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The FIAT 600 is 50 years old

Original Fiat 600

Original Fiat 600.

AutoPressNews, PR,
28 June 2005.

The Fiat 600, the car that really put Italy on the road, was launched fifty years ago, but still retains that magical aura created by Felice Casorati in his famous poster of the car against a surreal night-time Turin.

It was 1955, and Italy was about to embark on a new era of political and social history: in fits and starts, life was getting back to normal after the tragedy of the war, which had left behind a present full of uncertainty and an equally precarious future. It was up to the willpower and imagination of the Italians to achieve a difficult but possible rebirth. This was the context in which the ‘great-little’ Fiat 600 was born, a car that was small in size but with huge potential.

It was designed by Dante Giacosa, the famous engineer who worked incessantly from 1951 on to develop a four-seater runabout, with a rear engine, that was both light and sturdy. And above all, with a price that made it accessible to the people who built it. The project was known as the ‘100’ within Fiat, and it was destined to change the face of Italy. In the meantime, 300 billion lire were being invested at Mirafiori to build new assembly lines that could meet the constantly growing demand: output increased from 100,000 units in 1950 to 500,000 in 1960.

After four years of development and experimentation, the Fiat 600 was ready, and Dante Giacosa made it into the newspapers. As he said himself a few years later: “In 1957, I was invited by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the historical British association, to give a Clayton Lecture. I was received with great ceremony at the institution’s prestigious London headquarters, and gave my lecture on ‘The problems of the small runabout’ to an audience that filled two large halls, analysing the various problems and explaining how they had been solved on the 600. The Lecture aroused a great deal of interest, to the point that even The Times wrote about it.

1955: AT THE GENEVA MOTOR SHOW

Fiat's original 600 gets an open top

600 gets a sunroof in 1956.

Fiat presented the Fiat 600 to the international press on March 9, 1955, in the Exhibition Hall in Geneva. It was received with enthusiastic comments by the journalists and experts who praised the adoption of ‘unorthodox, ingenious solutions’. A few days later, the general public confirmed the first reactions and greeted the new car with the same surge of admiration. Fiat had struck the public’s imagination.

As the car made its debut at the Swiss show, where people stood patiently in line to try it, the new Fiat 600 invaded Italian cities; hundreds of cars paraded through the streets, flanked by curious crowds who were ready to dream of a new future. In 1955, consumer habits were going through a revolution in Italy, and the small Fiat became the ‘status symbol’ of Italian society, which was becoming rapidly less rural and increasingly urban. It was the same Italy that watched the first broadcast of the television quiz show ‘Lascia o Raddoppia?’ on November 19, 1955. This programme made national history: in their homes and in bars, over 10 million people watched the new quiz compèred by Mike Buongiorno.

Output at the Mirafiori plant was growing steadily, and from the initial 624 units a day, it reached 839 in 1957: in just 12 months, approximately 300,000 Fiat 600s left the assembly line in Turin. We could say that the success of the small Fiat accompanied, and was perhaps one of the causes of, the growing desire to possess durable consumer goods: from TV sets to furniture, washing machines and cars. It was also sustained by hire purchase, a new form of purchasing that made dreams come true while diluting the cost in time. The Fiat 600 was no exception: it could be paid for in 24 instalments, although people had to wait almost a year for their car. In just a very few months, the enthusiasm displayed at the Geneva Show was transformed into an extraordinary market success. This was partly because it was such a completely new type of car, where both the body and the mechanical components were concerned. The Fiat 600 opened a new chapter in the Fiat tradition of small cars, which had enjoyed universal success with the 500 and now moved a step forward with the 600, boosting the Italian car fleet. This 4-seater, economical car was now accessible to a vast public at a price below that of the Topolino: just 590,000 lire on the road.

Fiat 600 gets "normally" hinged door

600 swapped its suicide doors with front hinged ones from 1964.

It was above all the position of the engine (a four-cylinder 633 cc unit) at the rear that marked an important step forward for Fiat. This revolutionary solution saved useful space inside the car, making it possible to accommodate 4 comfortable seats in spite of the external dimensions which were kept to a minimum: the car was little more than 320 centimetres long, 138 cm wide and 140 cm high.

The Fiat 600 was small but functional, a car that embodied a completely new concept, and even set an usual record: it was the first runabout to boast an efficient heating system which used the air from the radiator cooling fan to demist the windscreen and heat the interior. The 633 cc engine proved to be dependable and versatile, and it was enlarged and upgraded; several sporty versions were also produced.

The novelties introduced by the 600 in the automotive field were not limited to the engine. Its ‘all-rear’ layout meant that the propeller shaft could be eliminated and a torsion beam rear axle fitted, significantly reducing the weight: and as a result the 4 wheels were independent, which meant good roadholding even at high speed. On the new front suspension, the transverse leaf spring acted as a stabilising element and was anchored to the stress-bearing body with rubber elements; the coil springs and telescopic hydraulic dampers ensured that the Fiat 600 was comfortable to drive in, even on uneven roads. But these roads were destined to disappear under the Government’s Ten-year Motorway Plan. The goal was to link the North and South of Italy with a swathe of asphalt, simplifying goods deliveries and the mobility of a society that was now ‘motorised’.

