Last Updated on April 22, 2021 by Helga Dosa
A name, a story, a myth. A car that lasts through decades.
Fiat started its adventure in 1899. Ever since, it has manufactured classic and revolutionary cars. But one deserves its own focus. Indeed, it’s the Fiat 500.
The beginnings of the icon
This model was introduced on July 4th, 1957. It was impossible to ignore, despite the unpretentious looks and resonant sounds emanating from its two-cylinder, air-cooled engine. Dante Giacosa designed the first vehicle, nicknaming it Topolino (tiny mouse). From 1936 and 1955, this way the tiniest car in the world. And the Topolino sold 500,000 units.
In 1955, Fiat launched the 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. And in 1957, the Fiat 500 emerged. It was the first small car that maximized interior space.
In fact, its dimensions were 9 feet 9 inches long, 4.3 feet wide and 4.3 feet tall. The wheelbase measured 6 feet and it only weighted 1,100 pounds. It 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 peoples car” in German). In fact a lot of the car was based on the Beetle, more specifically in the rear engine.
The first models of Fiat 500
Between 1957 and 1977, Fiat launched six models.
- The Nuova – (1957-1960) The original 500, the Nuova has a smaller engine than all newer models, at 479cc and producing 13 bhp. The original model also features a roof folding all the way back to the rear of the vehicle, rather than the later roof design which only folds half way back along the roof. The Nuova is one of three models featuring “suicide doors”. There is also a stylish Sport version of the Nuova, which features a distinctive red stripe and a more powerful engine, bored out to 499.5cc from the original 479cc engine and with a longer stroke, thus producing an impressive 21 bhp from the same original block.
- The D – (1960-1969) Replacing the original Nuova in 1960, the D looks very similar, but there are two key differences. One is the engine size (the D features an uprated 499cc engine producing 17 bhp as standard – this engine is used right through until the end of the L in 1973) and the other is the roof (the D roof does not fold back as far as the roof on the Nuova). The D also features “suicide doors”.
In the 70s
- The K or Giardiniera – (1960-1977)The longest running model, this is the estate version of the Fiat 500. The engine is laid under the floor of the boot to create a flat loading surface. The roof on this model also stretches all the way to the rear, not stopping above the driver and front passenger as it does in other models of the same period. Very useful if you need to carry a “tall” load! The K also features “suicide doors” and is the only model to continue to sport this door type in to the 1970s.
- The F or Berlina – (1965-1972) The F spans two periods of 500 production, the D and the L. As such, it is the most frequently misidentified model. Between 1965 and 1969 the F carried the same badging as the D and the two models are only distinguishable by their doors – the D has “suicide doors” and the F does not. Between 1969 and 1972 the F was sold alongside the Lusso model as a cheaper “base model” alternative. While the F and L are mechanically very similar, the key differences are the bumpers (the L has an extra chrome nudge bar) and the interior (the F interior is nearly identical to the original 1957 design while the L sports a much more modern look).
- The L or Lusso – (1968-1972) The penultimate model, the main change for the L is a much modernised 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.
- The R or Rinnovata – (1972-1975) The last incarnation of the Fiat 500, the R, was arguably the best model. It had a larger 594cc engine, giving it a much more sensible power rating of 23 bhp, and contrary to many translations of the FIAT literature, came with a non-synchromesh “crash-box” transmission. Sadly, it was also merely a stop-gap for Fiat. It plodded along for another two years beside the Fiat 126 but in the end Fiat made the only sensible choice – to retire the Fiat 500 R once and for all.
Through all the time the 500 was available, it always sold. America did not receive the 500, although classic car dealerships sometimes have them as imported items, as many from Europe have fallen in love with this tiny and beautiful car, and how many are still flying around Italy roads.
Fiat 500, the modern models
On the 4th July 2007, exactly 50 years after the very first nuova 500 appeared, Fiat launched a new version, available in three models: Pop, Sport and Lounge. This new version, Fiat says, is “entertaining and practical, environmentally-friendly and accessible, but also appealing and full of fun.” After all, it’s the Dolcevita.
By By Charles L. Joseph and By Daniel Lora