Tribute: Fiat 500 Topolino

by James Kraus

Designer Dante Giacosa with Fiat 500 Prototype, Piedmont, Italy, October 1934.  Antonio Fessia photo.

On 15 June 1936, Fiat began production of what was to be the first sophisticated, successful and universally admired mass-produced small car. There had been a number of small British and German cars available; most notably the Austin 7, originally introduced in 1922. However, none of these captured the imagination or garnered the accolades as did the new Fiat 500.

What set the 500 apart more than anything was what it was not. It was neither a bare-bones car like many of the cycle-cars of the day, nor was it simple a scaled-down large car. It was inexpensive to build; but not cheaply built.

It was the first small car designed from the ground up to be a small car. While a basic car in many ways, the 500 was quite lavish in technical specification by 1930’s standards, boasting four-wheel hydraulic brakes, hydraulic dampers, independent front suspension, partially synchronized gearbox, an all-steel body and a 12-volt electrical system.

The goal at Fiat was to develop a simple, useable, functional car that would sell for just 5,000 Lira. In charge of the project was Antonio Fessia, with the design of the chassis and engine assigned to Dante Giacosa, who had just celebrated his 28th birthday. It was a wise and prophetic decision. Not only did Dante do a superb job on the 500, he would go on to oversee the design of the majority of the most popular and beloved small cars of the 20th Century: the Fiat 600, Nuovo 500, 850, 127, 126 and the Autobianchi Primula and A112. Antonio Fessia, after aptly demonstrating mastery of his craft with the 500, would later achieve mythical status as Central Technical Director at Lancia, overseeing the design of the Flaminia, Flavia and Fulvia.

To keep purchase cost and fuel consumption to a minimum, the 500 was to be as small and light as possible. Early on, a 2-meter (79”) wheelbase was decided on, making it just a bit larger than the Austin 7.

Rather than allowing for compromised seating for four, it was decided to design the car with optimal accommodation for two. At this point in time, the vast majority of cars were based on the Système Panhard architecture, in which the vehicle’s mechanicals were laid out in the order of radiator, front axle, engine, gearbox, and finally, drive to rear axle. To maximize the usable space available in the 500, Signore Giacosa proceeded to modify this classic layout.

The engine was moved to the extreme front, with the radiator and front axle centreline stacked atop one another immediately behind, followed by the gearbox. In this manner, the toe board could be situated immediately behind the front wheels. Thus, everything beyond this point became useable interior space. While such a layout would result in unfavourable weight distribution in a larger car with a detrimental effect on driving dynamics; in the 500, with its minuscule, lightweight engine; this was not an issue.

Fiat 500 phantom view from 1937 Owners Handbook

In order to facilitate this new drivetrain configuration, the 570 cc 4-cylinder engine was designed to be as short in length as possible. To this end, the Crankshaft was supported by just two main bearings and water jacketing between cylinders was kept to the barest minimum. The dynamo was secured atop the aluminium cylinder head. Mounted to the rear of the dynamo shaft was a fan that pushed cooling air through the high-mounted radiator. Since the lower radiator tank was roughly the same height as the cylinder head, the design lent itself to the use of thermo-siphon cooling which eliminated the need for a water pump. In the same fashion, the single Solex sidedraft carburettor was gravity-fed from the cowl-mounted fuel tank, obviating the need for a fuel pump.

The independent front suspension was quite advanced for the time as most cars still used a solid axle. The wheels were located by lower A-arms with a transverse leaf spring acting as the upper arms. The leaf spring passed just over the clutch housing and immediately beneath the radiator. The extremely simple yet sophisticated suspension was so successful that it was adapted and further refined for use in the later 600 and Nuovo 500 as well as the Simca 1000.

Fiat contracted with Pirelli to develop a special Aerflex extra-low-pressure 15” tyre for the 500. It was the first-ever automobile tyre less than 16” in diameter. This began a trend of downsizing tyre diameters that would accelerate after World War II and reach its apogee with the 10″ Dunlop designed specifically for the BMC Mini.

Fiat 500, production version, 1936

The body design by Rudolpho Schaeffer reflected utter simplify with an innate flair that would be the hallmark of many small Fiats to come. The effects of the 2-seat configuration and unorthodox mechanical layout basically cancelled each other out from an aesthetic standpoint, allowing Signore Schaeffer to employ a classically elegant profile with finely balanced proportions. The body was semi-monocoque in that it was rigidly bolted to the chassis and each contributed strength to the other. The original 2-seat Coupe was later joined by a folding roof version, which forthwith became the best seller.