It was now 1956, when a young American singer entered the world stage, launching his first record ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ with RCA on January 10. His name was Elvis Presley and he soon became the king of Rock ‘n Roll, the dance that was adored by the young and was soon under attack from the churches and religious the whole world over. The same puritan crusades reviled the sensuous Marilyn Monroe in the United States, and the provocative Brigitte Bardot, who was launched by Roger Vadim in the film ‘Et Dieu crea la femme’ (‘And God made Woman’) in 1956. The myth of the emancipated, uninhibited woman began to spread in Italy. Domenico Modugno debuted at the San Remo Song Festival and Anna Magnani won an Oscar for ‘The Rose Tattoo’.

But 1956 was also the year that Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s atrocities and the first dramatic uprisings took place in Eastern Europe, in Poland first and then Hungary. In Italy, Enrico Mattei, Chairman of ENI, openly challenged the monopoly of the ‘Seven Sisters’, and two tragedies troubled the Italians’ Summer holidays: on July 26, the Andrea Doria, the jewel of the Italian fleet, sank with 55 passengers, and on August 8, a pit collapsed in a mine in Marcinelle (Belgium) killing 237 miners, 139 of them Italian. A few months later World War Three was narrowly averted when Nasser, the newly elected President of the new Egyptian Republic, nationalised the Suez Canal. Luckily, the winds of war were placated shortly before Christmas.

The success of the Fiat 600 continued, and small but significant changes were introduced, which made the car more comfortable and more practical. For example, the sliding windows were replaced by winding windows, and the straps of the rear seat squab were replaced with an innovative anchorage system that made it easier to tilt the seat. New hubcap trims were introduced as well as plates that made it easier to lift the car. In other words, a number of small but significant novelties that boosted the car’s popularity. Fiat added two new versions to the range in 1956: the first had a sunroof, and the second was the famous ‘Multipla’. Manufacture of the 500 Belvedere, the car that had in a certain sense inaugurated urban deliveries, was coming to an end. It was up to the ‘estate’ version of the 600 to replace it. And it did so perfectly, selling more than 243,000 units from 1956 to 1970, and becoming the ideal car for the family and for work. Its real strength lay in its versatility, which was reflected in its name, ‘Multipla’, in the sense of “a multiplication of uses”. It could accommodate 6 seats, and the rear seats folded down, offering a choice between a comfortable tourer or a generous loading bay for luggage or goods. Because of this adaptability, the Fiat 600 Multipla was an immediate success with retail firms, industry, artisan concerns and farmers.

1956 ended, and at 8.30 pm on February 1, 1957, ‘Carosello’ a short evening programme made up entirely of commercials, was broadcast for the first time on Italian television. Italy discovered new consumer products and followed the adventures in space of the little dog Laika on board the Sputnik 2. The same audience remained glued to the screen to watch Il Musichiere presented by Mario Riva, and to hear ‘Corde della mia chitarra’, the song by Claudio Villa and Nunzio Gallo which won the San Remo Festival. In the meantime, in the United States, Kerouac published his book ‘On the road’, the Bible of the ‘beat generation’.

On July 2 that year, Fiat presented the new 500, but continued to make more changes to its ‘big sister’. The Fiat 600 was equipped with new rear double light clusters, two fairings on the sides, bumper guards, larger circular direction indicators and two-tone bodywork. The interior upholstery was available in a choice of cloth or leathercloth, and the seats folded down completely. Also in 1957, the Fiat 600 was available with a padded lower facia, and two lever switches on the steering column to control the lights and the direction indicators.

There were no novelties on the model the following year, but it was now possible to drive a Fiat 600 from Milan to Parma on the first 100 kilometres of the new Autostrada del Sole. And although the Italian economy was now taking off to the music of ‘Volare’, society had to come to terms with the Merlin Law, which closed the brothels. On the other side of the Atlantic, Martin Luther King published ‘Stride towards Freedom’, and that same year, John XXIII was elected Pope, and was the first to address issues related to the labour market.

Which brings us to 1959, when the Mirafiori plant employed about 65,000 workers and turned out almost half a million cars. The Fiat 600 was still the dream of thousands of Italians and, apart from a new rearview mirror and new side lights and headlights, the model was the same as in 1958. People had to wait for the following year to see all the novelties introduced on the second series.

1960: THE FIAT 600 D

1960 began with the premature death of the great Italian cycling hero, Fausto Coppi. Five-times winner of the Giro d'Italia, twice of the Tour de France and the World Championship, Coppi died of malaria on January 2. The athlete’s tragic death put an end to the controversy surrounding his affair with the ‘Dama Bianca’, a story that had split the country. That same year, another ‘scandal’ hit the headlines, when the popular singer Mina gave birth to a daughter without being married. These scandals may seem comical today, but put in the context of the times, they give an idea of a society that was having to deal for the first time with models of behaviour that were very different from those typical of a rural world.

