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Sometimes, despite high expectations, it seemed like the little Fiat 500 would never get to the U.S. Yet, in early 2011, the freshly-revived 500 arrived in America, courtesy of the newly-formed Fiat/Chrysler organization.
Back in the late 1950s and '60s, the Volkswagen Beetle captured the automotive hearts of millions of Americans. In Europe, other iconic cars clamored for attention. French people typically learned to drive on the idiosyncratic Citroen 2CV. In Italy, the micro-sized car of choice was the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento).
Not many cars of any size have exhibited the simple charm–coupled with fetching Italian style–of that early Fiat 500. Though available for a short while in the U.S., the 500 never quite caught on. Now, in the 21st century, it’s getting a second chance.
Fiat was established in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli. Few cars reached the U.S. in the early days, but between 1910 and 1918, Fiats were built in Poughkeepsie, New York.
After World War II, small European cars began to trickle into the U.S., initially brought home by returning veterans. Only a handful of Fiats made the trip, but devotees of Italian microcar style fell for the super-cute Topolino (loosely translated as "little mouse"). First launched in 1936, that tiny two-seater had a four-cylinder engine ahead of its radiator.
Regular exports began with the all-new 500 series of 1957, which held a rear-mounted two-cylinder engine developing 15 horsepower. Seating four, that 500 cost a bit over $1,000. Famed director Federico Fellini put 500s in such films as La Dolce Vita.
Only 110 inches long, the early 500 had "suicide" (rear-hinged) doors. Its four-speed manual gearbox lacked synchronizers, making gear-shifting a challenge. Between 1957 and 1975, more than 3.7 million Fiat 500s were built, though exports to America ceased well before the finale.
Sports-car fans fell instead for Fiat 1500 and 124 two-seaters, and their Series 2000 successors, despite their growing reputation for mechanical problems. Starting in 1967, Fiat’s little 850 Spider and fastback coupe also captured a loyal following. The final official Fiats sent to America were 1983 models.
That little 500 was never forgotten, though. When Disney-Pixar developed its animated film Cars, one of the colorful "characters" was an early Fiat 500 named "Luigi."
Rumors of a revived Fiat 500 filled the air. At the 2004 Geneva (Switzerland) motor show, Fiat used an early 500 as the model for its Trepiuno concept car. Favorable public response, plus new management with Sergio Marchionne as CEO, prompted the decision to develop a production model. At nearly 140 inches, the modern-day 500 of 2008 was 30 inches longer than the original–and built in Poland.
At the New York Auto Show in April 2009, the Fiat 500 won the World Car of the Year award for Design. Around that time, the ailing Chrysler company announced talks aimed at becoming part of the Fiat empire.
Early in 2011, Chrysler Group LLC re-introduced the Fiat brand. The all-new Fiat 500 went on sale as a 2012 model. This four-seater subcompact comes in Pop, Sport and top-of-the-line Lounge models. A turbocharged 500 Abarth was unveiled at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show.
“The Fiat 500 has always been the right car at the right time,” said Laura Soave, Head of Fiat Brand North America. “Like the original Cinquecento a half-century ago, the new Fiat ... delivers a new sense of individual expression and opportunity.” The Fiat 500 represents “eco-friendly technology wrapped in world-class quality craftsmanship and style.” It’s also cute as can be.