Just Above Sunset
November 21, 2004 - Topolino news and the streets of Paris...

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Last week in these pages it was California Cars.  This week let’s take the Air France 65 that leaves Los Angeles from LAX mid-afternoon and arrives in Paris at CDG just before noon the next day – ten and a half hours in the air across nine time zones.


Why?  On the side Ric Erickson and I have been trading emails about Fiats.  One of the features of his site MetropoleParis is the “Fiat 500 of the Week” on the streets of Paris.  And the old joke that Fiat means “Fix It Again, Tony” should be mentioned – as when I first moved to California twenty-four years ago my first car out here was a red, well-used Fiat 124 convertible – no working heater, bad electrics, a head gasket the blew out going up a hill one evening in Manhattan Beach, much to the amusement of the two sweet young things riding with me.  The cloud of steam and oil was impressive.  The usual Fiat stuff.  But the Fiat 500 goes on and on.


Note that Europeans like their cars small – like the Smart, co-produced by the Swatch watch folks and the Benz folks, as seen here on Left Bank, parked on Boulevard Saint Germain on a cold winter morning.  Cute.

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Last time I was in Paris, on the drive in from CDG I chatted with my taxi driver about the tiny cars everywhere, particularly all the Fiat 500’s scattered about.  He referred to them by a popular name – Topolino.  Is that Italian for Little Mouse, or Mickey Mouse?  Perhaps both.


But they are everywhere.  And folks love them.  And this appeared in the International Herald Tribune this weekend.  The International Herald Tribune may be the light version of the New York Times that they publish daily in Paris - the Times a day late and a few paragraphs short - but some items are exclusive to the European edition.


Italians rally to keep Fiat 500 on the road

Elisabetta Povoledo - International Herald Tribune - Saturday, November 20, 2004


The gist of this is that there is a move afoot to save the little car.


Garlenda, Italy - In a rare case of bipartisan camaraderie, Italian lawmakers from across the political spectrum are rallying to try to protect a beloved national icon: the Fiat 500.

The stubby, pug-nosed car, which jump-started generations of Italian drivers, has been under threat from antipollution laws banning cars that do not have catalytic converters.

Rome, Florence, Milan, Turin, Naples and other cities have passed ordinances to keep polluting cars off the streets, even historic vehicles like the boxy Fiat, known here simply as the Cinquecento (pronounced chink-way-CHEN-toe).

Outraged Italian lawmakers have banded together, drafting a "Save the 500" bill that proposes exempting small historic cars from the antipollution measure.


Well, this is one political movement that makes everyone smile.

Then we get Povoledo explaining the car.

Fancy it isn't. The back seat is barely big enough for two adults to crouch comfortably, driving requires complex shifting to change gears, and the retractable canvas roof hardly gives the 500 convertible status.

But the car captured the national imagination, and once reclining seats became a feature in 1968, the 500 made a not insignificant contribution to Italian participation in the sexual revolution.

The air-cooled, rear-engine car, designed by Fiat's chief designer, Dante Giacosa, has proved to be remarkably sturdy. With some 600,000 still on the streets, the campaign to save them has united the country's quarrelsome politicians and even reached beyond Italy.


… Between 1957 and 1975, 3.6 million examples of the 500 came off the Fiat production line.

The first cars were priced relatively low and could be paid off in installments, making them accessible to Italians just beginning to enjoy the effects of the postwar economic boom.

Well, the argument is that the little things now don’t meet the anti-pollution requirements, even if well maintained.  Drat.


But there is tradition - and a fan base.

The Fiat 500 Club… founded in 1984, boasts 10,000 members, and is the largest of around 200 such clubs in Italy. Clubs exist in most European countries, and even in North America, fueled by an active market for the cars, which usually fetch around €2,000, or $2,600. (… the highest price she had ever heard of was €16,000).

