Why The Fiat 500 Is Still The Miniature Car King After 60 Years
Photography by Will Broadhead
“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
I bet most of us can place that quote, and if so, the memory is likely to be followed immediately by visions of a particular four-wheeled star in the film about a particular job in a particular country, and while the BMC Mini is a world-famous world-beater, and possibly the quintessential small and punchy automobile, for me there was another mighty mini from the era that I think beats the Brits in terms of appearance and that desirability—and I’m not talking about the mini skirt!
In the mountains of Turin where Michael Caine shouted the memorable line in the movie that would propel the Mini to even further fame, there was already a petite vehicle on the roads that captured the heart of a nation and, many years later, the gaze and affection of a young teenage boy on vacation with his family in Sorrento.
That car was the Fiat 500 of course, and just like its British counterpart, it is now enjoying a new lease of life in an updated model. The new cars are still relatively little, but nowhere near the dimensions of their forebears.
The first time I really noticed an original 500 as a fresh-faced fourteen-year-old, it eclipsed the Mini as the ultimate small city car, in my eyes anyway. Those fun and almost bouncy lines draw the eye from the friendly front of the car, past the suicide doors fitted to my favorite models, and onto the squat but shapely rump of the machine. It’s a charming shape that has only gotten more so with age.
Vents on the rear hint at the air-cooled engine underneath, and the positive camber of the front wheels gives the 500 a cartoonish character and a stance one could compare to a playful pet. Even someone with no enthusiasm for cars whatsoever could fall in love with one of these, and due in large part to these puppy-dog looks, the Fiat 500 is now enjoying life as an appreciated (and appreciating) classic, and this year it reached the grand old age of 60.
It was a landmark that the Goodwood Revival saw fit to recognize this year (the first 500 came in July of ’57), putting on a massive display and parade for these wonderful machines despite another well-known Italian marque celebrating a birthday this year as well… High praise indeed then, especially for something that was built to be a cheap and practical city car for the masses. Dante Giacosa and his team in Turin created a design that is not just easy on the eyes, but timeless. It’s retro yes, but it hasn’t aged in the way other nostalgic items have; nobody thinks of the 500 is a joke, there are no bemused smiles and “What were they thinking?”’s involved in its discussion.
The first Cinquecentos rolled off the production line in 1957, some two years earlier than the Mini, and as one would expect from something that was designed to be small and cheap, they were neither powerful nor luxurious. The first model was known as the Nuova, or “new,” which was a nod to the marque’s earlier 500cc creation, the Topolino. This was a charming car in itself, and was also designed by the hand of Giacosa.
For the new creation, he and his team were handed a brief to create a car that was less than ten feet in length, but one that four people could still reasonably fit into. The Mini would come in longer than that, the Fiat would be shorter nose to tail than a basketball hoop. To give some comparison to just what a task that was at the time, the modern Smart car is 8.8 feet long.
In the case of the 500, the resulting monocoque shell with its independent rear suspension was a hit with customers, and it was powered by a tiny 479cc, twin-cylinder air-cooled engine that was mounted at the rear and powered the rear wheels. One can only imagine the driving fun that such a design would invoke, especially when you consider the curb weight of just 499kg! It wasn’t going to be a GT cruiser, but it was nimble and quick enough to make city driving as white-knuckle as you could ever want.
With that weight in mind then, the engine performance specs don’t read so badly, though there’s no getting around the measly 13 horsepower ejected by the original motor. Of course, there were performance upgrades over the model’s variations and its 17-year lifespan, with the sport model in particular pushing out a whopping 21.2 horsepower and capable of a top speed of 65mph. Hardly face-tearing stuff, but then anyone who has driven a go kart will know that speed is relative, and when you are in something small and close to the ground, everything feels quicker and more dramatic. Then there were the famous Abarth creations and their race cars with the iconic lifted deck lids, and they brought outputs up to 38 horsepower, albeit with barrels bored out to 600cc. Along with these souped-up Abarths, additional 500s were created on lease by companies such as Puch in Austria.
Despite the minuscule power figures, and even before Abarth’s involvement, the diminutive Fiat still had plenty of sporting heritage in its DNA. The power plant was pieced together by Aurelio Lampredi for instance. For those that don’t recognize the name, this is the man that was responsible for the V12s that helped elevate the Ferrari racing teams into both Le Mans and Formula 1 champions, beating well established competitors along the way, and he then headed Abarth’s Fiat factory racing group for most of the ‘70s into the early ‘80s. The combination of one of the best engine designers in the world and a visionary car designer in Giacosa, gave us this fabulous looking, reliable and economic car that more than fulfilled the brief of the factory and was a staple of roadways and racetracks alike.
For me then, the Fiat 500 is the ultimate small car, and one day I hope to own one. Although with prices as they are at the minute, it will not be a small purchase—monetarily-speaking at least! The fun factor and attractiveness of these things outweigh the cost involved to acquire a good one, and with the plethora of clubs that have sprung up all over Europe in appreciation of this mighty micro 60 years after its birth, it seems I am not alone in my thinking.
Indeed, the crowds of people at Goodwood and more recently the Regent Street Motor Show agreed as well, swarming as they were all over the display of these cars, taking photos, posing for them, and generally taking in the charm that only a group of 500s can muster. The tiny Fiat is a dazzling piece of Italian and automotive design, it’s an icon in those regards too, as well as a piece of automotive pop culture taken collectively. It will always have a place in my heart, and it’s still making converts today, inspiring the new generation of petrolheads and keeping the history alive for those who were there for the beginning. Here’s to the next 60 years!