Yes, even waaaaay over in Tokyo, you can find an old Fiat 500 parked on the curb. Makes a nice change from all the JDM stuff, doesn’t it? The Fiat 500 has been featured on CC a few times already, but perhaps one more won’t be too much. It’s such a cute little thing, and it’s air-cooled and rear-engined, so how could I resist?
I happened upon this little slice of Italiana right in the centre of the Japanese metropolis earlier this summer. It was a warm evening, the vita was quite dolce and the streets were full of taxis that could have eaten this Fiat as a light snack. Yet somehow, in the country of the kei car, it did not look out of place. The Fiat 500 is at home in any urban setting. Hope you brought your scuba gear, as we’re going to go on a little T87-style immersion into the model’s history. Deep breath.
Four cars have borne the name “Fiat 500” over the past 80 years. The original 500, also known as the Topolino, was made from 1936 to 1955. It was a minuscule two-seater, but otherwise pretty conventional – water-cooled 4-cyl. in the front, RWD, body-on-frame. Our CC is the second or Nuova iteration. The third, dubbed Cinquecento (sans numerals) was also pretty conventional for its time (1992-98). This boxy, water-cooled FWD appliance was the shortest-lived of the four, but a respectable 1.5 million units were made – three times more than the old Topolino. The current version is so big compared to the others that it really feels like a completely different breed, which is some sense it is. On the other hand, you could argue that each Fiat 500 is quite different from the next, be they from this century or the previous one.
Back in the ‘50s, Fiat were booming like they’d never boomed before. Italy’s economy was on a steep rise and the popolo was hungry for transport – scooters, cars, trains, planes and roller skates could not be built fast enough. Fiat had joined the camp of the rear-engine carmakers with the 600, launched in 1955. But small as it was, the 600 was still a fistful and a half of lire. A smaller model, with half the amount of cylinders and even more basic trim was the answer.
When Fiat launched the 500 in July 1957, initial reactions were overwhelimingly hostile. Many thought the Turin firm had gone too far in the race to the bottom. The launch model was priced a tad high, perhaps, compared to the more established 600 and the old Topolino. The 479cc engine’s 13 hp (gross) were deemed insufficient. Some thought the fixed windows, coupled with the large quarterlights that could not be locked and hindered steering when fully opened, were a terrible idea. The very first model’s avoidance of any brightwork – and even hubcaps – was a bit shocking for the time. Quality control issues were apparent and many criticized the lack of rear seats.
Fiat responded by dropping the base model’s price and introducing the better-appointed “Normale,” with wind-down windows, chrome trim and hubcaps, followed by the two-tone “Sport” (above) in 1958. The Normale stuck with the 479cc parallel twin, which now produced 15 hp (still gross), while the Sport introduced a 499cc that churned out 21 hp and could propel the car above 100 kph (sheer folly).
Even the US market got infected by the 500 bug, though because of American regulations Fiat had to finagle a mighty weird frog-eyed version – in both Normale and Sport versions – in 1959. It seems American car buyers did not welcome the little Fiat with as much warmth as other markets, so the bizarre “500 America” experiment was terminated after 1962 and only 300-(very)odd units sold.
A 17.5 hp version of the 499cc engine spread to the entire range when the revised 500D appeared in late 1960. One of the big changes was a much shorter canvas top, which enabled the rear window to be made of glass instead of plastic and the addition of rear seats. Another round of modifications took place five years later with the 500F (above): most visibly, the suicide doors were persuaded of the value of life, but countless other small changes were made, such as the wider windshield and new taillights.
Fiat wisely hedged their bets by creating Autobianchi and selling a more stylish 500 to the burgeoning middle-class. Fiat themselves limited the body options to the standard two-door convertible sedan and the wagon, the latter being made by Autobianchi after 1965. The 500 and the Bianchina (top right) were widely exported, but Fiat also created two “local” versions of their new best-seller: Neckar made the Weinsberg 500 (bottom left) in West Germany and Austria got the Steyr-Puch (bottom right), which had a distinct flat-twin engine.
As per most Fiats of the period, a family of souped-up Abarth 500 versions became available very soon after the standard model appeared. By 1963, the Abarth 595 brought even more thrills and oomph, soon followed by the even more powerful 695 SS, with its 689cc engine and 140 kph top speed. Special-bodied and racetrack versions were also available for a very steep price.
Being small and cheap did not prevent the 500 from getting a bunch of attention from Italy’s flourishing coachbuilders. There were a number of one-off specials and kooky oddballs made using the 500’s diminutive frame, sometimes with Abarth tuning. Some carrozzerie merely added bling to the outside and/or improved trim inside for a pittance, but the ones above were more akin to bona fide artwork in a vehicular vernacular, from the Golden Age of Italian styling.
Some Fiat 500 derivatives were designed to be somewhat more affordable and were made in several hundred units – Ghia’s Jolly beach car and Vignale’s neo-retro Gamine roadster being prime examples. Others successfully turned the 500’s light chassis and durable underpinnings into vehicles of a more work-oriented nature. The little Fiat was a mini chameleon – it could be sporty and sleek, bespoke and elegant or brick-like and utilitarian.
But let’s get back to the plebeian production model. The 500F was produced until November 1972, but in August 1968 it was joined by a slightly more refined model – our feature car, FINALLY: the Fiat 500 Lusso. Apart from its radial tyres, the Lusso was mechanically identical to the 500F. The 499cc air-cooled twin, now producing 18 hp, could potentially enable it to reach 100 kph in favourable wind conditions.
The Lusso’s attractiveness lay in its generous chrome trim and bumper overriders, as well as its more modern instrument binnacle (borrowed from the Fiat 850) that included, for the first time in a Fiat 500, a fuel gauge. The steering wheel also adopted a more sporty appearance, the seats could recline and the floor was carpeted throughout.
According to the Fiat 500’s many aficionados – and the buying public, the 500F and 500L were the pinnacle of the model’s long life. It’s certainly the model I’m most familiar with: these later 500s were legion in European towns and cities, and remained so for a very long time. The launch of the 126 at the 1972 Turin Motor Show was a sign that the 500 was not going to remain in production for much longer. The 126’s twin was a whopping 594cc and could also be found in the 1972-75 Fiat 500R (above), which was mostly for the domestic market. The Autobianchi wagon carried on till 1977, bringing the Fiat 500’s production life to a close just as it celebrated its 20th birthday.
In Italy, where many of the 5 million-plus 500s made found a home, they are still a fairly common sight. Not so in Japan of course, but the 500 found fame nonetheless by featuring prominently in Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro, a 1979 feature-length animé that many Japanese folks are familiar with. The present-day Fiat 500 is seen here on occasion, too. The feature car is likely a recent import, given it is a left-hooker.
In many ways, the 500 is the perfect European city car. Very small, thrifty and able to face cobbled streets without rattling itself to pieces, it’s light enough to render power steering and brakes completely superfluous. The canvas top and limited heating provide all the HVAC needed for most people in Western and Southern Europe, where summers are dry and winters are mild. In a place like Japan, though, the lack of air conditioning would be a relative issue for the summer months. Still, that means your 500 would be the ideal Tokyo runabout for three quarters of the year.
Back when I was a kid in France, we called these cars pots de yahourt (yoghurt pot). It seems cars have nickname in Japan too, though so few of these were imported here as new that I bet they don’t have one. I might have to make one up, though it’ll have to be non-dairy.
CC Outtake: 1968-72 Fiat 500L — An Italian In Paris, by Robert Kim
Curbside Capsule: Vintage FIAT 500 – A Little Italian, by Joseph Dennis