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The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

It is no secret that Japanese people love cars. Not surprisingly, Japan’s car culture is considered by many as the best in the world, because you can find literally any kind of cars: not just Japanese ones, but also European and even American ones!

That, however, doesn’t stop the Japanese from preferring certain types of cars over the others. In particular, small cars seem to be the most popular, and it’s easy to see why: they’re cheaper to buy, run and insure and can be parked pretty much anywhere. It is then no surprise that ‘kei-cars’ consist of about 1/3 of domestic car sales.

But the Japanese are also fascinated by ‘exotic’ cars imported from Europe, especially Italian ones like Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Pagani, and the fact that the country is one of the biggest supercar markets in the world comes to no shock on anybody’s part. But naturally, supercars aren’t the only European cars offered in Japan; Compact cars like the VW Polo and the Fiat 500 are also available, and the latter is especially quite popular in the country.

Believe it or not, the Fiat 500 is very popular in Japan
Believe it or not, the Fiat 500 is very popular in Japan

You might be asking “Why is the Fiat 500 so popular in Japan?”. The reason for the 500’s success is none other than the original Fiat 500 from the ‘60s.

Actually, tough, the car most people consider as the original 500 is, in fact, the successor to the true original 500, which was very different from the car everyone knows.

The First 500

This is the original Fiat 500, the "Topolino". Jay Leno owns one of these
This is the original Fiat 500, the "Topolino". Jay Leno owns one of these

In 1930 Benito Mussolini had summoned Senator Giovanni Agnelli to inform him of the “imperative need” to motorize the Italians with an economical car. The answer arrived in 1936, when Fiat launched the 500 “Topolino”, which can be considered the first true ‘city car’. The “Topolino” stayed in production until 1955, when it was replaced by the new 600.

This is the Fiat 600, which succeded to the "Topolino"
This is the Fiat 600, which succeded to the "Topolino"

The 600 was an immediate success, thanks in part to Italy’s economical boom and its affordable price. However, there was still a large percentage of the Italian population who couldn’t afford a car, continuing to prefer motorcycles or the then-newbord micro-cars.

Because of this huge pool of potential customers, Dante Giacosa was commissioned to build a super-utility car, whose purchase, use and maintenance costs could be compatible with the modest budget of the working families.

The Legend Begins

An early Nuova 500 N. Early versions of this car featured suicide doors
An early Nuova 500 N. Early versions of this car featured suicide doors

The result of Giacosa’s hard work came in 1957, in the form of the true successor to the “Topolino”: the Fiat Nuova 500.

The ‘new’ 500 was inexpensive and small, but was also extremely practical. At first, however, sales were slow, due to the fact that people felt the car was overpriced for what it offered, but Fiat quickly solved these problems and sales increased considerably. Eventually, the car was produced until 1975, in many different versions and bodystyles, and about 3.9 million units were sold across all of Europe. By the end of its production run, the 500 had already become an Italian icon worldwide.

The 500 was powered by a rear-mounted 2-cylinder engine and was rear-wheel-drive; as a result, it was a fun and charming car to drive. This, combined with its cute looks and affordable pricetag, played a major role in turning the small Fiat into an icon. The 500 was also popular among tuners; names such Abarth and Giannini come to mind.

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

As previously mentioned, Japanese car enthusiasts have always had a soft spot for European and Italian cars, but this doesn’t fully explain why the Fiat 500 got so popular in Japan. In order to find the answer, we have to go back to the ‘70s and meet one of the most famous and influential characters in manga and anime history: Lupin the IIIrd.

The Gentleman Thief's Touch

Who could've thought that an anime about a thief would've popularized a tiny Italian city car?
Who could've thought that an anime about a thief would've popularized a tiny Italian city car?

