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June 6th, 2007

Story by Simon Grand.

Simon Grand is a senior designer at Centro Stile Fiat and the coordinator of the Transportation Design department at the Istituto D'Arte Applicata e Design (IAAD), Turin.

As compact, effective and Italian as an espresso, the Fiat 500 is 50 years young. Launched in July 1957 into a booming marketplace the 500 helped mobilise an entire country with its simple yet robust twin cylinder engine and accessible purchase price both capturing, (and using to its advantage), the spirit of 1950’s Italy. More than 3,000,000 examples were sold between 1957 and 1977, when the estate or ‘Giardiniera’ model finally left production.

The Giardiniera was only available with 'suicide doors' due to a homologation loop hole, the berlinetta (as a passenger vehicle) was obliged to adopt front hinged doors from 1965.

Beating the slightly larger Austin Mini to market by two years the 500 was conceived by Fiat’s development chief Dante Giacosa to be cheaper and smaller than Fiat’s own 600, already considered a masterpiece of packaging and rationality. A simple and effective low-cost car for the masses that, following competition success and rapid evolutions in society, became an automotive Icon. It was embraced by students and film stars alike joining the Mini as one of few truly ‘classless’ cars. Another, if indirect, competitor was the Vespa, a scooter that had dominated the compact utility market since its launch in 1946 proving to be sufficient transport for small families over short distances.

The standard sun roof provided a significant sales advantage over its competitors. The models helped, too.

Dante Giacosa was also behind the original 500 or ‘Topolino’ of 1936, a scaled down, two seat version of a ‘normal’ car. The philosophy of the ‘Nuova 500’ with its monocoque construction defied the laws of packaging, squeezing as much useful space as possible into its modest external dimensions. Accommodating two adults and two children, Italian families somehow managed to cram themselves and all their necessary luggage into (and on top of!) the car for the customary coastal holiday.

The 500 was the perfect travelling companion for the two hour trip from Turin to Liguria's coastal resorts.

Arguably the most effective city car ever made the 500 still rules Italy’s busy streets, being a very real alternative to more modern pretenders to the city car crown. This perfectly proportioned package offers 2+2 seating, lively handling and do-it-yourself maintenance, as well as a permanent smile whilst sitting behind the spindly, over-sized steering wheel. Although a significant part of Italy’s social history the 500 hardly seems considered a classic in its homeland, testimony to the car’s practicality and longevity, both key factors in its continuing appeal as realistic everyday transport. Even if expected to work for a living the 500 is still an important member of many Italian families.

Owner's club meetings present the perfect occasion to see the various model variations being driven together and these kind of events are becoming more popular in Italy.

Exactly 50 years after the launch of the original, this July will see the unveiling of Fiat’s reinterpretation of the evergreen 500. Apparently similar to the 2004 Trepiuno concept, time will tell if this model can mimic the success of the New Mini, provoking nostalgia in the minds of those old enough to remember and giving younger drivers a new object of desire regardless of its historical baggage.

Past Issues


Ferrari 712 Can Am

Articles on or about OSCA

Articles on or about Maserati

Articles on or about Lancia

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Winningest OSCA

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