Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly

| 26 May 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly

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This is going to leave a mark. The debrief was clear on the matter: rein in your enthusiasm when cornering. This is a Fiat 600 Jolly.

The name is appropriate: it is a hoot to drive. You will fall in love with it.

But remember that there are no seatbelts, the wicker thrones offer little in the way of butt-shoring and the cutaway flanks won’t stop you from falling out.

Just be sure to tuck and roll before impacting with the asphalt. And you will impact with the asphalt.

More than once should you be a slow learner. And thwack. That mini-roundabout couldn’t be taken flat-out after all.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
It looks even sweeter with the parasol-like top fitted! But there are no sides, remember…

Fortunately, onlookers waiting at the bus stop nearby are sympathetic and don’t jeer.

They don’t say anything because they’re too busy laughing at the idiot running alongside his chariot, grimly holding onto the steering wheel as if it’s a life raft.

This has YouTube comedy gold written all over it. Or at least it would, were it not for the fact that each spectator then asks for a photo. Would it be okay to sit in the car once it comes to a complete stop? This happens a lot.

Some people don’t even ask, they just step aboard and ask friends to take a picture. This even occurs in traffic. No other car we can think of has this effect. Park it just about anywhere and you’re soon swamped.

You know you’re onto a winner when even a police car stops and its occupants decamp to sit in a 1960 Fiat, all the while giggling like loons. You don’t get this sort of reaction with a Ferrari.

But then this is no ordinary Fiat.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
Wicker seats and a lovely sports steering wheel

The precise origin of the species is mired in conjecture, but what is clear is that the Jolly in all its many flavours was once the darling of the rich and famous.

Scroll back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, and no yacht was complete without a ‘beach car’ waiting on the quayside. Either that, or even onboard.

This was the type of runabout owned by the beautiful people, and the brainchild of playboy industrialist Gianni Agnelli.

According to legend, he wanted a car that would serve as a land tender but also fit on the back of his 82ft ketch, the Agneta, as he cruised the Med. Carrozzeria Ghia was commissioned to build it.

Where the Rake of the Riviera led, the style-conscious invariably followed and thus the Jolly was born. Except this story has a whiff of the apocryphal about it.

The actual birth of the beach car remains unrecorded but at least one cut-down Belvedere was made – maybe by Fiat itself – in ’54.

It had a top like a surrey carriage, plus wicker seats and might have been built at Agnelli’s behest (but there is no evidence to support that).

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
The ‘bootlid’ catch is very neat

Two years later, Pinin Farina made a Multipla-based vehicle for use in the grounds of Villa Leopolda, the Agnelli estate on the Côte d’Azur.

The ‘Eden Roc’ had a boat-like body and slatted wooden seats, and shuttled friends and family around the 20-acre property.

A second car was reputedly made for Henry Ford II, while Carrozzeria Savio also produced its own take on the theme that same year.

Alfredo Vignale’s eponymous bodyshop, meanwhile, conjured something that looked like a Fiat-engined sun lounger. But it was Ghia boss Luigi Segre who first saw the potential of producing a beach car in volume.

The prototype was completed in time for the ’57 Turin Salon, with Carrozzeria Frua and Francis Lombardi also displaying cars built on similar lines. The difference was that Ghia’s offering was still recognisably a 500 Nuova.

Whether or not Agnelli ever owned the show car, or even commissioned its construction, is open to debate. There is no proof to suggest that he did. Nevertheless, Ghia was swamped with orders.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
Note the gearchange points on the speedometer

For a firm that had been lucky to survive the ’40s, eking out a meagre existence producing pots, pans, bicycle frames and roller blinds to make ends meet, this was quite a reversal of fortune.

Ghia was reborn as a subcontractor to Chrysler in the 1950s, building show cars and Imperial limousines, while also shaping everything from a custom Cadillac for Yugoslavia’s President Tito to a mobile observation deck based on a Greyhound bus.

But this wasn’t a one-off commission or small run of cars. This was a production model. Segre was thinking big by thinking small.

Not that reconfiguring the donor car wasn’t without its problems. Denuding the 500 of its roof required a fair amount of fabrication work by Ghia’s artisans, a latticework of steel tubing being installed to counter the lack of rigidity once the lid was removed.

As was the nature of coachbuilding in period, a degree of lead-loading was used. The additional mass did nothing for the power-to-weight ratio of a car packing all of 12bhp. Not that this mattered because performance wasn’t really of any importance.

Nor, strictly speaking, was it intended for use only as a yacht tender. Ghia’s brochure from the time described the ‘Jolly de Plage’ (which roughly translates as the ‘Joker of the Beach’) as being equally at home on the golf course as on hunting expeditions!

And the newly purchased via Agostino de Montefeltro factory was soon slicing and dicing baby Fiats, adding a 600-based Jolly to the line-up in 1958.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
The 22bhp in-line ‘four’ feels quite lively in the Jolly

Customers included Aristotle Onassis (he allegedly owned three) and US President Lyndon B Johnson, who used his on his Texas ranch, not forgetting Grace Kelly, Mae West, Yul Brynner and John Wayne.

