As the new Fiat 500 starts to grace the nation’s highways and byways, John Stones wonders whether this car is as innovative as its 1950s namesake. Just to make sure, he takes a turn behind the wheel of both to find out
Long before emotional design was a term being bandied about in marketing seminars, Fiat managed to get the post-war Italians motorised in a way that even today puts smiles on people’s faces. Now the diminutive 500 is being reborn by a resurgent Fiat, hitting the streets of the UK this week.
So far the design plaudits have been flooding in, but Fiat’s heritage is all about ingenious packaging (meaning use of space) and an innovative, even Modernist, approach to industrial design. So why this, admittedly cute, retro interloper?
‘Fiat needed to do this car. The question was, “Why hasn’t it done it before?”,’ says Dale Harrow, head of vehicle design at London’s Royal College of Art. ‘There are only a few cars you can do this with, and the others, the Mini and the Beetle, have already been done.’
It seems to have started as a doodle during a quiet day in the studio, but the 2004 Trepiuno show car that evolved (and on which the new 500 is closely based) was so enthusiastically received that the car was rushed into production, using underpinnings from the Panda.
The design is formally attributed to Roberto Giolito, who has just been promoted to head of design for Fiat. ‘The 500 is pure contemporary design. Nothing was “copied” from the ancestor 500,’ he insists. ‘Everything is new, starting from the different engine position, and the absolutely-not-nostalgic exterior design. We didn’t buy into the “500 brand” to reissue a famous car: we are the same company that 50 years ago invented the 500.’
The 500’s ‘friendly face’, he says, is being used to initiate a new, and modern, design language for the brand, in which innovative use of materials will play a central role.
Peter Stevens and Gordon Murray are two of the UK’s most celebrated car designers and collaborated on the seminal McLaren F1 supercar. Both are big fans of the original 500 (and currently own one each), so how does the new car go down with them?
‘I am normally grumpy about retro design, but I want one as long as it’s white with a red interior, so I can park it next to my classic 500,’ says Stevens. ‘It’s well judged, and very well executed, unlike so many cars at the moment. But it is fashion – a bit like buying a coat for autumn.’ ‹
While Murray admits that, stylistically, the new 500 is ‘spot on’, he is critical overall. ‘It’s a total waste of space,’ he says. ‘It’s in the same bad category as the Mini – the packaging is dreadful. It is a shame that these two iconic cars that moved car design forward shouldn’t do so again.’
Indeed, the 1993 Fiat Cinquecento (Italian for 500) was a thoroughly functional, utilitarian design that recreated the tiny city car for our time. It was cute enough, but the emphasis was on packaging and cost. However, this left the door open, and DNA from the original Fiat 500 began appearing in other cars, such as the Nissan Micra and the Daewoo Matiz.
Be it music, cars, clothes or furniture, the craze for raiding the back catalogue for retro designs still shows little sign of running out of steam. The current ad campaign for the 500 positions it as an everyday design classic. Whereas the original 500, VW Beetle and Mini became classics as a result of ingenious solutions to design problems, this heritage has now been reduced to surface style. It is design in the service of marketing, or, as Harrow, suggests, ‘The design isn’t about the car as a product but as an experience. The Tata Nano is much more in the spirit of the original 500’.
But, like the BMW Mini, the new Fiat is clearly going to sell like hot cakes, and is similarly going to be available with extensive (and lucrative) options to personalise the car. And Fiat is approaching the retail experience from a fresh angle, too. In the next couple of months, it will open a 1000m2 ‘experience centre’ on London’s Wigmore Street, just behind Oxford Street. Avoiding all the usual clichés of a dealership, this will be a brand positioning exercise to present Fiats in an ‘innovative, trendy and fun way’, according to Tony Dittli, who will manage the centre. The design is by Milanese consultancy Beyond The Line, and references the world of fashion and nightclubs, and there will be extensive digital interactives designed by AKQA, the group responsible for Fiat’s website.
Hopefully, commercial success will give Fiat the courage to design cars that are as innovative as those which made its name.
The Fiat 500 goes on sale this week
The road test
So what is it like in the flesh? First, it’s considerably larger than you expect and you sit pretty high inside. The exterior details are beautifully resolved, but it’s inside that the design shines most, particularly in ‘lounge’ trim, which gets you a cream-coloured steering wheel, classy fabrics and a nude-coloured plastic dashboard suggestive of Bakelite. Driving an original 500 is a bit like taking a stroll with a Labrador puppy – suddenly everyone is friendly and becomes a bit emotional. The driver can get emotional, too, but for a whole different set of reasons, such as struggling to change gear, and the tiny lawnmower-like engine being so feeble that passengers sometimes have to be jettisoned before attempting to climb steep hills. But the new 500, based as it is on the capable Panda, is thoroughly competent frugal and even fun. And it still gets people smiling, which today is a pretty rare thing for a car to do.