I have a thing for vintage cars, especially Italian Fiats. I once owned a second-hand Fiat Sports that been driven to the brink of ruin. The previous owner was a nurse with a taste for speed and a strong belief in amateur car repairs. Subsequently the wiring under the bonnet was strapped up with ordinary tape or rusty wire and the engine’s parts looked decidedly neglected. I tried not to peer under the hood too often as it didn’t inspire confidence.
I loved my Fiat Sports but quickly discovered that the only thing that worked was the premium sound system. This proved quite useful, because I was forever sitting in the damned car waiting for a road service repair guy to arrive and get me going again.
The consultation usually involved triage. The repair guy had to consider all manner of mechanical problems and then try to determine the most likely suspect. For some reason this usually occurred during torrential rain.
But my God, you should have seen the Fiat Sport’s interior – it was all red leather, dashing 007-style dials, racy steering wheel and elegant trim. After all, the Italians understand style and the art of living (arte di vivere) just as well as the French.
However, my favourite Fiat remains the Fiat 500 and quite some time ago I owned a semi restored original. Known as the Bambino or the Cinquecento, the original Fiat 500 is famous for its utilitarian, compact design. Please note: I didn’t use the word small, tiny, cramped, microscopic, or minuscule.
These words have been used – even by friends – to disparage my vehicle of choice. But to dedicated Fiat 500 aficionados such as I, calling the Fiat small is nonsensical. As a motoring journalist once wrote, ‘Only buy as much car as your ego requires’.
My current Fiat 500 is a recent model which helps to discourage the naysayers. For Marcello is a handsome beast with a black soft top. I named him, Marcello, in honour of the late, great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who starred in Fellini’s brilliant film, ‘La dolce vita’ – the sweet life.
Marcello Fiat has what is known as dual logic. This means that I can cruise around with the roof down using the economy drive or switch over to sports drive.
When I asked the Fiat rep why my new Cinquecento had a silly looking pair of racing gear paddles attached to the steering column, Roberto murmured, ‘Because we Italians like to drive fast.’ We grinned sideways at each other, because nobody could ever accuse the Fiat 500 of presenting itself as a muscle car.
However, I soon discovered that the contemporary version of the Fiat 500 is a gutsy animal. It has a loud, rude horn. This is useful when dealing with arrogant road bullies who fail to give way, cut me off and seem hell bent on mercilessly crushing Marcello beneath their big fat tyres.
Unlike the original Fiat 500, the current model has all the advanced technology of modern cars while retaining the basic body shape of the post-war original. Subsequently I was a tad shocked by Marcello’s sport’s mode take off speed at traffic lights.
The earlier model Bambinos only had 499cc of power under the bonnet, the heater was an open hole that could be uncovered providing warmth from the engine and the sunroof had to be manually unclipped and folded backwards. This then provided an open invitation for truck drivers to lean down from their mountain beasts, peer through the Bambino’s open roof and make witty/flirtatious remarks.
Interestingly enough, truck drivers are unfailingly polite about giving way to Marcello. Recently I was blessed by the driver of a monstrous rubbish truck. He braked noisily on the main road, gave me the sign of the cross and sportingly held up the peak hour traffic, so I could reverse park safely. Nice.
My first second-hand Fiat 500, went like the clackers and was as hardy as a mountain goat. Even with three people and a large dog crammed into the tiny seats. When I was acting with a theatre troupe, we’d finish rehearsing, pile into my Fiat and head into the Adelaide hills to visit the fantastic wineries.
It was a golden time – kicking back, sipping young wines and laughing like hyenas about everything that could possibly go wrong on opening night.
La dolce Vita indeed.
Photograph: screen shot of Anita Ekberg in Frederico Fellini’s masterpiece, ‘La dolce vita’ 1960.