We’ve been suffering from a syndrome for several years now, Mr. Blue-Shirt and I. It started almost imperceptibly, and it was really only in retrospect that we realised what was happening. Over time, though, it has got worse and we now fear we might never get better. The syndrome we suffer from might best be described as a kind of Automotive Tourette’s.
The main cause, I think, is Mr Blue-Shirt’s lifelong passion for cars and subsequent career in the army as an automotive engineer. So ever since our first trip to Italy over three decades ago, he has always kept a keen eye out for the world-famous superstars of Italian motoring, the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and a long-time favourite of Mr Blue-Shirt, the cool, understated Maseratis. And as a way of passing time on long journeys, I very soon joined in this motoring version of I-spy. But the car for which we both ended up reserving our most enthusiastic responses was the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita; the one that 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, 18 horsepower, 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965. Crucially, as well as being practical, the Topolino, as it was popularly 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. Almost 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.
Over the intervening years, the national affection for the Cinquino, as it also became known, 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. And we share their fondness for these tiny classics; they’re just so… well, sweet. So 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 excitement. It didn’t take long for this to acquire a competitive element, too: the first person to yell ‘SWEET!’ won a point, with an often hotly disputed tally being kept for the day/ week/ duration of the trip.
Even once we had moved here, the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles didn’t wear off; quite the opposite in fact. During the four months I was living here on my own, I developed a remote version of the game whereby I would send Mr Blue-Shirt photographs of sightings. Then, for when there were other people in the car, came the silent version that consists of poking one other in the ribs whenever we glimpsed one and manically jerking our heads in its direction. Finally came the single-player version which allows us to claim sightings even when on our own, although photographic evidence is considered desirable for such sightings to count.
So it was against this backdrop that on Sunday we attended the first post-pandemic Annual Classic Fiat 500 Meet in Civitanova Marche. I had almost literally bumped into part of this event back in 2019 while I was running down at the coast and I had to wait for a stream of Cinquini to roar past before I could cross the road from the harbour back onto the seafront, their horns blaring and their drivers waving to the pedestrians enjoying their Sunday morning strolls. I didn’t really know what the event was, but I made a mental note of the date so I could look out for publicity for the event the next time it was run– although I didn’t realise back then, of course, that we would end up having to wait three years, not just one.
As we entered the bottom of the main square, it didn’t look as if much was going on at first. The small, formal park at that end was as peaceful as ever; its palm-shaded benches were mostly unoccupied and its neat pathways were empty but for a few inline skaters lazily weaving along. But as we left the park, we could see that the upper end of the large, cobbled square was jam-packed with row upon row of Topolini – some 200 in all, we calculated – all freshly washed and polished as if dressed in their Sunday best, their chrome bumpers and door handles gleaming in the hazy sunshine. We joined the clusters of enthusiasts wandering among them, peering in through their windows, admiring this or that feature and chatting with their proud owners. There were a handful of early models with their subdued pastel paintwork and pale interiors, some even with suicide doors; there were the highly-tuned rally versions with their lowered suspension and flared wheel arches; and then there were the hippy ones with their tinted windows and psychedelic, two-tone colours. But most of all, there were simply the well-used and lovingly-restored ones looking as good as they had when they rolled off the production line, still in their factory colours, with their factory interiors and factory accessories.
After about half an hour’s wandering among all these gorgeous Cinquini, we felt some kind of ripple pass through the crowd. As if at an unseen signal, the owners swiftly concluded their conversations, climbed into their cars and started their engines while everyone else moved to the corner of the square where it joins the road that runs round it. A single Cinquino on its own doesn’t make much noise, but the sound of 200 of them, all revving their engines as if they were on the grid at Imola, was pretty impressive. A couple of police bikes swept into position to keep the exit lane clear, and suddenly, after another invisible signal, they were off! One after another, the little cars roared off the square, round the corner and down towards the road that runs along the seafront, their drivers sounding their horns and gleefully waving to all the pedestrians who had stopped to watch the spectacle, while their passengers flourished Italian flags through the cars’ open sun rooves. Then in little more than five minutes the square was empty once more – but we could still hear all the cars in the distance, still hooting wildly and tearing around the town like a litter of boisterous puppies. So we walked back through the park and towards the beach, hoping to catch them on their way from down by the stadium and up to the harbour before they headed off up into the hills for the rest of their get-together. And sure enough, by the time we got there, the procession was already roaring along the seafront, which, much like the town centre, had almost come to a halt as practically everyone stopped to watch, wave, smile and take a couple of photos. In fact, I swear there were some in the crowd with the Italian version of our syndrome judging by the number of times I heard people exclaim “che carini!” But suddenly, the little topolini had all gone, disappearing in a faint cloud of exhaust fumes, and the excitement was all over for another year.
Next year, though, we could well be taking part in the procession, not just watching it…