Thursday 6 March 2008

Fiat 500 Giardiniera

One of our age old dreams came to fruition this year: to own an original Fiat 500. You will have all seen them many, many times; on trips to Italy, in old films or simply rusting away in half-collapsed barns. The shape is so well known that it surely must be one of the most distinctive symbols of Italian culture and design in the 20th century. If “The Italian Job” had been an Italian film it would most certainly have featured Marcello Mastroianni and 3 Cinquecenti in red, white and green in place of Michael Caine and his iconic Minis. In fact legend has it that the Fiat 500 was due to be used for the famous chase sequence, but the Mini burst onto the scene just in time. Like the British Mini, the Fiat Cinquecento has stood the test of time and remains to this day one of the most loved vehicles for all generations of Italians. Many of the older generation still own the Cinquecento that they bought as their first vehicle back in the Sixties; cars that have doubtlessly been to the local market and back close on a million times, and which are unlikely to have ever been taken over 50km/h. On the other end of the scale are the young boy racers who, not content with a Fiesta XR2i or souped up Vauxhall Nova, are turning to restoring old 500s with Abarth or Giannini racing additions for their kicks and weekend wheels. So what better year to invest than the 50th anniversary year of the Nuova 500 and the launch of the new 500 this year?

We have always harboured a vaguely obsessive and financially suicidal attraction to old cars, especially the Fiat Cinquecento. But there, sitting forlornly beneath a layer of pine needles in the local carrozzeria forecourt (body shop or panel-beaters), was a Cinquecento with what appeared to be an extension at the back. We had never clapped eyes on one before and almost caused a pile up as we screeched to a halt and pulled in to the entrance. The boss informed us that this was one of the last of the Fiat 500 Giardiniere (estate versions of the usual 500), was owned by a local family of some standing and was, regrettably for my wallet it turned out, for sale… Now, we decided not to tell our parents about this latest dream vehicle too hastily, having grown used to glazed eyes or strained phone silences at the mention of any vehicle that did not run and required “a bit of work”. The stationary (and rusting) 1976 Mercedes camper van, sat in my poor parents’ back garden for years, stands as unwavering testimony to our first youthful foray into classic car buying. Youngsters eh, they just don’t think ahead do they?

Informing Charlie a few days later that we should leave this one alone, that it was not the best time for us to be throwing money at a 40 year old rust bucket the size of a Matchbox car, I hatched my devious plan. After nearly 20 separate trips to the garage and an extensive restoration, it was ready to be driven away. A Ferrari red child seat was fixed in the back, matching the original upholstery, the new roof was pulled back and, yes, it started first time! Having never driven such an old motor, the chap had to teach me the routine of double de-clutching, as I crunched the old dear on its first test drive around the Umbrian countryside. The surprise gift worked a treat; by some fluke I had managed to keep the secret for all those months and Charlie was suitably dumbfounded at her new run-around. Having the Giardiniera certainly turns heads, we discovered to our pleasure as we drove it into Cortona for the first time. Even the guys with flashy 4x4s and sports cars were looking over their shoulders enviously, as they realised that it was actually cool to be small. We are often accosted by people asking after the car; how old is it, what is it and, most predominantly, how much did it cost? Perhaps the most unique feature of the Giardiniera is the doors, which open the opposite way to all other cars, and have been labelled “suicide doors”. They do have a positive side however, as long as you are a man; the Giardiniera used to be beloved of all young men back in the Sixties apparently, because young ladies alighting from the car could not help but flash their undies on the way out… The Fiat 500 in all its forms, from its original manifestation in 1957 to its decommissioning only 20 years later, brings to mind nostalgia for the Dolce Vita, Fellini films, the boom years, Sofia Loren and everything else that is Italian and good to look at.

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