The FIAT 500, Italy's Cheerful Jelly Bean - A Historical Guide
A guide to the history of Italy's classic popular little city car.
Re-posted from my original Oppo Kinja article dated March 20th, 2020
Overview/Disclaimer: I thought writing this might be a fun and interesting way for me to pass the ‘Social Distancing’ time of the COVID-19 pandemic. As sad as it may sound, most of this was written from memory with a bit of research here and there to make sure I was getting things right and to find appropriate photos. Sadly, as classic 500s of any sort are extremely rare in any part of Canada, let alone the province I live in, all rights to any photos used in this article belong to their original owners. I make no pretense that any photos in this article belong to me unless otherwise stated!
Italy’s Cheerful Jelly Bean...a silly title, but an appropriate one to my eyes! The 500 was Italy’s ‘People’s Car’ from 1957 until 1977, providing the populace with a cheap, reliable, stylish, fun, comfortable and safe (in comparison to the motorcycles and scooters it oft replaced) method of transportation.
It was a family car, a sports car, a police car, a delivery van, a pickup truck - the diminutive little Cinquecento (Italian for ‘500') filled many roles despite its small stature and modest performance, but its charms quickly cemented it as one of the most-loved and most affordable Italian classics.
The 500's 20-year lifespan saw many models and variants, to which this article will provide a guide. Sit back, grab yourself some espresso and spaghetti and enjoy! 🙂
To begin, this 500 was actually the second of FIAT’s offerings to bear the name - the 1936-1955 ‘Little Mouse’ being the first. ‘Little Mouse’ was the English for the car’s Italian ‘Topolino’ nickname, named for Disney’s Mickey Mouse character, which its original design was said to resemble. The car had a tiny Inline-4 of 569cc putting out 13hp to the rear wheels through a 4-speed, non-synchro transmission in its original form:
The original Topolino design wherefrom it got its ‘Little Mouse’ nickname - the ‘Model A’ was produced from ‘36-’48
Above: The Topolino ‘Model C’ had a revised front end with in-fender headlights and rear-hinged hood (vs. the original design’s front-hinged hood). The ‘C’ shared the B's 16hp engine as well. Model B cars had the same body as the Model A, but with the larger engine. Model Bs could be had as a 2-door sedan, convertible, light van or estate. Model As had the same body options, minus the estate.
The ‘Model C’ estate - the original estates were only offered as ‘woodies’ but later had full metal construction.
Above: The Topolino had a surprising amount of interior space despite its small size due to the extreme forward position of the miniscule engine. The radiator was located behind the engine, with the fuel tank behind that above the driver’s feet. In the words of Topolino owner, Jay Leno, ‘You’d be surprised what you can do with 13hp!”
The interior of the 500 Topolino.
Three Topolino models existed over its life - the Model A, B and C. Model A cars were produced from ‘36-’48, Model B cars from ‘48-’49 and the Model C from ‘49-’55. One engine was offered, with slight tweaks over the course of its life raising its power to a blistering 16hp.
1957 brought us the now-legendary second generation of the 500, known as the ‘Nuova 500'. A fancy, sexy Italian name to be sure...except that ‘Nuova’ simply means ‘New’ in Italian! Produced from ‘57-'60, the ‘New’ 500 was the polar opposite of the original - shorter in length than the Topolino it replaced (though SLIGHTLY wider), and lighter by 50kg (100lbs). Rather than at the extreme front of the car, the new car had the engine at the extreme rear - a brand new Inline-2 cylinder unit of 479cc with a similar 13hp. Power was transferred to the rear wheels via a 4-speed non-synchro gearbox. Forced-air cooling replaced water-cooling for the sake of simplicity and reliability. Suspension featured coil springs at the rear and a transverse leaf spring across the width of the car at the front:
The car had 4 seats and, as with the original 500, a surprising amount of room inside for passengers considering the car’s size. Cargo capacity, also like the original 500, was......modest. A small ‘frunk’ at front of the car featured enough space for a minimal number of items, with a lot of the space taken up by the car’s full-sized spare wheel and the small fuel tank.
