Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I am seeing more and more of an Italian legend here, the beloved little Fiat Cinquecento, perhaps the world’s most heroic car. The Cinquecento has become an icon, and Italians are scooping up the classic models and dragging those old antiques out of the hay barn to gussie them up and give them the love and respect they so richly deserve.

The Nova Cinquecento (pronounced CHEEN kweh CHAIN toh), so-called after the size of its motor, was launched in 1957 by the Italian auto giant and continued production in some form or other until 1975. Like its German cousin, the classic VW Beetle, the 500 was designed to fill the post-war demand for a cheap, practical city car which would obtain excellent gas mileage. It was more successful than its designer, Dante Giacosa, could ever have dreamed.

The classic 500 has a 479 cc two-cylinder, air-cooled motor. That probably doesn’t mean a lot to many of you, so for comparison, my small Mazda truck has a 2,600cc motor and many SUVs have motors in the 4,000 cc range, almost ten times the size of the 500’s. But in a country starved for gasoline, the tiny size and the efficient engine of the 500 make sense. Again, for comparison, Italians today pay about the same in real dollars for gas as they did in ‘57. My last trip to the pump I paid 1.65 euros per liter. I’m too lazy to do the math, but that’s somewhere in the range of 7 US dollars per gallon. Our little Daewoo Matiz, Bianca, set us back about $50 the last time we pulled into the pump. Efficiency is a must here unless you’re just irresponsible or addicted to conspicuous consumption.

The original 500 was slightly less than 10’ long, featured ‘suicide doors’, the ones that were hinged at the back, and a canvas sun roof that folded back. It was also available as a slightly larger four-door station wagon with a correspondingly bigger motor. Through the years it went through several permutations, but the basic design and motor were never changed. In 2007, Fiat launched a new version of the beloved little car, similar to the relaunch of the Beetle, to capitalize on the growing nostalgia. Based on our highly unscientific research, they've allowed the Smart Car to steal a march on them, and it will be a long time before they catch up, if ever.

One of the most beautiful 500s I’ve seen belongs to our host, Rolando, and is parked in the carport on the far side of the house where it is protected from the weather. It is spotless, with the classic beige color that practically screams 500, but with gorgeous red interior and black retractable roof. Obviously this is the ‘bebe di Rolando’.

And why not? The 500 is as heroic as it is cute. The little car is legendary for its tenacity and spunk. In May 2007, for example, two Aussies drove their 1969 ‘Bambino’, the nickname the 500 receives in Australia, around the world, making it the smallest car ever to ‘circumnavigate’ the globe. The couple drove the Bambino from Vladivostok, Russia to Garlenda, Italy, thence to Belgium where it was shipped by cargo liner to New York City, then driven across the Unites States to Anchorage, Alaska where it received a hero’s welcome. The trip covered 32,000 kilometers (18,900 miles) in 99 days. Bambino was then shipped home where it received another hero’s welcome and a well deserved riposo.

But the most remarkable 500 feat, at least to me, happened right here in Agropoli, as reported by my font of information, Fernando. Some fifteen years ago no fewer than 12 Agropolitans managed to cram themselves into a 500 and proceeded to drive from San Marco to Agropoli, a distance of about ten miles. I am shocked but delighted to report that car, driver and passengers all survived the trip just fine.

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