Dante’s peak: How Fiat’s answer to Alec Issigonis designed an icon
Ever felt that a disproportionate number of the greatest ever design innovations have gone into small cars? Trying to cram everything necessary into a tiny vehicle entails considerably more work than designing a large family saloon.
The job of creating the Fiat 500 fell to engineer Dante Giacosa. Ironically, he had never expected to design a car – he may have been appointed as a Fiat design chief in 1932 but he worked in the aero engine department.
Company boss and Fiat co-founder Giovanni Agnelli wanted a small car, however, and saw no reason why all his designers couldn’t pitch in with submissions. Giacosa rose to the challenge. His design reached clay model stage in 1934 and a prototype followed. The resulting Fiat Topolino appeared in 1936 with innovations such as independent front suspension and an allsynchromesh gearbox. There were only two seats and a sidevalve engine.
The Topolino – the Italian word for ‘Mickey Mouse’ – won massive acclaim and even won fans in Britain, with several well-known racing drivers having them for personal transport. The 1948-on 500B added a sidevalve engine and sundry other detail improvements and the Giardiniera estate brought with it room for four inside. Another of Giacosa’s big success stories came in 1955 in the shape of the all new Fiat 600, with a rear-mounted water-cooled 633cc engine. Fiat however soon realised that it still needed a cutting-edge small car decided a smaller car was still needed, and so in 1957 the ‘Nuova’ – or ‘new’ – 500 arrived, with excellent design and handling and 50mpg.
Fiat, and an Italy desperate for affordable mass transport never looked back. The newcomer had a tiny air-cooled, 479cc twin-cylinder engine and just 13bhp – not exactly fast, but tough, reliable and capable of 50mpg.
An estate version – using the Giardiniera name – arrived in 1960 and built by Fiat subsidiary Autobianchi. The standard car was uprated to 500D spec the same year with a 499cc engine and 17bhp in 1960. All 500s had rear-hinged suicide doors until 1964, but the Giardiniera kept them until 1972.
The 500L joined the range in 1968, four years before yet another Giacosa design – the Fiat 126 – was launched. Telling, though, the old car remained in production for a further three years, with the Giardiniera surviving until 1977, though the range was dropped from the UK market in 1973. It never did get an all-synchromesh gearbox.
Some 3.7 million Fiat 500s were built, with more built under licence by other manufacturers including Steyr-Puch, Neckar and Simca. Lombardi produced a luxury version, design house Vignale produced the unforgettable Gamine open top roadster between 1967 and 1971 and Ghia the Jolly – basically a doorless beach car with an awning roof.
Giacosa, who also pioneered Fiat’s front-wheeldrive layout first seen on the 128, died in 1996, aged 91. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the design for which he is most remembered is that Fiat announced a new Fiat 500 in 2007, with retro styling an instantly recognisable echo of the 1957 500.
Laurens Parsons Barons Auctioneers for arranging the loan of our test car. This is now sold but Barons tries to have at least one 500 in every sale. Details via www.barons-auctions.com or 02380 668409.