There are many things that sum up Italy. The endless kaleidoscope of Dolce Vita pastel colours – seen on everything from fading baroque churches to cashmere jumpers to exquisite mounds of ice cream – as well as the great cultural masterpieces of art and literature, not to mention philandering politicians, questionable game shows, gorgeous wine and of course, cars.
Italy is a nation of drivers, with Ferrari being the national team and no shortage of other emblematic marques such as Lamborghini, Maserati or even Pagani.
So, it’s ironic how the cars that Italy has always done really well are actually the small and least powerful ones. The best-selling car in Italy is still the Fiat Panda; go back further in time and the Fiat Uno – remember that? – was the country’s best-seller for many years too.
But Fiat’s city car hegemony all started with the 500: also known as the Cinquecento. Produced from 1957 onwards, it was the car that mobilised the Italian masses; as synonymous with urban transport as the ubiquitous Vespa, with which it shared certain design cues – all swooping curves, cutesy chrome, and minimalist chic.
Fiat’s baby wasn’t exactly Italy’s equivalent of the Mini; the 500 was even smaller, less powerful and conceptually entirely different (with a rear engine and rear-wheel drive). But its spirit was similar: appreciated – and driven enthusiastically – by everyone from film stars to street sweepers.
And what a laugh it is to drive too. It’s like a miniature Porsche 911 with only one speed: flat-out. I should know because I bought one. And I recently had the pleasure of picking it up in Bologna and driving it to its new home near Lucca, in the heart of Tuscany.
Or rather, its old home. Italian cars of that era have those beautiful black and white number plates that proudly proclaim each car’s city of origin, and this baby blue Fiat may have been born in Turin – like all its siblings – but it was actually brought up in the beautiful Tuscan city of Lucca, which is why the registration starts with LU.
This particular car came off the production line back in 1968 as a 500F model, which was comparatively rare as it bridged the gap between the basic 500D – sold from the start of the production run – and the later 500L (which stands for ‘Lusso’, presumably ironically).
For most of its life it was owned by a bar proprietor in the middle of Lucca, who doted on it: he was even a member of the local Fiat 500 club. After a brief stay in Bologna, it’s now coming home.
The F version is undeniably basic – you don’t even get a fuel gauge. But this car simply doesn’t need most of the stuff you find on modern vehicles. Why would you want a rear window demister, for instance, when you can just reach round and wipe the rear screen without moving from the driver’s seat (unfettered by seat belts)? And why do you need a heater when you can just open up a slot under the back seat to benefit from the warmth of the diminutive engine? Yes, you could have a radio, but the chances are you wouldn’t be able to hear it anyway.
The two most important controls are instead the two levers between the tiny front seats: one for the choke and one for the starter. Once you’re underway, you’ll be amazed by just how much speed 499cc and around 13 horsepower can provide.
Keep swapping the gears (you’ll have to double de-clutch as there’s no synchromesh) and leave your right foot planted to zip round cities and villages like a true Italian. Behind you, there’s a joyful air-cooled raspy soundtrack that is as melodic as anything to come out of the throat of Pavarotti. All you then have to do is point the iconic Bakelite wheel in the direction you’d like to go, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never run out of grip.
There’s no need to lift off for anything – this car will fit through the sort of tiny gaps that are a hallmark of most Italian medieval cities like Lucca: renowned for its rabbit warren of ancient streets that even confounded the Top Gear guys. Take a look at this clip here to see what we mean.
On the drive back from Bologna, the 500 defied its 53 years to cut through the gridlocked city centre, zip along the motorway for an hour, and then throw itself into the Renaissance melee of Lucca rush hour traffic before reaching its new home. In second gear, from low revs all the way up to the spluttery top of the rev range, bloated modern superminis genuinely struggle to keep up.
There are big plans for LU 114097 in the Tuscan sunshine, and it will shortly be joined by some of its brothers too. You’ll read about this car again soon on these pages, once a couple of small jobs have been done primarily new brake drums and a bit of cosmetic tidying up.
In the meantime, if you ever get the chance, drive Dante Giacosa’s glorious miniature creation for yourself.
It’s part of what made Italy the place it is: the original and archetypal city car that shows how urban transport has in many ways gone backwards. Don’t just take my word for it though; one well-known Fiat 500 owner is multiple world Formula 1 champion Sebastian Vettel. His is a bright red early 500D, complete with ‘suicide’ doors that open backwards.
When he moved from Ferrari to Aston Martin this year, Vettel sold most of his Italian sports cars. His Fiat 500 isn’t for sale though: that was the one he kept as a constant reminder of La Dolce Vita.
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs by Anthony Peacock