L’unica Cinquecento!

I saw a Lancia Y10 the other day, which doesn’t happen very often. Arguably it’s not something a person not contaminated with the very sticky automobile virus would notice or find interesting. To those of us that are heavily infected, there are however few cars that aren’t of some interest, and the Y10 is a bit quirky in the sense that it was the first real (although a bit halfhearted) attempt to build a luxurious, small city car, with its alcantara or leather-dressed seats and dashboard.

Let’s just say they spent more time on the interior design…

Speaking of virus, there is another one out there that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I wrote back in May (see here) that I thought Covid would lead to a comeback of the car as preferred means of safe transportation, which has definitely been the case both during the summer and as business now resumes. Given the congestion of major cities that is now back after the empty streets in summer and after that, during the lock downs, I wonder if the trend will continue towards more comfortable small cars for short, mostly work-related transport? These would most probably be electric (which arguably would have been the logical route for electrical cars to take in the first place). You’ll tell me that’s nothing new and mention cars like the the BMW i3, the Zoé or other small hybrids. I’m however thinking of on one hand far more comfortable and a bit luxurious creations, and on the other even smaller cars, towards that 3-metre segment the Y10 represented.

Aston Martin did actually try with the Cygnet, but at another, wrong time.

Time will tell but whilst thinking of small cars, this week we’ll pay tribute to a legendary Italian creation that over 2.5 metres meant a lot not only for Italy, but actually for all of Europe: the original Fiat 500!

The 500, or Cinquecento in Italian, was launched in 1957 and thus in the same period as the Citroën DS that I wrote about a few weeks ago (see here). Much like in France, life was looking up in Italy and the post-war, economic boom was in full swing. Fiat was convinced there would be strong demand for a small, cheap car that everyone could afford. There was also a bit of urgency since the preceding Fiat 500 Topolino was by now a 20-year old, pre-war model.

In 1957, the sun was shining on Italy again!

Dante Giacosa was given the mission of designing the Cinquecento, and what a success his design proved to be! Over a total length of only 2.5 metres, the 500 still managed to accommodate four people (at least 1950-sized ones…) and through its limited size it was immensely practical on the small cobble streets of Italian villages. Having said that, the very first Cinquecentos were actually very basic two-seater cars with a 480 cc, 2-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine developing a massive 13 hp. Derived from the Topolino, it gave the car a top speed of 85 km/h. The two-seat configuration did however not produce the sales numbers Fiat had expected, and the initial version was replaced by a four-seated car with an updated engine and all of 15 hp(!) the same year. This new Normale version was to become the basis for various models all the way through 1975, i.e. for almost 20 years.

The original interior wasn’t a source of much confusion!

Among these special versions, the Sport with 21.5hp built from 1958 to 1960 should be mentioned, as should the 10 cm longer Giardiniera estate, built from 1960 to 1968. Other modifications to the 500 through the years included more power, but were otherwise mostly cosmetic and equipment-related. An important but for many, sad development was the replacement of the rear-hinged, “suicide” doors by conventional doors in 1968. Rumour has it that the replacement was frowned upon by mostly men, as the traditional doors didn’t offer the same view of women’s legs as these got in and out of the car…

An estate with the standard canvas roof and rear-hinged, “suicide” doors

Various performance versions were designed with the 500 as basis, and the ones coming out of the (in modern language) tuning shop Abarth are the most well-known ones. This is especially true for the Abarth 695 SS, launched in 1966 and distinguishable by various stripes and Abarth logos, its flared arches and perhaps most notably, the fact that it’s best driven with the (rear) engine hood open for additional cooling. Various improvements to the engine almost doubled the power output over the standard car to 38 hp and the top speed to 140 km/h, accompanied by a sound that would make you think there’s a zero missing both in the hp number and speed! The SS was built until 1971 and very few remain today.

Chess-board roof , red stripes and open hood – signs of a true Abarth!

Seeing a 500 these days actually happen more often than seeing an Y10, and it’s definitely a sight (and sound!) that always puts a small on your face. The air-cooled tone is unmistakable, how sympathetic the car looks impresses as much as how small it is, and quite often, the shape of a somewhat larger driver in 2020 than in the 60’s looks a bit comical, with the side window rolled down as much for fresh air as for additional room. And should you be lucky enough to see an Abarth, you will know long before you actually see it as the sound precedes it!

The Cinquecento’s importance cannot be overstated as without being technologically advanced in any way, it’s the car that put Italy on wheels, that I bet our Italian readers have driven or been riding in many times, and that actually was a success in many other European countries, with versions built also by other manufacturers, notably Puch in Austria. When it was replaced by the 126 in 1975, that also meant a more conventional car age would start. Rear-mounted engines had notably been popular in the late 1950’s but now increasingly moved up front.

“No thanks, we’ll take the boat instead…”

A new mini car in the age of Covid would most probably never attain the legendary status of the original 500, but the 500 should definitely be a source of inspiration. My son is very much of the same opinion and when he gets his driving license next year, he has the idea of finding a cheap 500 and converting it to electrical drive. Maybe he’s on to something, but I would still go for the original, air-cooled version, notably for the sound. Both him and I should hurry up though, as values for 500’s are on the rise. Today you can expect to pay at least EUR 15.000 for a nice example, with early models with rear-hinged doors and of course Abarth cars being sold for as much as EUR 45-50.000. That’s indeed a lot but then again, there is no better proof that there is indeed a good substitute for cubic inches!

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