24.03.2022

Engage reverse: a brief history of the Fiat 500

When you jump into car-sharing with SHARE NOW, you'll get access to thousands of vehicles right from your smartphone. Our fleet is packed with some of the most iconic and celebrated brands in the automotive world. In the second entry in this mini-series, where we take a look back into what made the cars of the past the icons they are today, we're heading to Italy for a car that has touched so many over the six-and-a-half decades it has been flaunting its charm.

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The birth of the ​​Cinquecento

Back in 1954, when Dante Giacosa of the Fiat Company started designing the 500, Italy was going through a post-war period of optimism. Much like what Alec Issigonis was doing over in England at the Morris Company with the MINI, simplicity was placed at the centre of everything. The 500 had to be cheap, functional and economical. Some argue it was the first-ever purpose-designed city car, but few deny that Giacosa fathered a lifestyle for urban Italians that would remain popular for more than 60 years. Launched as the Nuova 500 in 1959, the original Cinquecento measured just over 2.9 meters long.

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Italian tinkering and revisions

The original Fiat 500 got its name from its engine. Built with a 479 cc (500 cc nominal, hence the name) two-cylinder engine, it produced just 13 horsepower. It didn’t take long for the design to inspire spin-offs and modified versions of the popular city car. By mid-1958, the Nuova 500 Sport was born. The horsepower had been upped to 21.5 but, more importantly, the cream and red racing stripe design hit the streets. More variants followed, including the 500 Giardiniera (1960) station wagon, the Fiat 500 F (1965) with its infamous rear-mounted ‘suicide doors’, and the 500 Furgoncino panel van (1969).

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The Abarth performance models

Just as John Cooper was experimenting with a racing version of the MINI in England, Karl Abarth was playing around with the Fiat 500 as early as 1964. The Austrian-born designer, who was later naturalised as an Italian citizen and changed his name to Carlo Abarth, set about implementing a series of mechanical upgrades to increase the top speed of the little Fiat to 140 km/h, whilst improving stability and cooling thanks to those iconic flared arches. The Fiat Abarth 695 SS was launched in 1966, and of the 1,000 that were produced, only 150 are believed to remain today.

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Arrivederci, my old friend

Fiat ceased production of the Fiat 500 in August 1975. After 18 years and almost four million cars built, the final Cinquecento rolled off the production line at the SicilFiat plant in Palermo, Sicily. Its successor, the Fiat 126, launched two years later but never really captured the hearts of Europeans. The Fiat 500 was not just a car that had a great design, nor was it a car that became famous simply for its prevalence, it was a genuine cultural phenomenon - a piece of engineering that captured a time and place in social history, cementing its status as an icon, both in Italy and abroad.

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The 50th-anniversary rebirth

To celebrate the 50-year anniversary of its most iconic car model, Fiat unveiled its modern reinterpretation of the 500 in 2007. Whilst the car maintained the look and feel of the original classic, modern touches brought the car into the 21st century. The rear-mounted engine was gone in favour of the now-standard front engine, and several modern features from the Fiat Panda were brought over. The redesign was an instant hit, and by 2012 Fiat had produced more than one million of them. That tinkering attitude never died, and today Fiat produces several 500 variants including the Fiat 500C convertible and the Fiat 500X adventurer.

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The electric 500 of the future

The 2007 relaunch of the Fiat 500 had been a success but by the end of the 2010s manufacturers were starting to look towards the future. The all-electric Fiat 500 was unveiled in March 2020 in Milan. Powered by an 87 kW (116 hp) electric motor and fed by a 42 kWh lithium-ion battery, the new generation of 500s would aim to retain the design of the much-loved original and bring it into the era of electric automobiles. With the 3+1 door configuration variant, even the famous ‘suicide doors’ have made a reappearance, and the legacy of the Fiat 500 looks set to live on for some years to come.

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There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the Fiat 500 and the original MINI - both were born out of the necessities of the late 50s and developed into cultural icons in the 1960s, before being relaunched in the early 2000s. Now, both have gone all-electric. But there’s something charming about the way the Fiat captured the creativity and optimism of those post-war years that set it apart from even the MINI. If you don’t believe us, jump into a Fiat 500 in your SHARE NOW city and you’ll see what we mean.