Why the new Fiat 500 is oh, so retro!

The underpinnings of a Panda, a body inspired by an iconic model of half a century ago – that's the new, back-to-the-future Fiat 500, set to be as insanely popular as the Mini and the Beetle

Ah, I remember the days, back when I was more famous than Robbie Williams when he was at the very height of his fame. Okay, "days" is perhaps stretching it; in fact, even just "day" would be a bit of an exaggeration. It was about 30 seconds actually, but for that brief moment I truly was more famous than the fat dancer from Take That. How do I know? Well, I was driving down the King's Road and Robbie Williams was looking at me! QED, I was more famous than him. See?

Okay, perhaps he wasn't looking exclusively at me; it might just have been the car I was driving, one of the first New Minis. Pre-launch, the BMW Mini was the most talked-about car on the planet, and wherever I went in it, everyone would simply stop, point and stare as if I were Gandalf in his pony and trap with a bunch of cheeky hobbits in the back who had set off his supply of fireworks.

It had been the same a couple of years earlier when I borrowed one of the first, left-hand-drive New Beetles to arrive in the UK – as a private import, about a year before VW began to import them officially. I drove around Dulwich Park and literally brought all the football games to a halt. Nothing else I have driven – no Lamborghini, Ferrari or even Pagani Zonda – has generated such attention as that Beetle, the first of the retro event cars.

I tried the latest, the new Fiat 500, last week at the UK launch in, of all places, Deptford. It follows the same formula: underpinnings from an existing model (in this case, the excellent Panda), reclad with a slightly less practical though infinitely more endearing body inspired by an iconic model from half a century ago, but bloated like a CSI corpse by the demands of modern safety requirements to twice the old car's size.

I know I shouldn't have , but I loved it. I know that retro design clearly means the end of all technological and engineering progress, and thus the tell-tale signs of the imminent extinction of our species – that the world is going to hell in a hand-cart (now I mention it, Daihatsu is launching its New Hand Cart, based on the Sirion, later this year). But just look at it! It's so ickle! Like a marshmallow policeman's helmet, or a nice plump bosom.

The interior is every bit as winsome. Everything is circular – dials, knobs, headrests, even the steering wheel – as if it weres designed by a drunken dervish using a Spirograph. And it's cheap too. Judging by the swarms of 500s already filling the cooler cities of Europe, and the heads that looked up to gawp – if only for a moment – from their crack pipes and glue bags in south-east London, it looks like being every bit as insanely popular as the Beetle and the Mini.

So what's next? The Morris Minor and 2CV are obvious candidates for the retro treatment, but if I had my way – and you know I should – modern versions of the Lancia Aurelia, Sunbeam Rapier and Buick Riviera would be wending their way to the showrooms as I write.

When Keith Waterhouse returned from the mountain with the columnists' tablets of stone, one of his commandments said that any piece about nostalgia must always end with the phrase: "Nostalgia, cuh! It ain't what it used to be!"

But, actually, it is.

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