Sunday 31st March 1996
Italian Dante Giacosa (91), an automobile designer whose small, economical cars, particularly the popular Fiat 500, helped motorize Italy in the 1950s, died. He was the head of design for Fiat for more than 40 years and managed the creation of some beloved cars, led by the Topolino. Maybe now that Fiat is returning to the U.S. through Chrysler in the form of the Cinquecento, he will be more broadly recognized. Giacosa was born in 1905 and took his studies at the Polytechnic in Turin before arriving at Fiat in 1928, following officer candidate school for the Italian armed services. The monstrous S.p.A. was under control of Giovanni Agnelli, with Cesare Momo as engineering chieftain, but Giacosa’s true first boss at Fiat was Carlo Cavalli, a notable character in his own right: Trained as a lawyer, descended from a long line of Italian justices and barristers, but enthralled with engineering first. One of Giacosa’s first projects was a highly advanced, multi-articulated road tractor for the military called the Pavesi. Its basic concept (much) later was revisited as the M561 Gamma Goat, evaluated by the U.S. Army during the post-Korea era, at first with Corvair power. That’s probably the least-well-remembered vehicle with whose design Giacosa was ever associated. The best is unquestionably the Topolino, which came after he’d worked on Fiat rarities such as the C Cabriolet and the SS sports roadster, along with a record-shattering aero engine. By this time, chronic illness had forced Cavalli’s retirement, elevating Giacosa to the post of lead engineer at Fiat. The company’s lead product, at that time, was the 508 sedan, known widely as the Balilla. Italy was in the grip of Fascism by then, the early Thirties. Rome decreed that Fiat should build a new, miniature car, its price set at 5,000 lire, less than half the cost of a new Balilla. In hindsight, the original Fiat 500 shows that Giacosa’s mind was envisioning eventual fundamentals of monocoque design principles, the Topolino’s bodywork serving as part of its load-bearing structure and its tiny engine hung ahead of the radically light-drilled, dual-spar frame. The first 500 also incorporated a very basic form of independent front suspension, not what most might have expected from a Thirties car constructed to meet a government-dictated cheapness objective.
Of course, it’s fair to say that the like-minded regime in Germany was also building innovative, inexpensive cars around the same time, and that both self-declared nationalist dynasties collapsed spectacularly. Their best automotive engineers, on the other hand, prospered anew. Post-war, Giacosa redefined the light Fiat more than once. The first true, fresh effort was the Fiat 1400 sedan of 1950, which, as rebodied by Pinin Farina, became the Cisitalia. The addition of 500cc made it a much more usable engine. Money issues limited the Topolino to rear-wheel drive, but Giacosa insisted on transverse front drive for the Autobianchi Primula of 1964 and then, the Fiat 128 of 1969, a bigger-than-Mini car (with MacPherson struts) that beat both the Honda Civic and the first Volkswagen Golf to market. A true giant of European auto design, Giacosa died in 1996.