Icon Inquisition: Fiat Cinquecento

Icon Inquisition: Fiat Cinquecento image

Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Fiat | posted July 18, 2016 15:32

La Dolce Vita

Hollywood's star

The Cinquecento is one of those global cars that is well known and loved in both Eastern and Western Europe along with a good portion of Latin America. And yet it is virtually unknown in Asia, Africa and North America. Thanks to Hollywood, anyone in the English speaking world has known this Italian car through many generations of movies filmed on location in Italy. But to talk about the Cinquecento, one cannot avoid talking about FIAT cars, FIAT the company and Italy as their fates, passions and foibles are intrinsically bound.

No horsey heritage

Unlike other long established automotive names, FIAT did not sprout from the horse carriage trade. Neither was it a one product company focused on the automobile, unlike Karl Benz, Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler. Neither did it have aristocratic roots like Rolls Royce nor was it reinvented many times over from being a maker or corsets, bicycles and artillery shells like Peugeot or weaving looms like Toyota. FIAT existed long before Nazi Germany created a state owned car making factory for the people [Volkswagen]. FIAT was principally the business arm for a cadre of engineers and not the other way, where the business end of the car or engineering company was in charge of the engineers. At FIAT, the decisions were made by the engineers and not the professional managers. FIAT also mirrored the newborn Italian Republic aspirations as it was also one of the first large industrial companies founded on socialist beliefs. This is probably why FIAT was quite popular with the COMECON countries during the Cold War.

Splendid isolation

Once in a while, engineering led companies produce such a well rounded engineer's dream kind of product that even if the car became a commercial flop, it will always be haloed in the pantheon of engineering perfect products. Examples of these are the FIAT 128 and Renault's 16. These products were cohesive engineers' dreams. The design and function of every part was in harmony with almost all engineering theories and concepts, are realized and perfected. The problem was, it was so perfect in isolation, that it had limited scope in sharing parts and platforms with other model families. But this is necessary for the commercial existence of the business.

Maximized to the minimum

The Cinquecento's roots were engineering led. To the layman, this can be understood as the design's complete aversion to waste. If today's environmental lobby studied the 1920's Topolino, they should be impressed at the way the engineers conserved on space, metal, rubber, glass, paint and electrical looms. As always, anything superfluous was eliminated.

Fiat Topolino

A little mouse's DNA

The Cinquecento or 500, is a direct descendant of the Topolino, following FIAT's philosophy that a mass market car should be the next step up from a motorcycle and hence, must also be small. Starting as a rear engine rear wheel drive, the Cinquecento didn't offer much that was novel. Cars of similar size, like the BMW Isetta and Messerschmitt bubble cars were more technically interesting because the whole front fascia was the front door itself.

Humble power, humble ride

Despite its lightness at a little less than 500kgs, the original Topolino and succeeding Cinquecento's all rode well and were not to be ashamed with their small engine outputs of 30bhp. With such a pared down spec sheet, refinement was not one of its strong suits. Novel ideas, such as the semi-independent transverse leaf spring rear suspension, preceding the world standard torsion beam suspension by almost a hundred years, produced a decent ride over rough patches.

The anti-Mini

All 20th century Cinquecento's were rear engine rear drive while the 21st century iteration is front wheel drive. A pity as the latest Smart and Renault Twingo has proven that space, economy, ecology and performance considerations can be catered to with rear engine rear drive without any glaring disadvantage to the Sir Alec Issigonnis front engine/wheel drive platform that is the global standard today.

FIAT had a platform strategy

Aside from the Tipo platform, which has been underpinning almost all modern day FIAT products since 1990 up to the Grande Punto, the Cinquecento platform was FIAT's answer to BMC Sir Alec's Mini platform which was then growing to be BMC's entire model range portfolio. Thus it is not difficult to see how the Cinquecento of today hews close to the original.

