The beach car phenomenon of the late 1950s is often credited to Gianni Agnelli, the playboy grandson of Fiat founder Giovanni Agnelli. While it was Agnelli who made it popular, the idea is said to have originated with Ghia’s Gigi Segre. Whilst on holiday, Segre noticed big taxis lumbering around the streets of the island of Capri. He thought something more whimsical and stylish would add a dose of fun and practicality to island life. He sketched out a solution that started with a Fiat Cinquecento, which Ghia then modified for summer duty by first reinforcing the body and lopping off the roof. But no mere convertible, the car was further modified by replacing the doors with a cut-down, step through body sides. Wicker seats were installed should occupants be fresh from a swim in the Mediterranean and a whimsical surrey top provided shade. Combined with the original styling of the tiny Fiat, the “Jolly” beach car was a fun and adorable exercise. It did not find much favor with buyers at first, however. But such was the influence of the young Gianni Agnelli, that when a newspaper published a photo of him in his new Fiat Jolly on the Italian Riviera, the public went mad and Jollys began to sell, as suddenly anybody who was somebody needed to be seen driving one of Ghia’s delightful little buggies.
Ghia offered a variety of versions mainly built on the Fiat 500 and 600 chassis. There was also a Jolly built on the Renault 4CV (probably to appease French Riviera dwellers) and even the Fiat Multipla. Other coachbuilders and manufacturers got the bug and tried their hands at the cheeky little beach cars, with variations popping up using the Austin Mini and Volkswagen Beetle as their base. VW even went so far as to offer the factory-produced Type 181 “Thing” in the late 1960s. Countless other specials and one-offs have been inspired by the Jolly over the years as the genre continues to find favor with collectors for their charming, low key nature.
This cheeky little creation started life as a standard Riley Elf, which in itself was essentially a more luxurious, booted version of the Austin Mini. It has been given the full Jolly treatment with welded up and cut-down doors and the roof and side windows removed and cast aside for sunshine-only duty. The quality of the conversion is top rate, and the car could easily be mistaken for a coachbuilt example. The paint is excellent, with fine quality finishing and detailing. It rides on a set of Minilite-style alloys with low-profile tires. The body has been de-bumpered but retains the distinct Riley radiator grille, and very good quality chrome mirrors and headlamp rings.
The interior features a very nicely finished wood dash, a quality wood-rimmed Mountney steering wheel and matching custom wood rails which trim out the cockpit. Front and rear seats have been recovered in stripe pattern marine-quality canvas to hold up to the rigors of sun exposure and beach duty, while the floors are line with natural coco-fiber floor mats. The interior is quite nicely detailed and well executed with chrome hardware and handy map pockets built into the side panels. It even includes a surf board that has been finished to match the interior.
It is mechanically very strong and is “turn-key” and ready for enjoyment. Restoration and service receipts are included, which show a very recent engine rebuild. The engine compartment is very clean and well-presented. Simple, cheeky and fun, this Elf presents in excellent condition, having been part of a special exhibition of beach cars at the 2015 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. It is a high quality conversion that brilliantly captures the essence of the Jolly.