Salute better times: Fiat 500 Vintage ‘57

Wandering the bustling streets of Turin and on entering the vast space that is Centro Storico Fiat today, it is hard to imagine the austere Italy of post war years. The spacious 1907 art nouveau building has been exhibiting a rich collection of automotive and industrial designs, as well as advertising from Fiat since it first opened in 1963. It offers not only a compelling journey into the history of this Turin institution, but also tells the story of Italy through design.

We are here to celebrate the Fiat 500 Vintage ’57, a niche product that pays homage to a car that came to symbolise Italy in its very golden age. Introduced on 4 July 1957, the Fiat 500, or cinquecento as it was dubbed, appealed to young Italians, the new generation of boys and girls who yearned for a more modern Italy.

America was strongly endorsing the country’s post war economy, and the world fell in love with all things Italian – the movies (Federico Fellini’s Le Strada became the first foreign film to win an Oscar that year), the movie stars, the accessible fashion and adventurous jewellery – and the 500 embodied the notion of ‘made in Italy’.

The car’s clever packaging allowed for optimum cabin space, the petit proportions meant it was the ideal city transport, especially in Italy’s narrow alleyways, and the price made it accessible to a very wide audience. By 1975, some 3.9 million were sold and it remains the emblem of mass motorisation in Italy.

The Vintage ’57 is based on the current model that was introduced in 2007, and only 3,500 units are planned. The design is boldly retro, picking up details of its predecessor, like the colour palette that features pastel blue paint, now combined with white roof and spoiler, and the tobacco – or alternatively Brown Terra di Siena – colour Frau leather upholstery.

It is embellished by vintage style Fiat badges on the outside and on the steering wheel, and the white dashboard fascia and 16’ alloy white and chrome-plated rims are reminiscent of the tyres of 1957.

The nuova 500 was a combination of designer-engineer Dante Giacosa’s brilliant intuition and Fiat’s ambitious growth strategy. It was also the perfect product for its time. Browsing the exhibits here is a reminder of how desperately today’s world also requires new answers for mobility.

I sat with Roberto Giolito, head of European design at the Fiat Group. He is keen for Fiat to uphold the spirit of the 500 with future models, not as an exercise in styling but pushing for ideas to help build the next stage in mobility.

He refers to the 1998 Multipla, one of his earlier designs and a car that looked a little comical (much like a hippo in our opinion), yet it was truly brilliant in its design allowing for maximum cabin space, visibility and comfort. It broke all the classic automotive ‘styling’ rules. Alas the world was not ready for the Multipla and it flopped.

Giolito sketches an early Land Rover. Its perfectly square shape is interrupted with the arms of passengers poking out from the side – they have nowhere to place his limbs but out of the window. For the Multipla, Giolito notes, he added an arm compartment to the design – which possibly resulted to the car’s awkward visage but made it so very comfortable to inhabit.

The world was ripe in 1957 for the cinquecento. The world wasn’t ripe for the Multipla and numerous other fantastic and brave creations (think the Audi A2) that we seen arrive and vanish through the years.

Can Fiat take up the challenge as it did in 1957 and capture the spirit of today, an era urgently requiring a novel and inspired look at mobility? It will certainly be exciting to see.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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