Fiat 500 diagram

Space; i.e. lots of nothing 

The adverts always touted the tremendous space that this car had, despite its size. Early models had rear hinged doors that opened outward, making it easy to go in and out. Despite having a minimal front, there was plenty of forward space in the cabin as there was no dashboard to speak off. The meager instruments were mounted on pod screwed to the steering column. The rest of the dash was something that looks like a domestic shelf. Road tests of the Cinquecento by the late 50's motoring hacks must have commented on the huge space inside, simply because, apart from the shelf, there was nothing in it to intrude into anyone or anything, coming or going.

Going local everywhere

The Cinquecento, the Nuova Cinquecento of 1957 and the successor FIAT 126 of 1973 had the engine in the rear. It's Polski FIAT and Zastava derivative introduced the COMECON/Communist Eastern bloc families to motoring. Americans will remember these cars as the disastrous Yugo, imported into the US just before the outbreak of the Balkans war in the 1990s.

Signs of the times

Thankfully, today's Cinquecento has more – pleasant looking- stuff to talk about in the interior. It may not be stark naked but the miniature toy like controls took some time to treat seriously. It has nothing earthshaking in its concept and basic platform, looking, driving and feeling like anyone of its Italian and Euro rivals in the same class.

Throwback sells 

Fondly teased as a portacabin on wheels, the Cinquecento was spacious, for two people, just like the original. The ride is surprisingly supple at the cost of a high degree of roll in curves, unless one orders the better handling but firmer riding sport suspension of the Abarth variant. The most upfront evidence of loyalty to the original is the Cinquecento face – round headlights embracing the corners, concealed front nosecone slots and rounded egg shaped frame. FIAT even allows one to indulge in some 1957 nostalgia with 50's paint colors and chrome hub caps on body colored steel rims. The dash integrates all the climate, audio and ambience controls and switches without ruining the unitary look of the surface.

Fiat Nuova 500

Simplifying the simple

Naturally the original didn't have as many controls and as many options but FIAT designers integrated these controls in such a way that the dash surfaces looked of a piece. Today's Cinquecento is quite a successful masquerade as its looks are quite reminiscent of the original. That its driving character is far more agreeable while passing all modern rules and strictures makes it a success of the smoke and mirrors set rather than to any loyal adherence to tradition.

A good head start

As we earlier said, no story about the Cinquecento would be complete without the story of post War FIAT and Italy itself. Justifiably, the rapid post war growth and success of FIAT, the company was built on the back of the Cinquecento. But just like Volkswagen which was too dependent on the Beetle, FIAT was always conscious of the need to expand its model line up and expand its market reach.

Unbeatable reach

In the Europe of the 70s, FIAT already had a cost advantage. Hitting at one time a market dominance of close to 60%, FIAT's lead in Italy was virtually unassailable, thanks to the nationalistic Italians and government subsidies that favored FIAT. Export wise, FIAT wasn't resistant to technology transfer for local manufacturing as demanded by emerging markets. SEAT, FIAT's Spanish understudy was poised to imitate FIAT's dominance of the Italian car market in Spain. The Eastern Bloc nations, along with the USSR, were only to happy to build megafactories to manufacture FIAT facsimiles. FIAT's 1100 manufactured by Premier as the Padmini in India were set to challenge the hegemony of the Hindustan Ambassador and Standard Heralds, the British brand hegemons. FIAT's popularity in Latin America was second only to the US brands. Using the basic platform of the Cinquecento/126, FIAT was to supply Mao Ze Dong's People's Republic of China with a rugged all purpose rural/urban runabout – the Giugiaro designed FIAT Panda.

National champions

Granted that France closely guarded and supported its Big Three – Peugeot-Citroen SA, Simca-Talbot and Renault - it could only lay claim to market dominance in Francophone Africa and no more. Leyland, the successor company to BMC was a shadow of its former self, as nothing could stop the rapid decline of British made cars for export. FIAT's strongest competitors were the German brands. But costs were also going up as the German export power house and economic miracle was already raising the cost of labor, necessitating the import of guest workers from Turkey, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

Fiat 500L

The Brigato Rosso era

For FIAT, labor in Italy was abundant. Even with FIAT's socialist past, nothing could save it from the turmoil of Italy's Communist supported militant Labor Unions. Hostaging managers, even Agnelli [the family that owned FIAT] heirs and wildcat strikes were common as the powerful labor unions demanded pay raises, without any quid-pro-quo increase in productivity. As labor costs went up, the bean counters resorted to cost cutting at parts supply purchase. With such restive labor, even the much vaunted parts design expertise and engineering of the Italians, counted for nothing as poorly built cars and car parts led to frequent breakdowns and the eventual disrepute of FIAT parts quality. 

