You can’t get very far in Italy without spotting a Fiat 500. This quintessentially Italian car was introduced by FIAT, the Italian car-maker in 1957. Over a twenty year period four million of these appealing and original cars were sold to a population eager to explore and discover the beauty of the Italian peninsula.
In the 1950s Italy was recovering from a combination of the Second World War and the oppressive Fascist years of the 1930s and 40s. Ordinary Italians just wanted to have a bit of fun. They’d seen life in the movies straight from Hollywood and it was time to enjoy the seaside and countryside of Italy for themselves. Judging the mood of the time perfectly Fiat started the production of the Fiat 500. A small car, with a tiny engine. It measured just six feet in length from front to back. The car was advertising as taking two passengers and four suitcases, or if you prefer 2 adults and two children. The car had a very modest 2 cylinder, air-cooled, 479 cc engine. In fact the early models were so under-powered that they had to be recalled and upgraded to 499 cc, which then gave them a top speed of 110 km/hour. That’s 68 miles per hour. The reality was that the average fully loaded Fiat 500 would cruise along at about 45 km/hour!
The Fiat 500 was relatively inexpensive to buy, it cost less than 500,000 Lire which was about £200 British pounds or $300 American dollars. This made it affordable for many Italian families, who had previously relied on a 2-wheel scooter or motor bike to get from place to place. In fact one of the earliest promotional adverts for the new Fiat 500 suggests to the viewer that it’s time to upgrade from two wheels to four! Take a look at this 1950s video on YouTube:
Just like the Mini in England, the Fiat 500 quickly became an icon. They were used for photoshoots in Rome and for Fashion Shows in Milan. Celebrities were seen leaping in and out of these smart, shiny, funky little cars. It wasn’t long before they were adapted and ‘souped-up’ to include leather seats or woven, basket style, wicker seating and a range of leather luggage appeared to customise the adorable ‘Cinquecento’ boot. Some Fiat 500s were made into convertibles, known as the Fiat Jolly and were ideal beach cars for the Jet Set holidaying on the Cote d’Azur.
Every time I see a Fiat ‘Cinquecento’ it reminds me of working in Italy years ago. I used to work as a tour guide for an Italian coach company. Many of the coach drivers were from Naples and they arrived for work at the company depot in a spectacular variety of miniscule cars and scooters. The most common of which was the Fiat 500. It always amused me to see these drivers getting out of their 53 seater enormous motor coaches at the end of a long working day and to cross the parking lot to their cars, parked neatly by the fence. The difference between the gargantuan coaches with the microscopic Fiat 500 cars struck me as an ironic and hilarious contrast.
I think one of the key characteristics of the Fiat 500 was its flexibility. It could be used as a family car, for outings at weekends. Or you could use it for transporting fruit & vegetables to the market in the nearby town. You could dress it up with ribbons and flowers and hey presto, it’s a wedding car! You could take the roof off and create a beach buggy. Tune the engine up a bit and it could be a racing car.
The key to the success of the Fiat 500 was also it’s affordability. People could afford this lovely little car. As a comparison, the Morris Oxford, a typical saloon car in England in the late 1950s cost about £600– whilst the basic Fiat 500 cost £200. It was so important that manufacturers made something that firstly, people wanted to buy and secondly something that they could afford.
Frequently when I’m on tour in Italy with clients, it doesn’t matter where I am, anywhere from Lake Garda in the north to Ragusa in Sicily, we’ll come across a Fiat 500, and that little car is always drawing the crowds! An iconic symbol of Italy, La Dolce Vita and life in post-war Europe. Quite often these little cars are someone’s pride and joy, and that makes them even more special. The perfect example in this category would be the sparkling, polished black ‘Cinquecento‘ I spotted in San Severino Marche, Italy about ten years ago and expertly photographed by my friend Peter Corcoran. www.petercorcoran.com
So next time you are in Italy keep an eye out for the ‘Cinquecento’ the chances are the owner won’t be far away and probably only to pleased to tell you all about the history of the vehicle. It’s a great way to practise your Italian and meet the locals!
- If you have your own Fiat 500 memories and photos then drop me a line and I’ll add them to this article. E-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Next time you are in Italy keep an eye out for the beloved ‘Cinquecento’ they are never far away!
- Whilst travel has been seriously curtailed in 2020 I’ll be back leading very small, carefully curated tours of Italy in 2021. Don’t forget!
- Buon viaggio in Italia!
- To discover more about the Educated Traveller Blog head over to our introductory page: https://wp.me/P5eFNn-1
- Written: 2nd June, 2020 / Amended: 15th June 2020
SPECIAL NOTE – Did you know there is a Fiat 500 Museum in Garlenda, Liguria. With thanks to Alessandra Segre of Hotel Meridiana, for this useful piece of information. La Meridiana is a superb country house hotel, an ideal base when touring Liguria. La Meridiana – A Perfect Country House Hotel, Liguria, Italy
AND LASTLY – RECENTLY SEEN ON INSTAGRAM
- With thanks to: @borghitalia – the most beautiful towns in Italy.
- At https://borghipiubelliditalia.it/
- And photographer @paulfuentes_photo – grazie mille!