Aggressively frumpy and demonstrably so un-cool that it crossed over into hip, the old 500 (aka Nuovo) was closer in style and technology to the East German Trabant (the pride of Soviet-era automotive achievement) than anything else then available in America. At the time, Americans were driving big boats with fins and bad suspension. A tiny car like the Fiat was considered... odd.
It had a two-cylinder engine. The engine was 476CCs (rounded up to 500... get it?) and made... 13BHP. My motorcycle has two-cylinders but displaces 1150CCs and makes a lot more horsepower than 13. It was a riding lawnmower... I remember you could remove a couple of bolts and lift the engine out by hand.
I suppose you could think of it as a kissing cousin of the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper Mark 1, both available at that time as well and popular with poor but hip grad students. If you were rich and hip, you drove a Deux Chevaux (Citroen 2CV) or a Volvo Amazon.
When the old 500 finally gave up the ghost, it ended up as a play structure at my kindergarden. Seriously.
My family had a couple more Fiat's over the years. A Fiat 131 Mirafiore and then a Fiat 124 Sport Spider which I inherited and had throughout my time at UConn. I miss that car... But the engine bolts rusted through and the engine ended up sitting on the oil pan in the parking lot. It was a goner. The 131 was totalled in an accident and written off for scrap. That was the last Fiat we owned because Fiat abandoned the American car market in 1982.
Well imagine my surprise when I was thumbing through the Washington Post and ran across this ad
new Fiat 500 is now available in America. I sure hope it has more than 2 cylinders! Welcome to the we-love-our-retro-cars club, Fiat. I hope you've worked out that whole rusting-out problem that drove you out of America last time. That and the old Fiat joke,
Q: What does FIAT stand for?
A: Fix It Again, Tony!