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I was wandering between the rows of collectible classic cars and shiny new supercars at a Detroit area Cars & Coffee meet when something caught my eye: a cute little Fiat with wicker seats and a fringed canvas top. I snapped some pictures, then went home and looked it up. This 1959 Fiat 500 Jolly–a time capsule of 1950s and 60s opulence–was actually one of the rarer vehicles at the entire show! Here’s how this unique runabout came to be.

A company man needs a company car

1959 Ghia Fiat 500 Jolly | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

The year was 1957, and sales of the Fiat 500 were booming. Things were so good, in fact, that Fiat heir and company owner Giovanni Agnelli was sailing around aboard his own private yacht: Agneta. But he did have one problem: he needed a lightweight vehicle to cruise around towns where he landed.

Today, you see yachters dragging everything from folding bicycles to electric Segway scooters aboard. But in 1957, there were far fewer options for lightweight transportation. The Carrozzeria Ghia coachbuilder in Turin did build a “Jolly,” a lightweight little beach car you could store on the deck of your yacht, based on the Renault 4CV. But Agnelli couldn’t be seen in a Renault!

Agnelli sent his latest Fiat 500, the Nuova 500, to Ghia, and the Fiat “Jolly” was born. Agnelli had one of the most incredible, and eclectic, car collections in Italy. His unique Fiat Jolly was one of the rarest vehicles in that collection. What I spotted at the car show was obviously not Agnelli’s own runabout. It was one of a limited run of Fiat 500 Jolly cars Ghia did, and its original buyer may have been even more famous.

The Ghia ‘Jolly,’ based on Fiat 500 and 600 cars

The wicker interior of a 1959 Fiat 500 "Jolly" beach car built by Ghia
1959 Ghia Fiat 500 Jolly | Henry Cesari via MotorBiscuit

To build the lightweight “Jolly” runabout, Ghia first cut the doors and roof off a Fiat 500. As a result, it lost much of its structure, so Ghia toughened up the 500’s unibody shell. The coachbuilder even cut down the windshield and pulled the heavy interior out.

Ghia then handbuilt custom wicker seats and an interior with teak trim. To stick with the nautical theme, it added a fringed canvas roof.

The result isn’t very practical for speeds over 30 mph or very comfortable for long trips. But it is a perfect beach cruiser. Best of all, Agnelli’s crew could scoop the little car up and set it on the deck of a yacht.

One of the rarest Fiats ever built

The Ghia Jolly became a symbol of the opulence of 1950s and 1960s Europe. Though orders poured in, Carrozzeria Ghia handbuilt every vehicle. As a result, it sold around 400 over the years. It offered a high-trim version built on the Fiat 600 but made less than 100 of those.

Customers included tycoon Aristotle Onassis, Princess Grace of Monaco, movie star Bridget Bardot, and Elvis Presley. Fiat even ordered one and sent it to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson pressed his Jolly into service as a golf cart.

These cars are rare enough to command high prices: people often pay six figures for a Fiat Jolly. In 2015, a rare Jolly based on the Fiat 600 sold for $170,500!

Next, meet the Gaylord Gladiator: a 1950s supercar designed by the mastermind of the Oscar-Mayer Weinermobile and assembled by the company behind the Hindenburg, which enticed movie stars and an ex-Egyptian King. Or, see a Fiat 600 Jolly for yourself in the video below: