Fiats of Yore

By Roger Boylan

11.08.2007

One of the perks of growing up in Geneva, back in the ‘60s, was being occasionally allowed to accompany my father on one of his short business trips to nearby Italy. This took place a couple of times a year, during the summer holidays when I was out of school and my mother was quite happy to see the backs of both of us for a few days.

Dad’s business was odd; at least, I’ve never met anyone else in the same line. He installed electronic carillon bells in churches, back when there were still congregations to be summoned to matins or vespers by the ringing of church bells down narrow alleyways and across ancient vineyards. Naturally, this line of work entailed a lot of driving.

After borrowing my mother’s (later, my) Simca 1000 a couple of times, and deeming it entirely inadequate for the dual job of transporting his equipment and providing a fast and comfortable ride, on the recommendation of an Italian family friend Dad settled in 1967 on a blue Fiat 2300 Familiare station wagon. It was a good car, entirely suitable for his purposes. It hauled all his amplifiers and blueprints and wiring and toolboxes with room to spare, while managing to hustle along the autostrada at a true 160 km/h (100 mph), if and when needed, in the absence of the Polizia Stradale. It was reliable and stylish. Dad loved Fiats from then on: indeed, when he died in ‘80 I inherited a ’78 131 Mirafiori from him, but in the intervening decade and a half Fiat quality had declined. (It’s improving again, I hear hopefully.)

The 2300 was not only a much better car than the future Mirafiori, it was better than most of its contemporaries; quite outstanding for its day, in fact, powered by a smooth six-banger with 130 hp on tap and adorned inside with leather seats and a nifty four-speed transmission lever on the steering column, where I always preferred it. The 2300 was an ideal car for long drives from Geneva to Bologna, Verona, or Venice, along the autostrade and up and down the unforgiving mountain roads of the Alps, Dolomites or Apennines.

In the summer of ’67 Dad and I drove in the 2300 to the convent-shrine of St. Rita in Roccaporena di Cascia in the high Apennines, a place, apparently, in desperate need of electronic bells. We arrived late, after driving up from the town of Cascia on a tortuous road, and dined with twenty or more nuns in a vast and dark dining hall made darker by a tremendous mountain storm lowering over the jagged peaks outside and episodically, as in a horror movie, lighting up the faces of the assembled nuns with blinding flashes.

Next day in on-and-off rain Dad and a local engineer, anxiously watched by the Mother Superior and her local bishop, lugged their equipment up a spiral pathway on a 700-foot-high needle rock to the tiny mountaintop chapel on top. No skin off my nose; I waited in the convent below, reading–probably Maupassant, Conan Doyle, or the latest Tintin (Tintin Au Congo, maybe?); or maybe Motor magazine. (Dad was too easy on me; if I’d been my father I’d have sent me scrambling up that rock first, no questions asked. But maybe he didn’t trust me with all that equipment.) When the rain let up I went off for a clandestine smoke among the cars in the parking lot, looking for Ferraris, as was my wont in Italy. No Ferraris in that car park. Nuns and their suppliers not generally being too well-heeled, small Fiats were on display, with a decided bias toward the hideous but functional, and then incredibly popular, 600 Multipla, most common on the streets of Italian cities in black-and-green livery as a taxi; but it would have been a useful minibus for a large convent.

Then a young man delivering something drove up at the wheel of a roaring, snorting parody of a Fiat 600 with lowered suspension, drastically wider tires, and the cover of its rear-mounted engine–its “rear hood,” I suppose–propped wide open to cool the throbbing power plant. The vehicle was adorned with red-and-yellow scorpions and red stripes, and more than likely (my memory fails me on this point), fuzzy dice and/or a rosary dangled from the rear-view mirror. It was a meta-Fiat, a mega-600, a souped-up everyman’s everyday driver: It was, in fact, a Fiat Abarth 1000TC, a real pocket rocket of the day that (further research informed me) in racing guise pumped out 112 hp, allowing for a top speed of 200 km/h (120 mph), and ran in, and often won, such prestigious road rallies as the Mille Miglia and the Giro di Sicilia.


The Abarth driver jumped out and swaggered across the car park.

“Molto rapido?” I inquired. Very fast?

“Vaffanculo, piccolino (Eff off, squirt),” he replied, genially. But then, having delivered whatever it was he was delivering, he drove off in the manner of Lorenzo Bandini, as if to answer my question in the affirmative.

The car’s hysterical engine was still audible halfway down the mountain road to Cascia. It was a rocky start to a love affair, but I was hooked on the little beasts. Still, when Dad came down from his mountain, tired and wet, and repaired to the nearest caffé with his engineer friend for a few stiff ones, I had sufficient sense not to alert him to my new automotive infatuation; his response would have been approximately the same as that of the swaggering Abarth driver. But everywhere he and I went in Italy after that I was surreptitiously on the qui vive for Fiat 600s that weren’t quite Fiat 600s: lower, squatter, noisier, and invariably with the rear hood open. I wanted one then, and still do.


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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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5 Comments

  1. I agree, Fiats had great quality until the late 1960s, and then it went bad in a hurry until very recently. We had an early 60’s Fiat that ran like a champ, and was built very well,

  2. I have the last year of the 500 with the factory Panda engine in it and let me tell you, it is a lot of fun. I think Fiat put the Panda engine in the last two years of production. So much better in a lot of ways.

  3. IMO, the last good-quality Fiat before today’s current crop, which are very good-quality cars was the Fiat 130 executive saloon.

    That was a well-made car and I wish I had one even now.

  4. I didn’t know Fiat used the Panda engine for the 500 the last two years. I’m sure that is a more reliable engine that leaks less oil and probably another 20 hp at least. I would love to drive one of those.

  5. Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia. All great names but I can’t make memories for my son with any of them because they’re not sold in America anyomore. And I don’t have the option of living in Europe just now. When we will see these great makes back in the U.S.?

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