They're squat and snub-nosed, slow but steadfast. The Fiat 500 -- the tiny Italian car with the big personality -- last rolled off assembly lines nearly 30 years ago, and today it is still fighting retirement.
ROME - They're squat and snub-nosed, slow but steadfast. The Fiat 500 -- the tiny Italian car with the big personality -- last rolled off assembly lines nearly 30 years ago, and today it is still fighting retirement.
With more than 600,000 Fiat 500s still out on the roads, two Italian senators are pushing a bill to make sure the beloved mini-car that thrust Italy into the motor age isn't done in by modern anti-pollution laws.
Despite protests from environmentalists, Senators Cesare Salvi and Luciano Magnalbo want the car and others like it to get greater access to smog-conscious big cities, where they are often restricted. The cars were built without catalytic converters, which eliminate many of the pollutants in exhaust fumes.
The proposal, which went before a Senate committee last week and still must make its way through parliament, has been dubbed the "Save the 500" bill. It argues that such cars deserve special treatment as part of Italy's "historic, cultural and technological" heritage. Like the Vespa scooter, the 500 is an icon of Italian transport.
Environmentalists complain that backers of the bill have lost their heads to nostalgia. Most of the cars, beyond having no catalytic converter, have no seat belts.
"Me too, I have great memories of the 500, of going out with my friends, my girlfriends. Those were very sweet memories," said Ermete Realacci, a lawmaker and a leader of the Legambiente environment group. "But when you make a law, you can't be driven just by your feelings."
Fiat's most popular wave of the 500 -- called "cinquecento" in Italian -- debuted in 1957 and quickly became a symbol of ingenuity and simplicity in automotive design. It was cheap, weighed just over 1,000 pounds and was tiny enough for easy navigation of Italy's narrow winding streets. Parked next to a modern SUV, it looks like a toy.
The Italian car company made the popular model for 18 years. Many are still in excellent condition, and fans are overjoyed at the possibility of a law to end their hassles. In some cities, 500s and similar cars aren't allowed on the roads on weekdays at certain hours or when pollution is bad.
Supporters of the bill argue that the 500 doesn't pollute cities more than other cars. To work, catalytic converters must warm up -- which means they aren't effective on very brief trips. And within cities, almost every trip is a quick one, they say.
The bill applies to small-engine cars more than 25 years old. Beyond allowing them better access to cities, it would also abolish a registration tax for cars over 25 years old, compared to 30 years now, and cut a tax on their sale from more than $500 to $65.
Most of the people who drive 500s aren't rich collectors, just ordinary drivers, and the law should reflect that, supporters say.
"It's not a historic car that costs hundreds of thousands, it's a car that still gets used every day," said Domenico Romano, founder of the Fiat 500 Club based in Italy. "People use it to go to work, or to school."
Romano has three 500s. The oldest is a blue '71 model with 142,600 miles on the odometer. He bought it for his honeymoon, a drive through Italy.
The little rounded car evokes a wave of memories in every Italian old enough to remember when they filled the roads. A few years ago, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi reminisced: "Many of us first kissed a girl in a Fiat 500."
Carl Allan, chairman of a British Fiat 500 club, says he regularly gets stopped in the streets by Italian tourists.
"They always have a story... that they used it as a bus to ferry people around, or to carry huge furniture, or on vacation with children and pets and all the bags coming out the window," he said in a telephone interview. "I've heard some very funny stories."
Fiat seems to have caught on to the wave of the nostalgia for the minicar. At industry shows, it has displayed a concept car called the "Trepiuno." Like the 500, it is tiny, chubby and pug-nosed. It also has some modern touches, like a clear roof, touch-sensitive dashboard controls -- and seat belts.
Source: Associated Press