Jay's charming vintage Fiats embody the romance and practicality of the brand. He's excited to see what Fiat will bring Stateside since its merger with Chrysler earlier this year.
Fiat is returning to America, and I’m glad. The merger of Fiat and Chrysler will elevate the Italian brand in this country and create some great cars. Fiat is known in Europe for small, fun, fuel-efficient vehicles—cars Chrysler just does not build.
I own two classic Fiats, a 1937 Topolino coupe, with a tiny 569-cc 13.5-hp four-cylinder, and a 1959 Millecento sedan with an 1100-cc 43-hp engine. In America, that sedan would have been the equivalent of a Ford Fairlane or a low-end Galaxie in terms of its stature in the automotive landscape.
If you were a reasonably successful Italian family man in 1959, the Millecento was the car you would buy; it had four doors, a four-speed shifter on the column, a radio and even a two-speed heater. Oh my God, the options go on and on! Fiat has always been an innovative company.
Fiat introduced the Topolino (little mouse) in 1936—and ultimately sold half a million of them. That Topolino was really the first “people’s car.” The Volkswagen Beetle didn’t come out until after the war. The car has brilliant packaging. It’s tiny, yet there’s so much headroom that someone 6 feet tall wearing a top hat could sit inside. It’s one of the few cars in which the generator is bigger than the engine. The radiator is behind the motor so the grille could be made more aerodynamic; you’d never see that on an American car. The Topolino was not powerful. Its top speed was only 53 mph, but it could carry a small family, and I can get close to 50 mpg in my car. Here’s the best part: How many car engines can you remove, bring inside the house, put in your kitchen sink and clean? The Topolino is like a big toy, and it has a sense of style that the VW Beetle never had.
So much about the way a car works has to do with where it’s from. Italian cars, especially Fiats and Alfa Romeos, were built to run in a warm climate. It’s no surprise that the oil passages tend to be small, because the oil used is so thin. But in freezing New England, you’d get into your Fiat or Alfa, turn the key and the car would moan whhrrrrrmmmm, whhrrrrrmmmm. And you’d have to press the throttle halfway down three or four times to warm up the car because you’re forcing heavy, thick oil through tiny passages. This slow-flowing oil tended to starve the bearings, and a lot of engines in these cars seized prematurely. The trick to owning an Italian car, or any older European car, is to start it, wait 2 minutes, or until the gauges move off their stops, then go.
In Europe, if you owned a car in the ’50s and ’60s, you were considered a major success. Consequently, you treated your automobile the way you treated your home; it was treasured and taken care of. Whereas in America, at that time, we could buy used cars that actually ran for about 50 bucks. Our cars tended to be a little overbuilt and a lot more durable. We didn’t have a “liter tax” on engine size, and we didn’t have high gas prices. Our cars had big, heavy, slow-revving (really slow-revving) engines that would last forever—or at least 100,000 miles.
European cars were high-revving, and they didn’t spend all day on the freeway. If you had told someone in 1959 that a Fiat could run 75 mph for 5 hours straight, all the way from L.A. to Vegas, forget it—they wouldn’t have believed you. The thing would implode. It just wasn’t built for the American market, and Fiat sold cars here without Americanizing them. In that sense, they were not very good cars.
In the ’50s and ’60s, anything built outside our borders was considered suspect and of poor quality. Fiat used low-grade steel, which led to severe rusting. And it didn’t have particularly good customer service. A lot of my friends had Fiat 124s from the late ’60s and early ’70s. I thought they were fantastic cars for the money—but you had to know someone who knew how to fix them. You had Americans working on them with American wrenches, trying to put an American thread bolt in a metric hole—and then it leaked oil. Why is thaaat?
People over the age of 55 hear the name Fiat and think, “Fix It Again Tony.” Younger people have never heard that phrase. The younger generations tend to look to Europe and Japan for quality products. So I think enough time has passed, and people don’t have those negative associations with Fiat anymore. When I was a kid, my dad called a Fiat or a Mercedes-Benz “those foreign jobs.” He’d say: “You can’t get parts for that. It’s a foreign job. You need an Italian mechanic.” Till the day he died, my father thought Japanese brands like Honda and Sony were like the little bamboo umbrellas that come in your drink. To him, those countries had lost the war, and they made crummy products. Eventually, that generation moved on.
In the near future, I think we’ll see boutique Fiat dealerships. If you want to buy a new Fiat 500, you’ll go to a cute little store and buy the cool jacket and the hat, and even the little espresso machine. Some people say the last thing we need is a new nameplate, but we’ve been losing brands since 1912. Everybody laments the passing of Pontiac and Oldsmobile, but when I was a kid, it was DeSoto, then Nash, Rambler, Studebaker and Hudson. We lost more brands in the early ’60s than we have now.
So I wish ’em luck. Competition is good. The Corvette ZR1 wouldn’t be around if it hadn’t been for the Viper. (“Hey, it’s got 500 horsepower, that’s enough, right?”) The more players, the better the game. If the Red Sox played the Yankees every year, it would get pretty boring.
By Jay Leno
Via Popular Mechanics