Two years ago, Fiat car designer Dante Giacosa presented the Fiat 600 in this magazine. Now he has written the story of a new utility vehicle
In March 1955, the Fiat 600 was introduced on the market, replacing the “Giardinetta 500”, while the glorious old “Fiat 500” was still without any successor. Lovers of the “Topolino” had to conserve their worn-out vehicles in the long wait for “their new car” to be launched. And now even these aficionados are satisfied. Two years after the launch of the “600”, a new, smaller, robust and fiery Fiat model has been launched. More “Topolino” than ever [Topolino in Italian means “little mouse”, a reference to the reduced dimensions of the vehicle], but always a vehicle in the true sense of the word. The completely new “500” was born; modern, low cost, and more economical and easier to keep on the road.
Immediately after the war, Fiat proposed a programme to renew its vehicles, giving precedence to whatever model proved more congenial to the clientele of that time, and also more suited to the market demand. Initially larger vehicles were produced: the 1400 and 1900, then the new 1100, later the 600 and finally the “new 500”. One could say that the choice of favouring less powerful and more economical vehicles corresponded to a greater difficulty in design and production. The decrease in dimension and increase in production volumes implied greater difficulty in vehicle conception and design.
Thus, our little utility vehicle is the lovely latest arrival: it required greater study and the application of the experience gained in the design of previous models. Thus, the “new 500” can be considered the smallest utility vehicle that can still be defined as an automobile.
[…] With the “new 500”, Fiat intended to create a vehicle suitable for a wider clientele, taking a decisive step in the strategic programme it had promoted for many decades: to make automobiles accessible to everyone.
Thus the “new 500” was born with two essential characteristics: low running costs and high performance in keeping with the most advanced technology.
The “new 500” not only has features that make it convenient and accessible to the greatest number of people possible, but also features that appeal to the most discerning and experienced car owners.
Modern technology and experimental research were applied to optimise each vehicle component both for functionality and high mechanical resistance, as well as to simplify vehicle assembly and maintenance, to be compatible with the low production costs.
Much attention was dedicated to improving the assembly and control processes to guarantee quality and consistency in production.
The wide distribution of a vehicle of this category is closely dependent on running costs, which are largely attributable to fuel and oil consumption, as well as costs incurred by maintenance and upkeep. Thus, in addition to certain technical devices to reduce consumption to levels decisively inferior than previous levels, radical solutions were also adopted for the safety and durability of the mechanical parts, as well as for the simplicity of engine maintenance and revision.
[…] Apart from some simplifications and improvements in details, structurally the “new 500” is very similar to its older sister, the “600” which conquered the world markets.
The success of the “600” confirmed that the configuration of four independent wheels, with a rear-mounted engine, allows increased passenger capacity, greater structural solidity and improved performance on the road for the same encumbrance and weight.
With total weight and volume reduced by almost one third compared to the old model, the “new 500” can transport two people and more than double the luggage than before, with greater safety, comfort and reduced cost; in case of emergencies, one or even two people can also be transported in additional rear seats in greater comfort than in the old “500” model.
Even though the overall layout of the exterior and main components are familiar, the engine is completely new. It combines simplicity of construction, low consumption, reduced weight and volume with exceptional performance, robustness and adaptability to all climates.
The ideal compromise was a 4-stroke, air-cooled engine with two vertical cylinders.
[…] The comfort of the interior, the seating of the driver and passengers, the ease and practicality of the instruments and visibility through the wide windscreen and side windows were studied with great care to confer levels similar to those of larger vehicles. Great care was taken to reduce noise, which is very often a difficult problem to resolve in smaller vehicles, and we can confirm that satisfactory results have been obtained, especially as compared to similar foreign-built vehicles.
Another problem that required great study both from a theoretical and experimental perspective was road stability, safety and precision when driving, which is problematic with the reduced weight of the car in proportion to the passengers, and given so small a distance between the two axles.
Experience from the “600” was useful, but more research was still needed for optimal results, and Fiat responded with almost ferocious tenacity through the contribution of personnel from its Dipartimento Esperienze – first and foremost Commendatore Salamano – and its engineers, designers and technical experts from the Ufficio Progetti.
We can now say that the smooth feel of the gears, the stability and roadholding in curves and under any load bearing conditions are exceptional for such a small car, creating a very pleasant driving experience indeed. With a maximum velocity of about 85 km per hour, the vehicle’s roadholding characteristics at this velocity are comparable to other vehicles with greater engine capacity.
