AS THE Italian manufacturer celebrates 60 glorious years of the iconic and affordable city car, we take a look back at the model that has left a major mark on motoring.
Fiat 500 – 1957 onwards
When the Fiat 500 launched in 1957, it had a 0.5-litre two-cylinder engine, producing 13bhp and 27Nm of torque, which was mounted in the rear of the car. The top speed was 53mph. This engine was developed and improved over time to produce more power.
The only gearbox available on the original 500 was a four-speed manual transmission.
Variants of the Fiat 500 were produced in other countries by different companies, such as Austrian manufacturing conglomerate Steyr-Daimler-Puch.
The original 500 had a rear-wheel-drive set-up, whereas the 21st-century version is front-wheel drive.
Reverse-opening ‘suicide doors’ were fitted to the 500 until 1965, when they were replaced by traditional doors, as it became apparent that rear-hinged doors wouldn’t open after a head-on collision.
The 500 had a fabric roof, which could fold back fully on the first model and halfway back on later examples.
The 500 was just 2,970mm in length and 1,320mm in width. It was so small that the body of a 1957 500 can fit inside the body of a 2007 500.
There was a version of the 500 called the Jolly Ghia. It had wicker seats and a canopy roof.
With austerity measures gradually being relaxed after the Second World War, a golden age of capitalism was ushered in, with nations enjoying a post-conflict economic boom.
People had more disposable income than before, meaning there was new demand for products previously thought of as only being for the very wealthy. One such product was the car.
Vehicle manufacturers suddenly found themselves having to create cars that could be produced on a mass scale to be bought by the general public.
The result of this was each country having its own car of the people. Great Britain had the Mini, Germany had the Volkswagen Beetle, France had the Citroën 2CV and Italy had the Fiat 500.
The Fiat 500 started life as the Cinquecento – which translates as ‘five hundred’ but also refers to Italian architecture, art and literature of a classical form during the 1500s – and was launched in Italy in July 1957. Designed by Dante Giacosa, it was an affordable car, suitable for use in towns and cities.
It was perfect for Italy’s narrow city streets and became an icon for the Italian driving population. The 500’s rear-engined design, which was inspired by the VW Beetle, and rounded shape served as an inspiration for other manufacturers. Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch even obtained permission from Fiat to build a car almost identical to the 500, although it didn’t sell as successfully as its Italian counterpart.
The Cinquecento was little more than nine feet in length and had a 479cc two-cylinder engine, which was mounted in the rear. The first model produced a measly 13bhp and had a rather dull top speed of 53mph. Underwhelming sales results made it apparent that this was simply not enough power, so in December 1957 Fiat launched two improved versions – the Economica and the Normale – both of which produced 15bhp.
The latter had a higher level of trim as well, with features such as wind-up windows, indicator controls on the steering column for easier use, chrome front light surrounds and comfier back seats. In 1958, Fiat launched the 500 Sport, which was equipped with a 499cc engine, producing 21.5bhp. It had an improved roof, steering wheel, air filter and carburettor.
The 500 became massively popular over the course of several years and was used as a template for other cars in Europe. As time progressed, so did the car, with various upgrades being introduced with each improved model.
1960 saw the introduction of the 500 D. This variant had a smaller sunroof and included padded visors, a screen-washing pump, floor mats made from rubber and an ashtray for nicotine- based needs. The 500 F was launched in 1965, replacing the reverse-opening ‘suicide doors’ to make the car safer. Visibility was improved with angular headlights and a larger windscreen. There was a boost to the performance too, as the 500 F could reach a more practical top speed of 75mph.
In 1968, the 500 Lusso was released. The only changes were cosmetic ones, such as the addition of chrome bumpers, new door panel upholstery, updated dashboard design and a black steering wheel. The rear name badge now said ‘FIAT’ in block capital letters.