To give an idea of how inflexible those years were, suffice it to say that in 1960 the Italian Censors came down, implacably and blindly, against film masterpieces such as Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20 that year), ‘Rocco e i suoi fratelli’ (Rocco and his brothers) by Luchino Visconti, ‘L'Avventura’ (The Adventure) by Michelangelo Antonioni, ‘La giornata balorda’ (A Crazy Day) by Mauro Bolognini and ‘Psycho’ by Alfred Hitchcock. All these films were either banned, cut or put on the black list by the newspapers of the time.

In the Autumn of 1960, sustained by the car’s unprecedented commercial success (almost one million sold), Fiat presented the second series of the 600. Identified by the letter ‘D’, the new version made its debut at the Paris Motor Show and there were numerous changes to the engineering and the bodywork compared to the first series. First of all, the engine size was increased from 633 to 767 cc (the power delivery was now 29 bhp at 4,800 rpm), and the bore and stroke were increased respectively by 2 mm and 7.5 mm. The engine adopted the new Weber 28 ICP carburettor (or the Solex C 28 PIB 2), a new crankshaft, longer connecting rods and larger valves. These technical improvements gave the Fiat 600 D a top speed of 110 km/h (compared to 95 km/h on the first series) and it was able to negotiate a gradient of 30% with ease (3% more than the 1955 version). But average consumption was hardly affected: 5.7 litres per 100 km on the first series and 5.8 litres on the second. And, for the first time, the Fiat 600 D offered electro-magnetic ignition using the key (instead of the lever on the tunnel), adjustable deflectors and a larger cooling grille for the engine bay. Inside, the instrumentation sported a new speedometer (now going up to 120 km/h) and a different layout of the telltales.

The price was now 640,000 lire, when a blue-collar worker earned about 47,000 lire a month, and almost 41% of Italian workers were employed by industrial companies. These were the years of the ‘economic boom’: 50% of Italian families had a television, and many had a refrigerator (58%), a washing machine (25%), and a car (ACI announced that 731,182 were registered in January 1960, compared to 473,833 in the same period of 1959, an increase of 54.5%). This well-being hid an exodus from the countryside to the towns: Turin, Milan and Genoa were the poles of the Italian industrial triangle. That year, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected President of the United States, while the Russian Gagarin and the American Shepard started the race into space. And on August 25, the eyes of the whole world were on Rome, which was hosting the XVII edition of the Olympic Games. For this sporting event, Fiat put a number of Fiat 600 Multiplas at the disposal of the organising committee.

And so we come to 1963, when the plan to double output at Mirafiori, begun five years earlier, was completed and Fiat employees numbered over 100,000. Pope John XXIII died that year, and on November 22, J.F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. By then, there were over 10,000 small firms working with Fiat and contributing to the manufacture of the Fiat 600 D. in 1964, to respect the new Highway Code, the car was given new front-hinged doors. There were almost 5 and a half million cars on the Italian roads on July 15, 1965, when the Mont Blanc Tunnel was inaugurated, almost 12 kilometres linking France and Italy.

At the Turin Motor Show that year, Fiat presented a new version of the 600 known as the ‘fanalona’ because of the large front headlights, with a new moulding on the front, rubber bumpers, and no chrome-work on the sides. It was the last novelty on this model, which went out of production on May 18, 1969, leaving the stage for the new Fiat 850: in fifteen years over 2,604,000 Fiat 600s had been manufactured.

 

Fiat 600 (1955 – 1960)

Fiat 600 D (1960 – 1969)

  ENGINE

 

Rear longitudinal; 4 cylinders in line; 633 cc; bore and stroke 60 x 56 mm; compression ratio 7:1; max. power output 21.5 bhp at 4,600 rpm; peak torque 4 kgm at 2,800 rpm; timing gear with 2 aligned overhead valves; lateral camshaft: fuel feed with Weber 22 DRA inverted single-choke carburettor; ignition by distributor

  Rear longitudinal; 4 cylinders in line; 767 cc; bore and stroke 62 x 63.5 mm; compression ratio 7.5:1; max. power output 29 bhp at 4,800 rpm; peak torque 5 kgm at 2,800 rpm; timing gear with 2 aligned overhead valves; lateral camshaft; fuel feed with Weber 28 ICP or Solex C28 PIB2 inverted single-choke carburettor; ignition by distributor

TRANSMISSION

  Rear wheel drive, single plate dry clutch, gearbox with 4 forward speeds + reverse

STEERING

Helical worm and sector

BRAKES

  Drums on all 4 wheels with hydraulic drive; hand brake on transmission

  SUSPENSION

Front: independent, transverse leaf spring, transverse wishbones, hydraulic dampers. Rear: independent, inclined transverse wishbones, coil springs, hydraulic dampers

  WHEELS/TYRES

  Sheet metal rims 3.5"x12", tyres 5.20-12

length
width
height
wheelbase
front track
rear track
kerb weight

3,215 mm
1,380 mm
1,405 mm
2,000 mm
1,144 mm
1,154 mm
590 kg

3,292 mm
1,380 mm
1,405 mm
2,000 mm
1,150 mm
1,160 mm
605 kg

  TOP SPEED

95 km/h

110 km/h

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