Fiat, the Italian car-maker, has been in business for 120 years. It was in 1899, the Societa Anonima Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili – Torino was established. The company, which was based in Turin, was created by its founders to capitalise on a new and rapidly expanding market – that of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.
The company, which would become known as Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino – Fiat – promptly launched its first car in the same year. It would be followed by countless other popular and innovative models, along with myriad collaborations and acquisitions, all of which would aid the brand in becoming one of the major players in the global automotive marketplace.
Charting the entirety of such a long-running and storied company would result in an article with a word count resembling that of a best-selling novel. Instead, to commemorate the 120 years of Fiat, read on to discover some of the automotive highlights of its past twelve decades.
The Fiat 3 ½ HP – 1899
Those behind the creation of Fiat hit the ground running, thanks in part to some very canny business decisions. During the company’s foundation, it absorbed two smaller organisations – including one which already had a prototype of a car among its inventory.
Fiat subsequently set about turning the prototype into a fully fledged production model, which became the 3 ½ HP. It had seating for two adults and a 697cc two-cylinder engine, which drove the rear wheels through a three-speed gearbox. Flat out, the Fiat could touch 21mph – and it was also claimed capable of averaging 35mpg. Only some 26 cars were assembled but these, in conjunction with the opening of the first purpose-built Fiat factory in March 1900, helped put the company on the map.
The Fiat 500 Topolino – 1936
The first 500, often called the Topolino, was an inexpensive compact car. It initially featured a 569cc four-cylinder engine that produced almost 13bhp, which was enough to propel it to 53mph, and despite its low price it packed many advanced features – including a four-speed gearbox, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes and independent front suspension. Its low cost also made it far more accessible, allowing those who had previously never been able to afford a car to start motoring.
The Topolino’s popularity surged following World War II, as Italy’s infrastructure improved and car ownership became more common, and Fiat responded with more advanced and practical B and C variants in 1948 and 1949. The last would roll off the line in 1955, by which point over 500,000 had been made.
The Fiat 500 – 1957
Ask someone to compile a list of classic Fiats from the last 120 years, and the diminutive 500 will probably be at the very top. It was the successor to the Topolino and was designed to be as small and as practical as possible, all while keeping costs to a minimum. Power initially came from an air-cooled 479cc two-cylinder engine, outputting 13bhp, which was all the featherweight 500 needed to get around. Countless variants would follow, including the Giardiniera estate in 1960, which aided it in becoming a huge success.
When production drew to a close in 1975, almost four million had been produced. Those needing something more practical weren’t overlooked, however – because, in 1955, Fiat had launched the more spacious family oriented 600. A modern take on the 500, which arrived in 2007, revived the name – and it continues to be a popular choice for those seeking a small and characterful car.
The Fiat Dino – 1966
Not all Fiats were small, frugal runabouts. In 1952, for example, the high-performance Fiat 8V had been unveiled. The sleek two-seat sports car packed a 2.0-litre V8 and technical features such as all-round independent suspension, both of which aided it in becoming a terrific race car.
The elegant Dino, which was first launched in convertible Spider form in 1966, was another of Fiat’s high-performance highlights. The Spider was styled by Pininfarina, and the later Coupe by Bertone, and both were powered by a Ferrari-derived V6. The Dino would remain in production until 1973 and, all in, almost 8,000 were built. The engine used in the Fiat would also power the Ferrari Dino 206 and 246 GT and, later, the fabled Lancia Stratos.
The Fiat Panda – 1980
In 1972, Fiat succeeded its 500 with the 126 city car. It took many design cues from the 500, including its rear-engined layout, but while millions were built it never generated the enthusiastic following of its predecessor. This was in part due to the fact that many rival small cars had moved to compact and efficient front-wheel-drive set-ups, so the rear-engined Fiats seemed archaic by comparison.
Fiat, reacting to this, came up with the Panda – which, in time, would become recognised as a feat of industrial design. It was small, tough and practical, and it could accommodate five adults in a pinch. It was brimming with character and eminently functional, and quickly became a much-loved car. The second generation would arrive in 2003 and, in 2011, the third generation of Panda was unveiled. By 2017, more than 7.5 million had been built – and, to this day, 120 years after Fiat went into business, the Panda remains in production.
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