Dante’s peak: How Fiat’s an­swer to Alec Issigonis de­signed an icon

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Driven -

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.

Nick Larkin

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.

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