With a collection of 30 vintage automobiles, including the Rolls-Royce used in the 1960s television detective series "Burke's Law," Jim Inglis can be reasonably sure he won't see another car like his when he drives from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., to the nearby Breakers resort. That wasn't the case one summer day four years ago when a Fiat 600 Jolly identical to his 1961 model -- down to its coral paint color -- pulled in behind him.
It was an improbable encounter, given that fewer than 700 of the little runabouts were ever made and perhaps 100 of the originals remain anywhere in the world.
The Jolly was a tiny buggy built under contract by Ghia, the Italian design studio and coachbuilder, in 1958-66. With its bulbous shape, doorless sides, removable surrey top, wicker seats and pastel color palette, the Jolly looks more like an amusement-park ride than a road-legal car.
But collectors are taking "beach cars" like the Jolly seriously indeed, as demonstrated by the $110,000 paid for a 1958 model at an RM Auctions sale in March at Amelia Island, Fla.
Informally defined as small, open vehicles with jaunty styling and a laid-back attitude, beach cars are the auto world's head-turning, sun-loving equivalent of a two-piece bathing suit or a skimpy Speedo.
Among these, the Fiat Jolly commands the most attention and the highest prices, owing to its low production, designer pedigree and colorful history. A Renault version based on the 4CV economy car, also converted by Ghia, is highly collectible as well -- only 50 were made.
Aside from vintage-car auctions or concours events, an upscale seaside enclave offers the best opportunity to see a Jolly or other beach car in its element. The people who own them tend to drive them.
Wayne Carini, the host of "Chasing Classic Cars" on the Velocity Channel, has owned five Jollys, always keeping one at his beach house in Old Lyme, Conn. Mr. Carini, who also runs an auto restoration shop in Portland, Conn., says one of his customers keeps two Jollys at a house in Hilton Head, S.C.
Like other owners, Mr. Carini takes pleasure in recounting how the Jolly came to be, "a very cool story," in his words.
Ghia created the car at the request of Gianni Agnelli, the grandson of Fiat's founder, Giovanni Agnelli, as a custom land tender for his yacht. Agnelli was a jet-setter before there were jets -- he was called "the Rake of the Riviera" -- and a style setter who influenced men's fashions.
Ferrari, which Fiat would acquire years later, built custom models for Mr. Agnelli in the 1950s. But it was the cheeky Fiat that his fellow yacht owners coveted when they saw him driving it in Monaco and Cannes, prompting Ghia to make copies. Mr. Agnelli took the reins of Fiat in 1966.
The Jolly came in two main versions. One, based on the tiny Fiat 500 economy car, had a 13-horsepower air-cooled 2-cylinder engine. More desirable to buyers at the time -- and to today's collectors as well -- was a model built on the slightly larger Fiat 600. Mr. Inglis described that car as much nicer to drive, with a water-cooled 4-cylinder engine making 28 horsepower. (VW Beetles of the time made 40 horses.)
In the United States, the price in 1960 for a 600 Jolly -- $1,905 -- would have bought a compact sedan like a Ford Falcon or Plymouth Valiant. Some Jollys were also made from the Fiat 600 Multipla, a kind of mini-minivan; these had a rear-facing third seat that was also made of wicker.
Turning a Fiat 500 or 600 into a Jolly required quite a bit of hand fabrication by Ghia's craftsmen, who cut away the roof and installed an intricate web of steel tubing to reinforce the topless body, leaving some of it exposed as decorative trim. Seams were filled with lead, adding weight to cars that were already underpowered.
Facts and folklore about the Jolly and other beach cars have been gathered on a Web site, coolbeachcars.com, by Don Rich, a collector and Jolly enthusiast in Nellysford, Va.
Mr. Rich bought a Jolly 20 years ago at his wife's urging. After restoring the car, he sold it before moving from Florida -- and the buyer, he says, turned out to be a niece of Agnelli. Mr. Rich's Jolly inspired Mr. Inglis, his neighbor in Florida, to buy one. Mr. Inglis later found and bought one of the Renault versions.
Not all Jollys stayed by the seashore. President Lyndon B. Johnson had one at his Texas ranch. And on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles, a small fleet of Jollys served as taxis into the early 1960s. Some of those cars eventually landed in Newport Beach and on islands in the area.
