The Fiat 500: Cute, Little Badass
During Italy’s most devastating years of the second World War, there were strategists beyond Mussolini’s commanders and generals. There were revolutionaries other than resistance fighters. Plans were being made, in secret, to motorize an entire nation.
In a country besieged by German occupiers, Vittorio Valletta, Fiat’s Managing Director stepped into headquarters and looked forward to better times. Amidst Allied air raids targeting Torino, Valletta turned to engineer Dante Giacosa and charged him with a simple mission: to begin designing new cars that could go into production immediately after the war—light, city cars that would not only be economical; they would mean a liberation so intense that the occupation would fade into a distant memory.
Fast forward to 1955, in the park of the Stupinigi Royal Hunting Lodge, just outside of Torino. No bombs, no war, just a lovely picnic in the park, Dante Giacosa unveiled an entire range of new Fiat models in plain view. Among them was what would become a cult classic and national hero—the Fiat 500.
Twenty years after the legendary Topolino was launched, the master of light design introduced the diminutive 500–the world’s first city car–to meet the demands of the postwar market. Focused on economy, the Spartan subcompact design allowed Giacosa to pack more punch into a smaller space—not to mention boatloads of charm.
This car was cuter than a ball of mozzarella and yet sexier than a paparazzi’s target. Marketed as The Second Best Shape in Italy (rivaled only by the likes of a Loren or a Lollobrigida), Fiat 500 posters read, “If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched.” No doubt! The whole world over wanted it. Crowds lusted after it. So much so that Fiat sold over 3.6M units in its 18-year run.
While fuel efficiency spoke to people’s financial concerns, the 500’s chic Italian styling spoke to their desire. This baby boasted personality beyond its size! From the painted pressed metal wheels to its beautifully rounded lines, canvas roof, and recessed headlights, its design won Dante Giacosa the prestigious Golden Compass award in 1959.
And yet, it was also a thrill to drive. Light-hearted and playful, it was an ideal family car—perfect for racing through Italy’s narrow, overcrowded streets and small enough to park in the tightest of spaces.
But most of all the Fiat 500 knew its people. It was sensitive to a population emerging from tougher times. It understood the desire to have fun–and it gave Italians the right to recreation, as they left the devastation of war behind and moved into a period of economic boom. With its head-turning curves, technological innovation, and deep compassion, this car managed to weasel its way into every town, burrowing itself into the hearts and minds of millions. It equally infiltrated rundown Neapolitan back alleys and the jet-setter’s seaside paradise, continuing well beyond Italian boundaries into today’s Japanese car collections. It was classless and yet a statement–a status symbol for anyone with a fixed income and a steady job, bakers and celebrities alike.
Available in a variety of colors that made the local gelateria’s selections look bland, it was a vehicle for a new form of self-expression and a novel source of confidence. Yes, it was cute. But cute is only a small part of the story. The Fiat 500 was also a badass.
Throughout the 1950’s, Italy lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of car use. Its level of motorization was abysmally low. In 1950, the country averaged just 6 vehicles/1000 inhabitants. But thanks in large part to the Fiat strategy in general and the adorable 500 in particular, that number increased by nearly 3,000% in just two decades. This little badass did more than make a statement. It answered the nation’s need for individual mobility.
Because of its accessibility and its market sensitivity, the Fiat 500 was a hero that its flashier counterparts—the Ferrari’s and Maserati’s could never be. No less drool-worthy, it was the people’s choice. It took hoards of people on trips to the supermarket or to family vacations at the shore. It brought transportation to people who previously had no access. It put a nation on wheels.
A little car with a huge impact on the daily life of an entire generation, the Fiat 500 was a source of mobility, confidence and freedom. It played a major role in bringing hope to war-torn Italy. It meant access to better jobs, broader horizons, and a new life. It made a promise of better times and it delivered.
The Fiat 500 was a badass. And yet, it is sooooo cute.
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