History of the 1957 - 1960 Fiat 500
The Fiat Cinquecento (500) was unveiled in 1957 as a replacement for the ageing Fiat 500 Topolino. Known as the ‘Nuova’ 500 to distinguish it from its predecessor, it was a rear engine, rear wheel drive using an air-cooled two-cylinder engine. Marketed as Italy’s alternative to the Volkswagen Beetle, the Fiat 500 was aimed at the small family saloon market. It was an instant hit and sold very strongly, especially in its Italian home. Nearly 3.5 million were made in total.
The Nuova 500’s engine displaced 479cc, and developed 13 horsepower, and it had twin rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors. The gearbox was un-synchronized and required skill and double-clutching to negotiate successfully. Initially with two seats and a soft top which included a plastic back window that rolled down, the 500 was able to deliver 50 mpg with a top speed of 50 mph and rode on independent suspension.
When the 500D model was introduced in 1960, it had gained a small back seat and the engine size was boosted to 499cc. It developed 17 hp, but the little car still took 59 seconds to get to 50 mph. The back window was now fixed and the soft top only opened to top of the window.
In 1960, the Fiat 500 K Giardiniera estate version was launched. The wheelbase was extended by four inches and the engine laid on its side under a trapdoor in the rear floor. The rear door was side-hinged and the sunroof was full-length. After 1968, these were built by Autobianchi and badged as such, and they were built until 1977, outlasting the saloon.
The 1965 Fiat 500F (or Berlina) gained forward-hinged doors, a bigger windscreen and plusher interior, but still rolled on tiny 12-inch tyres. The 500L (or Lusso) of 1968 was a luxury edition incorporating a new dashboard. The final Fiat 500R (or Rinnovata) from 1972 had a 594cc engine developed by Abarth and a full synchromesh gearbox.
Like the Fiat 600, Ghia also took the Fiat 500 and made a beach convertible: the Fiat 500 Jolly. With open sides and a sun-shade roof, these are now considered very collectable.
Today the Fiat 500 is regarded as a very iconic and collectable classic car. Values have recently risen, and as a result many have been imported from Italy. Spares are available, but high-quality original parts are hard to find, and reproductions can tend to be low quality.
Few right hand drive Fiat 500s remain, and specific parts for these cars can be hard to find. Similarly older ‘suicide’ doors are very hard to source. The main issue with the Fiat 500 is rust, especially in the floorpans, sills and around the engine bay and lid. Poor restorations are also a potential problem: ‘uprated’ suspension kits and wheels can foul on the wheel arches unless properly installed. The later 500R is considered to be a good entry-level Fiat Cinquecento, as it shares many parts with the later Fiat 126 and tends to be lower- priced. For those seeking a more ‘classic’ feel the Fiat 500F is considered to be the best compromise of looks and practicality.
Today the Fiat 500 Jolly is the most collectable of the series, followed by the Giardiniera and the Fiat 500L. Other similar Fiats of the era include the water-cooled Fiat 600 and the later Fiat 124. Alternatives include the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Berlina, the Alfa Romeo 105 Coupe, the Austin Mini and the Morris Minor.