Henry Ford and Mickey Mouse - 2012 FIAT 500 Long-Term Road Test

2012 FIAT 500 Long Term Road Test

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2012 Fiat 500 Sport: Henry Ford and Mickey Mouse

February 09, 2012

It’s pretty hard to see the Fiat 500 as anything other than a fashion accessory, lacking only a price tag fluttering from a door handle to be seen as some kind of teen girl’s handbag.

But really what we have here is an answer to a serious question about personal mobility, the thing that all the social scientists are wringing their hands about right now. What the Fiat 500 wants to be is its real self, the original 1936 Fiat Topolino.

And it all started with the two most important personalities in America at the time, Henry Ford and Mickey Mouse.

We think of the 2012 Fiat 500 as the retro version of the Fiat Nuova of 1957, but actually the Fiat 500 goes back to the 1930s and the onset of the Great Depression. Times were tough (just like now), and everyone wanted an updated Ford Model T -- a purely practical car, only modern.

Fiat’s chairman (and majority owner) Giovanni Agnelli had been to see Henry Ford in 1906 and 1012, and indeed had created the Fiat Zero as a kind of Ford Model T for Italy. He even had built the Lingotto assembly plant (Europe’s largest) in 1916 with Ford’s Highland Park factory in mind — the raw materials went in on the ground floor and then the chassis were moved from floor to floor ever upward through the building until they emerged on the roof, where they were driven around a test track. (The Lingotto plant closed in 1982, but then the Agnelli family helped rebuild it into a spectacular complex that features a theater, convention center and a shopping plaza, plus a heli-pad overlooks the old test track on the roof.)


Once the Great Depression deepened in 1933, Agnelli asked for an affordable small car, something like the crude Austin 7, only modern like the many rear-engine designs then being discussed in Germany. Agnelli asked his designers to create a people’s car, and chief designer Oreste Lardone proposed a car with an air-cooled engine.

Once the prototype was complete, a demonstration was arranged. Agnelli naturally took a ride as a passenger, and naturally the car caught fire. Once Agnelli scrambled free of the flaming prototype, he promptly fired his chief designer and put young Dante Giacosa in charge of the project.

With the front-engine, rear-drive Fiat 500, Giacosa began a career that would include many innovative designs. The Fiat 500’s innovations began with a water-cooled engine with its radiator packaged behind the engine for a more modern and aerodynamic front grille. Meanwhile, the 13-hp, side-valve, 569cc four-cylinder engine worked through a four-speed transmission with synchromesh on the top two ratios. The Fiat 500 also had independent front suspension and hydraulically actuated brakes.


To produce the Fiat 500, Agnelli built the Mirafiori plant as a down-size version of Ford’s River Rouge factory. As the Fiat 500 came off the production line in 1936, one of the most popular publications in Italy happened to be a digest of comics called Topolino, or “Little Mouse.” It was, of course, all about Mickey Mouse, the scrappy, everyman animated character produced by Walt Disney. The nickname quickly attached itself to the Fiat 500, also a kind of scrappy, everyman character. Some 122,000 examples were made of this original design by 1948, when it was superseded by a rebodied version with a larger, more powerful engine. Ultimately, some 520,000 Topolinos were made before production ended in 1954.

There isn’t any good reason why the Fiat Topolino should be remembered today (top speed, 54 mph), and yet it’s a kind of secret collectible car. Great examples can fetch as much as $45,000 at auction, and Jay Leno has one. There’s even a Topolino character in Cars 2.

So when I see the Fiat 500, it’s more than a fashion accessory to me. It can look totally out of place on an America turnpike, but it makes me think of the everyman cars of the past, those great people’s cars that put the whole world on wheels, like the Ford Model T, Austin 7, Fiat Topolino, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault 4CV, Citroen 2Cv, and even the Honda Civic.

It also makes me think of the future of everyman cars.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com

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