[…] I would also like to mention some other problems which mainly regard economic factors and which must be resolved when designing a “small, low-cost vehicle”. I addressed these problems quite recently in a presentation in London at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and I would like to give a very brief summary of some of the main issues that were encountered when designing the “new 500”.
The term “utility car” is synonymous with a “low-cost car”, a concept which varies from country to country, and even within the same country in different periods. A small utility vehicle in the United States would be considered a large and luxurious automobile in our country. In Italy, the economic situation is such that the most widely distributed cars are low cost; if a vehicle is low cost then it will undoubtedly be as small and as light as possible, and probably produced in large quantities. On the other hand, the innate good taste of Italians means that quality and aesthetics cannot be sacrificed, and therefore there are many problems to overcome in designing a small, low-cost utility car.
We must keep in mind the narrow and tortuous roads of our country, the greater part of which wind through mountainous regions; and therefore cars in Italy require elevated levels of suspension. The wide range of temperature and altitude throughout the peninsula also create further problems regarding engine cooling and vehicle ventilation. Furthermore, Italy’s regions have many differences in mentality, education and taste, other factors necessitating elevated mechanical and aesthetic standards.
All of these factors stand in opposition to any concept of maximum economy, rendering the designer’s task even more arduous; but we have to recognise that these very special conditions from a technical and economic perspective have meant that this utility vehicle is equipped with technical and aesthetic excellence, as well as a roadworthiness which distinguishes it from analogous foreign-built vehicles.
Cost reduction has underpinned all technical matters involved in the design of this small utility vehicle.
For similar levels of production, the most important factor influencing the cost of the vehicle is the weight of the material used in its construction; the cost of materials – considered directly proportional to its weight – counts for more than 50% of the total cost. We must also consider that reducing a vehicle’s weight generally implies a reduction in its general characteristics, which contributes to reducing its overall costs a little more than the simple reduction of weight, given that sacrificing some features allows simplification in general design.
Keeping to consideration of utility vehicles, although weight can vary considerably in relation to the design of the vehicle, other factors that influence the overall cost, such as labour or construction costs, amortisation, design and prototype studies, company and fiscal costs, vary little with dimensions, weight and design when large production volumes are involved.
Due to these fixed costs, the cost reduction is never proportionate to the reduction in weight, meaning that the cost per kilo tends to increase as the vehicle becomes smaller and lighter.
With these considerations in mind, when dealing with vehicles, weight can be considered as a “rule of thumb” index of cost.
Starting from this fundamental premise it is evident that in the design phase, various characteristics such as general interior and exterior design, dimension, and performance must be defined, keeping in mind how much these affect the overall weight of the vehicle. Only through the correct distribution of these factors can we achieve the best compromise between cost and quality.
Regarding the overall design, we can confirm that a four-wheel configuration is ideal for a small utility vehicle. Three-wheeled vehicles are only apparently economical: to achieve acceptable levels of stability, such vehicles have to be much wider, increasing their weight to levels similar to four-wheeled vehicles, while in general remaining an inferior vehicle overall.
[…] Regarding performance, we can use maximum velocity as a general performance index. Under constant conditions of stress and wear of vehicle components, it is clear that greater maximum velocity implies a greater vehicle weight, unless certain complicated solutions or special materials are adopted, which obviously increases the cost of production.
Although weight does have a strong influence on overall performance, in preparing the design project we had to identify the best compromise between the greater velocity and acceleration which is much in demand today on the one hand, and maintaining low production costs on the other.
Regarding quality, it is evident that if performance and features are to be maintained at a high level, thus determining a vehicle’s class (engine noise, absence of vibration, comfort of seats, good visibility, accessibility to various mechanical parts, good suspension, ease of steering, good brakes, etc.), then this involves additional weight, which in turn attributes additional costs.
As for running costs, we can state that these tend to increase proportionally with increased overall weight and performance. When the weight of a vehicle increases, not only do production costs increase, but also running costs.
From what has been said above, the reader will realise how difficult it was to design the “new 500”, a vehicle that epitomises low cost and high utility.
Today we are certain that this problem has been resolved in the best way possible, making best use of the current level of automobile technology. Now Fiat awaits the verdict of the market.
 Engineer Giacosa, on invitation by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, presented a James Clayton Lecture in London on 26 March 1957: “Some Important Problems Concerning the Small Utility Car”. This conference created great resonance and was commented on in great detail by the “Times”.