Sunday, February 26, 2012

FIAT is back in the US. A history to consider before you plunk your hard earned money on one of those cute little 500 Abarths.

1962 Fiat 500, surrounded by a 2012 Fiat 500 Pop (left) and 2012 500c Lounge (right)
Editor's Note: This post was written by Cliff, who has guest-written for this blog before. Cliff is a fellow automotive enthusiast and has spent time employed in the automotive industry. Like me, he enjoys writing in his spare time. Unlike me, he was around during Fiat's original run in the States. Enjoy!

By now, I know all of you have seen that fantastic commercial for the Fiat 500 Abarth. The one with the stunningly beautiful Italian model with the scorpion tattooed on the back of her neck. She goes from spitting venom to a seductress in seconds, leaving her victim only with a momentary memory of what might have been. I can’t tell you how absolutely perfect this commercial is for the Fiat brand, and anyone who appreciated Fiat cars from the 60’s on up to the 80’s when Fiat stopped importing into this country. The smell of the wine, the whiff of her perfume, and the sting of that damned scorpion and another memory of what might have been . . . . . gone unfulfilled. But, somehow the memory of when it all came together for those precious moments made it all worth-while. And who knows, with the 500 Abarth, maybe it finally did. God save Fiat if it hasn’t.

While I was fully of age during those years when Fiat last was here, I never owned one. They were called “the poor man’s Ferrari”, but being a college student in those days, I was even poorer. Looking at them, touching them and sitting in a few was as close as I got. Then, in 1975, my father did something to this day I still don’t believe, given he was the cheapest man on the face of the fucking planet. Dad bought a brand new Alfa Romeo, known as “the rich man’s Fiat”. It was supposed to be better: better engineered, better designed, faster, sleeker, more wow, more dare I say, Ferrari than the lowly Fiat. It is from this frame of reference that I can argue I have a pretty damned good idea of what owning a Fiat was like back then.

There were 2 favorite nicknames back in the day associated with the Fiat name. The first went, “Fix It Again Tony”. The second, requiring an Italian accent went “Fix It Alla’ Time”. Yes, I know another popular ditty at that time for Ford was “Found On Road Dead”, but this was coined by a bunch of good old boy red necks who drove Chevys; think NASCAR fans and the movie “Deliverance”. The difference being, the Fiat nicknames weren’t kidding.

1972-1975 Fiat 500R

You see, Italian auto engineers have always coveted the positions around engine, transmission, and suspension building and design. Only the best of the best make it to work in these areas of Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, etc. Why? Because this is where it the mothers’ milk of investment money is spent. Lavishly, rivers of euros (massive rivers of worthless lira in the day) are invested in new designs to wring every single molecule of performance from these parts of an Italian car. The rest of the car you ask? Don’t ask. Abuse, neglect, down right disdain are fettered upon the engineers that have to toil away working on the rest of the car. Having worked in the automotive industry myself, I can only imagine the beating these poor bastards take during the budget process. Their life expectancy must be horribly short, filled with pain and disappointment at every turn.

So, it should be no surprise to an owner when they get a kick-ass, highly engineered and well-built engine, state of the art transmission made to be used and abused, and a suspension that can handle almost any road at almost any speed. This is the definitional way Italians drive. From hot-shot playboys and movie starts, right down to nuns (no BS!). They drive flat-out, every time, alla’ time. Most care little what the speedometer says, they drive using the tachometer at red-line or above, foot to the floor and upshift only when the engine is about to blow, taking corners with no guardrails at speeds only Formula 1 drivers can achieve. And that’s to the store to get eggs and milk. And, they consider any car anywhere close a competitor that MUST BE BEATEN AT ALL COSTS!

The problem is all of this fantastic machinery is surrounded by a massive ball of belly button lint. And that might be too kind. Every other part of the car is pure shit, with the possible exception of the tires because they are made by someone else. Our experience with the Alfa included dash fires, windshield wiper motors that quit within a week, door handles that wouldn’t work, doors that sort-of fit, sort of didn’t, and radios? Are you joking? Horribly expensive maintenance parts, cylinder heads that leaked like the downstairs toilet, paint that starting fading within a year and a jack that was so flimsy, we threw it away. Wheel bearings that were shot by the 20K mark, roll down windows that didn’t, and a rear window defroster that never worked. Not once. And, the car had mechanical fuel injection system made by a company called SPICA. These SPICA units were the greatest thing that ever happened to the Bosch Corporation’s aftermarket sales of their electronic fuel injection systems.
I mention the door handles on the Alfa because they tilted up and had these dime store doors and springs on them to stop water from dripping down inside the locks. So, when the first winter rolled around, the springs had all broken allowing water to run down into the locks and freeze at night. The DEALER suggested, rather than fix the door handles, that my father buy a ZIPPO lighter and torch the door handles until the ice melted in the locks. By the time we traded it, both front door locks looked like burnt marshmallows at a deranged brownie weenie roast.

Again, remember I said the Alfa was “better” than the Fiat.

But, when the car was new, and everything on it was working properly, I drove it several times at speeds I wouldn’t dare drive any of my current cars, including my Corvette. It was, the best all-around automobile I have ever driven, period. Her lips were sweet like wine and she seduced me like no other. And then I felt the sting of the scorpion. Reduced to spending weekends under the car helping my father try to fix what had gone wrong the week before. Often, to no avail. And back to “Tony” at the Alfa garage, it would go.

Oh, and did I mention what “Tony” billed per hour? I saw doctors, dentists, lawyers and surgeons throw their check books in utter disgust when they saw their bill. One fellow buyer was a well known Cleveland, Ohio area anchorman. Nicest guy in the world; good looking, athletic, he took delivery of his Alfa the same day my father picked up his. We saw him, many, many, many times in the months after. The brilliant smile was gone, he didn’t talk much and his head started to shake a bit. Not long after, the Cleveland station shipped him off to their Charleston, WV affiliate where he ended his career playing “Winky the Clown” on the afternoon kids program. That’s what happens when “Tony” gets a his hooks into you.

My advice? Let someone else be the guinea pig and wait a couple years or so to see if Fiat has gotten their act together over the last 30+ years. Trust me, if it’s anything like the past, you won’t be waiting too long to find out.

Drive safe.

1 comment:

  1. Great commentary... I own an Alfa Spider Graduate and it's the best car I have ever owned, without question. It's also the most unreliable car I've ever owned.


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