These latest changes were then undone in 1972, when the 500 Rinnovata came out. It shared the basic aesthetic of the F variant but featured an upgraded gearbox for sharper gear changes and more pleasurable driving mechanics. In 1973, Fiat launched the 126 – the replacement for the 500. As a result, the last Cinquecento rolled out of the factory two years later.
However, this wasn’t the end of the iconic city car. What had for so many years been a bastion of affordable motoring made a dramatic shift to being a highly sought-after classic. By the 21st century, an old, unroadworthy Cinquecento could set you back upwards of £2,500.
Then, in 2007, 50 years after the original Cinquecento entered production, Fiat announced that a new 500 would be built.
This new car was initially launched with a choice of three engines – a 1.2-litre 69bhp petrol, a 1.4-litre 98bhp petrol and a 1.3-litre 74bhp diesel.
But what was perhaps the most technologically advanced engine was launched in 2010 – a 0.9-litre turbocharged two-cylinder ‘Twinair’ that produced 83bhp and was something of a homage to the original 500’s engine.
The next few years saw huge sales successes, giving a mandate for more versions of the 500, including a convertible called the 500C and a sporty Abarth model with 133bhp. An electric version called the 500e was also released in 2013.
In 2016, the 500 received a significant facelift, with improved cosmetics, revised trim levels and new equipment. Fiat has now announced that for 2017, which marks the 60th anniversary of the original 500, it will be releasing the 500 60th – a limited edition range-topping convertible model inspired by the retro style of the 1960s.
A mere 250 of these will be available for purchase in the UK, with the first 60 receiving individual numbering.
The legend continues…
Fiat 500 – 2007 onwards
The Fiat 500 comes with a choice of engines. Among them are a 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol producing 69bhp; a 0.9-litre two- cylinder petrol producing 85bhp; a 1.3-litre four-cylinder diesel producing 95bhp; and a two-cylinder ‘Twinair’ unit.
The Fiat 500 can either be fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox or a five-speed automatic transmission.
The Fiat 500 features eco:Drive technology, which monitors your driving habits in real- time, gives you feedback and tells you how you can improve.
The 500 comes with the Uconnect infotainment system, which can be upgraded with optional BeatsAudio hi-fi with DSP amplifier, six speakers and a subwoofer, resulting in a total output of 440W. The system can also connect to the user’s social media accounts.
There are also two hot versions of the 500 from Abarth, Fiat’s in-house tuning company. These are the Abarth 595 and Abarth 695 Biposto.
There are four limited-edition versions of the 500 – the 500 Mirror, 500 Riva, 500 Anniversario and the new 500-60th.
The Fiat 500 is available in four levels of trim – Pop, Pop Star, Lounge and S. Each spec level introduces extra technological and aesthetic enhancements.
The Fiat 500 is available with a TomTom navigation system, which includes 3D maps and services such as real-time traffic updates, weather forecasts and speed camera warnings.
Odesseus James – Operations manager at Fiat Motor Village Marylebone
Motor Village Marylebone is the UK’s flagship dealer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Located in Wigmore Street, London, it features cars from Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Abarth and Jeep.
Odesseus James is Motor Village Marylebone’s operations manager. He has an extensive knowledge of all the brand’s vehicles, especially the various incarnations of the Fiat 500.
James has worked on new and old versions of the car, with a few restorations under his belt, and explained: ‘It’s a lot easier to work on the older ones. They’re a lot simpler and have a lot less electrics. Having the engine at the back of the car means it’s a lot easier to unbolt and remove from the car. That’s one of the major differences. The original car is so much smaller than the newer one. If you cut one of the new ones open, the old one can fit inside. We had an original one in the showroom last week and if you put it beside the new one it’s like a toy in comparison. You’d be amazed that four people can actually sit in that car and drive around – but I wouldn’t want to drive to Scotland in it.
Changes have been beneficial, as even to look at it’s clear that the classic model wasn’t the safest to take to the road.
