My interest in cars begins and ends at something that gets me from point A to point B with as little trouble as possible. I want dependability, safety, and comfort. I have landed in a country that makes some of the most expensive and impressive cars in the world. The Italian sports car legacy ranks right up there with food, fashion, and art. Maybe higher for some folks (I’m looking at you, Hayden). But the Italian dedication to things that roll is not limited to Ferraris. I’ve been amazed at the types of vehicles that are used here. So, in an effort to fully immerse myself into my adopted country, I’ve developed this little primer on all things wheel-related.
The Vespa. In 1953, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck rode it into everyone’s hearts in Roman Holiday. The scooter used in that movie was actually the second one ever produced back in 1946. As a result of the success of that movie, Piaggio, the company that makes Vespas, sold over 100,000 Vespas the next year. The power of branding. In 2017, that bike was sold at auction for 191,000 euros.
Piaggio started life in 1884 as an outfitter of luxury steamships. They branched out to rail cars, then after WWI started making airplanes. They became one of the largest airplane manufacturers in the world, and found war very profitable. In WWII their importance was illustrated by their plants being destroyed by the Allies. In a twist of fate that can only happen in war, the very Allies who destroyed the plants helped rebuild them after the war to help regenerate Italy’s devastated economy.
The Vespa was born of an idea to produce something small, lightweight, and easy to maneuver around war-ravaged Italy. Upon seeing the design, Enrico Piaggio declared that it looked and sounded like a vespa, which means wasp in Italian. One of the considerations in the design was to make it so that it would be easy for a woman to ride in a dress. Very considerate, I think. It was also designed to protect the rider from dirt and debris from the road, hence the wide front panel.
The Vespa culture is alive and well in Italy today. Anghiari has its own Vespa club and one of the most fun things they do is on Christmas Eve. They all dress like Santa and zoom all over town with their Vespas decorated and converge in the piazza to give out toys to the kids. Read about it here.
Motorcycles and bicycles. Italians love them both and on Sundays they are all out in full force. Motorcycles love the mountain roads, zooming around curves almost horizontally. Bikers like the more gentle hills on narrow country roads. I’m not a biker, motorized or otherwise, but I can imagine that being out on a nice, sunny day with this endless scenery can be intoxicating. Anghiari even has its own annual bike race, the Intrepedia, which is great fun for spectators and bikers alike.
The Ape. I want one of these. The Ape was created in 1948 by Piaggio, the same company that created its cousin, the Vespa. Ape means bee in Italian, so now you could ride both a wasp and a bee. The first Ape was basically a Vespa with a flatbed on the back. They took the back wheel, doubled it, and added a wagon-type platform so that you could haul things. It was marketed to businesses and the company even offered free graphics on the side with your business name written in beautiful script. They referred to it as a motorcycle-van. Again, it was intended as affordable transportation to help the Italian economy recover. It could navigate through tiny Italian streets and even go up and down stairs, to the amazement of bystanders.
The Ape evolved over the years and now includes four and five wheel versions. But they still make the original three wheel version and you see them everywhere. The city uses them for the crews that clean the village. You see nonnas riding them to take their trash to the communal bins. In the tight lanes of the medieval village, they deliver supplies to restaurants and firewood to residents. And a trip down the long, straight road to Sansepolcro wouldn’t be complete without getting behind an Ape buzzing from one field to another.
I can see myself whizzing around in my imaginary Ape, going to the grocery store and throwing my bags in the back. Running my laundry to the lavanderia when I need something dry in a hurry. Or just cruising down country roads at a pace that suits me just fine.
Now we get to the part that almost everyone knows – automobiles.
Fiat. Italy’s car culture started in 1899 when the first Fiat was produced. Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or Fix It Again, Tony, began life in Turin and has been producing cars ever since.
One of the best known models is the 500, or Cinquecento in Italian. First produced in 1957, they were very popular and remained in production until 1975. In 2007, they relaunched the 500 and it’s now popular in both the US and Italy. You still see some of the old ones zipping around today. They are ridiculously small – about nine feet long. Somewhere between a toy and a real car. As a point of reference, the US produced the 1957 Chevy that same year. I can’t imagine two more opposite cars. If cars define a culture, then these two speak volumes about where Italy and the US were in 1957.
