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Fiat: The history of an Italian treasure
Founded in 1899 by a group of investors led by Giovanni Agnelli, Fiat became the largest car manufacturer in Italy in 1910 and has held that position ever since. By the 1920s, Fiat cars accounted for 80% of the Italian market. Since then classic Fiats have been produced in a range of styles from tiny affordable city runabouts to stylish sports cars.
The design of Fiat cars took a leap forward with the Fiat 1500 of 1935. This car was one of the first to follow in the wake of the Chrysler Airflow in adopting streamlined aerodynamic styling. Unlike the Airflow, the Fiat sold in reasonable numbers thereby proving that there was a public appetite for streamlined cars.
The styling of the Fiat 1500 was adapted for the tiny Fiat 500 “Topolino” the following year. This two seat 569cc engined saloon remained in production until 1955, with only one major restyle in 1949. It established Fiat as a major producer of small city cars, something that is still a huge part of the company’s business today. The nickname Topolino literally translates as “little mouse”, but was also the Italians’ name for Mickey Mouse.
With the Topolino approaching twenty years in production, Fiat decided to introduce a new series of small cars to replace it. First came the Fiat 600 of 1955. This had a rear mounted water cooled engine and could just about seat four people. The 600 was an instant hit and went on to sell nearly 2.7 million units. In addition it was produced under license by other manufacturers including SEAT and Zastava.
The Fiat 600 provided the basis for the innovative 600 Multipla six seater. This is a forerunner of the modern MPV car style. Tuning company Abarth produced some frighteningly quick versions of both the 600 and, amusingly, the 600 Multipla.
The rear engined layout of the Fiat 600 was also employed for the smaller and even more popular Fiat Nuova 500 of 1957. The engine in this model was a tiny air-cooled 479cc unit at launch. Like the Fiat 600, the new 500 was produced under license by various other manufacturers including tuned variants by Abarth. Between 1957 and 1975, when the Fiat 500 was finally retired, a total of nearly 3.9 million cars were produced.
While the bulk of Fiat’s business has been in producing small and mid-sized saloon cars, it has also produced some notable cars in other categories. The Fiat X1/9 was a hugely innovative sports car when it was introduced in 1972. It featured a mid-engined layout that had previously been the preserve of supercars. This was achieved by mounting the engine transversely, Mini-style. The X1/9 had brilliant handling characteristics, but the performance was blunted somewhat by the heavy body shell and small 1,300cc engine.
Other classic Fiats worth mentioning are the Fiat 124, which was a European Car of the Year and formed the basis of the long-lived Lada 124/Riva, and the 131 Abarth which won the World Rally Championship three times in the late 1970s.