Lupin the 3rd began life as a manga series written and illustrated by the late Monkey Punch (Kazuhiko Kato) in 1968 and quickly became a huge success. The title character, Arsène Lupin III, was inspired by Maurice Leblanc’s fictional character Arsène Lupin, a gentleman thief able to outsmart even Sherlock Holmes. A few years later, in 1971, the first of many anime TV series adaptations of the manga, known by most aficionados as Lupin the 3rd Part I, aired in Japan. After the series’ original director got fired for refusing to make changes to the series, then-young Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were hired by head animator Yasuo Ōtsuka to replace him. What Miyazaki and Ōtsuka had in common was the passion for small European cars; Miyazaki’s first car was a Citroën 2CV, whereas Otsuka owned… you guessed it, a Fiat 500. The both of them poured this passion of theirs into the series and, because of this, in some episodes of this series Lupin was seen at the wheel of a light-blue Fiat 500 F, with several 2CVs making some brief appearances.

Lupin the 3rd: Part I

Several years later, in 1979, something important happened. Lupin the 3rd’s second and most famous feature film, The Castle Of Cagliostro, was released in theaters. This movie was also acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki‘s feature film debut.

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

In this movie, Lupin drove, for the first time, a yellow Fiat 500 F. One of the movie’s first scenes is a lenghty and iconic car chase, involving Lupin’s Fiat 500, a pink Citroën 2CV and a Humber Super Snipe.

The Castle of Cagliostro was not very successful at first, but eventually became of of the most acclaimed movies in Lupin’s history. Following its release, many Japanese people began showing interest in the small yellow Turinese city car Lupin drove in the movie, and since then Lupin has driven the iconic yellow Fiat in many of his most famous movies, specials and TV series, most notably The Fuma Conspiracy (1987), Lupin the IIIrd - GREEN vs RED (2008) (this movie was also a massive commercial for the new 500), Lupin the IIIrd Part IV (2015) and Lupin the IIIrd The First (2019).

Lupin the 3rd: The Castle Of Cagliostro (1979)

Lupin the 3rd: The Fuma Conspiracy (1987)

Lupin the 3rd: Voyage to Danger (1993)

Lupin the 3rd: Farewell, Nostradamus! (1995)

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

Lupin the 3rd: Elusiveness of the Fog (2007)

Lupin the 3rd: GREEN vs RED (2008)

Lupin the 3rd (live action movie) (2014)

Lupin the 3rd: Part IV (2015)

Lupin the 3rd: The First (2019)

The "Cinquino" goes to Japan!

Seiro Itoh owned a dark blue Fiat 500 F, similar to this one
Seiro Itoh owned a dark blue Fiat 500 F, similar to this one

Among the people who had been fascinated by the little Italian city car was Seiro Itoh, who had always been interested in European cars. He had previously owned an Abarth Ritmo 130 TC, which he later replaced with a Lotus Elan Super Sprint due to numerous mechanical problems. However, due to bad maintenance service, Itoh had to sell the Elan too, and ended up buying an imported blue Fiat 500 F. In an interview, Itoh explained his love for the tiny Fiat:

“I first saw this car when I was a child, a man was standing on the seat with his head and body sticking out of the roof: I was impressed to see such a small car. In adulthood, I would have realized that I had not dreamed and that the one I saw in childhood was an Italian car"

As with Itoh’s previous cars, however, his blue 500 F wasn’t very lucky either:

“It gave me problems from day one. At the time, in 1987, in Tokyo there were yes and no a couple of specialized centers for this car, and the dealer workshop from which I bought it never knew how to repair it properly"

What Itoh didn’t know was that that blue Cinquino would’ve been the first in a long series:

“Since then, I have understood that this model is not just a small car, but something like a pet. Gradually, I got to know the model and Italy better, realizing the superb characteristics of the industry of the Peninsula"

Then, after a trip to Italy, Itoh decided to import and promote the Cinquino in its essential beauty. Perhaps unexpectedly, the car became incredibly popular, and in a very short amount of time about 600 of them had already been imported.

One of the many 500s imported to Japan
One of the many 500s imported to Japan

Ioth, however, was not anymore satified with owning a 500 and having contributed to the model’s diffusion in Japan, so he also began importing spare parts from Italy, becoming a spare parts supplier for all Japanese Fiat 500 owners.

