Lower than a Tory politician’s poll ratings; lower than the UK’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest; lower than a snake’s belly. That’s pretty much where our spirits have been since the burglary, and what with the uncharacteristically cool, wet and windy weather of late, gloom has reigned. So when someone finally switched the summer on, a run down at the beach was just the tonic I needed. However, what really put a smile back on my face was not the irresistible combination of dazzling sunshine and sparkling sea. It was bumping into this year’s Festa del Cinquino – the Fiat 500 Owners’ Club’s annual get-together – just as the fifty or more exhibitors moved off from the main square for their parade lap of the town centre, sea front and port. A tour that effectively brought the place to a halt as practically the whole town stopped to watch, wave, cheer, toot and take photos. So here is a reminder from last October of why this sight did so much to lift my mood…
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 Mr Blue-Shirt’s 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 our many touring holidays in Italy that have involved many a long day pounding along picturesque autostrade, winding up and down precipitous mountain roads, bumping over miles of dusty tracks 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. 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 quickly won 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 Cinquecento 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. 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. In fact, we now 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 at a time when life has had a distinctly bitter taste, coming across some fifty of these cheery little symbols of La Dolce Vita all in their highly-polished Sunday best has – for the time being, at least – made life once more taste… well, SWEET!