When the Fiat 500 Nuova appeared in 1957, longtime Fiat designer Dante Giacosa defended it by saying, “However small it might be, an automobile will always be more comfortable than a motor scooter.” Today though, the diminutive runabout needs no defense, for time has justified Giacosa’s faith—over four million 500s and derivatives were produced up to the demise of the Giardiniera estate in 1977.
In some senses the Fiat was a mini before the British Mini for the baby Fiat not only appeared two years ahead of its British counterpart, but was also 3 in (7.6 cm) shorter. With its 479cc motor, the original 500 Nuova was rather frantic. 1960 saw it grow to maturity with the launch of the 500D, which was pushed along by its enlarged 499.5cc engine. Now at last the baby Fiat could almost touch 60 mph (96 km/h) without being pushed over the edge of a cliff.
You can tell this Fiat is pre-1965 because of the rear-hinged, so-called “suicide” doors. After that the hinges moved to the front in line with more modern practice.
Some 500s had small fold-back sunroofs. On convertibles, the fabric roof with plastic rear window rolled right back.
The Giardiniera station wagon kept “suicide” doors until its demise in 1977.
This houses the gas tank, battery, and spare tire, with a little space left for a modest amount of luggage.
This pert little package is big on charm. From any angle the baby Fiat seems to present a happy, smiling disposition. When it comes to parking it is a winner, although accommodation is a little tight. Two average-sized adults can fit up front, but space in the back is a little more limited.
Some rear-engined cars aped front-engined cousins with fake grilles and air intakes. Not the unpretentious Fiat.
Carlo Abarth produced a modified and tuned Fiat-Abarth along the lines of the hot Minis created in Britain by John Cooper.
The Fiat 500’s interior is minimal but functional. There is no fuel gauge, just a light that illuminates when three-quarters of a gallon remains— enough for another 40 miles (64 km).
DRIVING THE 500
The baby Fiat was a fine little driver’s car that earned press plaudits for its assured and nimble handling. Although top speed was limited, the car’s poise meant you rarely needed to slow down on clear roads.
Realistic backseat permutations are two kiddies, one adult sitting sideways, or a large shopping bag.
Ghia built a Fiat 500-based open beach car called the Jolly which mimicked prewar roadsters.
Rear-engined layout, already employed in the Fiat 600 of 1955, saved space by removing the need for a transmission tunnel. The use of an air-cooled engine and only two cylinders in the 500 was a completely new direction for Fiat.
All engines were feisty little devils capable of indefinite flat-out driving.
S P E C I F I C A T I O N S
MODEL Fiat 500 (1957–77)
PRODUCTION 4 million plus (all models)
BODY STYLES Sedan, convertible, Giardiniera station wagon.
CONSTRUCTION Unitary body/chassis.
ENGINES Two-cylinder air-cooled 479cc or 499.5cc.
POWER OUTPUT 17.5 bhp at 4400 rpm (499.5cc).
TRANSMISSION Four-speed non-synchromesh.
SUSPENSION Front: independent, transverse leaf, wishbones; Rear: independent semi-trailing arms, coil springs.
BRAKES Hydraulic drums.
MAXIMUM SPEED 59 mph (95 km/h)
0–60 MPH (0–96 KM/H) 32 sec
A.F.C. 53 mpg (19 km/l)