One of many replicas of Lupin's Fiat 500 F from the castle of Cagliostro
One of many replicas of Lupin's Fiat 500 F from the castle of Cagliostro

Did it stop there? Of course not! In 2001, Itoh went one step further and opened a museum in Nagoya, in which to exhibit not only cars, but also paper documents, models and various gadgets called Il Museo Della Cinquecento. The idea for the museum, however, was already born during the ‘90s, when Itoh began selecting the cars with the help of Andrea Fortunato, from Liguria. Both are delegates for Japan of the Fiat 500 Club Italia, which in turn includes a museum in Garlenda, in the Savona area, which Itoh admitted to be his favourite along with the Centro Storico Fiat in Turin.

The Cinquecento Museum

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

Itoh’s museum, however, is not just a museum. It is also a point of reference for Japanese enthusiasts who are looking for a restored 500 to buy:

“I don't remember the figures well, but those sold so far could be around 400”

After all, enhancing and putting the old Cinquini back into circulation is a real vocation for Itoh. He explains:

“As time goes by, the circulating models decrease and many become hateful scrap iron. This is why I want to buy all the 500s in poor condition before they are scrapped, and then have them restored by the Italian coachbuilders in the hope of seeing them on the road for another 30 years. Frankly, I think this shouldn't be my job, but the Italian government's, because the car represents a symbol of Italian car and design. In Italy there are many museums where it is possible to admire true masterpieces, but no one undertakes to preserve the 500s still in circulation. This is very sad".

In 2012, the Fiat 500 Museum was moved to Tsuruoka, in the Yamagata prefecture, but has recently been moved back to Nagoya.

Fiat's Decision!

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

The popularity of the 500 and, consequently, other Fiat models in Japan, convinced Fiat to officially export their cars there, with great success. In particular, the 1st gen Panda was a huge hit in Japan.

The rebirth of an Italian icon

What better way to celebrate a car's 50th anniversary?
What better way to celebrate a car's 50th anniversary?

In 2007, on the occasion of the Nuova 500’s 50th anniversary, Fiat launched the 4th gen 500. The launch of the new 500 was, as you probably expect, a big and massively important event, and the Japanese couldn’t wait to get the new version of the iconic city car. And finally, in 2008, Fiat launched the new 500 in Japan, to a great success. The 500 was even voted ‘Best Compact Car’ in Japan, beating the Toyota iQ in its home country, and Fiat proceeded to open the Fiat Café in Aoyama, where normal people “will be able to appreciate the concept of a Café as a perfect meeting place, pleasant and cosmopolitan”.

An event called “Fiat 500 road trip to Japan” was also organized in collaboration with Yamaha in 2010, hitting several of the country’s most important cities:

That same year, Best MOTORing tested the 500 against other compact cars, with pretty good results.

Below, a couple of Japanese TV ads for the Fiat:

The Fiat 500, both in its classic and modern forms, is still a very popular car in Japan, and it’s not rare for huge meetings to take place:

As you’ve probably seen, many of the Cinquini imported to Japan have been tuned, modified and, in lots of cases, transformed in replicas of Lupin’s 500.

A small car with a big heart

Fiat - The Little Fiat That Took Over Japan - Italian Cars

In the end, the main reason for the 500’s success is the fact that, just as Seiro Itoh said, it’s not just a car. Its a true icon of Italian cars and style, and a perfect representation of Italian culture.

Italy and Japan are two completely different countries, with completely different cultures, and are physically very distant from each other. If anything, they couldn’t be any more different. And yet, despite all of this, these two countries are very close to each other. Lots of Italians are fascinated by Japan and, viceversa, lots of Japanese people are fascinated by Italy, and the little Fiat 500 is partly responsible for this.

This car, with its tiny size, cute looks and unmistakably Italian flair, and a little help from the world’s most famous gentleman thief, peacefully took over Japan and became one of the many things that hold Italy and Japan together. It might be a tiny car, but its got a big heart.

All i can say is,

"Grazie, Cinquecento!"

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