The 110 prototype for the Nuova 500
To understand ‘how’ and why the Nuova 500 was born, we have to think not of a mere substitute for the old Topolino (509,650 units between 1936-1955), or of a model that was able to compete with a scooter, in terms of costs and efficiency. Fiat obviously decided to do ‘something’ better. The strategic planning of models had begun again, after the anguish and uncertainty of the war years. Giacosa wrote an interesting description of the ‘preparatory’ stage before the arrival of the car. The most important Italian automotive engineer in the second half of the 20th century, and the true father of the Nuova 500, is the best witness to these events. ‘While the 600 was still at the experimental stage,’ he said, ‘I had put people back to work on a minimalist car, even smaller and more economical. The Italians wanted cars, and they were willing to make do with even less space, provided it was on four wheels. No matter how small, a car would still be more comfortable than a scooter, particularly in Winter and in the rain. I had people sketch models of unconventional small cars that had to compete with the Vespa in particular.’
As far back as 1939, Fiat had already done some work on ‘minimalist’ cars that had remained at the experimental stage because of the war, which is what happened to ‘the first type 100 with front-wheel drive and a 500 cc transverse engine, designed in 1947’ which was never built. During the war, a prototype, known as the Gregoire, appeared in France attracting a great deal of attention, but again, nothing came of it. But at Mirafiori, the engineers knew that in Germany they were designing small cars like the BMW Isetta, which Giacosa called ‘half-way between a car and a motorcycle’, and attempts were being made to restart manufacture of the people’s car, the Volkswagen, in viable numbers.
The Deutsche Fiat company had a sort of technological antenna in Germany through its headquarters in Heilbronn and its assembly plant in Weinsberg. A technician called Hans Peter Bauhof worked there, whom Dante Giacosa defined as a man with a ‘fervid imagination, animated by a restless spirit of initiative’, adding, in what resembled a note to the personnel department, that he was ‘shy and modest, but ingenious, tenacious and hard-working’.
In 1953, the technician from Heilbronn submitted his proposal (which appears somewhat rustic from the pictures that still remain) for a small car with a single cylinder, 2-stroke engine derived from a motorcycle which, in Giacosa’s words, was ‘unsuitable for the car that Fiat wanted to build". But Bauhof’s ‘ideas for the construction of the bodywork’ were appreciated in Turin. Bauhof also sent a prototype to Turin, which Giacosa found ‘interesting for its simplicity’, but the rest of the company considered it ‘too superficial and insufficient as a car’.
When Bauhof’s proposal to use a motorcycle engine had been discarded, Giacosa continued to work on the 500 project, with the goal of ‘reduced weight, wheels, suspension and steering’. Using his common sense, half-way between starting from scratch and borrowing something from the 600 which was at an advanced stage of development, in 1954 the engineer decided ‘that the engine had to be a 4-stroke, with two cylinders in line, which is the simplest, most economical engine, and that it should be air-cooled. It may be positioned transversely, it is simple and has a high mechanical efficiency’. He entrusted the actual design to the engineer Giovanni Torrazza, ‘the only graduate working for me who knew how to draw’ and designed the bodywork himself, because ‘I was so worried about giving the car an attractive shape, a structure that was as light as possible but sturdy, and simple but economical to build’. Giacosa prepared 2 plaster models, one very similar to the 600 and the other entirely new. ‘I tried to make the sheet metal surface as small as possible’, he wrote in his book, ‘in order to limit the weight and the cost, much as I had done for the 600’.
The start of development
Giacosa went on to say (after all, no one is better qualified to describe the events) that ‘once the bodywork was approved, the new model 110 (Fiat internal number-code name for the Nuova 500 project which adopted the ‘hundreds-based’ numbering system for the various ‘types’ and models) was discussed for the first time at the ‘New types meeting’ of October 18, 1954, attended by Giacosa, Vittorio Valletta (Chairman and Managing Director of Fiat), Gaudenzio Bono (also Managing Director and General Manager), Luigi Gajal de la Chenaje (Vice Chairman and Commercial Manager) and other representatives of company management. And on that occasion, the new car shed its project number and was given its first name, or number, the ‘400’.
At the meeting it was decided that the new model would have a power delivery of 13 bhp, a capacity of 480 cc with overhead valves or ‘higher with lateral valves’, a top speed of 85 km/h, fuel consumption of 4.5 litres for 100 km, a weight of 370 kg and would carry 2 passengers. ‘The prototype was to be approved on June 30, 1955 so that production could start in mid 1956’. At the same time, a prototype with 4 seats instead of 2 was also approved, as well as another prototype ‘but with a different, more luxurious body’ for Autobianchi (a company created out of the former Edoardo Bianchi company, set up in 1955 with capital from Fiat, Pirelli and Bianchi). Giacosa also states that the same meeting also approved: the 600 with sunroof, the 600 TV, the 600 Multipla and small van, the 1100 with a 1200-1300 engine and three new models, the 101 - 1400, the 105 - 1900 and the 112 - 2300 cc.
The meeting in the Park at Stupinigi
Nowadays, car makers try to hide their new models, keeping them even from the eyes of employees, or they organize ultra-secret clinic tests, and Dante Giacosa’s description of the presentation of the entire new range of Fiat models, including the 500, is another curious sign of the half century that has passed. It all took place not in a secluded spot, but in the park of the Royal Hunting Lodge at Stupinigi, just outside Turin. The park is open to the public and no manufacturer would use it today to present its entire range of future models to company managers, and also to its major stockholder, since ‘Avvocato’ Gianni Agnelli, Vice Chairman of the company, was also present at the meeting of October 18, 1955.
‘The new model meeting was held in the park at Stupinigi,’ and Giacosa exhibited the Fiat and Autobianchi versions of the 400 (the 500), the 600 with sunroof, the 600 estate or Multipla, the 1100, the 1400 with 1.6 litre engine, and the 1900 Gran Luce. ‘The Fiat and Autobianchi (later the Bianchina) prototypes of the 400 were approved’, Giacosa noted without further comments. Another ‘New model meeting’ was held in January 1956, and it was confirmed that production of the 400 (500) would start in the Spring of 1957, followed a few months later by the Autobianchi. ‘Someone expressed the fear that the public might find the Autobianchi more attractive and appealing than the Fiat, and prefer it’, said Giacosa in his book, ‘but we decided to set a higher price, closer to the 600, in order to limit demand to no more than 50 cars/day, since Desio (the Autobianchi plant) could not exceed that figure’. At the same meeting, a manager whose name is not known, even proposed giving the 500 to Autobianchi to produce, while Fiat built the Bianchina, but luckily for Fiat the proposal never got off the ground.
An investment of 7 billion lire was earmarked for the project, with an output of 300 cars/day. ‘Valletta persuaded us to turn out 500 units/day of mechanical parts and bodies, but only 300 cars/day worth of other parts that were built in the subsidiary workshops in Lingotto’. The 200 per day not assembled but manufactured and available on hand were used to build up the parts stocks, and if necessary, would be assembled to create the so-called end-of-line ‘store’. The months leading up to the launch were intense, with road tests, particularly to reduce vibration and engine noise, and to increase reliability and driveability. But at the beginning of the Summer of 1957, the Nuova 500 was ready for the market.