In Italy, old Fiat 500s are ubiquitous the way aging VW Beetles are everywhere else. They weren't around for as long – from 1957 until 1975 (as opposed to the Beetle's much longer five-plus decade run) – but they make a lot of sense on narrow Italian streets, so a lot of people bought them over the years. Here in the land of plenty, such tiny cars are almost non existent.
In fact, I'd never seen one outside of Europe until I caught sight of one in Santa Barbara, Calif. one day. It turns out that a Swiss chocolate maker living in the seaside town had seen one, too a few years ago, and decided that she wanted to raise the city's antique Fiat population by 100 percent. So she had another one shipped over from Italy.
(Full disclosure: As many of you know, my family is Italian. The way I see it, driving this car and the Topolino are at the top of my list of weird cars to drive. It's pretty much obligatory – especially after seeing so many of them on my fairly regular trips to Sicily to visit family. Since Maya lives in Santa Barbara and can't escape my pestering, she relented and let me take it for a spin.)
Maya Schoop-Rutten – owner and head maker of delicious chocolates at Chocolate Maya, in Santa Barbara – is from Geneva, Switzerland, and her first car was a Fiat 500. She said she loved it, but having lived in California since 1982, she didn't think much about getting another one. It's just not something you see all that often in the U.S. But one day, she someone driving one through town and fell in love with his car. The man had just relocated from Italy, and had his things shipped over in a container.
"I said how much I liked his Fiat and how much I'd like to have one, and he told me that he had another container to bring, and that he could help me find one and bring it back in his container," she said.
So her new friend did what any Italian in a similar situation would do – he called his mother. The Italian mama got on the job and found a 1969 Fiat 500 Berlina at a nearby junkyard. It was in decent shape and ran pretty good, and gradually, it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and the continental U.S. in a container full of Italian household goods.
Maya spent a few grand to get her 500 here, but said it was a worthwhile investment. She had her shop's logo painted on each door, and said it does more to attract business than an ad in the local paper. Although its minuscule size keeps her from driving it on the freeway, Maya said she enjoys driving her Fiat more than the Audi she counts as her "normal" car.
"I'm always happy when I drive this car," she said.
Nothing says "Ciao, bella!" quite like a 500 – pronounced cinquecento (ching-kway-chen-toh) in Italian. Arguably cuter than a Volkswagen Beetle of similar vintage, Fiat's first city car possesses the sort of lovable character that makes all but the most hard hearted among us smile fondly when they see one.
If it looks a bit like a VW, though, that's because the 500 is basically Fiat's version of one. But lets compare. It holds fewer passengers than a Bug, but the 500 fits in narrower streets – molto importante in many of Italy's labyrinthine medieval alleyways – and gets better gas mileage. Its cloth sunroof, similar in size to the VW's, takes up a lot more space on such a small car. That means the Fiat is practically a convertible. In Mediterranean climates like Italy and Southern California, that's a definite plus.
There's not much to the interior of these cars. A couple of tiny front seats, a rear bench that looks like it could maybe fit a couple of young children or a pile of groceries, and a tiny ashtray that had me wondering if the car had really been designed for Italians. But then I remembered that Italians don't really use ashtrays. Fottitene! That's what the windows are for!
The Fiat 500 Berlina's air-cooled 22 hp 499 cc engine isn't exactly a dynamo. But the car tips the scales at less than 1,200 pounds, so it gets the job done. Maya doesn't drive the car on the freeway, and neither did I, so I couldn't tell you about what it's like. I don't think I'd want to. It had enough power to get out of its own way on city streets, but driving a tiny car that has a top speed of about 60 mph out on open tarmac amongst monstrous, speeding SUVs seems like somewhat of a death wish.
"I drive this car like I would drive a motorcycle; I have my eyes behind me," Maya pointed out. "People can't see you."
But breakneck acceleration isn't what's important in a car like this. It makes you feel like you're going fast, so the experience is fun. The unique, clattery air-cooled buzzing sound the engine makes is cheerful, much like the tune the Seven Dwarves sing on their way to work each day.
