Featured: Simplicity Led To The Fiat 500’s Unintentional Charm

Simplicity Led To The Fiat 500’s Unintentional Charm

By Ronald Ahrens
February 24, 2015
10 comments

Photography by Rémi Dargegen

In 1957, when 1.5 million copies of the new Chevrolet would sell in the United States, the tiny Fiat 500 was introduced in Italy. At 116.5 inches in length, the Nuova 500 only exceeded the Chevy’s wheelbase by 1.5 inches. The big car weighed almost exactly three times the little one, which tiptoed off the scales at 1100 pounds.

The Nuova 500, or Cinquecento, became the people’s car of Italy. It found its way around the country, from Via Colombo, in Riomaggiore, to Via Cappuccini, in Brindisi. It was particularly adept in large Italian cities’ narrow byways, able to stop—and park—on a 100-lire coin.

Besides quotidian duties, the 500 was tested in track events, hillclimbs, and endurance rallies. Karl Abarth’s advances in tuning the engine and exhaust would gain him fame and riches. In 2007, the husband-and-wife adventurers Lang and Bev Kidby drove a 1969 model around the world, earning the claim of smallest car to complete such a journey. Moviemakers love the 500 as a prop, and in Pixar’s animated Cars, the charming Luigi is a 500.

The original Fiat 500, Italy’s first people’s car, was produced from 1936 to 1955. As The New York Times explained, it was “lovingly dubbed by Italians ‘Topolino,’ or Mickey Mouse, for its toy-store looks and roller-skate wheels.” At 127 inches long, 50 inches wide, and 54 inches tall, it had only two seats. The layout placed the 13-horsepower water-cooled 569cc four-cylinder engine far in front, with radiator mounted between it and the firewall. The independent front suspension was an advanced feature.

During the Topolino’s production run, Dante Giacosa, who had contributed significantly to its engineering, continued his rise to prominence within Fiat. (In the meantime, he had earned renown for his Cisitalia D46 single-seater racing car, an outside project that helped to advance superleggera construction.) Now Giacosa broadly applied his innovative approach to the mass-market products from Turin.

For example, there came the Fiat 600 in 1955. Its water-cooled 633cc four-cylinder engine sat in the rear, and a semi-trailing arm rear suspension helped to smooth out the four-seater’s handling.

Next up, two years later, Giacosa presented the iconic Nuova 500. Its homely charm lay in the design’s simplicity. No grille, of course. No hood ornament, body side inserts, or flashy rocker panel trim. And the paint was one-tone. Nothing had been done to hide the fact that this was a machine. It was a car that was likely to receive “miss you” letters from lovelorn stamping presses.

While the Nuova 500 had the 600’s same rear-engine layout, the powerplant was an aircooled 479cc twin with a four-speed unsynchronized gearbox. The twin’s initial output of 13hp was soon uprated to 16.5hp. Later twins displaced 499cc and 594cc.

Unlike the 200-inch-long Chevy that lived across the sea, the little Fiat was anything but bloated at 116.9 inches long and 52.0 inches in both width and height. That made it shorter and lower than its Topolino predecessor. The wheelbase of 72.4 inches guaranteed maneuverability.

Although its interior could hardly be described as atrium like, the Nuova 500 nevertheless offered plus-two seating. A large-diameter two-spoke steering wheel made the speedometer as easy to see as the lone rock in a pasture. In the middle of the dashboard, a couple of toggles were on either side of the ignition switch, and that was pretty much it for controls. In 1968, the Lusso model updated these aspects.

Famous variants of the Nuova 500 include the Giardiniera station wagon and the door-less Jolly, which was furnished by wicker seats and topped by a jaunty canopy—a popular car for use at resorts. Today, the Jolly is quite collectible, and everybody wants to ride in one.

By 1975, when the implausibly boxy Fiat 126 replacement appeared, some 3.6 million units of the 500 had been built. And finally, after a long lapse, the newest Fiat 500 went into production in 2007 and has become a common sight in the United States. But nothing matches the Nuova 500’s spirit of fun or how it expresses our sheer joy taken in mobility.

To see the Fiat 500 in action, check out “Speed of Sunshine,” our profile of owner Annetta Calisi and her own “Fiat Luigi.”

A special thanks to Nathalie of Fiat 500 et dérivés Club de France.

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Craig Palen
Craig Palen
2 years ago

Thank goodness for the 500! Such a simple, dependable, every day/everyones car! From the beginning through today, everyone that has had one, or driven one, knows that fun smile that comes as soon as you take off. Maybe someday I would love to restore an original but for now I can drive my 2015 500 Sport and get the same every time the same as the originals did. I SHOULD have bought a Honda or Toyota as they are the standard for mileage and longevity BUT onevtest drive and I was hooked. As 500 owners know, except for a few known /easy fix issues (door handles!), the 500 in all its forms is very reliable along with that smile the other cars justvdo not give! Thank you 500!!!

