Fiat 500: Still Influencing Design & History 60 Years On

  • A vintage Fiat 500 will be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in 2019.
  • The tiny, yet affordable car helped put Europe on wheels following World War II.
  • MoMA’s exhibit includes the 500 as one of the world’s more significant design works.

Last year, on its 60th birthday, the Fiat 500 joined the permanent collection of the MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. MoMA acquired a 500 F series, arguably the most popular 500, manufactured between 1965 and 1972. Fiat’s “great little car” became a cornerstone for Italy with its 18 horsepower, 500cc engine.

The top speed of 59 mph propelled the 500 into homes all across Europe. Counting each version (Sport, D, L, and R) more than four million were produced between 1957 and 1975.

Youthful Identity

MoMA added the Fiat 500 F series to their collection last year, citing the car’s design and history. According to MoMA, the 500 stands as an example of artistic imagination, remaining elegant and sporty throughout its 60 years. Despite six decades of change in fashion, industry, and society, MoMA believes the 500 kept its youthful identity.

In other words, the 500 isn’t going out of style anytime soon.

“The Fiat 500 is an icon of automotive history that fundamentally altered car design and production,” explained Martino Stierli, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA. “Adding this unpretentious masterpiece to our collection will allow us to broaden the story of automotive design as told by the Museum.”

Photo: FCA US LLC.

The Value of Good Design

The Fiat 500 F Series will be on public display for the first time, starting on February 10th, as part of The Value of Good Design. The collection is a historical examination of the things we use daily, many so rudimentary to our everyday life we likely overlook them. For example, the exhibit includes domestic furnishings, appliances, ceramics, glass, electronics, sporting goods, and toys.

The Value of Good Design examines the period between the late 1930s through the 1950s. This period, in the words of MoMA, championed well-designed, affordable contemporary products. Artistically, MoMA says the 500 embodies the principles of mid-century modernist designs.

“500 is an icon of Italian style that never went out of fashion,” added Luca Napolitano, Head of EMEA Fiat and Abarth brands. “That over the decades gained fans all around the world because of its key features and strong personality.”

Related: Fiat throws it back to 1957 with this special edition.

Fiat 500 Abarth racing around a track circa 1965. Photo: FCA US LLC.

The New Domestic Landscape

Interestingly enough, this is not the first time Italian design was the subject of a MoMA exhibit. Italy: The New Domestic Landscape in May of 1972 featured 180 household objects and 11 environments commissioned by the Museum. Items on display included furniture, lighting fixtures, flatware, and dishes.

Each were selected on their ability to illustrate the “various intellectual design positions” in Italy from 1962 to 1972. The exhibit included two parts, Environments and Objects, arranged according to current attitudes toward the task of design at the time.

“Italy has assumed the characteristics of a micro-model where a wide range of possibilities, limitations, and critical problems of contemporary designers throughout the world are represented by diverse and sometimes opposite approaches,” explained Emilio Ambasz, MoMA’s then Curator of Design in the Department of Architecture and Design.

The press release from May of 1972 describes more about the exhibit, which Fiat contributed to. It’s five pages, but it’s an interesting read.

Photo: FCA US LLC.

Economic & Social Recovery

Where the Fiat 500 is most pivotal, historically, is in how nations rebuilt after World War II. The little car is an example of economic recovery and technological advancement in the years following the Second World War. Richard Reina of CARiD.com says “bubble cars” rose to prominence because of the social and economic landscape at the time.

As a result, tiny car production from manufacturers like BMW, Messerschmitt, and Fiat increased.

“European factories had been bombed; companies struggled to get back into operation,” Reina explained. “At a time when steel and fuel were still scarce commodities, these bubble cars were an all-weather option for those on a budget.”

Ultimately, the @fiat 500 then was an inexpensive, stylish, and reliable car accessible to ordinary citizens. Click To Tweet

Photo: FCA US LLC.

Less Is More

Ultimately, the 500 then was an inexpensive, stylish, and reliable car accessible to ordinary citizens. That is still true today, with the 2018 Fiat 500 starting at $16,245. The styling, though modernized, is still reminiscent of the 500’s early days. Roberto Giolito, Head of FCA Heritage, says as much in Fiat 500: The Design Book.

“We limited ourselves to perfecting certain elements and making the values rooted in the design more explicit, rejecting any possible excess,” he revealed. “Above all, we avoided any measures that could be considered re-styling, a term that is very widespread in the car world but not always permeated by a positive connotation.”

Giolito later adds, in reference to the 500’s interior, that good design does not always need “remodeling” to stay relevant. This sentiment is clear in the Fiat 500 today, just as it was in 1957.

“Since 1957, Fiat 500 has always brought colors and smiles to everyday lives on the roads of the world, becoming an ambassador of the ‘Bel Paese’ and an icon of style and design ‘made in Italy’,” Napolitano said.

In Person

The Value of Good Design at the Museum of Modern Art runs from February 10th to May 27th. The exhibit will be interactive, with visitors encouraged to judge for themselves on what warrants value in good design.

Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan. He studies mechanical engineering at Wayne State University, serves on the Board of Directors for the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, and is a loyal Detroit Lions fan.

Classic Fiat 500 Gallery

Photos & Sources: FCA US LLC., Museum of Modern Art, Fiat 500: The Design Book, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New York, 2016.

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