March 22, 2007 Fifty years ago, on 4 July 1957, Fiat introduced the Nuova Fiat 500, which became an icon of our times, and with which Fiat completed a revival that had begun immediately after the Second World War. This year on 4 July 2007, exactly 50 years later, and once again in Turin, the company will be presenting its new Fiat 500, which will go on sale immediately after the launch. The new 500 is a 3-door model with very compact measurements: 355 cm long, 165 cm wide, 149 cm tall and a wheelbase of 230 cm. Produced with three engine options: a 75 bhp 1.3 16v MultiJet turbodiesel and two petrol engines, a 69 bhp 1.2 8v and a 100 bhp 1.4 16v, with five or six speed manual gearboxes, the new Fiat 500 is designed to be notably entertaining to drive.
Some cars go down in history for their technological or styling innovations. Others deserve to be remembered for the role they have played in the daily life of an entire generation or an entire country. Few succeed in combining the two: technology and sentiment. They leave an indelible mark, becoming a sort of icon of their age.
The Nuova 500 is one of these. In a career lasting 18 years, from 1957 to 1975, exactly 3,893,294 were built, and it helped Italians and numerous other Europeans to satisfy a need for individual mobility that began to gain momentum from the early 1950s. The Nuova 500, even more than the 600 (1955), also brought the end of the post-war emergency period for motorisation and the automotive industry in Italy, and the start of the striving for comfort, albeit minimal and economical.
With the Nuova 500, the country of the ‘Poor but beautiful’ became, or tried to become, not quite as poor (and to a certain extent it succeeded), but above all, able to move around more freely.
The Nuova 500 also concluded the rebirth of Fiat and of its product range, after the devastation of the Second World War. Dante Giacosa, the ‘father’ of the Nuova 500, but also of the previous 500 Topolino and of numerous other models, said in his book ‘Progetti alla Fiat prima del computer’ (Design at Fiat before the computer), that when the 500 was launched on 4 July, 1957, Fiat “realised its programme of renewing its models, to replace those born before the Second World War”.
At two-year intervals, the 1400, 1900, 1100, Nuova 500 and their derivatives were launched on the international market. In just 10 years, Fiat had conceived and begun manufacture of four completely new basic models that had their roots in the technological culture that had grown up in its own offices and laboratories.
Writing about the launch of the Nuova 500, Dante Giacosa revealed that the term ‘Big little car’ was also coined at Mirafiori, but the pragmatic engineer commented that “people just called it the 500”. Fifty years after that summer of 1957, in an age when television is even available on mobile phones, with shots and reports from all over the universe, it is entertaining to read that “the launch was held in great style. National television installed itself in the Mirafiori workshop on a boiling hot evening in July, and even I was invited for a live interview on the assembly line.”
The Nuova 500 was not just a brilliant idea by Dante Giacosa, like the 600 and the many other cars he designed. Nor was it just a model of which millions were made, which got the mission and contents just right to fall in with the company’s programmes at the time. More than anything else, the 500 was the result of a strategy to develop and revamp its range that Fiat had already embarked on during the Second World War. Vittorio Valletta, Managing Director first and then company chairman from 1946 (after the death of Senator Agnelli), asked Giacosa to start thinking of new cars that could go into production after the war, even while Turin was still being targeted by Allied air raids, and the Mirafiori offices were occupied by German ‘allies-occupiers’.
But it was only in the early 1950s, and therefore when the reconstruction of the plants was well underway, that work on the new models began in earnest at Mirafiori. In 1949 the Topolino C, the last of the series, went into production, but other ‘real’ new models arrived: the 1400, a cabrio version of the 1400, the 1900 diesel, the Nuova 1100 of 1953 and its derived versions. And in 1952, in a blaze of technology, the sporty 8 V appeared, followed a year later by a futuristic turbine-powered prototype.
The reconstruction years at Fiat and the consequent development of new cars, including the Nuova 500, reflected the situation in the country in the early 1950s, when there were growing signs that the market was becoming increasingly receptive to mass motorisation. The ‘need’ for individual mobility was answered, in Italy, from 1946 until the mid 1950s, not by cars but by two-wheeled vehicles, and particularly the scooters built by Piaggio and Innocenti, the Vespa and the Lambretta. The former, for example, from an output of 2500 units in 1946, reached its one millionth unit just 10 years later, in 1956.
In 1955, registration of two-wheeled vehicles in Italy totalled 400,000 units, an amazing record, if we think that in 1951 there were just under 40,000 licensed motor vehicles registered. The boom of the two-wheeler was an important indication of the prospects for the four-wheeled vehicle market, and prompted Fiat to speed up development of its new model. The great commitment by Fiat design engineers culminated in 1955 with the 600, Italy’s first real popular family car (between 1955 and 1970, 2,777,313 were built in Mirafiori alone) and in 1957 with the Nuova 500.
From then on, Fiat’s manufacturing volumes began to soar (from an annual total of 108,700 in 1950 – the first year in company history that the 100,000 mark was passed – to almost 513,300 in 1960, and 994,000 in 1965), as well as the daily output: 1,000 units/day in 1956, 2,000 units/day in 1960 after the 500 had been on the market for three years, and 4,000 units/day in 1965 when the 850 joined the 600 and the 500. The workforce increased from 72,000 in 1950 to almost 93,000 in 1960, and almost 185,000 in 1970.
The boom of ‘accessible’ four-wheeled vehicles heralded the start of the crisis for two-wheelers. From 1955 (the year that the 600 was launched) registrations of motorcycles and scooters began to fall off, and by 1957, when the 500 arrived, they were just above 330,000 units/year; in 1965, the year that Fiat output first exceeded one million cars in a year, registrations of motorcycles were just above 200,000 units. In other words, if Fiat had set out to win over a segment of the domestic market with its 500 and 600 to the detriment of other forms of vehicles, it had been successful. ‘Pioneering’ travel on two wheels, albeit motorised, was no longer enough in the new, more affluent Italy. The number of wheels doubled; people wanted a roof over their heads to protect them from the weather, in other words, they wanted a car.
The level of motorisation in Italy is worth mentioning; it grew from 6 vehicles/1000 inhabitants in 1950 to 32 vehicles/1000 inhabitants in 1960 (therefore in the period of greatest demand for the 600, but above all for the 500), reaching 167 vehicles/1000 inhabitants in 1970, and leaping to 330 vehicles/1000 inhabitants in 1980, in line with the rest of Western Europe. The great task of motorising the Italians and of bringing them into line with Europe in terms of car use, was certainly achieved thanks primarily to the Fiat 600 and 500, supported by the 850.