In 1936, production of the 500 began at Fiat’s Lingotto facility, the largest factory in Europe at the time, with the infamous roof-mounted test track, and at Simca’s Nanterre plant, where the car was built and sold as the Simca 5. The following year, production commenced in Germany as the NSU-Fiat 500.

Audrey Hepburn strolls past a open-top 500 in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday”

The public was enamoured by the diminutive new Fiat, dubbing the new car il Topolino (the little mouse). The 500 set a standard that future small Fiats would follow; economical; but a delight to drive, with light, accurate steering, and a responsive, free-revving powerplant.

Keen drivers immediately set about developing the 500 for motorsport. Performance parts were produced by several aftermarket manufacturers, including the famed tuning firms of Abarth and Giannini. It was quickly found that the engine displacement could be increased to 750 cc, and this was a popular modification, along with twin carburettor conversions. Sporting custom bodies were available from master Italian Carrozzeria, including Bertone, Ghia, Siata and Zagato.

In 1937, a standard-bodied 500 came in first in the 750 cc Turismo Category in the Mille Miglia. Ferruccio Lamborghini, fifteen years before starting production of his own automobiles, entered a 750 cc 500 in 1948 running his own Testa d’Oro cast bronze OHV cylinder head.

500C cross-sectional view showing restyled nose, built-in headlamps and enclosed spare wheel compartment

The 500 survived World War II, resuming production immediately afterward and gaining technical improvements including an overhead-valve cylinder head and new 4-seater estate and panel truck versions.

At the 1949 Salon de Genève, the final iteration was released, the 500C, with a 1950’s style front added, and at the rear, a compartment to enclose the spare wheel. The 500 continued to be a popular best-seller right until 1955 when it was replaced by the new rear-engined Fiat 600.

Picture 53 (1)

Fiat 500 Panoramica by Zagato

500’s also resumed their competition career after the war. A Zagato-bodied 500 Panoramica finished 4th in the 750 class at the sixteenth running of the Mille Miglia in April of 1949.

Picture 3 (1)

A standard-bodied 500 in the XVII Mille Miglia, 1950

The 500 Topolino was the first small Fiat that offered motorists economical motoring combined with a rewarding driving experience and a dash of panache. Luckily for millions of car buyers, it would not be the last, as Dante Giacosa had many more delights up his sleeve.

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10 thoughts on “Tribute: Fiat 500 Topolino

  1. I have always admired the Fiat Topolino and thought of it as one of the few perfectly executed automobile designs. However, I had never seen the prototype shown in this piece and I think I would have preferred those flush-mounted headlamps to the stand-alone units used in production.

  2. The Topolino was certainly the first small, economical car to warrant being taken seriously as everyday transport that was actually rewarding (rather than punishing) to drive.

    When reviewed by Motorsport, it’s character was compared to that of BMW and Lancia. High praise indeed!

  3. So great to see the history of fiat 500. It’s just nice to see how a car that was great in history is still a good and reliable small car today. Wouldn’t trade my 500 in for anything!

  4. I bought a Topolino 500A from an exotic car dealer in Brescia in 2006. It came with round “stickers” showing it had participated in a Mille Migia in the recent past. Can anyone document this? I can send numbers from the car as necessary.

    • That could be a tough one. I know that two 500A’s ran in the 2005 Mille Miglia: a 1938 model entered by Maggiore & Maggiore and a 1940 piloted by Belotti & Finazzi.

      You might have some success with the event organizers: http://www.1000miglia.eu/

      Best of luck with your search!

    • Such a car would be quite rare, and as such hard to value. Beyond the condition of the vehicle itself (and whether it is original or ‘restored’), much of the value would depend on the nature of the race history. Ideally, the documented race chronology of the car would be in-period (late 40s to early 50s) and include some major events, preferably with a well known driver. If this were the case, such a car would generate much interest from a variety potential buyers, which would bid the price far above the €20.000 or so for a nice everyday Topolino.

  5. Nice writeup. There seems to be a bit of a debate going on today over at dailyturismo.com and bringatrailer.com regarding the wagon version, particularly the 1949 — was it a Giardiniera or Giardinetta? Perhaps you’d care to put in your two lire?

    • Thank you!

      In the British magazine Motor, it was described as the “Giardiniera” when they road-tested the new model in the 12 January 1949 issue.

      It is also referred to as the “Giardiniera” in Malcolm Bobbit’s “Fiat and Abarth 500-600 book (Veloce Publishing, 1993.)

      It seems safe to say it was referred to as the Giardiniera in Britain, but “Giardinetta” may well have been an unofficial name of affection like “Beetle” or “Frogeye,” or a designation used in other markets.

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