2012 Fiat 500 Sport: It's a Scooter!
April 06, 2012
If you don't get what a scooter is about, you'll never get the Fiat 500.
The scooter is Italy. It's just enough and not a bit more. It's convenient, not just useful. It's expressive, but not overbearing. It is simplicity itself, the very same thing that makes you weigh an iPhone in your hand for a moment before you switch it on.
Of course, if the Fiat 500 is really a scooter, no wonder it seems so out of place in the land of the Camaro ZL-1, Harley-Davidson, and suitcase-size sub-woofer.
And oddly enough, the scooter was an American idea, even though it's thought of as a purely Italian thing. As Ferdinando Innocenti was looking around at his bomb-damaged factory in Milan while the American military went by at the end of World War II, he noticed that GIs were using made-in-Nebraska Cushman scooters to carry messages. And he realized that the scooter could furnish the cheap transportation that would put Italy on wheels after the war.
Innocenti collaborated on a scooter design with Corradino D'Ascanio, who had engineered the first modern helicopter for Agusta. The innovative design featured a simple, spar-type step-through frame, an integrated engine, transmission and drive gear, and a passenger shield against road debris.
Innocenti asked for a tube-type frame, as the manufacture of rolled tubing had been his company's primary business in the 1920s and 1930s, but D'Ascanio wouldn't compromise (ah, engineers) and took his design to Piaggio, an aircraft company, where it went into production in 1946 as the Vespa ("wasp").
Innocenti turned instead to Cesar Pallavicino, the technical director at Caproni aircraft, and Pier Luigi Torre, an aircraft engine designer at Idros. Finally the Lambretta (a name derived from the Lambro, a river near Innocenti's factory in Milan) went into production in 1947.
The scooter absolutely transformed Italian society just as Innocenti had anticipated. It was cheap to buy and cheap to run. It could wriggle through the narrow streets of Italy's ancient cities and then could be parked by just backing it into a curb or leaning it against a wall. It wasn't big or impressive or even all that practical, but it was convenient. There were scooters everywhere.
For me, the Fiat 500 is about pure mobility, just like a scooter. Of course, you have to say that the scooter has never been very successful in America. It has come into fashion time and again, notably in the early 1960s with the Honda 50, the mid-1970s with the moped, and the 1990s with fast, highway-friendly scooters, but the scooter concept has never really been compatible with the mix of big, high-speed cars and trucks that are characteristic of the U.S.
Just like the scooter, the Fiat 500 needs just the right environment before it can flourish. To say that it's not great at crossing the country or it's unsuitable for taking people to the airport pretty much belabors the obvious. The question is, what is the place of the small car in America? Where does it fit in? Where is convenience the most important aspect of personal mobility?
Or is the small car just way sexier in advertising than in real life, just like the scooter?
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 14,456 miles