Monday, June 13th, 2011

Everyone of a certain age knows the meaning of those initials. “Fix It Again Tony”. That was the joke about Fiat when they were still imported into the U.S. until 1984 when they were no longer available. Italian style sometimes seemed more important that reliabilityFIAT logo. Of course that little first-hand knowledge of the company doesn’t say much about the long and storied history of the largest auto company in Italy. It is the ninth largest auto company in the world and in addition to the FIAT badge seen on the back of a number of models, one can find Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati. The company has operations all over the place. Fiats are made in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in this hemisphere. It has factories in Serbia and Poland and the Russian Lada is really a FIAT model made through a joint venture. They have factories or joint ventures in Egypt, India and Pakistan as well. Maybe I’ve left something out but the fact is they have a big automotive footprint. They recenly introduced the new Fiat 500 (the Cinquecento) into this country through their growing ownership (now at 46%) of Chrysler.   F.I.A.T. Stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino or in English, Italian Automobile Factory of Turin. It’s no recent outfit. It was established in 1899 – that’s 4 years before Ford was incorporated. Giovanni Agnelli (does that name ring a bell?) was one of the investors and while I’m unclear on the details the family wound up controlling the company and becoming VERY rich. The company owned a ski resort in the alps near the French border called Sestriere because the family liked to ski.  Ah, the perks of great wealth. The family still controls 30% of the company which is HUGE in terms of controlling interest for a major corporation.  I found a couple of photos of their plants. One is the Lingotto plant very close to Turin which ceased operation in 1984. When it opened in 1923 it was the largest in the world and had the unique distinction of having a car track on the top. The other shows the first car coming off of the line of an Indian Fiat factory along with all of the pomp that Indians do.

It is interesting to look at the history of such a company but now let’s get down the the fun stuff, the cars .One of the early ones was the Topolino (little mouse – the same name used for the Disney mouse) which was produced from 1937 to 1955.  This cutie sold for only a few thousand lire and had the astonishing top speed of 53 mph. It doesn’t say if this was downhill with a tailwind or not.

Anyone who has ever traveled to Italy is surely familiar with the original Cinquecento. That little, well tiny, car originally had a half liter displacement (hence the cinquecento name) that really couldn’t get out of it’s own way. The car was only 10 feet long and the engine produce 13 horsepower. No that’s not a typo – 13 horsepower. It’s hard to imagine how slow that car must have been. In any case it was enormously successful and was pretty much the same model for almost twenty years. Production was from 1957 to 1977. During that time there were incremental upgrades to make it more comfortable. Of course it probably didn’t take much to make it much more comfy. The engine displacement crept up all the way to 600 ccs and the heady power output of 23 horsepower. Hold onto your seats! While I can joke about the 500 I still think it is such a cute little thing and if I could afford it and had a place to keep it I’d love to have one.

Now it might be stretching credulity to consider that the Cinquecento could be considered the world’s best car. However this British gentleman in the video below seems to think so. Take a look and see if you agree.

While the Fiat 500 us perhaps the most beloved and recognizable of the models, the Fiat 124 Spider was quite popular in the U.S. starting in the late 60s and continuing until all Fiats exited the scene in 1984. I knew a couple of people during the 70s that had them and they liked them a lot despite the reliability and rust issues. In all about 120,000 of them were sold in this country and they still look like pretty cool cars and perform reasonably well for cars of that vintage.

Aside from the Cinquecento and the Spider most of the other models seem largely forgettable. Of course that’s probably not the case all over Europe where Fiats have always been sold and have some quite striking models. Most of those that I have seen (or rented) are fairly pedestrian econoboxes that get the job done but without a lot of flair. Of course the Fiat umbrella includes Alfa-Romeo (be still my beating heart) as well as rich men’s toys – Maserati and Ferrari. But those are subjects for other posts.   Before leaving the subject I should note that the Cinquecento has been reborn. It looks like a great car and I saw one of these around not too long ago but they are still pretty rare. I think that FIAT is easing into the American market. Still I hope to see it give the Mini a run for it’s money. It looks like a great city car. They are due to introduce a peppy Abarth version sometime this year. Rumor has it that they will be able to get 170 horsepower out of that little 1.4 liter engine. Wow!  THAT should be a real kick to drive.

Has anyone reading this owned a Fiat? What was your experience? How about seeing a new 500?


7 Responses to “F.I.A.T.”

  1. Peter H. Says:

    Joe, I had a Fiat 124 Spyder, green, just like the one in your post. I lived in Los Angeles and drove around with the top down all year long. I loved it. It was better to think of it as a “fun experience” rather than a reliable form of transportation. I had many breakdowns and repairs. Once I accidentally backed into a parked car and pushed in the side quarter panel. I was so mad I hit the side of the car with my hand. Much to my surprise, the dent popped out!

  2. Joe Says:


    I suppose that there are a few dubious benefits to flimsy construction. My friend in Torino who works for Fiat says that quality has improved enormously in the last few years. They probably were getting really beaten up by the Japanese manufacturers. They do have some pretty spiffy models.


  3. Jamie P. Says:

    Good morning, Josepi,
    If I had one of the original 500’s, I’d ‘trick it out’ with hydraulics and a huge stereo system and then go hopping down Mission Street on Friday night! 🙂

    P.S.: Maybe in our ‘golden years’ we could rent a garage together and renovate a couple of old 500’s, motorcycles, or alfa romeos! I’ve always wanted to learn to weld stuff. 🙂

  4. Joe Says:


    I’m not sure about the hydraulics and going bouncy bouncy but how about this video of a 500 smoking a Porsche?


  5. Jamie P. Says:

    You are BAD! Now I’m addicted to watching the amazing number of YouTube videos about Fiat 500’s! Did you see this one about restoration projects?

  6. Joe Says:

    No, Jamie, I don’t think that I saw that. Certainly the cinquecento is a cult car and has special qualities that endear it to a lot of people. Kind of like the Citroen 2CV and the Mini. So can it be long before the French come out with their own nostalgia update to the 2CV?


  7. Jamie P. Says:

    Oops… forgot to include the link:

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