The 1957-1975 Fiat 500

Trade catalog image of a 1959 Fiat 500.

Over the past year and a half, you may have noticed the cute little Fiat 500 driving around on America’s roads. A thoroughly modern city car manufactured by Fiat SpA, Italy’s largest automobile manufacturer, it represents Fiat’s attempt to reestablish itself in the American market after a long absence. Not only do I consider the 500 to be an attractive little car, I also find it very interesting because it is one of the latest cars to feature a retro design, which involves drawing upon the designs of cars manufactured in the past for inspiration. For this week’s blog, I decided to take a look at the classic car that provided Fiat with the design inspiration for the present day 500: the 1957-1975 Fiat 500.

Trade catalog interior diagram of the 1959 Fiat 500.

Designed by famed Italian designer Dante Giacosa, the 1957-1975 Fiat 500 is considered to by automotive historians to be one of the first modern city cars.  It featured a very simple and practical design that was well-suited for use in crowded European cities.  In terms of size, the classic 500 was truly tiny, measuring only 4 feet 4 inches tall, 4 feet 4 inches wide, and 9 feet 9 inches long.  Yet it possessed enough interior room for four adults.  The little car was initially powered a by a rear-mounted 479 cc 2-cylinder engine, which utilized air cooling and produced 15 horsepower.  The engine was mated to a four-speed non-synchronized manual transmission. The car rode on four-wheel independent suspension, employing leaf springs on the front wheels and coil springs on the rear wheels.  Styling wise, the car was clothed in a distinctive egg-shaped body shell, which featured rear-hinged “suicide doors.”

In terms of performance, the classic Fiat 500 possessed attributes that were quite desirable for a European city car of its day.  At the time of its introduction, Fiat claimed the 500 to be capable of a top speed of over 53 miles per hour and gas mileage of up to 52 miles per gallon.  The car’s rear-engine layout and four-wheel independent suspension gave it excellent traction and road-holding characteristics.  The 500’s small size made it highly maneuverable on narrow and crowded European city streets, and allowed for it to be parked in very small parking spaces.

Trade catalog of image of a 1960-1965 Fiat 500. Note the car’s small size. Also note its clear resemblance to the present day Fiat 500.

Over the course of its production life, the 1957-1975 Fiat 500 was an enormously successful car.  Due to its simple design, economic attributes, performance characteristics, and irresistible looks, it enjoyed a very long career as a car of choice for residents of European cities.  The classic 500’s basic design remained unchanged, but received a number of upgrades over its production run, most notably larger and more powerful engines and a switch to conventional rear-hinged doors.  When the production run of the classic Fiat 500 finally came to an end, more 3.5 million examples had been built.

The last classic Fiat 500 rolled off the assembly line in 1975, but it remained well ingrained in Fiat’s corporate memory.  When Fiat started work on a new city car for the 21st century, it turned to the classic 500 for design inspiration.  The design influence is plainly seen in the present day Fiat 500, which bears a striking resemblance to the 1957-1975 Fiat 500.

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p. 297-301.

Fiat 500 (1959): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Fiat 500 (1972): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Fiat 500 America

Fiat 500D (ca. 1960-1965): Fiat: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models, 500, 1959-1975, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 2: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 541-543.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

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