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  • Writer's pictureMatteo Licata

The Adorable Fiat 500

Tap "Italy" into a Google image search tab, and it won't take long for a Fiat 500 to appear among the country's various picturesque, dreamy landscapes. Yet the irresistibly cute 500 is much more than a rolling national stereotype: it is an industrial design masterpiece, one of just a few automobiles to be included in the MoMA's permanent collection in New York.

Moreover, the goodwill around the 500 is so strong that Fiat has rebooted the model twice and will probably have to continue doing so, given the 500 seems to be the only Fiat that people actually want to buy.

This is the story of what's possibly the cutest automobile ever made: the one and only Fiat 500, or "Cinquecento" in Italian.

Simplify and add lightness

Work on the Fiat 500, then known as project number "110," started in 1953. Although the development of the 600, the car that would kickstart mass motorization in Italy, wasn't yet finalized, Fiat's top brasses felt it necessary to design a yet more basic automobile, one that almost everyone could afford.

Fiat's legendary chief engineer Dante Giacosa settled for a rear-engined layout with all-independent suspensions similar to the 600. Still, all parts were carefully redesigned to shave weight, and the engine was air-cooled with only two cylinders for maximum simplicity.

But it was the little car's bodywork the main object of Giacosa's attention, as he was concerned with creating a sturdy structure while reducing as much as possible the amount of sheet metal used, to reduce weight and cost.

So the soft, rounded shape and large radiuses we all know and love primarily result from the limitations of period sheet metal forming techniques, to avoid tearing the relatively thin sheet metal used to build the 500's panels.

As the 500's design phase predates the establishment of Fiat's in-house styling office, its appearance is very much the product of Giacosa's aesthetic sensitivity, even though he neither physically drew it nor sculpted the plaster models. Still, a little inspiration came from a bubble-car prototype made by Fiat's West German subsidiary in Heilbronn a few years earlier.

A false start

Fiat's smallest car was launched in July of 1957 with the name "Nuova 500" because the previous 500, nicknamed "Topolino," had just left production and therefore was very recent memory.

However, the Italian buying public's reaction initially proved much less enthusiastic than Fiat would have liked.

That's because Fiat built the 500 without a rear seat and in an extremely basic specification to ensure it didn't steal sales from the 600. As a result, most people decided to wait until they had saved enough money and got the larger 600 instead.

Given these initial struggles and the fact that such early models started to become junkyard fodder by the late 60s, finding a pre-1960 Fiat 500 is no mean feat, making them very collectible indeed.

But the "Holy Grail" among Fiat 500s certainly is the 500 Sport, built for less than two years and equipped with a more powerful 499cc engine that allowed a top speed of over 100 Km/h. It's not known how many were made, and I have never seen one in real life.

Late bloomer?

1960 is a watershed year for the smallest Fiat model, which gets comprehensively revamped: the new 500D got the 499cc engine from the Sport, albeit slightly detuned, while the body was nicely dolled up with generous chrome trim.

Crucially, the 500D was now a four-seater, and from then on, a sales success too, aided by a booming Italian economy and consequent rise in living standards.

The Giardiniera

Earlier the same year, Fiat presented the 500 Giardiniera, which required enough re-engineering to warrant a new chassis code (120 rather than 110). It adopted the same bodywork up to the end of the front doors but extended towards the rear with a new and squared-off rear end fitted with a rear hatch hinged to the side. The wheelbase was extended by 100 mm, and the suspensions and braking system were beefed up to cope with the higher load capacity.

Given the engine was very obviously in the way of cargo, it was cleverly redesigned with the two cylinders canted on one side and the centrifugal fan replaced with a radial fan. Cooling air reached the engine via the column air intake incorporated into each rear pillar.

The 500 Giardiniera actually outlived the base model by two years: its production ceased as late as 1977. However, by then, it had lost the "500" moniker and had been marketed as an Autobianchi since 1968. Interestingly, its classification as a commercial vehicle allowed it to retain its rear-hinged "suicide" doors for the entirety of its production run.

Peak 500

The Fiat 500 reached its definitive form and peaked in popularity with the presentation of the 500F in 1965.

Although it looks very much the same to an untrained eye, the bodyshell of the 500F was extensively retooled, with just the nose and the engine lid carried over from the previous 500D.

The doors' hinges were concealed and opened conventionally towards the front, the windscreen became larger, and the rear section of the roof was now part of the structure rather than bolted on.

The 500F is by far the model produced in the largest quantity, together with the 500L, a slightly upmarket model introduced in 1968 that's my personal favorite.

Compared with the previous 500s, the "L" was no faster but positively plush: chrome bumper overriders, reclining seats as standard, moquette on the floor, padded dashboard with a fuel gauge, and even a central console!

Sales of the 500 in Italy peaked in 1970 when, between the F and L versions, over 350.000 units were sold.

The twilight years

Both versions left production in late 1972 following the presentation of the Fiat 126, which replaced the 500 on the market... But never in the hearts of the public, at least in Italy!

The 500, however, did not disappear immediately: it was revised one more time, becoming the 500R: simplified and cheaper to make, it remained at the base of Fiat's range until August of 1975 when production ended at Fiat's Sicilian plant of Termini Imerese.

To streamline production, the 500R got the same 594cc engine of the new 126, albeit slightly detuned for marketing reasons to produce the same 18 horsepower of the previous models.

The wheels may look the same as those of the 126 but are actually slightly narrower to fit the slimmer tires used on the 500.

In total, just over 4 million 500s were produced, and enough survive today to support a healthy industry reproducing parts to maintain and restore them while keeping prices very much on the affordable side: you don't always need big bucks to own the finest Italian design...



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