Styling by Dante Giacosa resulted in the rounded, cute ‘jelly bean’ design we’ve come to know and love. This same general body style lasted throughout the 500's full production run with minimal changes. Early ‘Nuova’ cars are easy to tell apart from later models - small vents can be seen below the headlights and front turn signals are mounted high on the sides of the fenders. Rear taillights were smaller, rounder units. Like the original 500 Topolino, early 500s featured rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors.
Almost all (we’ll come back to that!) 500s throughout the car’s production run featured a fabric roof. This saved on the cost of steel and stamping for FIAT, kept the car lighter (for increased performance and fuel economy) and also helped with the fact steel was in short supply. The Nuova 500 featured a fold-back roof as well, but the Nuova’s roof folded ALL the way back a la early Citroen 2CV, down to the top of the rear deck lid. Later 500s featured a folding roof that folded only as far back as the rear of the roofline.
Cruising the mountain roads of Italy in this period advertising photo - the suicide doors, fender-mounted turn signals and front vents are easily visible on this early Nuova 500.
Above: Again, suicide doors and fender-mounted front turn signals easily visible. The smaller, more-rounded taillights are located in the same place as the larger, squarer units on later cars. The full fold-back roof brings extra airiness and light into the interior.
Nuova 500s, 500Ds and 500Fs featured a unique badge proudly announcing the model’s ‘newness’!
Above: The interior of the Nuova 500 - the iconic singular, round cluster was carried over to all 500 models throughout the production run other than the 500L. There was no fuel gauge, only a ‘Reserve’ fuel light. The only other ‘instruments’ were the speedometer/odometer and warning lights for oil pressure, charging, lights on, main beam, and turn signals. The switch/indicator light layout on the Nuova was different than on later models. The painted metal dash was also carried on throughout production other than on the more ‘luxurious’ 500L.
Hidden amidst the Nuova’s production years was a special blip on the FIAT 500 radar featuring a body design change found only on one later 500 model - a full STEEL roof! The ‘58-’60 FIAT 500 Sport was FIAT’s factory attempt at putting some spice into the little Italian runabout. The Sport came in two body styles - one with the familiar fold-back fabric roof, and the other with the full steel roof. More fire was breathed into the little twin-cylinder in its tail...capacity increased to 499cc and 21hp was the very respectable result for the time. Sports were easily identified by their unique white paint with racy red stripes and matching rims. Interiors mirrored this vibrant red/white theme:
Following the success of the Nuova 500, the car was updated for 1960-1965 - the FIAT 500D was the result. The 500D kept the suicide doors and rear design of its predecessor, but featured several design changes to the front of the car resulting in a cleaner look. Gone were the small vents below the headlights and the high, fender-mounted turn signals were relocated with simpler units below and outboard of the headlights. Small side-repeaters were now found where the Nuova’s fender-turn-signals were previously located:
Body styles were limited to two - the full steel roof of the Sport once more gone leaving the two fabric roof variants as the only options. The usual fold-back roof was the most common choice and the Nuova’s earlier ‘fold ALL the way back’ design (named the ‘Transformable’ in 500D form) was the second variant:
The 500D Transformable. Note the same smaller, rounder taillights as found on the Nuova 500.
A 500D with the more common fabric sunroof.
The 500D interior - note the slightly different but relatively similar gauge/switch/light layout to the earlier Nuova 500.
The 500D also included mechanical upgrades. D models had the same 4-speed ‘crash’ gearbox Nuova 500s had, but the engines were updated from 479cc to 499cc, like in the Sport. UNLIKE the peppier Sport, however, the 500D’s engine put out 17hp. This engine would be the same used for the majority of remaining 500 production. The fuel tank in the 500D remained the same as it had in the Nuova 500 - a small tank located in the ‘frunk’, mounted on the left side:
Starting the same year of the 500D was production of the 500's only other major body variant - the ‘Giardiniera’ estate! This was the longest-produced model of the 500 range, running from 1960-1968 under the FIAT marque, and then rebadged as the Autobianchi Giardiniera from ‘68 all the way until ‘77! The estate was unique in that it was the only variant of the 500 to carry suicide doors throughout its ENTIRE production run...imagine buying a new Autobianchi Giardiniera in 1977 and it STILL having suicide doors!
