14th April 2021

Fiat 500: People's Champion

The Fiat 500 is Italy’s entry to the people’s car hall of fame. Replacing the 1930’s original Topolino, the iconic 500 shape was everything that post-war Italy needed. First seen in ’57 and produced until ’75, nearly 4,000,000 were eventually sold.

Initially bounding off the production line at a little over 9-feet long and packing 13bhp of 479cc air-cooled power, the 500 range evolved to provide something for everybody. Thankfully, subtle revisions to the front end, screen or roofline all remained faithful to the stunning Dante Giacosa design, one of the most instantly recognisable shapes in the history of mass-produced cars.

It took fewer than two years for Fiat to boost the tiny two-cylinder engine’s capacity to 499cc. An initial power increase to 15bhp was hiked to a heady 21.5bhp with the capacity growth and, combined with a steel roof and stripes, gave the public its first Sport model. The engine later grew to 594cc and 23bhp for the 500 R, and for the final couple of years’ production the gearbox also swapped cogs with the aid of synchromesh.

Key to the model’s success was its flexibility and suitability to its era. The Sport model appealed to younger owners, its simplicity turned the heads of those needing low cost motoring, the dimensions, affordability and rapidly evolving range were both ideal for busy city streets yet aspirational, and the looks appealed to everybody.

In terms of revisions, although it took seven years of production to realise that the wonderful rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors weren’t the safest, it’s shocking to think that it took several years for an Italian-produced car to feature an ashtray. Front-hinged doors featured from ‘65’s 500 F, while the 500 L was adorned with more chrome and luxuries such as carpets and reclining seats, a new steering wheel and dash layout. Rubber mats were previously an option, but padded sunvisors and a screen washer pump all eventually found their way on to the spec sheet.   

The model’s updates gradually made the 500 more mainstream. Doors not only opened in a conventional manner, but windows could be wound up or down and indicators found their way on to column-mounted controls.

Fiat’s body options went beyond the size and shape of the roll-back roof. Its estate, the Gardiniera, was produced from ’60 to ’68, which makes it not only the longest running model but also the only one to keep rear-hinged doors throughout its run. For keen picnickers, the extended roof line and flat load space above the engine provided a genuine boost to luggage space, without compromising the famous looks.

Of course, a host of weird and wonderful foreign-market only models were produced, such as the open-air ‘Jolly’ for US-based fans of wicker baskets, and we haven’t touched on the go-faster Abarth models, which deserve a future blog of their own.

We’d love to hear your views on the cars of the people. Where do your loyalties lie; 2CV, Beetle, 500, Mini or Trabant? Or somewhere else entirely?