Gearhead News

June 19, 2021
This Vintage Summer Car Is Like Driving a Picnic Basket

Picture yourself a wealthy European with a vacation home in a seaside community. You need to get from your yacht to your chateau or from the beach to a watering hole for a frosty beverage, and you want something suited for exactly that purpose. In the 1950s, the answer to fill that niche was the spiaggina car designed for the jet set.

A prime specimen of this class of vehicle is the 1970 Fiat Shellette, a picnic basket on wheels with a surrey canvas top. Sans doors, it’s a whip with materials built for people who want to get in with wet bathing suits, like wicker seats and a wood-crafted steering wheel. Hand fabricated by a variety of coachbuilders, this tiny beach car existed long before the revival in the form of the electrified Fiat Jolly a few years ago.

Petersen Automotive Museum

This post is part of our ongoing museum series, which was created to bring the stories from museums around the world to The Drive readers. Check out our previous posts in the series about a restored 1921 Duesenberg Model A, a drag-racing 1937 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 shape are commanding big bucks now. Case in point: in 2019, a rare 1962 Austin 850 Mini Beach Car sold for $230,000 on Bring a Trailer

The La Dolce Vita (“the sweet life” in Italian) factor is a huge 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’s architecture, just two dozen of the Fiat Shellette were built, and only a few remain today. 

Petersen Automotive Museum

The 1970 Shellette on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum gets to see the sun every now and then, museum Chief Historian Leslie Mark Kendall told me. It has a rear-mounted four-cylinder 850-cc Fiat engine making 47 horsepower and gets from zero to 60 eventually with no care for aerodynamics. It’s incredibly light, considering a Fiat Jolly tipped the scales at less than 1400 pounds and the Fiat Shellette subtracts the doors and heavier-framed seats in favor of empty space and woven plant materials.

“These are interesting to drive on the freeway because it’s like driving a buckboard,” Kendall says. “It’s meant for light traffic areas where everyone is going to notice you, like a caftan you put on over your beach wear.”

Famous drivers of these types of cars were Jackie and Aristole Onassis, where they used it as a land tender on the island of Scorpios, actor Yul Brynner, and Princess Grace Kelly, 

This funky little car has a frunk that doesn’t hold much, according to Kendall.

“If you need some Grey Poupon, it would fit,” he jokes.

Got a tip? Send the writer a note: kristin.shaw@thedrive.com