Mechanicals for the Giardiniera were the same as the 500D, however, due to the rear-engined layout, a ‘flattened’ form of the 17hp engine was developed to lay on its side below the rear floor, allowing for the flat load space of the estate configuration. This same engine was used in all Giardinieras until production ended. Intake air was moved from the vents above the rear decklid on the usual body style to be embedded in the C-pillars on the Giardiniera, similar to the VW ‘Bus’.
An early FIAT 500 Giardiniera - earlier FIAT 500D or 500F-based models also featured the characteristic ‘moustache’ FIAT emblem on the nose of the car, as seen here.
A later ‘71 Autobianchi Giardiniera - note the trademark Autobianchi ‘grill’ on the nose. Later Autobianchi Giardinieras had a smaller Autobianchi logo in place of the ‘grill’.
Both FIAT and Autobianchi-badged Giardinieras were also available in light panel van form, known as the ‘Furgoncino’.
Above: A later FIAT 500R - the top vent in the rear provided intake air to the engine. The lower two vents provided a way for heat to escape the engine bay when needed. This same vent layout was found on all 500 models except the Giardiniera, which used the aforementioned C-pillar intake vents.
Following the FIAT 500D was the 500F. The F was produced from ‘65 until ‘73. Again, this facelift featured minimal changes. Body-wise, the front and rear of the car were unchanged from the 500D, but the 500F gained one significant difference - gone now were the suicide doors, with conventional front-hinged doors taking their place.
The mechanicals of the 500F remained the same 4-speed non-synchro ‘box and 17hp 499cc engine as before, but the fuel tank was redesigned away from its ‘jerry can’ rectangular shape. Rather than being mounted on the left side of the ‘frunk’ as in the Nuova 500 and 500D, it was now mounted along the rear bulkhead of the ‘frunk’ in the 500F and featured a more cylindrical shape. Interior changes were minimal, featuring mostly just alterations to the switch/indicator light layout on the dash.
Above - Your standard FIAT 500F - incredibly similar to the 500D, but note the now front-hinged doors. Aside from the Giardiniera, the 500F was the only other ‘main variant’ to be sold alongside ANOTHER main variant. 500F production continued alongside the later 500L where the less fancy 500F was offered as the ‘base model’.
Above - A 1972 FIAT 500F interior. As the F was the ‘base model’ upon the release of the 500L in ‘67, it made due with continuing to offer the simple painted metal dash and basic gauge cluster. Note the different switch/indicator light layout compared to the earlier Nuova 500 and 500D.
The 500F’s more cylindrical rear-frunk-mounted fuel tank.
Above - The only photo in this whole article that I’ve taken myself! 500s are exceeding rare in Canada, let alone here in middle-of-nowhere Nova Scotia! Imagine my surprise when I found out these two live only 10 minutes from my house in a building with a collection of other mostly-Italian classic metal (though sadly these two FIATs are not road-registered at the moment)! A FIAT 500F on the left and earlier FIAT 500D on the right (note the suicide doors and smaller rear light clusters). Oddly, these cars were restored incorrectly as both are wearing later FIAT 500L front and rear bumpers (note the bumper guards on the rear corners) - these bumper guards were NEVER offered on the 500D and 500F from the factory.
Following the 500F...and also being sold alongside it for several years, was the 500L. This was the fanciest factory version of the 500, sold from ‘67-’71. The ‘L’ stood for ‘Lusso’ in Italian; ‘Luxury’ in English and boy, did it have luxury in spades!
