Fiat's 'Mickey Mouse' Car

In 1936, at a time when many European manufacturers were concentrating on building big powerful cars which they could sell for high prices, Fiat's Giovanni Agnelli looked at the opposite view. He had visited Ford's factory in 1922 and it gave him an ambition to mass-produce cars that the average Italian would be able to afford. His dream came to fruition in 1936.

Initially called the Fiat 500, it became affectionately known as Little Mouse; or 'Topolino', which was the Italian name for Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

This was no cartoon car though. Yes it was small, and one of the smallest cars in the world at the time. It wasn't terribly powerful; the four-cylinder 569 cc engine producing about 13 brake horsepower could propel it up to a maximum speed of just 53 mph. Acceleration, particularly when it was fully loaded, was abysmal.

However it was cheap, although never as cheap as Agnelli first envisioned. It could seat two people in comfort, although many owners crammed two or even sometimes three more into it, which led to the chassis being extended in later models. The boot could take 50 kilograms of luggage and it was very inexpensive to run, with a meagre fuel consumption of up to 47 miles to the gallon.

The engine was situated in front of the radiator, which allowed a sloping bonnet, giving the driver an excellent view of the road ahead. Front wheel drive gave it good roadholding and cornering, well within the capabilities of the engine. Buyers had a choice of a fixed roof, or a retractable fabric 'sunroof' over the rear deck.

Whilst during the cars production life a bewildering variety of bodies and styles were introduced the basic car stayed essentially the same with just an upgraded engine in 1948 with overhead valves shoving the top speed up to a hair raising 59 mph.

In all it's incarnations the 'Mickey Mouse' stayed in production right up until 1955, by which time approximately 511,000 had been sold. Agnelli had been proved right.

A new life began for old 500s; some enterprising American drag racing fans managed to cram huge nitro fuelled V-8 engines under the bonnets. The light weight of the car made it an ideal base for motorists who preferred to scream down a track emitting fire, smoke and thunder to taking the family out for a leisurely trip into the countryside.

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