It was like seeing a ghost.
That was the feeling I had when I first saw the new Fiat 500, a modern reboot of the classic Italian car, on an American street a few years ago.
It’s been 58 years since the original Fiat Nuova 500 hit the streets of Italy and other countries in Western Europe, and enough of them are still being driven that they are a semi-common sight from Berlin to Bolzano. A two-cylinder postwar “city car” that for generations defined the Fiat brand, the Fiat 500 was reimagined and relaunched in 2007 as a modern small car that melds modern technology with the 500’s classic design.
“The look is 1957, but the content is 2015,” says Alfredo Gulla, the owner of Alfa Romeo Fiat of Larchmont, the first Fiat dealership in the United States.
“I started 1960, ’61, and we went with Fiat and Alfa Romeo,” Gulla says in his showroom, which has modern versions of the Fiat 500 as well as an original version on display nearby.
He says it was tough when Fiat left the American market in 1984.
“But we survived, because we still had Alfa Romeo. We sold Chryslers, Jeeps and Plymouths. But I always missed the Fiats. When they came back (in 2010), (Fiat) approached me…and I was very, very interested,” Gulla said.
When he saw the new 500, he knew that it was the car of the future for its market segment. He says the car does well with a broad base of customers, as it is both affordable and economical.
Fuel economy, Gulla says, is a big selling point, with manual transmission versions of the 500 getting close to 40 miles per gallon. The car comes in four versions — a fifth will soon be released — and generally retails between $18,000 and $32,000.
“Older customers that had a Fiat from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s,” love the new 500,” he adds. ”And Italian-Americans, they love this car as a piece of their heritage. But above all, people who love to drive love it, because it’s a trouble-free car. It’s stylish and economical.”
Among the Fiat 500’s happy customers is Denise DeLuca, a stylist at Dee Francetic Hair Salon in Hartsdale. Her 2012 car’s distinctive burnt orange coloring matches her owner’s auburn hair. We say “her owner” because DeLuca’s Fiat is a she. Her name, proudly displayed on her license plate, is Fiona.
“In the Fiat place (in Larchmont), everyone names their cars, so I named mine Fiona, which is my alter ego,” DeLuca says. She — DeLuca, not Fiona — had driven an Acura and had looked at the MINI Cooper. But when she saw the Fiat, it made her smile. “I don’t need a silver and white four-door sedan,” DeLuca says. “That’s not me. I’m a fan of the old MG.”
The Fiat — which might seem no bigger than your sofa — is disarming, she adds: “It looks like a small car. But when you’re in it, you’re sitting high.” DeLuca opens Fiona to show how roomy she is. “It’s a smooth ride. She’s fun.”
As for their twin coloring, DeLuca says, “I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me to say, ‘You look like your car.’”
Georgette Gouveia contributed to this story.