Simplicity Led to the Fiat 500’s Unintentional Charm
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.