Once a rich person’s beach buggy, this wicker-seated, fringe-topped Fiat 500 still causes jaws to be dropped in amazement
Words ANDREW ROBERTS Photos LAURENS PARSONS ‘Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli required a vehicle that could be carried aboard his yacht’
Should you wish to keep a low profile, it’s probably best not to drive a 1958 Fiat 500 Jolly on to the Sandbanks Ferry across the entrance of Poole Harbour. Within nanoseconds, the finest beach car of its era is surrounded by crowds taking pictures, asking if it’s battery-powered and offering to buy it. And of course, the latter was the reaction Carrozzeria Ghia wanted when it created its open-topped version of the baby Fiat some 60 years ago.
The green Jolly we’re taking from Bournemouth to Swanage is the property of the independent car design maestro Andy Saunders, who came across it eight years ago. ‘It was in a field somewhere in the New Forest and although its history is vague, it probably came into the UK when it was about 15 years old,’ he says. ‘Over time it had been left in yards – when I bought it the engine and badges were missing. The body was shot – you could describe the state of the car as “desecrated”. At that time, the Jolly would probably have been regarded as just a very problematic restoration project.’ Skip forward to 2014, Bonhams sold one in the US for $88,000.
Today, the Fiat looks resplendent, but before experiencing the pleasures of Jolly motoring, there are a few ground rules. First, if you are above a certain size, seats made from woven cane are not going to take your weight – full stop. Second, height should never be allowed to deter you from taking the wheel. Andy stands at 6ft 4in but as one of the UK’S most famous customisers, he is used to driving chopped cars where he has to bend down to look through a narrow screen. ‘If I don’t do this with the 500 the airstream hits me full in the face,’ he says. Third, and possibly the most crucial point of all, be prepared for gasps of amazement from pedestrians.
A Jolly looks incongruous among 21st-century British traffic, not least because, compared with modern compact cars, it has the stature of a roller skate. The most extreme reaction to the Jolly Andy ever experienced was when ‘a bloke was so distracted he missed his mouth and hit himself in the face with an ice cream.’
He’s only ever driven it locally, but then chairs that look as though they have been borrowed from a garden centre are not designed for long journeys. Andy has never ventured on to a motorway with it but he has driven the Fiat on a dual carriageway. ‘It felt fine, but at low speeds it does drift. Passengers tend to grab for anything the first time we go around a corner,’ he says.
The idea of a small Fiat-based beach car dates back to 1956 when Pinin Farina displayed a concept vehicle based on the new 600 Multipla at the Paris Motor Show. The following year Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli required a vehicle that could be easily carried aboard his yacht, the Agneta, and one that was capable of transporting himself and guests to and from the beach whenever he docked. It would also have to be light enough for the crew to load and unload, and possess sufficient power for occasional road use.
The logical choice was Fiat’s recently launched Nuova 500 and so Agnelli dispatched an example to the Ghia workshops where, under the supervision of Sergio Sartorelli, the doors, side windows, rear screen and roof were removed. The engine remained as standard, but to ensure structural rigidity Ghia added reinforcements and Andy notes that the coachwork was
‘High-profile owners included Aristotle Onassis, Yul Brynner, Princess Grace of Monaco and Elvis’
Andy Saunders used a standard 500 as a donor car, including the engine – the later 499cc rather than the original 479cc unit. ‘I had new wicker seats made. I found a local expert named Steve and, incredibly, he was trained by the Ghia craftsman who made the original items! The wicker feels fine for two to three miles but if you drive it for any longer the effect is like a cheese grater on your spine. My solution was to fit a cover over the backrest. I found the steering wheel at a Beaulieu Autojumble and Steve “wickered it” for me.’ strengthened with a couple of metal ‘top hats’. If you look at the Jolly, one of its main strong points is in the bottom of the door openings. As finishing touches, the front windscreen was lowered, a ‘Surrey’ canopy was installed to offer the occupants a measure of shade and, best of all, wicker seats were installed.