You wouldn't think that 12-inch wheels would make for amazing brakes, and you'd be right. Luckily, the car is really light and relatively slow, so big, powerful brakes aren't important. The car stops when you hit the pedal, although I never got a chance to see if I could get the wheels to lock up by mashing it to the floor.
With your face a few inches from the windshield and sun streaming in through the open roof, the giggle factor is too high to allow thoughts of ride quality to pervade your good time. In retrospect, the 500's ride was taut and Volkswageney, but the car was so small, it was difficult to compare with other cars. It was a great ride by go kart standards, and if you scoop one of these up for your morning commute, I doubt you'd have complaints of kidney bruising after six months of back and forth. It was, as they say in Italy, meglio di niente.
Small, light, and low to the ground are all things that make cars fun to drive. These are all qualities the Berlina possesses, and the handling reflects as much. Braking and acceleration taken into account, I'm not so sure I'd feel super safe driving this car on a mountain road, but it would probably be fun to throw it around some curves. There's really no need to go that extreme, though. Urban street corners seemed huge from inside the diminutive Fiat, and made going around them all that much more fun.
For such an old car, and for one so pedestrian, the gearbox was surprisingly precise. First gear is a non-synchro, but aside from the fact that the shifter was a standard car H-pattern setup, shifting gears in the old Fiat had a light feel – not unlike a motorcycle. It shifted smoothly, and combined with the engine's loud, rumbley buzz, working through the gears was an almost sporty experience. It wasn't as slick as a five speed on even the most boring modern cars, but I knew better that to expect high tech.
If you were only going to drive this car around town, like Maya does, I'd say it's pretty darn usable. In most cases, those of us who are car owners drive cars that are way larger than what we actually need on a daily basis. You know, the "I need a pickup because I might have to carry a couple pieces of plywood later this year," or "My kids are violent psychopaths two times per month, so I need the capability to build a full sized electrified cage in the back to contain them" syndrome. Most of the time, it's just one person and a couple bags of groceries/gym clothes in a big ol' car. What better way to get one person and a few things from here to there than in a tiny car? The Japanese do it!
Then again, if you ever plan on taking road trips of more than 15 miles or carrying more than one other person farther than around the corner, a bigger car might be a better choice. People do take old Fiat 500s on long trips occasionally, but it's usually a novelty journey on podunk local highways.
An old Fiat 500 has more character in one googley headlight than an old Ford Explorer – which, by the way, is a jillion times bigger – has in its whole huge, gas guzzling body. If the car itself doesn't have enough character for you (who are you, anyway?), you really have to be a character to drive one in the U.S. of A., where road dominating behemoths rule the road.
But even in Italy, where these cars are much more common, cinquecenti are a joy to see as they bob through chaotic traffic.
I'm not sure how collectible Fiat 500s are in Europe, but one thing is for sure: I see fewer of them every time I go back to visit. Here in the states, with the exception of Maya's and one the New York Times wrote a story about a few years back, I haven't seen any. Maybe now that Fiat (er, Chrysler?) is selling the new big 500s Stateside, Americans will gain an appreciation for its Lilliputian ancestor and begin importing them. In the meantime, you could add worse cars to your stable than a cute little Italian grocery getter. On the plus side, if you have to get parts shipped over from the mother country, they're small, light, and presumably cheap to ship.
- Engine: 499 cc air-cooled two-cylinder
- Power: 22 HP @ 4,600 rpm / 26 LB-FT @ 4,600 rpm
- Transmission: 4-speed manual
- 0-60 Time: 30 seconds
- Top Speed: Faster than a bicycle, but slower than a VW (60 mph)
- Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
- Curb Weight: 1,146 LBS
- Seating: 2.5 people (comfortably)
- MPG: 43 mpg
- MSRP: decent ones start at about $5,000 and reach levels original buyers would find absurd
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston