Todd Niall

Fiat Bambina – The 500 turns 50 – 195

June 2007 marked the Fiat Bambina’s 50th anniversary. Todd Niall discusses the history of this iconic micro-car, and outlines his book — Bambina: The Fiat 500 in New Zealand

The 500, with its twin cylinder air-cooled engine, became the most successful of the post-Second World War mini-cars which flourished briefly across Europe. Ironically, a design which has become something of a icon in Italy had some of its origins in Germany.

France, Germany, Italy and England were all exploring cheap and simple micro-cars as Europe rebuilt itself during the 1950s. Fiat’s Italian moves to replace the ageing (1930s) Topolino had been scuttled in the war when a prototype was destroyed in bombing.

Fiat’s Dante Giacosa had masterminded the 600, which was launched in 1955, but while successful, this car was still out of reach for many Italians. However, ideas were flowing from Fiat’s German subsidiary NSU-Fiat, in Heilbronn, and one prototype built in Germany and sent to Turin was for a compact and simple two-seater with a two-stroke engine directly over the rear wheels. It is a design which Giacosa has acknowledged as influencing the eventual 500.

In July 1957, 120 of the new Nuova 500s were paraded around Fiat’s home city of Turin. Its eventual success and cult status were slow coming, with the early models deemed too Spartan, and the in 9.6kW (13hp) 479cc engine underpowered. Fiat moved quickly though, bringing through variants with more power from 11kW engines, opening quarter-lights and other creature comforts. The introduction of the 500D model in 1960 hit most of the right spots, and sales began to climb.

Iconic charmer

Charming and iconic though the 500 had become, by 1972 its ’50s design was just a little too passe. Fiat kept a bob each way, bringing in the more modern-looking 126 using a similar platform, while continuing a domestic version of the 500, the 500R. The R used the new 594cc version of the 500 engine, and kept the model alive until 1975.

Fiat itself hit a financial and sales crisis in the early part of the new century, and its decision to launch a ‘new’ 500 later this year looks set to follow the path taken by VW and Mini to try to revive the buzz of their past achievements. The new 500 will, of course, be an entirely new and modern car, but one that recaptures the styling cues of its famous predecessor.

The Fiat 500 in NZ

New Zealand was the car market furthest removed from its birthplace in Turin, northern Italy. On top of that claim to fame, the often strange world of ’60s New Zealand saw the Italian icon lead a life its creators would never have imagined.

Nuova 500s arrived officially in New Zealand — almost two years to the day following the model’s Italian launch — when the freighter Sumbawa tied up at Auckland’s wharves. Until then, it had been the 600 and the teardrop-shaped people mover, the Multipla, which had sustained the three distributors which carved the local market up between them.

The drive to boost the number and variety of cars in local assembly led to the first Fiat 500Ds rolling out of the VW Motors plant in Auckland’s Otahuhu at the end of 1960.

The 500D was the cheapest car on the local market, and in contrast to the market-leading British Mini, was generally available off the showroom floor with no waiting, and no preference to stump up some of the price in overseas currency.

Cheapness was a powerful argument in trying to squeeze more import licences out of the Government, and eventually the 500 was being built at the rate of 800 a year. That was after the slightly underhanded acquisition of the Fiat franchise by Torino Motors’ Noel Turner (who jointly owned the VW Motors plant), who saw the Fiat 500 take on a pioneering role in the evolution of the regulations which bound up every aspect of the New Zealand motor industry.

This article is from Classic Car issue 195. Click here to check it out.

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