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Fiat 500F joins permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art

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1968 Fiat 500F. Photos courtesy of FCA.

Introduced to the motoring press in July 1957, Fiat’s Nuova 500 was intended to bridge the gap from scooters and microcars to larger (and more expensive) automobiles. Not only did this iteration of the 500 bring affordable family transportation to the masses in Europe, it went on to become a symbol of mid-century style, and as FCA describes it, a “worldwide ambassador for Italy.” Recognizing its cultural and design significance, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently announced the addition of a 1968 Fiat 500F Berlina to its permanent collection.

Work on what would become the Fiat Nuova 500 originally began in 1940, as the brand looked to develop a replacement for its 500 “Topolino,” introduced in 1936. The Second World War interrupted any such planning, and in the post-war years the original 500 remained in production until the introduction of the Fiat 600 in 1955. Due to the delay, designer Dante Giacosa (who was also responsible for the Topolino) began with a clean sheet of paper when his attention turned to the Nuova 500, known internally as the 400. His initial design goals were simple: Keep weight to a maximum of 375 kilograms (825 pounds), deliver fuel economy of 60 mpg, and attain a maximum speed of at least 53 MPH.

Fiat 500F

Revealed to the press in July 1957, the Nuova 500 was an instant hit, design-wise, but early sales failed to meet expectations. The 13-horsepower produced by its air-cooled 479cc two-cylinder engine was deemed insufficient, and the engine also suffered from vibration that was transferred into the cabin. Within a matter of months, and in time for the 1957 Turin Auto Show, Fiat corrected these flaws, launching a “Normale” variant alongside the original, now called the “Economy.” Both used a hastily refined 479cc engine, which now produced 15-horsepower, while the Normale received such amenities as opening windows and an upholstered rear seat.

Two horsepower may not sound like much, but it was enough to give the Nuova 500 a top speed of 56 MPH, and more significantly, it was enough to boost sales. In 1958 Fiat debuted a performance-oriented version, the 500 Sport, which boasted a raucous 21.5 horsepower from a 499.5cc two-cylinder engine, producing a top speed of 68 MPH. To add rigidity to the body, the roll-back canvas roof found on other 500s was replaced by a steel roof, though a small sunroof was an available option on 500 Sport models beginning in 1959. In case the solid metal roof wasn’t a dead giveaway, Sport models also came finished in a distinctive gray with red side stripe livery.

Fiat 500F

The Sport and full canvas roof (Transformabile) variants were discontinued in 1960 as Fiat consolidated the 500 product line with the introduction of the 500D. The 499.5cc engine was now standard issue, and while Fiat de-tuned it to 17.5hp, it still delivered a respectable 60 MPH and fuel economy of 46 mpg in the 500D. Other improvements included a folding rear seat and a reconfigured fuel tank (in the front of the rear-engine car) for additional cargo room, and the 500D would be the last model to feature suicide doors.

In 1965, the 500F replaced the 500D, and would go on to become the most popular of all variants (one reason, perhaps, this model was selected by MoMA). Later versions included the 500L and 500R, the latter of which carried on through the end of production in 1975 (though the Fiat 500 Giardiniera remained in production by Autobianchi until 1977). Counting all second-generation 500 versions, Fiat produced roughly four million examples between 1957 and 1975, and its influence on the latest 500 model, which debuted in 2007, is unmistakable.

Fiat 500F

In a press release announcing the car’s acquisition, a MoMA spokesperson wrote that the 500F, “…embodies many of the principles that typified mid-century modernist design and connects it to themes explored in works throughout the Museum’s collection.” Said Martino Stierli, the Phillip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA,

The Fiat 500 is an icon of automotive history that fundamentally altered car design and production. Adding this unpretentious masterpiece to our collection will allow us to broaden the story of automotive design as told by the Museum.

The 500 joins a diverse collection of other automobiles in MoMA’s permanent collection, a list that includes a 2002 Smart Car, a 1990 Ferrari Formula 1 racing car, a 1965 Porsche 911, a 1963 Jaguar E-type roadster, a 1959 Volkswagen Type 1 “Beetle” sedan, a 1953 Willys M38A1 Jeep, and a 1948 Cisitalia 202 GT.