Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Together with the Vespa scooters that it was meant to replace on Italy's roads, the 500 has come to symbolize Italy itself, its ingenuity, and peculiar sense of style. But why is that?
The classic Fiat 500, built between 1957 and 1977 in around four million units, used to be an iconic product of the Italian post-WW2 economic recovery. But now in popular culture, it's become much more than that. What makes the 500's design so right? Well, as it often happens with great design, it's been a combination of necessity and clever use of available technology.
As the car that was to be cheaper than the cheapest car Fiat had ever offered, the 600 of 1955, the great engineer Dante Giacosa set out to"simplify the simple." Two cylinders instead of four, and air cooling instead of water, to do away with the radiator and the relative plumbing.
But now what?
To reduce the 500's production costs, the body had to be made using as little steel as possible, and that's where the gentle curves we know and love originated. Those lovely curves helped to reduce the overall surface of sheet metal used to the bare minimum. That sheet metal was also comparably thin, so with the 1950s stamping technology, it couldn't be stamped in sharper radiuses without ripping it.
Dante Giacosa came up with an ingenious way of pressing the sides and doors of the 500. The inner side panel and the door skin would be formed in one take, the outer surface plus the door frame in another take.
The 500 was presented in Turin in July 1957 and went on sale at a price of under 490.000 Italian Liras... The Italians proved to be less eager to buy the 500 than Fiat had anticipated: the first 500 models ended up being so spartan that people preferred to save more money and get a 600 instead.
Success will come gradually from the early 60s, thanks to a slightly more powerful engine and an exterior "jazzed up" with more chrome trim: it's the 500D, introduced in 1960, that firmly places the 500 as an integral part of the Italian motoring landscape.
From that same year, those who needed more cargo space could opt for the "giardiniera": it had a 10cm longer wheelbase and a "pancake" version of the engine, which two cylinders laid flat horizontally rather than vertically, to improve capacity and access to the rear cargo space.
More importantly, the economic "boom" that transformed Italy's economy in those years helped sales greatly, as many families bought the 500 as a second car and many housewives started to drive them too.
Fiat capitalized on this market trend by offering the 500 "L", which stands for "Luxury": improved carpets, padded dash, a new instrument cluster, chrome bumper guards and... Reclining front seats, at long last! The 500L was almost decadently posh compared to the 1957 car, and Italians couldn't have enough of the little things: the 500L is still today the most common among the surviving pool of 500s, which is believed to count around 400.000 examples.
By 1972 Fiat had a replacement ready, the boxy 126: it became a market success in its own right, but it was never "loved" the way its curved forebear had been.
Enthusiasts in Italy started to preserve 500s in the late 80s already, while the 126 is only now starting to get some attention as an affordable classic.
The last 500 models, named "R," were introduced alongside the 126 in 1972 and would go on until 1975...
But the 500 could still be bought "by another name" until 1977, as the "giardiniera" wagon version of the 500, which from '68 was built and badged by Autobianchi. Interestingly, the "giardiniera" retained its rear-hinged "suicide doors" until the very end.