We suffer from a syndrome, Mr. Blue-Shirt and I. It started years ago, although back then the symptoms were almost imperceptible. In fact, it was only in retrospect that we realised what was happening. In the last few years, though, it has got a lot worse and seems ever less responsive to treatment. Indeed, we now fear we might never get better. The syndrome we suffer from is a rare condition that we know as Automotive Tourette’s.
There are several causes, I think. One is that Mr Blue-Shirt has had a lifelong passion for cars. Family legend has it that as little more than a toddler he could identify different makes and models simply by their hubcaps, and among his first words were, allegedly, ‘dwive da car’. So it was no great surprise to anyone that his first career was as an automotive engineer. The other is that our many holidays in Italy have always been of the touring variety, so we have spent many a long day pounding along picturesque autostrade, winding up and down precipitous mountain roads, bumping over miles of dusty tracks (aka strade bianche – white roads, i.e. un-tarmac-ed) and rumbling around the cobbled streets in the centro storico of countless traffic-clogged medieval towns and cities. Which, over the years, has given us plentiful opportunities for getting up close and personal with Italian drivers and Italian cars.
To entertain ourselves on our longer treks we soon took to looking out for those world-famous superstars of Italian motoring – the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourite, the cool, understated Maseratis. We weren’t elitist, mind, so also kept an eye out for distinctly less glamourous yet still faintly exotic Lancias and undeniably handsome Alfa Romeos, which I tend to favour, especially early examples of the Spider. But the car for which we both always reserved our most enthusiastic oohs and ahhs by miles was in fact the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita, and is as indisputably Italian as pasta, prosciutto and prosecco.
Introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 in effect motorised Italy, and in so doing provided a means of both literal and metaphorical escape from war-time deprivation, austerity and joylessness. It was very much conceived as a ‘people’s car’ by its designer, Dante Giacosa, who made sure it was suited to navigating narrow city streets and fitting into the tightest of parking spaces: it was barely 3m long, originally had only two seats, and a tiny 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965 – much to the disappointment of Italian men, apparently, as they could no longer enjoy looking at girls’ legs as they got in and out of the car! Crucially, as well as being practical, the Cinquecento, as it has always been known, was also chic, charming and cheap – the equivalent of about £240 when it was first launched – so it took no time at all for it to win the hearts of Italian drivers. Very nearly four million of these smiley-faced little things had rolled off the assembly line in Turin by the time production ceased in 1975, and in 2007, when it was nominated as La Macchina Più Amanti degli Italiani (Italy’s most beloved car), it was estimated that there were still some 600,00 on the road. And the national affection for the Cinqucento has never waned. It is quite common to see pedestrians smile and wave as one passes and motorists will often toot and give a vigorous thumbs-up to the lucky owner. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some folk even them blew kisses.
It must be something to do with the affinity we seem to have for all things Italian as we have just as much of a soft spot as any Italian for this pocket-sized icon, even though we’ve never so much as sat in one. They’re just so… Well, sweet. And that’s how it all started. Every time one of us saw one on our travels, we would point wildly and squeal ‘Sweet!’ with childlike delight. It didn’t take long for this to acquire a competitive element, too: the first person to spot a Cinquecento – and now positively yell ‘SWEET!” – won a point, with a tally being kept for the day/ week/ duration of the trip. Arguments over who saw which one first, and which ones did or didn’t count were frequent and lively.
Once we knew that we were going to make Italy our home, though, we thought the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles would wear off and that we would lose interest in Cinquecento-spotting. It didn’t. In fact, in some respects it got worse. We continued to play even if there were other people in the car, only managing to preserve a semblance of dignity by playing a silent version of the game that consisted of nudging or even pinching each other whenever we saw one and manically jerking our heads in its direction instead of squawking ‘Sweet!’ But when we moved here we decided that enough really was enough and so agreed to give up Cinquecento-spotting for good. Which lasted about as long as the average New Year’s resolution. In fact, not only did we fail to give up, I actually developed a variation on the game that took account of the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt wasn’t here full time for the first few months and started sending him photographs of sightings – and claiming the points, obviously.
Lately, however, things have really started to get out of hand. So irresistible has the Cinquecento-spotting impulse become that we have started to play this remote version of the game even if one of has just nipped out to the supermarket and caught a sighting. “I got two!” one of us will exclaim breathlessly on returning home and brandish a wonky mobile phone snap at the other. “Look! There was one at the lights in Trodica” – swipe – “… and another one in the car park at Iper!” And there are quality assessments too now. “The one in Trodica was gorgeous: classic buff colour and in terrific condition. But the one at Iper had really been messed about with: horrid metallic paint and tinted windows. Tinted windows! Ghastly!”
So we have finally admitted defeat. A hopeless case with no known cure, it seems. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, we now suspect the syndrome could well be infectious. Over the last few months we have had several sets of friends to stay, with whom we have been quite open about our condition. I think we had a vague idea that acknowledging we had a problem would be our first step on the way to being cured. But I fear this openness may have been an error, for we have noticed several occasions when one of our visitors, on making a sighting, has been heard to utter a slightly self-conscious but barely-suppressed ‘Sweet!’
Friends, you have been warned…