In 1980, they started making the Panda, and I can tell you that it was a huge success in this country. Not a day goes by when I don’t see at least one of these vintage cars chugging along. These must be the most dependable cars ever made. They just refuse to die. They’re almost all driven by. . . let’s just say a more mature audience. I imagine that they bought the car new and just hung onto it all these years. Let’s look again at the top selling car in the US in 1980 – the Oldsmobile Cutlass. How many of those do you see driving around today?
Alfa Romeo. Founded in 1910 as Alfa, they produced mostly race cars. Mr. Romeo came on the scene during WWI and steered the company toward producing military vehicles in addition to race cars. In 1941, Mussolini took control of the company and had them make luxury cars for the very rich. Ah, it’s good to be dictator. Today, Alfa Romeo is part of Fiat.
Ferrari. Enzio Ferrari was a race car driver with Alfa in the early 1900s. He founded the Scuderia Ferrari, the Alfa racing car division, in 1929. In 1931, he quit racing and started designing. In 1939, he wanted to start his own company but was contractually prohibited from using the name Ferrari for at least four years. The first car branded Ferrari was produced in 1947. During the 60s, Ferrari became part of Fiat and remained under the Fiat umbrella until 2015, when it became an independent company again. I’m leaving out a lot, but one interesting fact is that the iconic Ferrari logo (which has made quite a bit of money for the company) was taken from a necklace given to Enzio from an army buddy who was killed in action in WWI.
Maserati. Launched in 1926 by five Maserati brothers, Maserati started life as a race car producer. There’s a theme emerging here. They shifted their focus to producing luxury touring cars in the late 50s. Maserati was owned by several entities from the 60s to the 90s, including Citroen and the Italian government. It was purchased by (who else?) Fiat in the 90s and is one of the best selling Italian cars.
Lancia. In a story that will sound very familiar, Vincenzo Lancia was a driver for Fiat’s race team and decided to start his own company. Their first car was produced in 1907 and by 1913 they had changed the landscape of Italian cars with several design innovations. In the late 60s, facing mounting financial problems, they were purchased by Fiat.
Lamborghini. A newcomer to the Italian car legacy, Ferruccio Lamborghini was a tractor manufacturer after WWII. In the 60s, Lamborghini expanded into manufacturing boilers and air conditioning systems. With such business success comes the obligatory conspicuous consumerism we’re all familiar with. Ferruccio acquired quite an impressive fleet of luxury cars over the years and was inspired to jump into the car business after purchasing a Ferrari, which he deemed too noisy and rough. The first Lamborghini debuted in 1963 and today are known as some of the best sports cars in the world. Lamborghini was never owned by Fiat, but was owned for a time by Chrysler. Today they are part of Volkswagen.
I can’t end this post without an update on our own car situation. We are leasing a car until we decide what we want to do when we grow up and through this arrangement we landed with a 15 year old Fiat Punto. It’s the car I re-learned to drive a stick shift on (more details here) and while I do have certain sentimental feelings for it, it was not a great car. It was two door, most of the controls didn’t work, no lights inside, and it broke down on a trip. Steve negotiated a new deal with the car dealer and now we have a Peugeot 208, which is only four years old, has four doors, everything works, and so far has proven mechanically sound. One thing I’ve learned about stick shifts is that they are not all created equal. While I had mastered the Punto, the Peugeot is very different and I find that when I drive it, I miss the little Punto and its easy shifting. But since I rarely drive, I much prefer the more comfortable Peugeot from a passenger’s perspective.
I doubt I ever experience driving one of these luxury Italian cars, or even an Ape, for that matter. But at least now I know a little more about those sleek cars that whiz past me on the highway. Wheels are important to this culture, and not just as a means of getting where you’re going. They represent a form of art and a manifestation of innovation. They helped to pull this country out of a post war devastation and became the symbol of luxury and affluence. This history of innovation and design, sometimes born out of necessity, sometimes out of destruction, represent one of things this country is known for – renaissance.
I still like the utilitarian Ape best. After all, you can’t really go 200 mph on the highway, but you can putt-putt your way to the market.