Simanaitis Says

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FIAT’S MOUSE—THE 500 TOPOLINO

THE FAME of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse gave a name to one of the world’s most charming automobiles, the Fiat 500 Topolino (Italian: Little Mouse, and Mickey’s nickname there).

The diminutive car was the product of a Fiat design contest won by an employee destined to motorsports fame. The Topolino put Italy on four wheels, was portrayed in its art, played politics with fascism, co-starred in a Hollywood romance with Audrey Hepburn, and continues as an object of affection among car collectors.

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Fiat 500 Topolino, 1936. This image by Corsetti and other images from Posters from the Fiat Archives 1900 – 1940, Fabbri Editori, 1991.

In 1933, Fiat Chairman Senator Giovanni Agnelli invited designers from all divisions of the company to contribute ideas for an economy car capable of carrying two people and their luggage. Dante Giacosa, 29 at the time, and colleagues in Fiat’s aeronautical group were selected to engineer the car’s mechanicals. Giacosa went on to design the Cisitalias made famous by race driver Tazio Nuvolari. Chief stylist Rudolfo Schaffer came up with streamlined coachwork for the Topolino’s tidy packaging.

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Fiat 500 Topolino, 1936. Image from www.carblueprints.info.

In contrast to the Grand Marques, the Fiat Topolino was a modest car indeed. Its overall length of 127 in. fits between the wheelbase of a 2015 Cadillac Escalade ESV. Its engine was a side-valve 13-hp four-cylinder displacing 569 cc, about the same as one cylinder of the V-6 powering today’s Honda Accord.

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Fiat 500 Topolino, 1936. Image from http://goo.gl/6Uxxk2.

The engine perched ahead of the car’s front axle, with its radiator residing behind it. This layout permitted the Topolino’s steeply sloping nose and aerodynamic demeanor.

The Topolino’s chassis was drilled for lightness. With the first 46,000 chassis, a live rear axle was suspended on quarter-elliptic springs. However, Topolino owners were carrying four people in their due posti machines, and Fiat responded with stronger semi-elliptic springs on an extended chassis.

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Fiat 500 Topolino, 1936. Brochure illustration by Massimo Quaglino, Topolino shown with a fetching fascista during Mussolini’s rule.

During the Topolino’s 19 years in production, there were three versions, sensibly labeled A (1936 – 1948), B (1948 and 1949) and C (1949 until 1955).

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Over its 19 years, there were Topolino Coupés, Transformabiles (convertibles), Giardinettas (station wagons) and (Furgonchinos) utility vans. Image by Guglielmo Rossi.

The 500B, introduced at the 1948 Geneva Motor Show, had an overhead-valve engine boosting output to 16 hp. Its maximum speed rose to 95 km/h (59 mph) from the 500A’s 85 km/h (53 mph). The car’s fuel economy also improved, from 46.8 to 56.0 mpg.

The 500C, appearing at 1949 Geneva, swapped the Topolino’s original sloping nose for a more conventional (and less attractive) shape with enclosed headlights. Its mechanicals were substantially upgraded, though the 500C’s performance and fuel economy were no better than those of the 500B.

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Fiat 500C Topolino, 1951. Image from the auction catalog, Christie’s Exceptional Motor Cars at The Pebble Beach Concours, Sunday, August 17, 2003.

From the beginning and the car’s endearment with Mickey Mouse’s Italian name, the Topolino brimmed with personality and brio. Its advertising messages and cultural influences reflected this.

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Music for Fox-One Step song, by Rolando and Valabrega, “In my Topolino.”

The Topolino couldn’t help but appear in any movie set in Italy during the period. A high point was starring in Roman Holiday (1953), a romance of a bored and sheltered princess who briefly pals around with American ex-pats and falls in love with one of them. Audrey Hepburn is the errant princess. Newsman Gregory Peck is the love interest and his photographer colleague Eddie Albert is the Topolino pilot.

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Gregory Peck (6 ft. 3 in.) maneuvers out of Eddie Albert’s Topolino 500B as Audrey Hepburn watches. Image from http://toldbydesign.com/, where there’s also a video of the scene listed under “I’ll park at the corner.”

Those of us of a certain age were utterly captivated by Audrey Hepburn. And the auto enthusiasts among us coveted Eddie Albert’s wheels too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

One comment on “FIAT’S MOUSE—THE 500 TOPOLINO

  1. Bill Urban
    April 15, 2015

    Dennis – delightful, good work. No doubt the 500A and B Coupé lines and proportions are 30’s classic, but even more so the utility van in the Rossi pic’ . . .
    Thanks too for the toldbydesign link. (Good thing that tree wasn’t any closer to the curb 🙂 Many worthy snippets at toldbydesign – check Pillow Talk, Doris, Rock, and an MG.
    Looking forward to each post.

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