On this day in 1957, the Italian automaker Fiat (short for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) debuts the “Nuova Cinquecento,” a redesigned version of a model that it first released in 1936.
Founded in 1899 by Giovanni Agnelli, Fiat had dominated the Italian auto industry since the early 20th century. When Fiat’s first 500-cc car–known as “Il Topolino” (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse)–came on the scene, it was the smallest mass-produced car on the market, with space for two people, a tiny luggage capacity and a top speed of 53 mph. In the years following World War II (during which Fiat made many of the vehicles used by Italian forces under Benito Mussolini), the company sought to capitalize on the need for affordable family cars by revamping the 500. The Nuova Cinquecento was a two-cylinder rear-engined four-seater; like the German Volkswagen Beetle, it was intended as an Italian “people’s car.” Like the Beetle, the 500 was became a symbol of a country and a people, an emblem of “la dolce vita” in post-war Italy. Some 3.5 million new 500s were sold between 1957 and 1975, when Fiat halted production.
By 2004, Fiat–once the largest carmaker in Europe–was struggling financially due to stiff competition from Volkswagen and other companies. That year, Sergio Marchionne took over as the company’s chief executive; he soon ended Fiat’s largely unsuccessful five-year partnership with General Motors and would be praised by investors for the subsequent revival of the company’s fortunes. A critical step in this turnaround was the launch of the new Cinquecento in 2007. Designed by Frank Stephenson (already famous for the redesign of another classic, the Mini Cooper), the new 500 was based on the mechanical elements of the popular Fiat Panda, but modified significantly. Though its retro styling evoked its iconic predecessor, the strong performance and extensive safety features (including seven airbags) were all its own.
On July 4, 2007–50 years to the day after Giacosa’s famous car debuted–several thousand VIP guests, including Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, were among the 100,000 spectators who gathered in Turin to celebrate the launch of the Nuova Cinquecento. The lavish ceremony featured a fireworks display and a waterborne carnival procession along the Po River. Two years later, Fiat completed an alliance with Chrysler after the struggling American automaker was forced to file for federal bankruptcy protection. Under the terms of the partnership, Fiat owns a 20 percent share of Chrysler (which could eventually grow to at least 35 percent).