Fiat 500

Think of an Italian car. No, not a Ferrari: the other iconic car. In your mind you are probably picturing a Fiat 500 – the older, once ubiquitous 1957 model made immortal by countless photos and by movies such as The Italian job or even a Japanese animation classic like Castle of Cagliostro. Because there have been four very different cars with the same moniker (in 1936, ’57,  ’91 and 2007), but only one of them had the honor of really rising to superstardom and to become a symbol of Italian design exhibited in museums all over the world.

What most people don’t know is that the original design of this car was in fact an idea of an employee of the German branch of Fiat. He conceived the 500 as a spiritual heir to the Wolkswagen “Beetle”: a rounded, ultra-inexpensive and small vehicle for a new era. In Italy the Fifties were in fact the years of the so-called “Economic miracle”, during which the average earnings of urban dwellers suddenly skyrocketed, allowing the new phenomenon of consumerism. Hence the request for basic, affordable cars.
The original proposal for the car was quickly perfected and made slightly less spartan following the public’s feedback. As a result, the 500 became an almost overnight success: between 1957 and 1961 the number of cars in Italy multiplied fourfold – and almost half of them were 500s.

A reliable workhorse, the 500 was produced in countless variants until 1975. All of them were cramped, rather uncomfortable even by contemporary standards (in example, they mounted just a very small “bench” instead of proper backseats, in order not to hurt the sales of more expensive Fiats), too hot in the summer and chilly in the winter, and slow – the original top speed was 90 km/h, later raised to 100. None of this mattered to a country hungry for mobility, or to Europe in general. A 500 could be sold in Germany for the same price of a motorbike, and even less than that by French market values.
In a sense, 500s were the original microcars – only they were actually used to travel up and down the country on the newly built highways that for the first time allowed long range trips in reasonable times. It is easy to understand then how they entered the collective unconscious as the symbol for freedom and empowerment. This is also why Fiat banked on the evocative number by releasing a first “new 500” in 1991 that however got no big success due to its very generic shape, and the current 500 (2007), reimagining the original iconic shape into a modern, competitive car.