IT WASN’T much bigger than a baked bean can and weighed about two-thirds as much as the original Mini, yet it had four seats. Everything about the Fiat Nuova 500 was designed to get postwar Italy on the move as cheaply as possible.
The roof had a retractable fabric cover because it was lighter and cheaper than steel; the air-cooled engine had only two cylinders because that was cheaper and easier to cram into the car’s tail. The original car was just 2972mm from bumper to bumper (9ft 9in in old money, and nearly 20% shorter than the current 500), so it was almost as easy to park as that other popular Italian runaround, the Vespa.
Progress in the 500 was comically laid-back. The 479cc engine cranked out just 13bhp, so on a steep hill it wasn’t much faster than a horse and cart. But who cared? You could take the family from A to B and not get wet in the process — something that was beyond the Vespa.
Italy, and some other parts of the world, embraced it with enthusiasm, imaginatively christening it the Cinquecento — a change from the nickname of its predecessor, the “Topolino”, or “Little Mouse”.
Nearly 3.5m were built. But when did those cars start rolling out of the Lingotto factory in Turin? Scroll down to see if you know the answer.
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The Nuova 500 was launched in Turin in 1957. In its lifetime the car went through many changes — not always, some felt, for the better. For example, in 1965 the back-hinged, or “suicide”, doors were swapped for normal ones with hinges at the front. Legend has it that Italian men protested they wouldn’t enjoy such a good view of a woman’s legs as she got into or out of the car.
As part of his BBC television series James May‘s Cars of the People, May summed up the appeal of the 500 by saying: “The Fiat Cinquecento seemed to confirm that a simple life could be one of unalloyed joy.”
Production came to an end in 1975, when the Fiat 126 was introduced, but the 500 designation resurfaced in 1991 and again on the retro-styled 2007 model, which has already sold 1.5m.