Starting on the outside, the 500L followed the 500F with minimal changes. The front ‘moustache’ badge was replaced with a smaller, simpler, centrally-mounted FIAT badge. To verify its luxuriousness, some additional chrome trim was added along with new chrome bumper guards across the front bumper and on the rear corners - these were only found on the 500L. Mechanically, the drivetrain of the car remained unchanged, though radial tires were fitted to the 500L rather than bias-ply.
On the inside, the interior received an extensive rework. The plain metal painted dash was now covered in anti-glare black plastic (black was the only color you could get). The ignition switch was moved from the center of the dash to the steering column. The gauge cluster was replaced with the fancier, more trapezoidal-shaped unit often used in other FIATs of the time (like the FIAT 850, for example) and brought with it an actual fuel gauge! See? Luxury!
Other interior accoutrements included carpet instead of the rubber mats found in lesser 500s, and added storage in the form of a central storage tray on the middle console and new door pockets. Leatherette in several colors was the material of choice for seats and door cards, replacing the vinyl found in lower-spec cars.
Above - The matte anti-glare plastic dash cladding is clearly visible in the interior of this RHD-spec 500L. Note the blanking plug in the center of the dashboard to cover the hole the ignition switch previously took up on 500F, 500D and Nuova models. 500L cars also featured a new steering wheel - two metal central spokes flanking a FIAT badge with black plastic wheel.
Carpet and Leatherette in the L came in several color choices, such as red, tan, an interesting beige-orange and black.
Above - The 500L’s new trapezoidal gauge binnacle as found in a RHD-spec car. Note the fuel gauge on the left and warning lights along the bottom for (left-to-right) Fuel Reserve, Charging, Lights On, and Main Beam. The turn signal indicator was no longer dash-mounted, but could now be found in the center of the gauge cluster.
Above - The front of the 500L - note the simpler FIAT badge in the center of the nose and the large bumper guard across the front. Chrome brightwork around the front and rear windshields was also a hallmark of the 500L - lesser models made due with black trim. Note the additional chrome strip on the rocker panel as well.
The rear of the 500L featured larger, more rectangular and more visible taillight clusters, a new and more modern model badge and chrome bumper guards on each corner.
A closer look at the new rear light clusters and updated 500L badging.
The final ‘hurrah’ of the FIAT 500 was the 500R, or ‘500 Rinnovata’ (‘Renewed’ in English). This final facelift was actually a stop-gap model until the arrival of FIAT’s new city car, i.e. the heavily-500-based FIAT 126. In fact, earlier 500Rs used the 500L floor pan while later 500Rs used the 126's floorpan. The drivetrain and floor pan of the 500 and 126 are so similar, many of the parts are bolt-on compatible with each other. The 500R was produced from 1971 until 1976, replacing the 500L. It featured the uprated engine from the new 126, which was basically a bored-out 500 engine to 594cc, making the same 17hp, but with a bit more torque. The 500R, however, did NOT get the 126's synchromesh gearbox, though it is a popular swap for owners to add to their 500s for ease of use.
The easiest tell for a FIAT 500R is the front and rear badge - they look similar to the 500F otherwise, but the R features the more modern FIAT badge on its nose
A 500R from behind - note the lack of chrome trim and bumper guards, unlike the 500L, and also the fact the rear badge is the exact same as the 500L’s minus the ‘L’.
Interior-wise, the 500R was a step back and went back to the more basic interior of the 500F. The simple round speedo cluster was back, for example, as was a missing fuel gauge replaced by the old petrol ‘Reserve’ light.
The R was sold alongside the 126 for 4 years upon the launch of the 126 in 1972. The more modern design of the 126 and its improved driveability led to the demise of the 500 as sales fell and new buyers moved on to the 126. The 500 ended sales in ‘76, though the Giardiniera in Autobianchi form soldiered on until 1977.
A FIAT 126 and FIAT 500 in Italy. The 126 has a much more modern and boxy shape for the time, but you can see the resemblance in their underpinnings if you look hard enough! Old meets new...