The 600 Jolly was offered for US consumption at roughly the same cost as a new Corvette. Nevertheless, North America was a big market for Ghia.

A luxury resort on Catalina Island off the coast of California accounted for 32 cars, a Multipla-based model also proving popular with taxi drivers in Newport Beach.

And Ghia wasn’t done, building up to 50 Renault 4CV-based beach cars that were offered exclusively in the USA. The brochure talked up the Resort Special as ‘the ideal little car for Your amusement with Your friends and for Your tourist trips’ (note the emphasis).

This most characterful of carrozzeria hedged its bets even further by also offering the Lambretta Jolly, a three-wheeled take on the popular scooter aimed at the Far East market.

All manner of Fiat-based utility vehicles and beach cars hit the market throughout the 1960s, courtesy of coachbuilders such as OSI, Sibona & Basano and Michelotti, not to mention variations on the theme based on DAF, Mini (BMC and Innocenti) and even Alfa Romeo Giulia Super platforms, but none were anywhere near as successful as Ghia’s offerings.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
‘The ideal little car for your amusement,’ according to its brochure

As is so often the way with these things, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding how many Jollys of all kinds were made to the end in 1966.

Depending on whose estimates you credit, the general consensus appears to be around 440. That’s quite a tally because these cars were, let’s be honest, considered to be mere toys in period.

Given that most Jollys were used only sparingly, and in temperate climates, the survival rate is reasonably high. That said, there are reckoned to be more than a few fakes out there.

The one featured here isn’t among their number. It was restored to concours level and, at the time of writing, it was winging its way to Greece.

The Jolly was acquired in Monaco, complete with tacked-on replacement floor panels, leaking and seized brakes, fried electrics and a porous cylinder head.

“It was a relatively straightforward restoration, but the original build quality wasn’t great,” says DTR principal Paul de Turris.

“There was factory rippling in the strengthening around the door apertures. Where the seats didn’t quite fit, a hammer had clearly been the tool of choice. There was no reinforcement in the floors, either, just bars to raise the sill line with sheet steel folded over and welded. They were never going to be driven quickly, so I suppose that it wasn’t considered important.”

Which bodes well for our circuit of Surrey, home of the sleeping policeman.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
The 600’s charming and ornate badge

But worries evaporate the moment you set eyes on the Jolly. It is impossible not to smile on first contact because it looks so, well, cute.

The styling, if you can call it that, is finely resolved, not least because it looks as though it was designed as an open car from the outset. It doesn’t look like a mere chop, the sculptured flanks being particularly accomplished.

The 600 Jolly outline has been retrospectively attributed to Sergio Sartorelli, the quietly spoken artiste who established Ghia’s OSI offshoot in the ’60s before leaving to head Fiat’s experimental design department.

And then the fun bit. You don’t so much sit in the Jolly as on it, the wicker seats being surprisingly comfortable when stationary.

The rest of the cabin furniture, such as it is, consists of a speedo and token switchgear. There is nothing here that doesn’t need to be.

Fire up, and the 633cc four-pot sounds much like you remember: fizzy and eager. With 22bhp on tap, you don’t approach the Jolly expecting it to be a ball of fire, but it does romp off the line. The gearchange is a little rubbery, but you soon acclimatise to it.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
Check out the positive camber on the back wheels

The little Fiat is perfectly happy mixing it in urban cityscapes, but you do feel somewhat exposed, and on so many levels.

If you don’t like attention, and prefer to blend into the background, this is not the car for you. It is a magnet for camera phones. That, and a running commentary.

People do shout from the sidelines. Nice things, mostly, although the suggestion that the driver with tan-repelling skin really should be wearing nothing more than Speedos, sunblock and a smile is conveniently ignored. Be thankful. It may be springtime, but it feels positively arctic.

What surprises you most, given that the Jolly received little by way of reinforcement following roof removal surgery, is that it doesn’t feel particularly floppy. There’s no discernible flex through the structure.

And the regular 600 always handled much better than preconceptions might have you believe, swing axles and all, to the point that you didn’t really need to slow for corners.

Here you do, but only because there’s nothing to stop you from falling out. But driving impressions are pretty moot, anyway.

Classic & Sports Car – Life’s a beach: Fiat 600 Jolly
This quirky classic car attracts a lot of attention

This is a car that is all about the visuals. It looks amazing, especially with the top in place. To be honest, you will need a City & Guilds in marquee erecting to put up the roof correctly, and it’s no easy task should there be even a moderate headwind, although it’s worth the bloodletting because it looks fab in situ.

That said, you cannot drive the Jolly with the hood fitted because the spindly hoops will buckle and you will inevitably end up wearing it.

Ultimately, this is one of the most pointless cars ever made, but it is impossible not to like the Jolly.

It has more character than any supercar, and is more exclusive than most, come to think of it.

Forget the Riviera, trundle down the King’s Road and see what sort of reaction you get. Just check the weather forecast first.

Images: Lyndon McNeil

Thanks to Paul de Turris


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