Amado Rodriguez
Amado Rodriguez
7 years ago

Great feature!

Re: No 500 between 1975 and 2007. The 126 had a successor, the 1991-1998 Cinquecento. The successor to the Cinquecento was the Seicento. That brings us to the 2007 Nuova 500. Since 1936, FIAT has always had a 500 or a 600 to offer motorists… the beloved 126 (a ’57 500 wearing scaled down 127 clothes) filling in a gap or two.

The missus is from Slovenia and grew up with FIATs, Lancias & Alfas. She has a deep fondness for the Peglica (tiny iron), an affectionate name for the 126, and many other Italian runabouts. Before we purchased our first FIAT, an early 2012 500 Pop, we chose to go without a car for a year. I feel going carless in Wisconsin took us back in time… to when the ’36 500, ’52 600 and ’57 Nuova 500 debuted. Those economic beauties mobilized Italy and much of Western & Eastern Europe. In effect, they liberated pedestrians & bicyclists. I… we… felt similarly liberated with that verde chiaro 2012 Pop. I have since purchased a 2013 nero puro 500 ABARTH. My passion for these runabouts has founded the first full-on FIAT Social Motoring club in our state and a modest blog (both called Città Crema Cinquecento Club).

I don’t think it’s a particular, year or model that is responsible for this unexplained enthusiasm. It’s the philosophy of the automaker. FIAT S.p.A. continues to have laser-focus on offering the everyman more at an affordable price… with that Italian flair we so adore. –

Makaveli Branded
Makaveli Branded
7 years ago

Here’s my Cookie guys.
a 1970’s FIAT GIANNINI 500 Turismo Veloce.
Hope u like it.

Dan Glover
Dan Glover
7 years ago

I haven’t watched it but I believe that Jerry Seinfeld drives around in a Fiat Jolly with Louis CK in one episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Tom DesRochers
Tom DesRochers
7 years ago

Jay Leno has a Topolino. http://youtu.be/-Uk-qkmCXRc

Pawel Skrzypczynski
Pawel Skrzypczynski
7 years ago

Nice! I’m also a Fiat 500 lover 🙂 Recently I had the opportunity too shoot a pianoblack one. Full album [url=”http://pskrzypczynski.blogspot.com/2015/02/fiat-500.html”]here[/url]. One photo to just give you a brief overview of it.

JB21
JB21
7 years ago

I love Fiat 500s. I’ve loved them ever since I first saw one when I was 6 years old. I’ve driven them many times, and my love for it has not diminished even a little bit. What a happy little car. I haven’t owned one yet unfortunately – when they were cheap, they were really difficult to come by, and now they are all over the place but price is close to ridiculous. But I really should go get one.

Martin James
Martin James
7 years ago

Ahhhh .. the ubiquitous FIAT 500 . Like the BMC Mini … iconic … cute .. and a bit of a ‘ Pop ‘ star to boot . Trouble with both being they outlived their usefulness well beyond what should of been their ‘ Sell By ‘ .. their iconic status is based more on overly romanticized unrealistic ideals than any semblance of reality .. and like far too many other ‘ Pop ‘ stars of the day [ the 500 especially ] both were ‘ One Hit Wonders ‘ now on the umpteenth reunion tour in a desperate attempt to regain any aspect of their former success be it in revisionist [ Modern ] or restored classic form . e.g No longer capable of even carrying a tune .. but hey … its ‘them’ .. sort of … or at least whats left of ‘ them ‘

Truly … both are more smoke & mirrors hype than reality . Albeit today … costly hype ! At least with the BMW MINI though … unlike FCA’s ‘ new ‘ 500 .. you can say the new MINI truly is a ___ of a lot better than the old one could ever hope to .. or ever will be

By the way . The Chevy analogy ? Kind of [ a lot actually ] completely out of context and irrelevant . How do you compare a car built for a post WWII Italy barely in the early stages of reconstruction with their withering goat path over crowded roads to a car built for a country that had just won the War and was well on its way to prosperity with an expansive and rapidly growing highway/freeway system ? Answer ? You don’t !!!

FYI ; Can that last statement be construed in any way shape or form as an insult towards Italy or Italians ? In light of my heritage … I’d say .. Not ! Just a simple statement of the facts as they were back then . Ecco … va bene … ciao !

Stephen Ross
Stephen Ross
7 years ago

I had wanted. 500L for a few years and after seeing the Anneta Calisi video, her husband helped me find the “second best one” in North America. Of course, the Calisi one is the best one in North America. I love my 1972 Fiat 500. Thanks Rob!!!

François Bozonnet
François Bozonnet
6 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Ross

we are waiting for our one. a red 1966 model…..our second classic after a 1969 vw bus….