The Fiat 500 was created between the two world wars, aimed at offering an affordable car to start getting the country on the road. Its small size and vague resemblance to the Walt Disney character led to it becoming known as Topolino (Mickey Mouse). Although this remained a nickname, it would go on to identify the three series produced from 1936 until after the war in 1955.
In the early 1930s, Fiat needed to produce a compact, affordable car, to encourage the dissemination of cars in Italy. Initially the idea of the then technical director Antonio Fessia – who later moved to Lancia and fathered the Lancia Flavia and other models – was to produce an “all systems go” small car, i.e. one with its engine in the front and front-wheel drive. This was an unusual architecture for the time, when the engine was indeed at the front, but the traction was always in the rear. Reluctantly, Fessia had to curb the innovation powertrain as a result of an inconvenience that occurred during the testing of the first prototype; in 1934, the project was therefore continued by the same engineers under the young Dante Giacosa, who until then had been working on aeronautical engines.
Limiting costs was always the main factor in the design, which affected all the technical decisions made by Giacosa’s new team. The layout became conventional, with the engine in the front and rear-wheel drive, although one unusual factor remained: the four-cylinder engine was located ahead of the front axle but also in front of the radiator.
With a displacement of 569 cc, resulting in the official name of “Fiat 500”, the engine was equipped with side valves that kept it particularly low to the ground. The contour parts were made as simple and economical as possible: the radiator, placed behind the engine in a raised position, required no pump for water circulation because it used the principle of a radiator that brings up the hottest water that, as it passes through the system, cools down and re-enters the engine. The power output was 13 hp, which drove its 740-kg weight fully laden to up to 85 km/h.
The low-lying engine with the radiator behind provided the option of giving the bonnet an aerodynamic and tapered line; in the imagination of people who saw it, even from inside the car, the external headlights alongside were reminiscent of the ears of the Disney character Mickey Mouse, hence the nickname that would immediately enter the collective unconscious to identify the small car. The cantilever placement of the engine meant the car – with its 2-metre wheelbase – could offer a decent amount of space for two, and the hint of a sofa in the rear that could only accommodate a passenger when the canvas roof was open, in the version provided with one. The extremely simple chassis ran to the central part of the passenger compartment, ending before the rigid rear deck suspended by a “half lead spring” (‘mezza balestra’). This solution would later result in the first Fiat 500 A models being nicknamed balestra corta (‘short crossbow’).
In June 1936, the Fiat 500 was officially unveiled to the public as the “great new little car to save money and work”, as the Istituto Luce film emphatically defined it as it was driven along the terrace of the Circolo della Stampa, to show off its compactness. The livery was two-tone with black fenders, headlights and running boards, as if to further emphasise the resemblance to the Disney character. The body was available as a sedan or in a “convertible” version with a canvas sunroof. The Fiat 500 was sold without bumpers, which could be ordered separately.
The initial sale price was 8,900 Italian lire, which corresponded to about 20 months' salary of a skilled worker of the time, well over the initial target of 5,000 set by the management. The 500 was therefore not really within everyone's reach, but it remained a major success, for both Fiat and Italy. Until World War II broke out, around 20,000 cars were produced per year.
In 1937, the regulations requiring stopping lights and direction indicators came into force, whereas in 1938, after about 46,000 units had been produced, the first substantial changes were made. They mainly concerned the chassis, then extended to the rear axle where the new suspension equipped with a full leaf spring appeared: they would come to be known as the Fiat 500 A balestra lunga (‘long crossbow’). The change – made for a version that could bear a heavier load, for uniformity of production and for the greatest comfort on offer – was transferred to all models in production. The exhaust line, which until then ended halfway along the right side, now extended beyond the rear axle.