"Some residents on Balboa and Lido wanted something more fun than the golf carts people use to get around," said Theo Sahli, whose restoration shop in nearby Costa Mesa specializes in classic exotics like Ferraris and microcars like the Jolly.
"You can't look at a Jolly and not smile," Mr. Sahli said. "We've restored 17, including Renaults."
For many years, a group of Jollys drove in the annual Balboa Island parade, but the man who used to round them up, Scott Sarkisian, said many of his fellow owners ended up selling their cars, succumbing to the temptation of high-dollar offers.
The Jolly inspired imitators, including the Shellette, created in the late 1960s by Giovanni Michelotti, an Italian designer who also styled Triumph sports cars. Based on parts from Fiat's rear-engine 850 coupe and Spider models, the Shellette was also an open car without doors, and with wicker seats and a canvas top. The Shellette lacked the Jolly's cheerful character, however, and of the 80 built only a handful are believed to still exist.
Some beach cars trace their roots to the military. Catering to a niche market for island resort rental fleets, in 1959 Jeep introduced an export model called the Gala. Based on the 2-wheel-drive Jeep DJ-3, the Gala came in pastel shades of pink, blue or green with matching candy-stripe upholstery and a fringed surrey top. A resort in Acapulco, Mexico, Las Brisas, used a fleet of the cheery Jeeps to carry guests.
Jeep also marketed the vehicle with a new name, the Surrey, to retail customers in the United States. It cost $1,700 in 1960 and, looking like a car for Malibu Barbie, seems the antithesis of the macho off-road image that the brand cultivates today.
In 1964, a little buggy concocted by the British Motor Corporation as a light reconnaissance vehicle for the British military, but rejected for that role, went into production as the civilian Mini Moke. The company, which built the Austin Mini, used that car's 850-cubic-centimeter 4-cylinder engine, 10-inch wheels and other drivetrain parts in a sparse body devoid of doors, with two or four seats and a canvas top.
Most of the 14,000 Mokes built in England through 1967 were exported, and they were popular at island resorts. The sun-baked singer Jimmy Buffett referenced the Moke in "Autour du Rocher," his ode to partying on St. Bart's.
The Moke's tooling was sent to Australia, where production of a reinforced version continued until 1981, and then to Portugal, where the buggies were made until 1993. British Mokes, as well as some from Australia, were sold into the 1970s in the United States.
About 10 years ago, Andrew O'Rourke of Bronxville, N.Y., bought a 1967 Moke from the family of a Jaguar dealer. Having been driven just 15 miles, it was essentially new. Mr. O'Rourke, a former television reporter and the son of a prominent New York State politician, had previously bought a Moke from Alistair Cooke, the "Masterpiece Theater" host, who had a home near Mr. O'Rourke's summer place in Sag Harbor on Long Island.
"He kept the Moke on his 50-foot sloop," said Mr. O'Rourke, who also had a Jolly until he sold it 10 years ago.
Similar in concept to the Mini Moke, but lacking its charm, the Citroën Méhari was a plastic-bodied utilitarian buckboard. This French model, too, was based on the components of a humble economy car, with a 2-cylinder air-cooled engine to propel its slight 1,300 pounds. The Méhari was imported to the United States for only one year, in 1970. Only about 200 were originally sold here, so they're fairly rare.
Americans are more likely to remember a rust-prone four-door convertible truckette from Volkswagen called the Thing, offered in 1973-74. The Thing began as a military vehicle known as the Type 181, which VW supplied to NATO forces in Europe.
In Mexico, where VW also built the vehicle and called it the Safari, Las Brisas found it an ideal replacement for its aging fleet of Jeep Galas. The resort had the VWs painted in a blue-and-white theme with a surrey top and striped upholstery. VW offered a run of 200 similar Things in the United States that it called the Acapulco Edition. Mr. O'Rourke owns two of these, which were used for many years at the Portland Open golf tournament in Oregon.
"I have photos of Pat Summerall driving Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus in them," he said.
Correction: July 6, 2013, Saturday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the "Masterpiece Theater" host who sold a Mini Moke to Andrew O'Rourke, a collector. He was Alistair Cooke, not Cook.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.