Fiat is one of the earliest and grandest names in automobiles, dating from the establishment of Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino ("FIAT") in 1899. During the early years, its racing cars were the envy of every nation. Later on, the Fiat Topolino ("Little Mouse") was as famous as the Volkswagen KDF (subsequently known as the "Beetle") in the 1930s and '40s. The 1950s saw Fiat put much of Italy on wheels with the hugely popular 500, sparking the "Italian Miracle," a renaissance of European consumer products.
Sadly, the company's fortunes in the United States were mixed. Here, the Fiat 1500 won over a fair share of enthusiasts in the mid-'60s, and the early-'70s saw the Fiat 850 (Spider and Coupe) become popular among college students. Yet the Pininfarina-designed Fiat 124 sports car did the most to keep the Fiat image alive in America, as cars like the front-wheel-drive 128 and midengine X1/9 ultimately failed. Even Lancia, Fiat's premium brand, withered quickly after an introduction in the mid-'70s. Ultimately, Fiat's poor reputation for quality and its inability to cope with ever more stringent emissions regulations led the Italian company to pull out of the U.S. market altogether in 1984.
In 2000, General Motors acquired a stake in Fiat as part of a joint venture to create a new generation of small, affordable cars for Europe. GM's financial troubles led to the unraveling of this agreement in 2005, but Fiat had invested the GM money wisely in new air emissions technology. When the bankruptcy of Chrysler took place in 2008, Fiat saw an opportunity to return to the U.S. In 2009, Fiat acquired a controlling interest in Chrysler.
The Fiat 500, debuting for 2012, was the first of Fiat's new generation of cars to come stateside. Staying true to its lineage, the new 500 is very small, nimble and stylish. In addition to the 500 coupe, there are also the 500 convertible and hot-rod 500 Abarth to further tempt those looking for a small car with plenty of personality. More recently, Fiat has expanded its lineup with the fully electric 500e and the family-friendly, four-door 500L.