I took the car in for servicing the other day. It’s starting to get hot, and the air-conditioning wasn’t pumping out cold air. The Renault needed an oil change, and as the mechanic looked it over, he told me that I should pop for new front brake pads, too. None of this is very exciting, I’ll admit, nor is it a particularly Italian experience.
But the service center is part of a dealership that sells not only new Volkswagens and Nissan, but trades in some exotic and a lot of expensive vehicles like Range Rovers and Maseratis. And the service center itself is really something. There’s a showroom in front that features some of the more exotic vehicles they’ve got. It seems like they stick to a theme when they can, and today’s four cars in the room were all Alfa Romeos of various vintages, including a gorgeous 2600 GT from the 1960s, a more modern Brera and a 75 Turbo from the ’80s, which I think was fairly successful in rallyes.
All of this made me think about my relationship to cars and driving, and to Italian and American car culture. I grew up in an outer borough of New York City, where public transportation frankly sucked (and still does). Drivers’ ed and getting a car were rites of passage that were huge in Staten Island, just like in suburbs and rural places everywhere.
My first car was something I bought with my parent’s help (cue cliché) was a Fiat 128, bright red, stick shift, tiny but rev-happy engine. It hardly had any power, especially by today’s standards, but it was a blast to drive. They say that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast one slow, and I believe it. Staten Island has lots of curvy hill roads and traffic wasn’t much back then, so when I needed to blow off steam I’d charge around the hillsides, revving the 1100 cc engine to an inch of its life. (I went too far once gunning it onto a highway, breaking the timing belt, which sent a couple of valves into and fusing with pistons. Oh, and it warped the cylinder head. Oops.)
The Spartan Woman had a Fiat, too. In fact, I was really interested in a girl who knew how to drive a stick shift, had a car with a twin-cam engine, and who knew how to change her own oil.
All of this sounds like fun, but even as I thundered around banked curves, I felt guilty. The left side of my brain, te more rational, politically aware one, knew I was polluting the planet. I hated what cars did to cities and the ‘burbs. I knew that Robert Moses, who got chauffeured around in a huge Packard, loved cars and back then, and the relatively affluent people who drove them. And he hated subways and the peons who rode buses and trains. The car can directly be blamed for those wide boulevards of nowhere, with the same chain stores, gas stations, and restaurants, not to mention the emptying out of cities around the U.S. I went to Cleveland a few years ago and I was shocked to see so many big parking lots right downtown.
Besides, driving in and around New York had become a drag. We always like small, zippy cars with manual transmissions, going from the Fiats to a pair of Mitsubishis, to Honda Civics. When we got had two kids and a Labrador retriever, we bought a Volkswagen Passat wagon and traveled around the Northeast and the province of Québec, Lab in back and a Thule box on top. At the same time, Americans were going for ugly, boxy, huge SUVs and pickups. C’mon people, do you need to drive to the mall in a Ford F150? Gimme a break.
By then I was renting cars on our Italian vacations. What fun. No, really. Once out of the cities, it’s a breeze, especially in a responsive European car, rowing the gears, downshifting around turns. (One daughter, however, was not thrilled. Prone to carsickness, we’d have to stop by the side of the road while she, um, righted herself.)
Here’s the thing, though. At first rentals were Italian cars: Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo. These marques were under the rule of Fiat and the Agnelli family. The company was a source of pride to Italians—and also a target for left wing critics. It is not by accident that this country has some of the best highways in the world, but also for years did not invest enough in modern public transportation. Still, these companies made sports cars, tiny city cars, family haulers, elegant luxury models—the whole gamut. But if you look now, Fiat’s reduced to a few small to slightly larger cars and crossovers. Alfa is two models, a beautiful sedan and an SUV. Poor Lancia, star of the movie Il Sorpasso, is now one weird little model based on the tiny 500.
Now Fiat, like the Chrysler it took over a decade ago, is part of this oddly named multinational called Stellantis. Basically, Peugeot, the historic French carmaker, fused with Fiat-Chrysler to become this hydra-headed tri-national, based in Paris, Torino, and Detroit. And instead of Alfas or Lancias closing in on me in the left lane, I see Audis. Black Audis, mainly, which seem to have become the favored car of Italian asshole drivers.
This reduced Italian-ness, for want of a better term, seems to be a symbol of Italian life today, from the postwar miracle to the Italian-speaking province of Eurolandia. I like living in Eurolandia—it’s superficially more prosperous, modern, global, etc. But at the same time you can’t help feeling that something’s been lost. And that sense of loss is what fuels populist movements and political parties. People like to feel that they’re part of something. Being a consumer of the world’s goods doesn’t cut it for a lot of people—and the left, both the angry old commies and the new hipsters, haven’t yet offered enough of an alternative to those disoriented and saddened by this homogenization.