by James Kraus
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.