MOTORING / Benvenuto Cinquecento]: Fiat's new city car, on sale in Britain from June, is the latest in a 500 line that began with the Topolino, or 'Little Mouse'. Jonathan Glancey salutes three small engineering triumphs

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'THE AUTOMOBILE has become a mobile living-space,' wrote Dante Giacosa, Fiat's chief engineer and designer from 1946 to 1970, at the end of his long career. 'The car designer is now comparable to an architect.'

Giacosa was the architect of the famous Fiat 500. He designed both the 1936 'Topolino' ('Little Mouse' - the Italian name for Walt Disney's Mickey), the first baby car to behave like a grown-up, and its successor, the Nuova 500 of 1957 - that automotive cherub still winging its tiny way through the narrowest cobbled streets of every Italian hill town.

It is appropriate, then, that the designer of the latest Fiat Cinquecento (it goes on sale in Britain at the beginning of June) is an architect by profession - as well as a town planner, engineer and stylist. Yet, where Giacosa worked with a handful of assistants on his Topolino half a century ago, his successor, Mario Maioli, has employed no fewer than 200 designers, engineers, stylists and ergonomists at the Centro Stile Fiat in Turin to create his Cinquecento. Giacosa was able to conceive, breed, test and launch both his mechanical mice in less than a year; it has taken Maioli seven years to realise his miniature dream.

This is partly because investment in any new mass-production car is immense compared with costs 50 years ago. Cars such as the Cinquecento must appeal to a world market, and giant manufacturers have tended to take fewer and fewer risks. In the case of the Cinquecento, Fiat is also erring on the side of caution because the car is being built in a factory revamped for the purpose in Tychy, Poland. Fiat has invested 1,000bn lire ( pounds 450m) in this new venture, to tune up the factory, train staff and test prototypes of the new car. The obvious advantage of making the Cinquencento in Poland is that the cost of labour is low; the upmarket version of the car destined for Britain will cost less than pounds 5,000, undercutting the cheapest of Rover's Minis by up to pounds 500.

You will get a chance to inspect Mario Maioli's little mouse, along with its Giacosa- designed predecessors, from Wednesday at 'Cinquecento] 60 Years of City Car Design' at the Design Museum, London. This exhibition coincides with the launch of the new Fiat (the day after the exhibition closes, the Cinquecento goes on sale) and reflects the importance

of Fiat's contribution to design this century.

Although Fiat, particularly under the benevolent aegis of Giacosa, has produced a stream of significant cars since its founding by Giovanni Agnelli in 1899, it is the baby 500s that have captured the popular imagination, in much the same way as Ferdinand Porsche's VW Beetle, Andre Lefebvre's Citroen 2CV, and Alec Issigonis's Mini. And, as Fiat assumes, the market is ripe for a truly civilised new city car.

In its press hand-outs, Fiat stresses that the 'Cinquecento' is a car for 'higher socio-economic levels', a second or even third car for city-based professionals aware that, for them, small is beautiful. The latest Cinquecento, although primarily designed to thread through gaps in city traffic, has been engineered to cope with motorways. The British-spec car has a top speed of 87mph (the Nuova 500 could just top 60mph and the Topolino 50mph) and has a ride, poise and balance that shame many a bigger and cruder family saloon.

Its shape is not trend-setting; at first glance, it looks much like any other Euro-box, except that it is small and, because of this, cute. Giacosa's babies were quite radical in appearance. Maioli's justification for the staid looks of the Cinquecento is threefold: the car is designed to have world-wide appeal, its production life is expected to be long, and the shape means that as much of the car as possible has been given over to driver, passengers and luggage: 10ft 6in long (it is narrow at 4ft 9in wide and tall at 4ft 7in high), the Cinquecento gives 85 per cent of its volume to occupants and just 15 per cent to engine, transmission and gizmos.

This newspaper's largest security guard - and he is a big chap by any standard - is unable to fit into the driver's seat of a BMW 5- series, among other big saloons, yet he can slip through the generous doors and, comfortably, into the front seat of Maioli's Cinquecento.

The design of the Cinquecento plays safe, but then Fiat has nearly always hedged its bets. Giacosa's 124 saloon of 1966 was manufactured in Russia and Romania as well as in Italy. If the car had been as adventurous as, say, contemporary Citroens, it could never have been produced in former Soviet bloc countries.

The first 500 was in production from 1936 to 1948 (and in revised form, looking bulbously American, as the 500C until 1955) and the Nuova 500 from 1957 to 1972. Maioli's Cinquecento is expected to roll off East European production lines well into the future.

This trio of tiny Fiats represents one of the most enduring and endearing stories in car design. All three are small triumphs of automotive engineering in miniature, and all three have been far more than a basic means of getting from Aprilia to Zevio. Topolino, Nuova 500 and Cinquecento: all have been clever, practical, fashionable and good fun.

The Topolino was Fiat's first mass-production design. Giacosa was just 28 when he was asked to design a people's car for the company. It had to seat two adults with their luggage and travel comfortably at 50mph. The real challenge was to produce a car that was far more than a motorbike on four wheels, yet costing no more than L5,000. In 1936, this represented between four and five months' earnings for the average worker in Mussolini's Italy; the cheapest existing Fiat cost more than twice as much.

The challenge was exactly the right one for Giacosa: throughout his long career he never wavered from his belief that a car must be first and foremost a rational and economical means of transport. He despised the finned, gas-guzzling, chrome-laden monsters spurred on by the marketing men of Detroit.

Born into a poor family in Alba and trained as an engineer at Turin Polytechnic, Giacosa dreamt of building a car that would give every Italian family the freedom to fetch and carry cheaply and reliably. He wanted them to

have a proper car, however small, not some mechanised pram like the Austin 7 (however cute) or agricultural clodhopper like the solid- wheeled Trojan, two well-known British economy cars of the 1920s.

