A Bronx Tale

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This is a 1969 Fiat 500 Berlina. Most people in the United States know Fiat as the company with the small cars and the really irritating TV commercials. But there is so much more to the story. Like this adorable little thing. The 500 was designed in Italy as a car for the masses, sort of like a Beetle, but with more fervent hand gesturing. 

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The 500 was introduced in 1957. It was called the 500 because, shockingly, it had a 500cc engine: an air-cooled two cylinder to be precise. The engine was mounted in the back, in order to free up more space for the passengers. It was also rear-wheel drive. Now, 500cc’s isn’t a ton, but thankfully the engineers at Fiat were able to extract an earth shattering amount of power from it. That’s a lie. It wasn’t earth shattering. It was 22. The Fiat 500 made 22 horsepower.

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That makes it rather slow: 0 to 60 miles per hour took over 30 seconds, and earlier 500s were even slower. And don’t think there was a whole lot to do after that either, as 60 was as fast as the little Fiat would go. So, not a car for highways then. Especially considering it only measured 9 feet long, which, to put in perspective, is only about 10 inches longer than a Smart car. And it weighed about 2/3 of what the original Mini Cooper weighed, which makes it about 1 cat more than half a ton.

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Okay, I took a picture of the door handle, so let’s talk about it. That door handle, or rather its placement, is genuinely important when determining what kind of classic 500 you’re looking at. You see, when it was on sale, there wasn’t just one 500. You could have a 500 Nuova, Giardiniara, Lusso, Rinnovata, or even something called the Jolly, which was ridiculous.

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This is a Berlina, which was sort of like a midrange model. The reason I know that is because the door handle is at the back of the door, just like a normal car. For a big part of its life, though, the 500 wasn’t normal. Nuovas and Giardiniaras had the door handles in the front, which meant that the doors opened backwards. This had the potential of blocking your view rearward when exiting the car, which just happens to be the same way the oncoming traffic was hurtling towards you. This gave the doors the rather gruesome nickname, “suicide doors.”

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Despite its small stature, the 500 could seat four people, and was so popular at one point that in the more rural parts of Italy, local grocery stores stocked spare parts for it. Additionally, all classic 500s (with the exception of the Giardiniara) were convertibles. Well, sort of. All classic 500s had a really big sunroof is probably the better way to say that. But don’t think for a second that it’s the fancy, glass, mechanical sunroof that your dad ordered for his BMW. Oh no. This is the 1960s, remember. More to the point, this is the 1960s in Italy, which means that steel was expensive. That means the roof was fabric, and it was powered by the tried-and-true technology known as “your arm.”

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So, at the end of the day (and it is the end of the day! Lord, I’m a riot), what do we have here? Well, it’s a tiny, slow, powder blue runabout with no roof and killer doors that put a country on wheels. It is, if I may allow myself one more Italian shoutout, molto bene. This is a happy car. Everyone, from the littlest toddler to the oldest octogenarian, smiles when they see it. And how could you not? I genuinely believe that it is impossible to be grumpy around this thing. It oozes fun from every chrome trim piece and window vent. And the best part is, it wasn’t designed to be that way. This car was used everyday by scores of Europeans. It is said that this shape was penned by the designer because it used the least amount of sheetmetal. The Cinquecento, then, really is beauty born out of necessity.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The people’s car of Italy also went by another name, Cinquecento, in the event that “500” just wasn’t tooting your horn that day.
  • When it went out of production in 1975, Fiat had sold over 3 and a half million 500s.
  • There’s a Bentley in the first picture. Don’t pay attention to it. That’s exactly what it’ll be expecting you to do.
  • This one is owned by a great restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx called Zero Otto Nove, which is why the windshield is more advertisement than glass.
  • Forgotten Metal has moved (again)! Now we’re in New York City, a city notorious for being brutal to cars. This’ll be interesting.
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One thought on “A Bronx Tale

  1. Pingback: Roman Holiday | Forgotten metal

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