The 500 timeline included cars from coachbuilders and tuners as well. Abarth and Giannini were the most prolific at tuners...Abarth, especially. I won’t be getting their cars in detail here as the breadth of variety of models was complex. Sufffice it to say that everybody who knows of the 500 knows of the Abarth 500 595 and 695, especially with the modern 500's Abarth variant helping its ancestors gain notoriety.
Both Abarth and Giannini added more pep to the 500 with performance parts...lightness and power increases were the name of the game. New carb sets, valvetrain parts, intakes, exhausts and light rims gave the tiny city car some real zest and it wasn’t uncommon for the small runabout to handily surprise larger, heavier and more powerful cars on the track. This power bump necessitated increased cooling for the little two-banger air-cooled engine...what easier way than simply opening the engine cover? So...that is how Giannini and Abarth kept the little engines from overheating, by propping the engine covers open!
Giannini 590 GT - note the wide open engine decklid and unique vertical wipers! Both Abarth and Giannini actually found the open decklid let the car run faster, giving it improved aerodynamics and rear downforce.
Above - Other Abarth and Giannini models had less...obvious...engine hood alterations. This Giannini variant with relocated lower hinge kept the engine safe from the weather more than the wide open option, but still allowed for hot air to escape and more cool air to come in.
The classic and renowned FIAT 500 Abarth 595.
Yet other companies focused not on tuning, but luxury. The coachbuilder, Carrozzeria Francis Lombardi, had a hit on their hands when they introduced the FIAT 500 ‘My Car by Francis Lombardi’. The ‘My Car’ features notable changes compared to the original 500, mostly improving on the creature comforts and styling of the car. Yearly production on the ‘My Car’ was a very respectable 6000 units in conjunction with FIAT. Mechanically, there were no changes over the stock 500.
The front end featured a faux grill with FIAT logo, along with a small Francis Lombardi and ‘My Car’ badge on the top corner of the nose:
Externally, the ‘My Car’ was the only other 500 variant aside from FIAT’s own early 500 Sport to feature a full metal roof, though the ‘My Car’ could be had in usual fabric roof form as well. Stainless steel rocker panel trims were another notable external difference on the ‘My Car’, as were different rims and hubcaps on some models.
A ‘My Car’ that has seen better days...note the full steel roof.
Above - The back of the ‘My Car’ featured no real changes over the normal 500 - no Lombardi badges were even located on the back of the car so it was easy to mistake a ‘My Car’ for a normal 500 from behind, other than by the steel roof, if present. One small detail to tell them apart from behind - the ‘My Car’ offered the luxurious option of a lock for the engine lid where the stock 500 simply had a unlockable latch.
The interior of the ‘My Car’ was where things changed the most...a wooden steering wheel added some warmth and style, along with a completely redesigned dash and new single-gauge instrument cluster. Some models also had wooden shift knobs:
The very inviting wooden steering wheel of the ‘My Car’. Note the redesigned and re-shaped padded dash and instrument cluster.
Some ‘My Cars’ had a wooden shift knob. Interior seats and door cards used a similar Leatherette to FIAT’s own ‘luxurious’ 500L, but came in several other colors
The FIAT 500 is a well-loved and well-known classic these days. Fun, simple to maintain, relatively affordable and full of character and charm - these little cars have a loyal following, and deservedly so. They are a car I would love to own someday, along with their later, lesser-known and more unloved FIAT 126 relative.
Over a lifespan of 20 years, Italians lived to the thrum of the 500's little two cylinder engines happily puttering around the narrow streets carrying Italian families to and from, and working hard as delivery vans/police cars/municipal trucks.
A 500D in Police trim!
Above - A FIAT 500 pickup based on the Giardiniera and manufactured by the famed Giannini company! These truck variants were often used by cities for municipal duties. Being Giardiniera-based, note the laid-flat engine and its hatch in the floor of the rear bed!
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my article and have learned a little something in the process...not just about what makes these cars tick, but also the differences between the 500's variants and how the car changed over the years. Thanks for reading!
Join me and a lot of other awesome like-minded petrolheads over at Oppositelock on our website (opposite-lock.com) or our DT page! :D