‘It has changed quite a bit, especially from a safety point of view. The original Fiat 500 had the engine in the back of the car and they used a two-cylinder engine,’ he said. ‘We use that same two-cylinder design, two pistons working together instead of the conventional four. The engine is now mounted in the front of the car. They’ve fuel-injected it, they’ve turbocharged it and the original was 500cc. We’re now up to 875cc.
‘With that turbo, it’s now 85bhp or they’re even achieving 105bhp from it, so it’s fantastic to get so much power from such a small unit.
‘Smart is the only manufacturer that produces a two- cylinder, but I think Fiat’s one is much better and much more reliable. The valves work on a solenoid instead of a camshaft, which results in more performance. ‘Performance-wise, it’s a fantastic little creation. It’s the same two-cylinder system from back then.’ When it comes to interesting features on the classic, there weren’t many to choose from! As James explained, air conditioning is a creature comfort that you just didn’t get in the old 500.
However, there was, he said, one stand-out feature. ‘The original doors were called “suicide doors”. They were hinged on the B-pillar. They swing open and you step out with your legs first in a forward direction.
‘They were given the name “suicide doors” because in a frontal impact you couldn’t open those doors to get out.’
The Fiat 500 is a highly popular city car. It’s practical, stylish and pleasant to drive. But like anything mechanical, it’s prone to a few issues that no doubt readers will be familiar with. As it marks its 60th anniversary, we’ve found out what some of the car’s most common faults are, courtesy of Autodata.
Owners of 500s powered by the 1.3-litre 95bhp MultiJet diesel engine may find the stop-start system fails to automatically restart the car. The root of this problem is a software fault in the engine control module.
￼Footwell water ingress
Firstly, a problem that can affect any 500 model is water ingress into the front footwells. This is caused by a lack of sealant around the rear bumper, meaning water can enter the chassis rail.
Washer pipe split
All models that are fitted with the rear screen wash and wipe system could have a problem with the rear washer not working because of a split in the washer pipe.
Speed warning failure
Examples of the 500 fitted with the vehicle speed warning system and mph speedometer can suffer from the overspeed warning activation not corresponding with the car’s speed setting.
Tailgate electrics fault
Another issue that may occur on any 500, except for convertible models, is the electric components on the rear tailgate either only working intermittently or failing altogether.
First drive: Fiat 500 60th
What is it?
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the original Fiat 500. The new car has taken on the cutesy styling of the classic 500, bringing it into the modern age with better practicality and a lot more safety. The familiar 1.2-litre turbocharged engine is under the bonnet, linked to a five-speed manual gearbox.
There are retro Fiat badges dotted throughout the interior as well as on the exterior of the car. Unique ‘dolce vita’ two-tone paintwork has been applied to the body, giving it all of the retro looks of the original, while chrome ‘hub cap’-style alloy wheels certainly ape those fitted to the old 500. A new seven-inch TFT display has also been fitted inside.
What’s it like to drive?
Our test route took in the narrow, cobbled streets of Turin – the 500’s home territory. Its swift and nimble handling makes darting in and out of traffic a breeze, while the peppy engine suits the car’s frenetic, eager character. The ride is quite firm, although the 16-inch special-edition wheels fitted to this car probably play a large part in this problem.
What’s the spec like?
The biggest benefit to the interior is the all-new, larger infotainment display. It’s relatively simple to navigate and has decent sensitivity. However, its lack of a cowl means that it’s a nightmare to read in direct sunlight. Elsewhere, everything feels of a relatively good quality. However, the red finish applied to the 60th-anniversary edition’s dash feels scratchy and hard.
Should you buy one?
The Fiat 500 60th is a good choice for those who want to stand out from the crowd and like a little extra magic with their 500. The basic recipe remains unchanged, but it’s one that is likely to appeal to many. Given its limited-edition status, it’s a car that will probably appeal to those who like owning something a little special, too.
Facts at a glance
Model: Fiat 500 60th
Base price: £19,240
Engine tested: 1.2-litre petrol
Max speed: 99mph
0-60mph: 12.7 seconds
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