It was launched as the Nuova (new) 500 in July 1957, it was marketed as a cheap and practical town car. Measuring only 3 metres (~10 feet) long, and originally powered by a tiny 479 cc two-cylinder, air-cooled engine, the 500 redefined the term "small car" and is considered one of the first city cars.
To meet the demands of the post-war market which called for economy cars, the Fiat 500 was rear-engined on the pattern of the Volkswagen Beetle, just like its bigger brother, the 1955 Fiat 600. Several car makers followed the now uncommon rear engine configuration at the time and were quite successful. The Neckar version manufactured in Heilbronn under a complicated deal involving NSU, was introduced in October 1961. In Upper Austria the firm of Steyr-Puch also produced cars based, by agreement, on the Fiat 500.
Despite its diminutive size, the 500 proved to be an enormously practical and popular vehicle throughout Europe. Besides the two-door coupé, it was also available as the "Giardiniera" station wagon; this variant featured the standard engine laid on its side, the wheelbase lengthened by 10 cm (4 in) which yielded a usable rear seat, a full-length sunroof, and larger brakes from the Fiat 600.
Sports models were famously produced by Abarth, as well as by Giannini. An Austrian variant, produced by Steyr-Daimler-Puch, the 1957–1973 Steyr-Puch 500, had a motorcycle-derived Puch boxer twin motor, a sports model of which was the 1965–1969 Steyr-Puch 650 TR2.
Production of the 500 ended in 1975, although its replacement, the Fiat 126, was launched two years earlier. The 126 was never as popular as its predecessor in Italy, but was enormously popular in the former Eastern Bloc countries, where it is famed for its mechanical durability and high fuel economy.
Nuova (New) (1957–1960)
The 'original' new 500, the Nuova, has a smaller two-cylinder engine than all newer models, at 479 cc (500cc nominal), hence the name, and producing just 13 bhp. This model also features a fabric roof folding all the way back to the rear of the vehicle, like that of a Citroën 2CV rather than the later roof design, which only folds half way back along the roof. The Nuova is one of three models featuring "suicide doors." There is also a stylish Sport version of the Nuova, which features a distinctive red stripe and a more powerful engine, bored out to 499.5 cc from the original 479 cc engine, thus producing an impressive 21 bhp from the same original block.
Replacing the original Nuova in 1960, the D looks very similar to the Nuova, but there are two key differences. One is the engine size (the D features an uprated 499 cc engine producing 17 bhp as standard—this engine is used right through until the end of the L in 1973) and the other is the roof: the standard D roof does not fold back as far as the roof on the Nuova, though it was also available as the "Transformable" with the same roof as the Nuova. The D also features "suicide doors".
K or Giardiniera (1960–1977)
The estate version of the Fiat 500 is the longest running model. The engine is laid under the floor of the boot to create a flat loading surface. The roof on this model also stretches all the way to the rear, not stopping above the driver and front passenger as it does in other models of the same period. The K also features "suicide doors" and was the only model to continue to sport this door type into the 1970s.
F or Berlina (1965–1973)
The F spans two periods of 500 production, the D and the L. As such, it is the most frequently misidentified model. Between 1965 and 1969 the F carried the same badging as the D, but the two models are distinguishable by the positioning of their door hinges. The D has "suicide doors": the F, produced from June 1965, at last featured front-hinged doors. Between 1969 and 1972 the F was sold alongside the Lusso model as a cheaper "base model" alternative. While the F and L are mechanically very similar, the key differences are the bumpers (the L has an extra chrome nudge bar) and the interior (the F interior is nearly identical to the original 1957 design while the L sports a much more modern look).
L or Lusso (1968–1972)
The penultimate model, the main change for the L is a much modernized interior (including a renewed dashboard) which brought the Fiat 500 up to date. Greater comfort and style were provided in this new model for the new generation.
R or Rinnovata (1972–1975)
The last incarnation of the Fiat 500 was the R model. It had a larger 594 cc engine, designed by Abarth, giving it a more usable power rating of 23 bhp, and came with a full synchromesh gearbox. The floor-pan which was from either the 'L', or later, the new 126. It was also more comfortable, but more simply trimmed and equipped than before — the fuel gauge was omitted and only the low fuel indicator remained. The 500 R was also a stop-gap for Fiat prior to the launch of the Fiat 126, and when the new 126 was launched, sales of the old Fiat 500 R plummeted. It was sold alongside the Fiat 126 for another two years before Fiat retired the 500. Fiat launched a similar styled, longer and heavier front wheel drive car, the Fiat Nuova 500.
Fiat 500 Ghia
Carrozzeria Ghia made a custom "Jolly" version of the 500 inspired by the limited edition Fiat 600 Jolly. As with its bigger sister, this was a chopped-roof doorless version with wicker seats, often seen sporting a canopy roof.