Most countries, it seems, used to have an automobile that in some way expressed the national character: the Germans had the uber-efficient BMWs and the VW Beetle, the Brits had the Mini Cooper (much favored in rally driving and now newly reborn as a BMW), the French had the quirky Deux Cheveaux (nicknamed The Ugly Duckling), Americans had a bunch of high performance ‘muscle cars’ (GTO’s, Chargers) and their affiliates, the ‘pony cars’ (Mustangs, etc.). Here in Italy we had the Fiat Cinquecento (cinquecento means ‘500’).
Fiat has sometimes been accused, affectionately I hope, of being an acronym for Fix It Again Tony. Back in the day this was not unfair, in fact, and the early Cinquecentos did require a certain amount of tuning and repair. But most cars did. The Cinquecento was originally made in Torino at the huge Fiat motorworks from 1957 to 1975 (I like the number inversion of the dates, don’t you?). It quickly became ubiquitous in post-war Italy; it was a relatively inexpensive way for the suddenly growing and more urban middle-class to get around. In 2007, fifty years after the first Cinquecento was made, Fiat reintroduced the model, and in 2008 Fiat/Abarth brought out a model with 135 hp, up from the 13 hp (!) of the original version.
What many of these cars have in common, muscle cars excepted, is that they’re all cute. I realize cuteness is probably not one of the main concerns of car designers, but dang, the Beetle, the Mini, the Deux Cheveaux and, especially, the Cinquecento are all as cute as can be. Take a look:
And where is the Cinquecento, you ask? Well, last weekend about fifty of them were in Rapallo for the 15th annual gathering of Cinquecentos under the auspices of Rapallo’s Motoclub A. Olivari. I decided to go have a look.
I didn’t have to go far; just around the corner from our house I found a couple of cars parked, the owners undoubtedly enjoying a mid-day meal at either Ristorante Paolin or Trattoria Rosa, San Maurizio’s justifiably famous eateries. It kind of looks like the red one is plugged into the house, doesn’t it? It’s not.
The main event was in the center of town near the port. One of the best cars there, I thought, was the Cinquecento’s predecessor, the Fiat Topolino, or ‘little mouse’, which dates from 1950. It made me think of the phrase ‘saloon car’ for some reason. The Captain, who does not think of ‘saloon car’ when he sees the Topolino, tells me that backward opening doors like this are called ‘suicide doors’ – you can imagine why.
What struck me is the time, effort, and yes, love that the owners pour into their Cinquecentos. The paint jobs, the interiors, the engines (I’m guessing about the engines) were all exquisite. Here are a few shots of the some of the cars. There is a small album here where you will find about fifteen more photos if you’re interested (slide show recommended, F11 for full screen).
The photo above gives a good idea of how small these cars are. Those are ordinary-sized people in the background, not basketball players. Once people are in a Cinquecento, though, they look like giants.
When I originally saw the car below I thought, ‘Aha! I know what under sign this owner was born.’ But no. The Scorpion is the logo for Abarth. Abarth was an Italian racing car maker founded in 1949, which later branched out into tuning kits for for road vehicles, mainly Fiats. In 1971 Fiat bought Abarth. Many of these period Cinquecentos were sporting Abarth engine upgrades (the engine, by the way, is at the rear of the car).
It was all too exhausting for some of the participants. The day was perfect, the sun was warm, and I just have to imagine that someone had finished a fine luncheon not too long before I happened along.
The new Cinquecento is a very cute car too, in the roundy way of so many of the old-timey cars. I wouldn’t mind having one; we don’t need a car here, but perhaps someday in the States, if the Chrysler-Fiat marriage can arrange it, you will see this in our garage: