First introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 became a symbol of post-war growth and prosperity. For the next eighteen years the little car flitted along with imperceptible exterior design changes and few interior ones.
Measuring just under ten feet long and fifty-two inches high AND wide, the original Fiat 500 was known as the utilitaria, the useful, or utilitarian, thing—a word that has come to mean “economy car” in Italian today. It’s two-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine chugged up hills and coasted to the coast. The cars often carried racks on top, piled high with luggage or picnic gear. I know from personal experience that, despite its diminutive size, the old Fiat 500 could hold at least five people, more if you were young and chummy.
A favorite color for the old cinquecento (500), or cinquino as they were lovingly known, was red, and a surprising number of them are still on the road today. I even spotted one parked in Washington, D.C.’s tony Georgetown neighborhood a few years ago, although the owner didn’t want to talk about it. I suspect that he had imported it illegally in defiance of U.S. safety standards. The one pictured above belongs to an auto mechanic in Rome.
My character, Professor Nino Nardo of the Caroline Woodlock series, drives one, red of course. It underscores his commitment to Italian history and traditions.
My first experience with the cinquecento came in 1970. A group of journalists had organized dinner at a restaurant on Rome’s Appia Antica (the Appian Way). I soon found myself in the back seat of a cinquecento with two guys. I was married to one of them at the time, but the other, a well-known journalist, was a complete stranger.
It’s impossible to sit three across in a car that’s only fifty-two inches wide, exterior walls included. The two men entered the back seat first, my husband behind the driver, the well-known journalist behind the front-seat passenger, a very pregnant woman who had moved as far forward as possible—not very far.
I wriggled into the back seat, plopping my derrière onto hubby’s lap and extending my legs over the well-known journalist’s. But, alas, there wasn’t enough room. If I bent my knees, they approached the roof and my heels dug into the w-k j’s crotch. Most uncomfortable for all of us. We solved the problem by rolling down the front window. I took off my shoes and extended my feet through the opening, bypassing the w-k j’s lap. We zoomed, as fast as a two-cylinder engine can zoom, down the Via del Corso, around the Colosseum and onto the Appian Way. My feet have never felt so free.
In 2007, fifty years after its initial appearance, Fiat introduced an updated version of the Fiat 500. It’s a little longer, higher and wider than the original and a lot more powerful. A hatchback reveals a surprisingly roomy trunk, and the back seats fold forward to create ample cargo space. A Gucci version is in the works with the telltale stripe and a hand-stitched steering wheel cover.
On my recent visit to the U.S., I rented a car to take me on the 1,500-mile trip I planned to drive. The rental agent assigned me a 2012 Fiat 500—white, not red. I laughed out loud when he told me, but I loved it! It could really zoom, with a power booster that let me climb the Smoky Mountains with ease and outrace trucks on the interstate. It turned out to be a great conversation piece; complete strangers approached me to ask about it. But I never got to put my feet out the window.