1967 Fiat 500 Nuova
If you had to choose one car to sum up Italy, what would it be? The answer to this question is why the smallest Fiat of all time is rubbing shoulders with Ferraris and Lamborghinis in our Top 12 shootout. The baby Fiat 500 is so much more than a mere car: it’s visual shorthand for all things Italian, and unquestionably a cultural icon. Today, the 500 is widely enjoyed as a fun starter classic, a fashion accessory almost, but in its day it was the cheapest car on the market and perfectly fulfilled its intended role: that of motorising Italy.
Nuova Fiat 500 Baby Bella
Humble though the Fiat Nuova 500 was at launch in 1957, it was triumphant in achieving its objectives. Its creator, the brilliant Dante Giacosa, was very much thinking big by thinking small. The 500 was a masterpiece of packaging, allowing four passengers and a decent amount of luggage to squeeze into a footprint that was shorter, narrower and lighter than the BMC Mini that followed it.
The 479cc air-cooled two-cylinder engine slung out the back may have produced only 15hp in its initial form, but the 500’s lightness ensured a level of off-the-line nippiness that guaranteed gaps in traffic could always be exploited. And its compact dimensions meant that those rare Roman parking spaces could always be squeezed into.
A bigger 499cc, 18hp unit arrived in 1960 with the 500D. Thereafter the 500 evolved gradually. The 1965-1972 500F swapped the original suicide doors for front-hinged ones, while the 1968-1972 500L (for Lusso) upped the equipment with reclining seats, carpets and – oh, the luxury! – a fuel gauge. The rollout 500R (1972-1975) received a 126-derived 594cc engine and a synchronised gearbox.
Piloting Dave Fish’s superb 500F demonstrates why driving fun is never just about power. The fact that the Fiat 500 is slow – topping out at around 60mph and taking a glacial age to get there – really doesn’t matter. The 500 was built for urban life, and its charms reside mostly at low speeds: steering that’s ultra-light and responsive, and a turning circle that renders three-point turns redundant.
The real fun of driving on the open road is about maintaining forward momentum – this is a car in which you never slow down unless you really need to. Working your way skilfully around the non-synchromesh gearbox brings its own rewards, while corners are best negotiated with a smoothness that flatters the rear wheels’ negative camber. This is a car that you can drive flat out every minute of every journey and never worry about points on your licence. And you’ll be laughing out loud the whole way.
The Fiat 500 is the antithesis of the modern-day ethos. It’s not remotely flabby, saggy or heavy in any way. If an item is not essential, you won’t find it in a 500. This is a car that’s wonderfully practical, simple and cheap to run. As a classic, the 500 never fails to reward with smiles – both for the driver and for passers-by. The shape is so beautiful and iconic that it even inspired Fiat to revive its profile with the current 500. Put simply, there has never been a cuter commuter than the 500.