Each summer, hundreds of passionate 500 collectors converge on Garlenda from around the world - the visitor's book for last summer's rally logged aficionados from Germany, the Netherlands, France, even Australia - for a three-day jamboree where they talk shop and preen.

The passion is not confined to collectors. Discussion of the "Save the 500" bill has prompted a nationwide wave of nostalgia.

"For us it is history, an object symbol of the company of which we're proud," Lapo Elkann, grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli and Fiat's new head of brand promotion, said in an interview with La Stampa. "The idea to conserve the 500 is splendid."

Senator Luciano Magnalbo, of the rightist National Alliance Party, one of the promoters of the bill, said that because support ran across party lines, the "Save the 500" bill should become law by the end of 2005.

Magnalbo, who admitted to souping up the engine of the 500 that he drove while growing up, dismissed environmentalists' concerns as alarmist. Not only do the cars not pollute much, he said, "but in Rome we have maybe 10,000 in all; it can't have much of an effect."


And Ric in Paris has bit to say.  And he clears up some misconceptions.


Bonjour Alan –


Paris- 20 November:  I'll say it one more time - the Topolino is a pre-war version of the Fiat 500. The two are not the same car. Pre war, of course, in Italy, few could afford a tiny Topolino. These days the only ones seen are in museums or collections.


The Herald Tribune's lady, even with a name like Elisabetta Povoledo, must be a modern version. How else could she write, "Fancy it isn't. The back seat is barely big enough for two adults to crouch comfortably, driving requires complex shifting to change gears, and the retractable canvas roof hardly gives the 500 convertible status?"


'Driving requires complex shifting?' No Italian cars are hard to shift. Motors are so small that shifting, often, is a major factor of moving ahead briskly. Shifting is an Italian way of life, helped along with noises like VROOM VROOOM - and keeping a cloth handy to wipe spit off the inside of the windshield.


Not enough room in the back seat for two adults? Is she blind? The car is so small that the having seats in the back at all is a huge Italian joke. Three Fiat 500s would fit inside Madonna's limo, and combined, could have more open roof than an open-top double-decker bus.


And then she missed the essential mystery of the Fiat 500. Of all the cars made in Europe between 1957 and 1975 practically the only survivor one sees on the road these days is the Fiat 500. VWs 'beetle' has almost disappeared, as have most Fiat 600s, Renault R4s and R5s, Peugeots, Opels, Fords, and all British cars except the Mini. Naturally there's a French 'exception' - the 2CV. These share longevity with the Fiat 500.


All other Fiats made during the production years of the Fiat 500 have oxidized. They were infamous for it at the time. Most people knew you could drive them like crazy until your foot went through the floorboard; eight to ten years, or 250,000 kilometres. And then there was nothing left to save.

But if you liked driving - VROOM VROOOM - Fiats were wonderful. One idiot I knew wondered why his 124 was smelling odd after a round-trip to Gibraltar from Hamburg. The oil sump was dry. He filled it up and pounded it at 6200 rpm until the floorboards gave up.


My Fiats - a powder-blue 600D, hopped up a bit and insulated for Ontario winters. Then there was a 1100 sedan made in Germany by NSU.  After that a new 850 coupe, sold to me with no compression in one cylinder. Then came a used 5-speed 124 coupe - that I gave to the wreckers. The most unloved was a reliable but boring 128 sedan, but it was mint and might even still be running. I tried a Lancia, but it was a new version, unrelated to Italy except for the rust.


New Fiats I'd rather not have because they have next-to-no Fiat essence. The small ones feel like they're going to fall on their nose. But Alfa Romeo is looking good these days. There are few cars anywhere in the world that look as good as the 146, 156, 166 Alfas.  They still look like Italian cars. They look like VROOM VROOOM!


And here is a collection of Ric’s Fiat 500 shots (Paris, not Rome) -

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Ric says the new Alfa Romeo models (click on Modelli) are cool.  Indeed, they are.  But I caught an older model one winter evening in Paris.  They always were cool.

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Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....