Wednesday June 27, 2018
There are those cars that are apparently made for summer – cars such as the original Fiat 500. Pull the starter lever (handily located on the floor), listen to the notes of an engine that sounds almost as potent as a Ferrari about to take off in the Mille Miglia and – of course – open the roof. For tall or large drivers and passengers, this last-named procedure is essential, although do not wear a hat as passers-by do tend to stare.
Fiat’s association with rear-engine cars is so strong that it still comes as a faint shock to learn that the 500 was only their second model with this layout. Their first was the ground-breaking 600 of 1955 but that was a four-seater that became the first car for countless families across Italy.
When the “Nouva 500” made its bow on 1st July 1957, it targeted different sectors of the market – those could not quite run to a 600 and the Vespa or the Lambretta rider who was now starting to yearn for transport with four wheels and better weather protection. As early as 1953 a young engineer named Hans Peter Bauhof who was working for the company’s German operations had devised a two-stroke economy car and although his idea of using two-stroke power was rejected by Turin, the directors did approve of his ideas for coachwork.
The resulting 500 was powered by a 479cc twin-cylinder air-cooled engine and boasted an interior that was best described as ‘simple and easy to maintain’. The vestigial back seat was little more than a parcel shelf and the panes in the doors were fixed; when the roof was closed, ventilation was via the quarterlights and vents beneath the headlamps.
It was a system that also displayed considerable faith in Fiat’s electrical system, for if the indicators failed, there was no easy method of hand signalling. At least there was a heater, via hot air piped from the engine, and anyone who has experienced the 500 will recall how you would have to reach behind the front seats to turn the valve control switch off or on.
The 500 was initially slow to gain public acceptance in its homeland. The engine was seen as noisy by many drivers, 0-60 was a pipedream as the top speed was 53 mph and there was the lack of chrome decoration, which was then seen as essential for any self-respecting Italian car.
A further problem was that some motorists preferred to save their lira and buy a 600. But some immediately responded to the attractions of the sunroof, the manoeuvrability and the Fiat’s sheer joi-de-vivre. Within a short while, Turin started to offer 500s with sun visors, a slightly more plausible attempt at a back seat and winding windows, the 1958 Sport was ideal for all would-be Giuseppe Farinas and the Giardiniera has to be one of the most delightful small estate cars in the history of motoring.
By the 1960s, the 500 saloon had lost its full-length fabric roof but gained extra power – and had become famous across the country. It was a car that appealed to both first-time motorists and the multi-millionaire who needed fashionable beach transport to the nearest casino.
The debut of the 126 in 1972 marked the beginning of the end for the 500, the last example leaving the factory on 1st August 1975. In tribute to a great Fiat and a great motor car, here is the promotional film – and if it does not make you want to immediately rush out and buy a 500, we will be amazed…