Seeking to Save an Automotive Icon

From Associated Press

The last Fiat 500 -- the tiny car with the big personality -- rolled off assembly lines nearly 30 years ago.

But it’s still fighting retirement. With more than 600,000 Fiat 500s 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 antipollution laws.

Sens. 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, 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.”

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, the supporters say.

Fiat’s most popular wave of the 500 debuted in 1957 and became a symbol of ingenuity and simplicity. It was cheap, weighed just over 1,000 pounds and was tiny enough for easy navigation of Italy’s narrow, winding streets.

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 more than 25 years old, compared with 30 years now, and cut a tax on their sale from $500 to $65.