Tuesday March 7, 2017
If anyone compiled a list of ‘The Top Ten Most Charming Cars Ever Made’, the Fiat Nuova 500 will possibly be a contender to come top of the list. Just take a look at this truly delightful promotional film displaying the 479cc two-cylinder air-cooled engine (a first for Fiat), the full-length fabric sunroof with the transparent rear screen.
Here, the narrative strongly suggests is the perfect transport for doctors, taking the children to school, going on picnics or for just being admired in.
Like so many others, I have vivid memories of the 500, not least for its size - the Fiat was only three inches shorter than the Mini but yet it seemed so much smaller. Then there was the starting ritual, which involved manipulating the choke and starter levers mounted either side of the handbrake and that distinctive aroma of boiled rubber. The heating system was operated by a valve mounted underneath the rear seat and the dashboard resembled the control console from a B-film space ship. One curious fitting was an under-fascia hook that operated the hand throttle and while some owners regarded this device as an early and primitive form of cruise control, others saw it as a potential way of inadvertently catapulting their Fiat into the back of a bus.
The 500 debuted in July 1957 and was Fiat’s second rear-engine car, the first being the 600. That was a genuine four-seater but the Nuova was primarily intended as an urban 2+2 with a thinly upholstered luggage platform behind the front seats. One target market was young motorists who might otherwise have bought a Lambretta but sales were initially slow as the 500’s top speed of 53 mph was extremely restricted even 60 years ago, and the list of fittings did not include hubcaps, an ashtray or even winding front windows.
Within five months Fiat introduced the improved ‘Normale’ and Econononica’ and three years later the ‘D’ consolidated the 500’s success. There was now a 499cc power plant, giving a top speed of nearly 60 mph, a folding rear seat and a glass rear screen. For those who wanted a cheap and very versatile utility vehicle, there was the long wheelbase Giardiniera, a brilliantly clever estate car with the engine repositioned on its side to create a very serviceable load bay. If you wanted to spend twice the price of a standard model on an open top 500 with wicker seats and a canvas awning, there was the Ghia-built Jolly, as driven by the likes of Yul Brynner.
By the 1960s, the 500 was ubiquitous throughout Italy and a considerable export success. Some were sold in the USA, although the idea of dicing with Chevrolet Bel Airs on the freeway is the stuff of nightmares. In 1964 a 500D’s price in Italy was the equivalent of £270, about half the price of a Mini, but even after the imposition of British import duties, the price was £411, making the Fiat quite a bargain. Its road manners were renowned, Autocar thought it was ‘extremely stable for rapid cornering’ and the fittings that included a heater, windscreen washers and twin sun visors as standard. The 500 had no pretensions to luxury but the dome-shaped cabin meant that headroom was better than you might imagine and for drivers of John Cleese dimensions there was always the option of navigating via the open top.
The ‘126’ introduction in 1972 marked the beginning of the end for the 500 and the last models left the Turin plant in 1975. Today, its ethos lives on in the (much) larger Fiat ‘New’ 500 and in my biased view, no car can hope to equal its sheer élan. My favourite version is the original 1957 to 1960 model even if, like me, you have Size 12 feet, which makes the peal operation a slight challenge. But with the roof fully lowered, it can bring a touch of Lombardy sunshine to Sussex or Hertfordshire and that is worth enduring any amount of temporary discomfort.