***REPOST FOR THE AFTERNOON CROWD***
Overview/Disclaimer: I thought writing this might be a fun and interesting way for me to pass the ‘Social Distancing’ time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As sad as it may sound, most of this was written from memory with a bit of research here and there to make sure I was getting things right and to find appropriate photos. Sadly, as classic 500s of any sort are extremely rare in any part of Canada, let alone the province I live in, all rights to any photos used in this article belong to their original owners. I make no pretense that any photos in this article belong to me unless otherwise stated! :)
Italy’s Cheerful Jelly Bean...a silly title, but an appropriate one to my eyes! The 500 was Italy’s ‘People’s Car’ from 1957 until 1977, providing the populace with a cheap, reliable, stylish, fun, comfortable and safe (in comparison to the motorcycles and scooters it oft replaced) method of transportation.
It was a family car, a sports car, a police car, a delivery van, a pickup truck - the diminutive little Cinquecento (Italian for ‘500') filled many roles despite its small stature and modest performance, but its charms quickly cemented it as one of the most-loved and most affordable Italian classics.
The 500's 20-year lifespan saw many models and variants, to which this article will provide a guide. Sit back, grab yourself some espresso and spaghetti and enjoy! :)
To begin, this 500 was actually the second of FIAT’s offerings to bear the name - the 1936-1955 ‘Little Mouse’ being the first. ‘Little Mouse’ was the English for the car’s Italian ‘Topolino’ nickname, named for Disney’s Mickey Mouse character, which its original design was said to resemble. The car had a tiny Inline-4 of 569cc putting out 13hp to the rear wheels through a 4-speed, non-synchro transmission in its original form:
Three Topolino models existed over its life - the Model A, B and C. Model A cars were produced from ‘36-’48, Model B cars from ‘48-’49 and the Model C from ‘49-’55. One engine was offered, with slight tweaks over the course of its life raising its power to a blistering 16hp.
1957 brought us the now-legendary second generation of the 500, known as the ‘Nuova 500'. A fancy, sexy Italian name to be sure...except that ‘Nuova’ simply means ‘New’ in Italian! Produced from ‘57-60, the ‘New’ 500 was the polar opposite of the original - shorter in length than the Topolino it replaced (though SLIGHTLY wider), and lighter by 50kg (100lbs). Rather than at the extreme front of the car, the new car had the engine at the extreme rear - a brand new Inline-2 cylinder unit of 479cc with a similar 13hp. Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a 4-speed non-synchro gearbox. Forced-air cooling replaced water-cooling for the sake of simplicity and reliability. Suspension featured coil springs at the rear and a transverse leaf spring across the width of the car at the front:
The car had 4 seats and, as with the original 500, a surprising amount of room inside for passengers considering the car’s size. Cargo capacity, also like the original 500, was......modest. A small ‘frunk’ at front of the car featured enough space for a minimal number of items, with a lot of the space taken up by the car’s full-sized spare wheel and the small fuel tank.
Styling by Dante Giacosa resulted in the rounded, cute ‘jelly bean’ design we’ve come to know and love. This same general body style lasted throughout the 500's full production run with minimal changes. Early ‘Nuova’ cars are easy to tell apart from later models - small vents can be seen below the headlights and front turn signals are mounted high on the sides of the fenders. Rear taillights were smaller, rounder units. Like the original 500 Topolino, early 500s featured rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors.
Almost all (we’ll come back to that!) 500s throughout the car’s production run featured a fabric roof. This saved on the cost of steel and stamping for FIAT, kept the car lighter (for increased performance and fuel economy) and also helped with the fact steel was in short supply. The Nuova 500 featured a fold-back roof as well, but the Nuova’s roof folded ALL the way back a la early Citroen 2CV, down to the top of the rear deck lid. Later 500s featured a folding roof that folded only as far back as the rear of the roofline.