Before the Topolino, Giacosa had designed tractors, tanks and aero-engines; but the little car was a greater test of his skills. Working with the Fiat stylist Schaeffer, he shaped and honed his car so that it gave driver and passenger the maximum possible room in the smallest possible envelope of steel. He mounted the tiny four-cylinder, 569cc engine ahead of the front axle, so that the cabin could stretch unimpeded up to the wheels; he placed the radiator behind the engine to keep the bonnet line low.

In the course of designing his Little Mouse, Giacosa dreamt up ideas that he was unable to put into practice for another 30 years (now 88, he still works as consultant for Fiat in Turin). These included front-wheel drive and a compact, low-lying 'boxer' engine (the cylinders punch backwards and forwards horizontally, instead of thrusting up and down as in most engines). But to keep costs down, Giacosa had to pedal new ideas very softly.

The 500 was an immense success. Between 1936 and 1948, 122,000 were produced at Lingotto (the Futurist-style factory with a racetrack on its roof). The 500 was immediately labelled Topolino because of its cartoon-like appearance, yet it was no joke. Even today, it remains a delightful runaround. You will, however, be hard pressed to find one to buy.

The Topolino and the later 500C were replaced in 1955 by Giacosa's amoeba-like four- seater 600. This was smaller than the 500C, yet could seat four adults in something approaching comfort; it was also cheaper than the 500C. This was an astonishing achievement. Powered by a water-cooled, 633cc (later 767cc) four- cylinder engine, the 600 became one of the driving forces of Italy's 'economic miracle'. The last of 2.5 million was made in 1970.

The 600 was an important car for Fiat, but management and Giacosa wanted a smaller car still. In just 10 months, Giacosa sculpted and engineered his tiny masterpiece (although many would say his most important car was the front-wheel-drive Fiat 128 saloon of 1968). He was mesmerised by the Vespa motor-scooter made by the helicopter designer D'Ascanio for Piaggio. A four-wheeled Vespa was what the Italian market wanted. And that, in many ways, is what Giacosa's Nuova 500 was. It met an almost ecstatic reception; its launch was widely covered and Giacosa, a shy man, was paraded on national television beside the production line as the tiny cars rolled past him.

The Nuova 500 was produced from 1957 until 1975; 3.5 million were made and very many survive today. In Italy the Nuova 500 is still regarded as the best of all city cars - the only one that can wheedle its way through every street of every medieval hill town - and in Britain, as a cheeky fashion accessory.

Powered by a two-cylinder, air-cooled engine that looks and sounds like a washing machine (originally of 479cc and then growing to 499cc and finally to 594cc), the Nuova 500 was a nippy little buzz-box and highly entertaining. What other car can you drive along a deserted beach sitting on the top of the driver's seat, head and shoulders sticking through the sun roof, still able to steer safely and with the hand-throttle (fitted to early cars) acting as a primitive form of cruise-control?

This is not exactly what the car was designed to do, yet the Nuova 500 has always been seen and used as a kind of motorised skateboard. Although noisy and low on power (most had just 18bhp to conjure with), it is a boon in city traffic: it can insinuate itself between a line of vehicles and the kerb in a manner guaranteed to upset the drivers of fully grown cars. And, like the Mini and the 2CV, it has broken social barriers, transcending its role as a basic form of private transport. The Nuova 500 has been raced and rallied (the beefed-up 500 and 600, rejigged by the Italian firm Abarth, are among the most exciting of cars to drive) and its resale value remains high. A decent 500 costs about pounds 1,000 and a restored car up to pounds 2,000.

Mario Maioli's Cinquecento is a much bigger car (again we are speaking in relative terms) than either of Giacosa's. It is also far more conventional; the four-cylinder, 903cc engine is mounted in the front (ahead of the front axle) and the general tenor of its design is one of decorum and restraint. Even so, it is enjoyable to drive (Fiat promises the rubbery gearchange on the car tested by the Independent on Sunday is a pre-production snag and will not be a feature of the showroom cars).

It is quick, has lots of grip, and rolls only mildly on fast corners. It is light and airy and has plenty of space for maps, snacks, bits and bobs. The fabrics - by the fashion house Missoni - are a little jazzy, and the deluxe model boasted - unnecessarily - such big-car conceits as electric windows. The basic model (with a two-cylinder, 740cc engine) will not be available in Britain, as Fiat knows that we like our comforts and view cars as status symbols.

Fiat has done its best to make the Cinquecento recyclable. The car uses precious little plastic, and what there is can be melted down, without generating noxious fumes, and used again. The car is equipped with electronic fuel- injection and a sophisticated catalyser; its fuel consumption is very low.

If these features are insufficiently green, the Cinquecento is also available with a 12.5bhp electric motor. The battery takes eight hours to charge (you can plug it into any domestic power point), powers (if that is the right word) the car up to a near-silent 50mph - on the level - and at lower speeds up hills as steep as one-in- four. A conventional battery gives a range of up to 60 miles; a more expensive nickel-cadmium battery will take you half as far again.

As works of architecture, as Dante Giacosa liked to see them, the Topolino and its successors are the least aggressive and most delightful new buildings to intrude on the crowded European cityscape. Modern, charming, unobtrusive, practical and fun, the Little Mice of Turin make far more sense now than they ever did, and much more than the magnificent dinosaurs crafted by Ferrari, Lamborghini and the steroid-popping school of Italian car design.

To many British car-owners, obsessed with status, litres and leather, these tiny cars might seem laughable. Cinquecento? No more than a four-wheeled espresso machine. Yet what is more satisfying and packs more punch than a tiny cup of highly compressed Italian coffee?

(Photographs omitted)