Roman Holiday

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This is a 1968 Fiat 500L. According to Fiat, the “L” in 500L stands for “luxury,” which I personally find very interesting and also completely ludicrous, but that’s for later. Forgotten Metal is no stranger to the 500, but, being one of the most popular people’s cars of the 20th century, you expect to stumble upon one or twelve every now and again. Oh, and there’s another thing that makes this particular 500 just that much more special than the droves of others. Welcome to Rome, everybody.

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That’s right, a beautiful car for a beautiful, if rainy, city. But hey, I don’t mind the rain. So, what’s the 500L’s deal? Well, postwar Italy was a place itching to get on the move, but because no one had any money, that was a problem that was going to have to be solved cheaply. Now, I have always admired companies that can make a good small car better than companies that can make a good fast car, and the reasoning is simple. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that hard to make a car go fast: all you need is a big engine, a light frame, some wheels and that’s that. You’ll have movie stars and high-profile athletes lining up around the block, eager to crash into something. But to make a compact car, see, that’s a different proposition entirely.

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To make a car that normal people are normally going to buy in their normally way, you’re going to need to think like a normal person. That means making a small car that does all the stuff a bigger car does, but in a smaller package and for a lower price. Here’s where things get difficult, and often where things go horribly wrong. But instead of getting scared, Fiat got clever when it came time to design their little postwar Italian icon. For example, the front suspension in the original “Nuova” 500 was just a single spring instead of there being one for each wheel. This saved money and, incidentally, weight. A canvas roof was standard as well, for similar reasons.

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By 1968, Fiat already had a pretty substantial hit on their hands with the Nuova 500 and its incrementally updated successors, the 500D, 500F and the 500K Giardiniera (a super-cool wagon variant). Enter the 500L: the “luxury” 500. This meant new chrome bumpers, a new Fiat logo, new hubcaps, radial tires, and comfy leather-cloth upholstery. You also got some extra compartments for storing all your daily Italian needs, like pasta and Pavarotti recordings. The mechanicals were largely unchanged, with a 500cc, 18 horsepower two-cylinder providing power to the rear wheels through a four speed gearbox. Not exactly a barnstormer, then, but then again it wasn’t supposed to be.

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The 500’s small dimensions were intended to make it lighter and cheaper to manufacture. They were intended to make it easier to pilot around the narrow cobblestone streets of Rome (which, by the way, are laid out about as logically as iTunes. Not to harp on about it, but it’s really like someone dropped a bunch of sticks and thought “yeah, lets make a map out of that.” The charm wore off real fast). What they actually did was give the sensation of tremendous speed. Which I think is the reason I like the 500 so much. Fiat was able to take a simple, workaday concept- the people’s car- and infuse it with some indescribable charisma. Yes, the “luxury” moniker is a bit ridiculous; carving out some extra storage compartments and slapping some new bumpers on a spartan vehicle like the 500 does not a luxury car make, but we can look past that. They created an icon, but more than that they made the daily commute fun for over three and a half million people. Ciao bella, indeed.

Additional Thoughts:

  • Thinking that 18 horsepower deserves a bit more pluck? There was a point in time where any 500 owner could wander into any garage in Italy and pick up bolt-on additions to their cars, such as twin-carbs and bigger exhausts.
  • Gordon Murray, the designer of the McLaren F1 (one of the fastest cars in the world) drives a Fiat 500. So does Tina Turner. So does Michael Schumacher.
  • The 500 is believed to be the smallest car to complete a global circumnavigation. In 99 days, no less.
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2 thoughts on “Roman Holiday

  1. Pingback: Hatchbacks, French Girls, and Denim Jeans | Forgotten metal

  2. Pingback: The Ugly Duckling | Forgotten metal

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