Hidden amidst the Nuova’s production years was a special blip on the FIAT 500 radar featuring a body design change found only on one later 500 model - a full STEEL roof! The ‘58-’60 FIAT 500 Sport was FIAT’s factory attempt at putting some spice into the little Italian runabout. The Sport came in two body styles - one with the familiar fold-back fabric roof, and the other with the full steel roof. More fire was breathed into the little twin-cylinder in its tail...capacity increased to 499cc and 21hp was the very respectable result for the time. Sports were easily identified by their unique white paint with racy red stripes and matching rims. Interiors mirrored this vibrant red/white theme:
Following the success of the Nuova 500, the car was updated for 1960-1965 - the FIAT 500D was the result. The 500D kept the suicide doors and rear design of its predecessor, but featured several design changes to the front of the car resulting in a cleaner look. Gone were the small vents below the headlights and the high, fender-mounted turn signals were relocated with simpler units below and outboard of the headlights. Small side-repeaters were now found where the Nuova’s fender-turn-signals were previously located:
Body styles were limited to two - the full steel roof of the Sport once more gone leaving the two fabric roof variants as the only options. The usual fold-back roof was the most common choice and the Nuova’s earlier ‘fold ALL the way back’ design (named the ‘Transformable’ in 500D form) was the second variant:
The 500D also included mechanical upgrades. D models had the same 4-speed ‘crash’ gearbox Nuova 500s had, but the engines were updated from 479cc to 499cc, like in the Sport. UNLIKE the peppier Sport, however, the 500D’s engine put out 17hp. This engine would be the same used for the majority of remaining 500 production. The fuel tank in the 500D remained the same as it had in the Nuova 500 - a small tank located in the ‘frunk’, mounted on the left side:
Starting the same year of the 500D was production of the 500's only other major body variant - the ‘Giardiniera’ estate! This was the longest-produced model of the 500 range, running from 1960-1968 under the FIAT marque, and then rebadged as the Autobianchi Giardiniera from ‘68 all the way until ‘77! The estate was unique in that it was the only variant of the 500 to carry suicide doors throughout its ENTIRE production run...imagine buying a new Autobianchi Giardiniera in 1977 and it STILL having suicide doors!
Mechanicals for the Giardiniera were the same as the 500D, however, due to the rear-engined layout, a ‘flattened’ form of the 17hp engine was developed to lay on its side below the rear floor, allowing for the flat load space of the estate configuration. This same engine was used in all Giardinieras until production ended. Intake air was moved from the vents above the rear decklid on the usual body style to be embedded in the C-pillars on the Giardiniera, similar to the VW ‘Bus’.
Following the FIAT 500D was the 500F. The F was produced from ‘65 until ‘73. Again, this facelift featured minimal changes. Body-wise, the front and rear of the car were unchanged from the 500D, but the 500F gained one significant difference - gone now were the suicide doors, with conventional front-hinged doors taking their place.
The mechanicals of the 500F remained the same 4-speed non-synchro ‘box and 17hp 499cc engine as before, but the fuel tank was redesigned away from its ‘jerry can’ rectangular shape. Rather than being mounted on the left side of the ‘frunk’ as in the Nuova 500 and 500D, it was now mounted along the rear bulkhead of the ‘frunk’ in the 500F and featured a more cylindrical shape. Interior changes were minimal, featuring mostly just alterations to the switch/indicator light layout on the dash.
Following the 500F...and also being sold alongside it for several years, was the 500L. This was the fanciest version of the 500, sold from ‘67-’71. The ‘L’ stood for ‘Lusso’ in Italian; ‘Luxury’ in English and boy, did it have luxury in spades!
Starting on the outside, the 500L followed the 500F with minimal changes. The front ‘moustache’ badge was replaced with a smaller, simpler, centrally-mounted FIAT badge. To verify its luxuriousness, some additional chrome trim was added along with new chrome bumper guards across the front bumper and on the rear corners - these were only found on the 500L. Mechanically, the drivetrain of the car remained unchanged, though radial tires were fitted to the 500L rather than bias-ply.
On the inside, the interior received an extensive rework. The plain metal painted dash was now covered in anti-glare black plastic (black was the only color you could get). The ignition switch was moved from the center of the dash to the steering column. The gauge cluster was replaced with the fancier, more trapezoidal-shaped unit often used in other FIATs of the time (like the FIAT 850, for example) and brought with it an actual fuel gauge! See? Luxury!