The process of transformation took a mere four mouths and the Fiat Jolly – Italian for ‘Joker’ – was displayed at the Turin Motor Show of November 1957. Ghia went on to produce about 400 examples until 1966. The Jolly could be ordered in an array of pastel shades but its equipment levels were spartan – though not much less luxurious than the first incarnation of the 500, which lacked winding front windows, an ashtray and hubcaps. Between 1958 and 1961 the Jolly was exported to the US and high-profile owners included Aristotle Onassis, Yul Brynner, Princess Grace of Monaco and Elvis Presley. Fiat also presented President Lyndon B Johnson with a Jolly, which he used as a motorised golf caddy, and another high-profile owner was John Wayne.
Such was the Jolly’s success that Ghia produced further variants. For those motorists with the ambition but not the credit facilities to join this world there was the 1964 to 1966 economy version, with standard bumpers and more conventional seating, albeit still decorated with a wicker pattern. Further models were based on the 600, the 600 Multipla (in quite fabulous six-seater
form with three rows of benches) and the 500 Giardiniera. The latter was the choice of those who needed a boot in their Jolly, although if you were seriously in the market for a new Jolly, such mundane matters as the capacity for carrying groceries and other impediments were probably not your main concern.
In the UK of 2017, as opposed to St Tropez of 1959, it is evident that the Jolly openly delights in a total lack of practicality. The canopy is secured to the body via thin rods and is designed to provide occasional shade rather than any protection from the wind and the rain. As Andy’s car is based on the first generation of 500 saloons there are air vents beneath the headlamps and, somewhat bizarrely, the standard heater is retained.
Surviving examples of the Jolly are inevitably limited – their price was approximately twice that of a 500 saloon and no Fiat of the Fifties or Sixties was going to cope well with being regularly used in the salt air, or transported on the deck of a yacht.
Of course, the British weather is famously unpredictable but the journey to the beach takes only a matter of minutes. Once the Fiat is at rest at the seafront, greeted by the sounds of passers-by asking ‘is it a bubble car?’, it seems at home. Next Andy suggests continuing to Sandbanks, the region of Dorset once described as the fourth most expensive in the world – and possibly the one place in England suited to the Jolly.
A stop at the Sandbanks Hotel results in countless heads being turned, and this is wholly in keeping with the raison d’être of Ghia’s design, because it remains one of the best cars for making an entrance. When we take the ferry the Jolly causes possibly one of the greatest sensations of the Bournemouth/poole area since Dusty Springfield performed at the Winter Gardens in 1965. I am not saying ice creams are dropped in amazement but quite a few shoppers stop and point at the Fiat.
The fact it was never officially exported to the UK is not entirely surprising, for it is not a car for British roads. Lightweight utility vehicles were more common in mainland Europe and these can arguably be subdivided into cars that were originally intended for business or industrial use and those that never pretended to have any serious purpose. Into the former category, one might place the Citroën Mehari, the Volkswagen 181, the DAF 55-YA and the Trabant Kübelwagen, all vehicles that you might have expected to see on a building site or deployed in the services.
Meanwhile, the likes of the Renault 4 Plein Air and Rodeo and the SEAT 127 Samba followed in the Jolly tradition of providing transport associated with endless holidays. None of these, however, had the Ghia-bodied 500’s air of decadent frivolity. One British rival was the ‘Riviera Buggy’, developed by the British Motor Corporation for use as a taxi in the more upmarket resorts along the south coast. Longbridge removed the Mini’s side panels and replaced the seats with (naturally) wicker constructed items, but only 15 were ever made.
Three years later the Mini Moke, which was first intended as a lightweight vehicle for the military, made rather more of an impact. By contrast, the Jolly was designed solely for pleasure.
The day ends far too soon, but leaves some indelible memories. I now have a new joint personal favourite Fiat alongside the 600 Multipla and the 2300 Berlina, but the last words must go to Andy. His summary of the extraordinary Fiat 500 Jolly is succinct. ‘It’s just great fun,’ he says. Hear, hear.
Who needs more than this for the beach? Possibly the most stylish plate you’ll see on a 500 Wicker seats aren’t particular supportive during enthusiastic cornering The 499cc engine is from a later Nuovo
Surrey-fringed top is not terribly practical, but it’s certainly eye-catching