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Icons of Italy: Fiat 500


Black vintage fiat 500 on a street with yellow wall and door background in Italy

Photos by Ryan Neevan


The Fiat Cinquecento, or Fiat 500, is an iconic piece of Italian history which enjoys fame like no other car from the 1950s. While it is not an Italian supercar like Ferrari or Lamborghini, it still draws a special kind of affection from passersby while it bounces through the cobblestone streets of Roma or winds down the Positano coastline. From the ultra famous photograph where Peter Sellers is hanging out of the sunroof trying to capture his wife, Britt Eckland, on her Vespa cruising in front of the Colosseo to the 1987 cover of Elle Magazine, the Fiat 500 has always been an Italian Icon.


Born in July of 1957, this tiny rear-engine car designed by Dante Giacosa quickly became the “people’s car” because of its efficiency and size. Touted as the first true city car because of the small size, just a little over 2.5m long, it can be manoeuvred through the narrowest of Italian streets with ease. Originally powered by a 479 cc two cylinder engine topping out at 85 km/h (53 mph!) the car was a bit… underpowered. With later models the engine increased in horsepower to satisfy those who wanted a bit more when shifting through the gears. 


Throughout the car’s first life from 1957 to 1977, many iterations such as the Nuova 500 Sport, 500 D, 500 K or Giardinieria, 500 F or Berlina 500 L or Lusso, and 500 R or Rinnovata were developed. All of these models had their own new unique features such as the 500 Giardiniera which was the Estate version boasting a longer body and engine under the boot, creating a flat loading surface for more cargo space. 


To be expected, other companies born out of passion crafted performance oriented versions of the Cinquecento such as the Abarth 695 SS which used the 500 as the base but upgraded the mechanics so that it could reach speeds of 140 km/h (87 mph). Another famous variant is the Jolly Ghia built by Carrozeria Ghia featuring an open-air, doorless design and custom wicker seats which made it the perfect beach car. L’Avvocato, Chairman of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli, himself had his very own Fiat 500 Spiaggina that was unlike any other. He created a completely one-off Fiat 500 tailored to his specifications which included an elongated wheelbase to shuttle his aristocratic and celebrity friends to and from Villa Leopolda on the French Riviera.


The Fiat 500’s legacy continues to live on. You can still find them in the picturesque alleyways of Trastevere or next to the beach in Lacco Ameno, Ischia. It also seems like every single one you stumble upon is different in some way; either a different model, or a color combination you haven’t seen before like the White Nuova 500, the car that has become a neighbour, always parked in the same spot in Trastevere. 


These little cars have a cult like following on Instagram. Simply look up the hashtag #findyourfiat and you will see images from all around Italy and Europe of the 500s in iconic locations. As a photographer finding them almost transports me back in time; the 500 creates a photo that looks like it was taken in the past, during the period of timeless elegance, the “La Dolce Vita” era of Italy. There’s something about how they continue to withstand the test of time, how they are still as beautiful as when they were rolling off the production line at the Lingotto factory in Torino. Seeing Nonno or Nonna cruising around as if it was the 1960’s in Rome brings me a bit of unequivocal happiness.