Imagine a wealthy European with a vacation home in a coastal community. You need to get from your yacht to your castle or from the beach to a watering hole for a frosty drink and you want something that’s just right for that. In the 1950s the answer to fill that niche was that spiaggina Car for the jet set.
A prime example of this vehicle class is the 1970 Fiat Shellette, a picnic basket on wheels with a surrey canvas top. With no doors, it’s a whip made with materials designed for people who want to get in with wet swimsuits like wicker seats and a wooden steering wheel. This tiny beach car was handcrafted by various coachbuilders and existed long before the revival in the form of the electrified Fiat Jolly a few years ago.
This post is part of our ongoing museum series created to bring the stories of museums around the world to the readers of The Drive. Check out our previous posts in the series about a restored 1921 Duesenberg Model A, a 1937 drag racing Willys, and James Hetfield’s Art Deco Hot Rod.
These novelties may have been throwaway cars for the rich, but the remaining Spiagginas in good condition now command a lot of money. Case in point: In 2019, a rare Austin 850 Mini Beach Car from 1962 sold for $ 230,000 at Bring a Trailer.
The La Dolce Vita factor (“the sweet life” in Italian) is a big part of the appeal of beach cars like the Shellette, which was conceived by yacht designer Philip Schell and Italian car stylist Giovanni Michelotti. Based on the original Jolly architecture, only two dozen of the Fiat Shellettes were built, and only a few survive today.
The 1970s Shellette, which is on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum, gets a glimpse of the sun every now and then, museum historian Leslie Mark Kendall told me. It has a rear-mounted four-cylinder Fiat engine with a displacement of 850 cc, which develops 47 hp and increases from zero to 60 without regard to aerodynamics. It’s incredibly easy, considering a Fiat Jolly tipped the scales at less than 1,400 pounds, and the Fiat Shellette is pulling the doors and heavier-framed seats in favor of empty space and woven plant materials.
“These are interesting to ride on the freeway because it’s like riding a buckboard,” says Kendall. “It’s intended for low-traffic areas where everyone will notice you, like a caftan pulling over your beach clothes.”
Famous drivers of this type of car were Jackie and Aristole Onassis, where they used it as a land tender on Scorpios Island, actor Yul Brynner and Princess Grace Kelly.