The sick man of Europe

The government's inability to enhance the economic fortunes of the South of Italy in order to displace Mafia influence pushed it to incentivise home grown conglomerates like FIAT to invest in such depressed areas to take advantage of low labor costs. Struggling parts makers were taken over by FIAT at the government's request if only to substitute FIAT's money for government subsidies failure in supporting FIAT's entry into a widening global market. FIAT was fighting the rising labor cost battle through technology by inventing new robotic processes, new parts and new ways to assemble/energize common sharing parts modules. Still, this was not enough to stave of the rising cost penalty because of poor labor productivity. FIAT engineers could only do so much in reengineering production to counter the rising cost of Union labor. The cost squeeze had to impair something, the result being the declining reliability and longevity of FIAT autos.

The Asians dominate

Meantime, while all of this was going on putting the squeeze on FIAT, Japanese cars, virtually maintenance and repair free, were the fast rising sun all across the World. FIAT was threatened to go the way of demise of the British car makers as witnessed by the collapse of BMC-Leyland due to runaway labor costs that did not translate to improved productivity. FIAT was to soldier on, with little to show for the huge factories it set-up in a gingerly re-opening China. Still, FIAT's engineers were the jewels, the crowning glory, the gold standard of the car industry.

Surviving militant labor

By now, BMC-Leyland collapsed by the weight of its labor problems. FIAT would have been next if it wasn't for the benevolence and largesse of the Agnelli family, who kept FIAT Italian even as government hampered FIAT by making it subsidize failing regions while strangling it with further mandated regulations making labor and manufacturing location more costly. It was a miracle that FIAT survived crisis after crisis, and every botched attempt of the Italian government. Still, its cadre of engineers was the main jewel that FIAT was peddling in desperate attempts to find a consolidating partner.

White knight, saves the day

By the turn of the century, FIAT found one in a GM that was bent on consolidating itself as an Autoworld collection of brands. Alas, the partnership was to falter but not without FIAT receiving and keeping a substantial dowry. So when the 2008 financial crisis came along and an ailing Chrysler presented itself, fresh from its divorce from Daimler, FIAT, by then owned by a majority of investment funds just had to bite.

Fiat Nuova 500 II

FIAT, an American immigrant with an Italian heart

Hence, we have the FIAT of today, now an American company with a Torinese heart, run by Sergio Marchionne, a Canadian. With a much diminished role for the Agnelli family who stood by FIAT at great cost to its wealth, FIAT, from being the global backwater, overtaken by the Koreans and the Chinese home grown car makers, had become a generic global carmaker, struggling to revive the Italian passions of its namesake while able to produce competent but boring universal cars. Cars that the world still considers an Asian core competence.

Success and flattery by imitation

And that has also been the spiritual journey of the Cinquecento. Brilliant in concept though flawed in manufacture, the Cinquecento of today is brilliant in so far as having captured the mask of the original, even as the car underneath could have been a Nissan or a Suzuki. As for FIAT's strategy of world domination? Though FIAT isn't anywhere near the might of the Japanese and even the Korean auto industry's heft and penetration today, it's strategy of spreading their engineering nous far and wide has its followers. That happens to be a manufacturer renowned in making micro SUV's, micro-cars and motorcycles – sharing engine and platform blueprints to India, China and many Middle Eastern countries -achieving a high degree of localization. Whether today's largely emancipated FIAT is flattered or embarrassed, that follower of the FIAT world car dictum is Suzuki, once its partner in micro 4WD SUV's.