination of the fuel feed pump), and the oiling system had a rudimentary oil pump that was a simply designed flow function, with the lubricant distributed to the various mechanical parts of the engine by flaps or by the movement of the internal organs themselves.
Dante Giacosa had realized the dream of the Fiat management thanks to these ideas, and in 1934 the first working prototype of the car left the Turin factory. The streets of Piedmont became the first proving grounds, and nothing seemed to phase the mighty little car.
The 1930s were not limited to what was going on in Italy, and what was going on in Italy was not limited to what was going on in its borders. These were also the years of another legend being born: Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney had created a character that would enter nearly everyone’s homes on the planet in some way, and as the story goes, the Fiat executives decided to dedicate the company’s latest car to the little mouse, calling it the Fiat Topolino (topolino meaning “little mouse”). But on June 10, 1936, the car was presented with its official nomenclature: the Fiat 500.
In the following years, the 500 line went through many evolutions, and we’re still counting. The world is evolving, Fiat 500s can be electric now, but the vintage charm and the history linked to these earliest models of the lineage have always fascinated me most of all.
In fact I am always looking out for particular Fiat models to photograph and write about. I attend many rallies and other events during the summer months, and the cult of the Fiat 500 in Sicily is an everyday presence. Even today, in the alleys of our smaller villages, it is possible to see some vintage 500s used as daily drivers. It might make sense then, that my search for the particular and the unusual led me to find a rare wonder just a few kilometers from my front door.
I have always wanted to be able to photograph a Fiat 500B “Topolino,” but I am a purist in this pursuit; no grille full of badges, no stickers, and no modifications. I look for a Topolino that looks like it was just driven from the showroom. To my rescue comes Pierpaolo, owner of this splendid specimen.
His Fiat is a splendid 1948 model painted Verde 335, with a gray and brown interior with all the original documents as well as some interesting gems like the oil meter and the original Fiat tools. The Fiat 500B, as you might guess, is regarded as the second evolution of the Topolino, built in 1948. The car featured some modifications of the 500A, such as a revised cylinder head with overhead valves, a brand new fueling system, and a vertically oriented carburetor. The splendid steering wheel now had two spokes and a particularly novel option, which Pierpaolo points out to me with great joy: a gauge to display the amount of petrol in the tank. It was one of the first cars to have such a luxury.
From a design point of view, the car presented a slightly revised and very minimal update to the 500A. To me these cars have always looked like drivable balloons out of some parallel cartoon universe, and on the narrower streets of Palermo it feels indeed like we are whimsically bouncing and floating around the city. The Fiat can manage nearly 90km/h at top speed, but in something this small and mechanically honest, going slow can still be a total blast.
The Sicilian city offers a mix of marvelous curves and a maze of alley-sized shortcuts in between, the car blending perfectly with the warm palettes of the historic center, the wafts of fuel and exhaust mingling with the smell of baking bread taking us briefly back in time.
Pierpaolo has wisely kept his wondrous example intact, free from changes that don’t involve your basic maintenance consumables. Under the beautiful church of Piazza San Francesco, a place renowned for its famous focacceria, we say goodbye to the last stripes of the sunset receding below the horizon, and as we prepare to part ways, the sound of the Fiat’s tiny engine merges beautifully with the noises of clinking glasses and the festive octaves of people enjoying a Friday night.
I still think of this moment often. It was one of those memories that just seems to snowball in importance the more you play them back. There was nothing particularly unique about the individual parts of it, but the sum had great significance to me. A slice of life, a mood, an atmosphere, whatever you want to call it, hard to define but easy to be impacted by. It reminded me of my country’s past and how the past can flow forward, moulding and being moulded by the present. Thanks Pierpaolo, for sharing your car and your time with me, and for giving me more to think about than just cars for a change.