FIAT 500: History of an Icon



Fiat started its adventure in 1899. Ever since, it has manufactured classic and revolutionary cars, at least for the first 50 years. In the 1930s, Benito Mussolini (like Hitler with the VW bug ) wanted a car accessible to most Italians. Dante Giacosa designed the vehicle, nicknaming it Topolino (tiny mouse). From 1936 and 1955, this was the tiniest production car in the world. And the Topolino sold 500,000 units.


Fiat Topolino

In 1955, Fiat launched the mid-size, rear-wheel drive 600. Later, this model became the base for the 500. The Italian manufacturer wanted to create a small and efficient car, ideal for traffic and the tiny, narrow, Italian roads. Hence, the concept of the “city car” was born. 

Fiat 600

In 1957, the Fiat 500 emerged. It was the first small car that maximized interior space at the lowest-cost in the Fiat range, set at 490,000 lire (about 270 US Dollars), equal to about 13 months of salary for the average worker.

In July 1957, Fiat 500 was a very small utility car with a two-cylinder engine and a maximum speed of 85 kilometers per hour (about 53 mph). 


After the price of gasoline had risen due to the Suez crisis, Fiat had hurried its engineers to produce as soon as possible a super-utility car that consumed as little as possible. Dante Giacosa had had to work miracles for the speed of the project, and designing a car that solved a number of technical challenges and could be sold at a price well below that of the Fiat 600.

In the end, Dante Giacosa succeeded by creating a model with low fuel consumption and operating cost, and with excellent road handling. Nevertheless, the release of the new small car was a major failure at first — not because the car was tiny, but because the engine power was too modest, only 13HP! In addition, the original 500 didn’t have a proper seat in the back, and lacked any accessories. Fiat had to hurry to present a new version solving these issues, which would be more appreciated by the public, in early November at the auto show in 1957.

I remember that growing up, my father had a blue Fiat 500, just like the one in the pictures above.

He used to drive my friends, family, and me around our favorite places. The car represented fun for us: often people asked my dad to take a picture with the tiny beautiful Fiat 500. As you can see by the pictures, our cousins from Argentina had so much fun, too!

At the time my grandparents gave my father the Fiat 500 as Graduation gift, nobody would have imagined then that the car would become such an icon. Together with the Ford Model T, the VW Bug, the Mini Minor, and the Citroen 2CV, the Fiat 500 was destined to become a classic.

The first models of Fiat 500: The Nuova 500 (1957-1960) 


The New 500 had only two seats and a rear bench. The car could only accommodate two people: it was 9 feet 9 inches long, 4.3 feet wide and 4.3 feet tall. The wheelbase measured 6 feet and it only weighed 1,100 pounds.

The revised 1957 model was an instant success. It was fuel-efficient, fun, and actually spacious. People called it the people’s car for Italy, referring to the Volkswagen Beetle (Volkswagen itself means “the people’s car” in German). In fact, a lot of the car was based on the Beetle, more specifically in the rear engine.

The New 500 had a small engine, the smallest of all the models in production, the “110” design engine. It was a new 2-cylinder in-line, air-cooled petrol engine (it was Fiat’s first air-cooled engine) with a capacity of 479 cc. 


The L model (1968-1972) :  the main change for the L is a much modernized interior (including a renewed dashboard) which brought the Fiat 500 up to date. Greater comfort and style were provided in this new model for the new generation. In fact, the L model had 4 seats and a brand new sunroof.

The gearbox was 4-speed with quick engagement in 2nd, 3rd and 4th.

To down-shift from 4th gear to 3rd, you had to do a “doppietta” (it’s difficult to translate in English, I think it is a sort of “double shift“): 

4th gear – press the clutch – gearbox neutral – hit the gas pedal – press the clutch – 3rd gear. 

I still remember my dad repeating it to me a million times! 


My father’s 500 was a L model. 

He told me that when he was young he had fit 8 people in his 500L! Can you imagine?? 



In the magnificent setting of Garlenda, in Western Liguria, every year the Fiat 500 International Meeting takes place.

The wonderful gathering of the most beloved car of all time is spread in 3 days, with  the participation of many people of different nationalities, each with their own vintage Fiat 500.

The 500 was so well built that many are still roaming the Italian roads today, 60 years later. There is no other car (except potentially the VW bug) with such an impressive record. How many “nowadays” cars will still be circulating 60 years from now?