On July 4, 1957 the first of the Fiat 500 Nuova were introduced to the public in Turino. In a massive public relations stunt, a procession Fiat 500s, each with a beauty queen on board, drove from the factory. At the same time driving in Rome a similar procession to St. Peter's Square.
Coming to be known as the Cinquecento (cheen-qway-CHENT-o... Italian for "500"), its sales were slow in the beginning, because prior to its release, the water-cooled Fiat 600 (the Seicento, produced from 1955 - 1969) was enormously popular and Fiat didn't want to swamp the market with yet another model. Eventually, they produced nearly 3.5 million copies of the Nuova 500 until 1975.
TRIVIA: Fiat is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino
The first Nuova 500 was referred to as "N" model, with backwards opening "suicide" doors, no heater, fixed rear side windows and a fabric roof opening all the way to the rear. It was spartan, to say the least--and tiny--a mere 9'9" long. It was designed as an every-man's car... a family car for essential trips around town.
A close cugino (cousin) to the original Fiat 500 and 600, the Multipla (commonly known as the Seicento Famigliare--"Family 600") was primarily based on the Fiat 600 and sat six people in fairly small size. The driver's compartment was moved forward over the front axle, effectively eliminating the front storage trunk, but giving it a modern minivan appearance. It could be configured with either a flat cargo area behind the front seats or a choice of one or two bench seats. This popular people and cargo mover was a very popular taxi in many parts of Italy up until the 1970s. There even was a beach car version called the Marinella created by car design shop Carrozzeria Ghia.
I personally love practical cars, and loved driving the new Fiat 500L (called the "Large" in Italy) during our Voyage through Italy, although I am certain the U.S. version has a better transmission. We've owned three minivans in our family and would love to see a new version of the Multipla brought to the U.S. in a family minivan configuration. Fiat did introduce a modern version of the Multipla from 1998 to 2010, but despite acclaim for it's bold design (amazing visibility due to huge windows) slack sales outside of Italy doomed the model.
The legendary automobile coach builder Ghia (of Volkswagon Karmann Ghia fame) also created one of my all time favorite cars based on the Cinquecento... the fun-sounding Jolly. The chassis was made by Fiat but everything else was built by Ghia. The little car with a surrey on top was really designed for the rich--as a small car that could be hoisted on and off mega-yachts tooling around the Mediterranean. Oil magnate, Aristotle Onassis (Jackie Kennedy's second hubby) owned one and President Johnson rode around his Texas ranch his. It was a perfect seaside runabout to go from marina to golf course to dinner and back to the marina... while keeping the sun off of the heads of the rich, famous and film stars. Since mostly the elite usually bought them, each one was customized. Besides the canopy, it had no doors and wicker seats. Very cool car... nowadays going for a couple of hundred thousand dollars at classic car auctions. Supposedly, there are less than 100 left in the world.
Of course, this brings us to the current incarnation of the Cinquecento... the Fiat 500 (Type 312). Introduced in 2007, its new styling is reminiscent of Fiat's original 1957 Nuova. It holds four passengers fairly comfortably with a front rather than rear engine, has front wheel drive, and is offered in a three door hatchback and two door cabriolet styles. The newest addition to the U.S. market came in 2016 as a nod to the past Spider series with the Fiat 124 Spider--a joint venture with Mazda, using the new Mazda MX-5 platform. Car manufacturers make strange bedfellows lately... after all, who would have thought that Chrysler would now be owned by Fiat?
It was great to see Fiat's return to the American market after 27 years... I owned a red Fiat 128 station wagon back in the Seventies during the oil embargo and odd-even gas rationing days. I got 30 miles to the gallon while most back then got about 6. I recently did a test-drive the new Cinquecento and love it... although being a tad small, even for our "We Three" family. It's drive didn't feel small, at all. The advent of the Fiat 500L and 500X go even further in changing all that. These are bigger, four door models with plenty of room for small families. Lucas loved having a raised rear "theater" seat in the "L" while we traveled through Italy... giving him much better views. We also liked having the glove box drink chiller--a very welcome thing in hot Italy.
All in all, the Fiat 500 was--and still is--one of the most important, practical designs for people movers on the planet. When you live in a country like Italy with winding roads, limited parking spaces, narrow streets in most villages and the price of fuel always grabbing cash out of your wallet, the ubiquitous Cinquecento simply makes sense...
Bravo Fiat! Bravo Italia!
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