Is a vintage Fiat 500 Jolly the perfect small car for summer?

With a fringe-tinged fabric roof, wicker seats and smiley styling, this resort-ready runaround has been summer-ready for over half a century…

Have you ever clapped eyes on a more aptly-named car? First built in 1958 and with a top trundling speed of less than 50mph, allow us to introduce you to the Fiat 500 Jolly. And it’s a car that makes us happy. Very happy. Why wouldn’t it? Just look at those bug eyes, wicker seats and that fabulous fringe-tinged roof. 

It’s joyous, jubilant, jovial — and many, many other words beginning with ‘J’. Including, as Fiat’s savvy marketing team decided on in the late 1950s, ‘Jolly’.

This quirky little car owes its existence to its big brother; the Fiat 600. In early 1958, ahead of a sun-soaked summer, the Italian carmaker decided to capitalise on the holiday season by shipping several Fiat 600s off to Carrozzeria Ghia. A famed design and coachbuilding firm, Ghia had worked with Ford, Ferrari and other major manufacturers — perhaps most famously creating Volkswagen’s iconic Karmann Ghia in 1953.

The brief for the Fiat 600 was much simpler; create a car that the ultra-wealthy could stash away on their superyachts and use to pootle around port. Ghia didn’t disappoint. They took off the doors, added wicker seats and a fringed fabric roof that promised to protect millionaires from the Mediterranean sun. The Fiat 600 Jolly was born — with a price tag almost double that of the standard 600.

The Fiat 500 variation, inspired by the limited edition 600 Jolly, appeared soon after — with the carmaker capitalising on the summer car’s success by also ordering ‘Jolly-fications’ of its Multipla and Giardiniera models. But the 500 was, in Gentleman’s Journal’s opinion, the best of the bunch. Even smaller than the 600, it was the perfect runaround for both beaches and golf courses. It was certainly the cutest of the Ghia coach-built cars. It was, in no uncertain terms, the jolliest Jolly ever driven.

So how exactly was it built? Learning their lessons from the 600 Jolly project, Ghia followed the same basic blueprint. They removed the doors, and created custom, buggy-like bodywork to improve the car’s accessibility and ventilation. The metal roof was torn off and thrown away, the windscreen trimmed down and that famous fabric top stitched in its place.

Sticking with the well-received nautical theme, the Fiat 500 Jolly was also fitted with sand-friendly wicker seats — and all carpeting was stripped from the floors to allow for quick beach getaways. Each model was then painted in a summer pastel shade; colours such as pale pink, sunshine yellow and sky blue.

And that was it; conversion complete. With its white-wall tyres and shiny chrome hubcaps, these resort-ready runarounds stole the hearts and emptied the wallets of millionaires across the globe. They cropped up along the coast of the Mediterranean, in the United States and on superyachts that sailed around the world. 

But that’s no surprise. Fiat’s Jolly models were small wonders — and big hits. Owners included Grace Kelly, Mae West and The Magnificent Seven star Yul Brynner. Aristotle Onassis had one stowed away on his yacht, and President Lyndon B Johnson would careen about his Texas ranch in his prized Jolly. Head of Fiat, Gianni Agnelli (who allegedly dreamed up the idea to begin with) also added one to his car collection — where it sat alongside Ferraris from Berlinettas to Testarossas.

But perhaps the best story to stem from Fiat’s fun Jolly models can be found on the Los Angeles-adjacent Catalina Island. Off the coast of California, the rocky spot was a popular gambling destination for mid-century Angelenos — and the governing powers of the island commissioned 32 Jolly cars to be used as taxis throughout the 60s.

And 32 was a large number; as only 650 Fiat Jolly cars were ever produced — across all four of the models. Thankfully, despite most living by the salt-whipped sea, an impressive number of the iconic cars remain operational to this day, with the burnt-coral model pictured here currently up for auction (without reserve) at RM Sotheby’s.

Unfortunately for us non-yacht-owners, most Fiat Jolly models sell for somewhere around the $150,000 mark. But, given the recent trend for restomodding — and the popularity of the Fiat 500 Jolly ‘Spiaggina’ Icon-e built by Garage Italia two years ago — we’ve got hope for the Jolly’s vintage-fuelled return to the mainstream in the summers to come…

Want more historic motors? This year, we celebrate the half-century anniversary of the Rolls-Royce Corniche…

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