Other interior accoutrements included carpet instead of the rubber mats found in lesser 500s, and added storage in the form of a central storage tray on the middle console and new door pockets. Leatherette in several colors was the material of choice for seats and door cards, replacing the vinyl found in lower-spec cars.
The final ‘hurrah’ of the FIAT 500 was the 500R, or ‘500 Rinnovata’ (‘Renewed’ in English). This final facelift was actually a stop-gap model until the arrival of FIAT’s new city car, i.e. the heavily-500-based FIAT 126. In fact, earlier 500Rs used the 500L floor pan while later 500Rs used the 126's floorpan. The drivetrain and floor pan of the 500 and 126 are so similar, many of the parts are bolt-on compatible with each other. The 500R was produced from 1971 until 1976, replacing the 500L. It featured the uprated engine from the new 126, which was basically a bored-out 500 engine to 594cc, making the same 17hp, but with a bit more torque. The 500R, however, did NOT get the 126's synchromesh gearbox, though it is a popular swap for owners to add to their 500s for ease of use.
Interior-wise, the 500R was a step back and went back to the more basic interior of the 500F. The simple round speedo cluster was back, for example, as was a missing fuel gauge replaced by the old petrol ‘Reserve’ light.
The R was sold alongside the 126 for 4 years upon the launch of the 126 in 1972. The more modern design of the 126 and its improved driveability led to the demise of the 500 as sales fell and new buyers moved on to the 126. The 500 ended sales in ‘76, though the Giardiniera in Autobianchi form soldiered on until 1977.
The 500 timeline included cars from coachbuilders and tuners as well. Abarth and Giannini were the most prolific at tuners...Abarth, especially. I won’t be getting their cars in detail here as the breadth of variety of models was complex. Sufffice it to say that everybody who knows of the 500 knows of the Abarth 500 595 and 695, especially with the modern 500's Abarth variant helping its ancestors gain notoriety.
Both Abarth and Giannini added more pep to the 500 with performance parts...lightness and power increases were the name of the game. New carb sets, valvetrain parts, intakes, exhausts and light rims gave the tiny city car some real zest and it wasn’t uncommon for the small runabout to handily surprise larger, heavier and more powerful cars on the track. This power bump necessitated increased cooling for the little two-banger air-cooled engine...what easier way than simply opening the engine cover? So...that is how Giannini and Abarth kept the little engines from overheating, by propping the engine covers open!
Yet other companies focused not on tuning, but luxury. The coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Francis Lombardi, had a hit on their hands when they introduced the FIAT 500 ‘My Car by Francis Lombardi’. The ‘My Car’ features notable changes compared to the original 500, mostly improving on the creature comforts and styling of the car. Yearly production on the ‘My Car’ was a very respectable 6000 units in conjunction with FIAT. Mechanically, there were no changes over the stock 500.
The front end featured a faux grill with FIAT logo, along with a small Francis Lombardi and ‘My Car’ badge on the top corner of the nose:
Externally, the ‘My Car’ was the only other 500 variant aside from FIAT’s own early 500 Sport to feature a full metal roof, though the ‘My Car’ could be had in usual fabric roof form as well. Stainless steel rocker panel trims were another notable external difference on the ‘My Car’, as were different rims and hubcaps on some models.
The interior of the ‘My Car’ was where things changed the most...a wooden steering wheel added some warmth and style, along with a completely redesigned dash and new single-gauge instrument cluster. Some models also had wooden shift knobs:
The FIAT 500 is a well-loved and well-known classic these days. Fun, simple to maintain, relatively affordable and full of character and charm - these little cars have a loyal following, and deservedly so. They are a car I would love to own someday, along with their later, lesser-known and more unloved FIAT 126 relative.
Over a lifespan of 20 years, Italians lived to the thrum of the 500's little two cylinder engines happily puttering around the narrow streets carrying Italian families to and from, and working hard as delivery vans/police cars/municpal trucks.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my article and have learned a little something in the process...not just about what makes these cars tick, but also the differences between the 500's variants and how the car changed over the years. Thanks for reading! :)