The Fiat 508S Balilla Sport had much in common with the VW Beetle. And not just that it looked like one from the back. As with the 'Volkswagen' - literally, people's car - the Balilla was designed to be transport for the masses. That said, it was coach-built in Turin, Italy - so it went without saying that it was pleasing on the eye, too. Fiat HQ was in Turin.
Gianni Agnelli - head of Fiat - had a core objective for the new Balilla range. He wanted it to sell well. That comes as no surprise - Agnelli was one of the wealthiest Italians ever. The first model's unique selling point was that it had three gears. Plus, it was cheap … sorry, competitively-priced. It set you back 10,800 Italian lire. Throw in hydraulic braking - eat your heart out, Citroën - and it was a steal! Fiat's sales pitch clearly worked. 114,000 units rolled into - and out of - showrooms, during the car's five-year run. That was a record number of sales - up to, and including 1934, when the first 508 was released. And not only in Italy. Other parts of Europe also caught the Balilla bug. Production lines were started in Poland, GB and France. Indeed, the French firm Simca was founded to flog the new Fiat.
Particularly in France, then, the Balilla was possessed of a certain «Je ne sais quoi» - something its British rivals were perceived to lack. The 508 Sport had speed on its side, too - as well as style. Its four-cylinder 995cc side-valve engine made 36bhp - at 4,400rpm. Top speed was 110km/h. More than enough to sweep a lucky lady off her feet! So long as you did not forget your petrol money … the Balilla Sport drank around 9.5 litres/100km. But - all in all - mission accomplished for Fiat. The 508 series did more than make its mark - it became a sales sensation! That was the result of what passed for mass marketing, in the 1930s. The Balilla Sport was big business. Like those behind the VW Beetle, Fiat had got their sums spot-on!