Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tuscan Bean Soup

                                         The new Fiat 500, 2007
                                         1959 Fiat Abarth Zagato
Consider the white canneloni bean, and its unexpected grand moment when it stars in Tuscan bean soup.  The genius of north-central Italian cuisine is to raise a modest number of humble ingredients to new sensory heights with thoughtful combination and exactly the right spices.
The cute Fiat Cinquecento (500), produced en masse from 1957 to 1975, was the kidney bean of cars:  utilitarian, inexpensive, adaptable; but since it was from the smoky industrial center of Torino, it had no spice and zero street cred.  The Renaults, Yugos and Fiats disappeared from the American market for very good reasons (the Citroen, too advanced and too weird for its time, did not die out because of any similar lack of quality and safety).  Yet, for a year to so, a Fiat Frankenstein lent a little color, not to mention a lot of blue exhaust, to our otherwise dull suburban enclave in the far western reaches of Richmond.  Even in the desert, a flower blooms once in a while.
Around the corner and up a block, my friend Bob Freeman was the only child of well-educated, slightly eccentric parents.  He was born in Rome (!), since his father was in the Immigration Service and did a lot of good work helping resettle refugees after WWII.  He could identify exactly where someone came from by their last name or accent; I thought that was a pretty unique skill. They also, like one other adult couple I knew of, had a library.  The family next door to them had a classic ketch (small yacht) and an impossibly gleaming black Steinway grand, so maybe the desert had more flowers than I thought.
Bob liked things I did, with great enthusiasm:  Bob Dylan, New Directions avant garde paperbacks, the two cuties in the Steinway house,  We weren't snobs, either; we liked 'em all if they had personality, Chevys or Jaguars or Corvairs.  His parents eventually gave in to his pleading to acquire something more interesting than the utilitarian sedans they got every three years or so from the tiny Chevrolet dealer way out in Crozet (I went along a few times), so first they got a Renault Dauphine for him with windows so cheap they mostly didn't work after six months, and a three-speed stick on the floor.  Thus began Bob's long and surprisingly lucky career flipping cars over.
The deadman's curve where Quiocassin turns into Gaskins destroyed the tin Renault after the second flip.  His wonderful 'rents then got a burgundy Corvair Monza with a FOUR-speed floor shift and a sexy black pleated fake leather interior.  One hundred and twenty horsepower and faulty weight distribution = another 360-degree spin and into the ditch at deadman's curve. Minor repairs to Bob at the emergency room, a short time-out on the driving, and then, damned if he didn't call me to come see his 1959 Fiat Abarth 750 pocket rocket (he paid for this one himself).  Already staining the driveway with oil and other fluids, there it was in its gleaming silver aluminum body, the craziest and most, uh, unusual Class H slalom racer anywhere.  Others in the Virginia Motor Sports Club (which we quickly joined) were always excited to see it, turning away from the suddenly mundane Austin-Healy Sprites and MG Midgets, frankly amazed it was running (it was built on a Fiat, after all).  My 1958 Mercedes 180 with its fierce Lucas foglights was mostly ignored, but what it lacked in performance (everything) it made up for in adorability.
A little background, since people have heard of and seen the products of better-known racing/tuning shops, like AMG, Shelby and the BMW M series:  Carlo Abarth (a Scorpio, thus the cool scorpion logo) allied his fortunes with Fiat a few years after starting his company, producing what he called "small, but wicked" racers along with his renowned exhaust systems.  It was acquired by Fiat, morphed into its racing division, and then for the past couple of decades has been mostly just a name with cachet.
I have no idea where Bob found it in the mid-60s, as there were very few Abarths around in the U.S.; only 600 of the 1959 - 1960 Zagato750's were made, and they were useless for transportation.  Our houses had no garages, so he worked on it -- endlessly -- in the driveway, sometimes under a tarp in the rain.  When ready, he drove it up at the Puddleduck raceway north of Richmond and had a ball leaving the Sprites in his dust and smoke.  It didn't always make it back home on its own, but glory and a few quite small trophies did.
Flip #4 came late one night in the Willow Lawn parking lot, where Bob was practicing his chicanes.  Miss Abarth was in peak condition and I guess her driver got a little overenthusiastic.  I was across the street at the radio station, and after signing off at midnight, came out to see the police and ambulance lights flashing, surrounding the fleet silver bug.  She was greasy side up, but went out the way she was destined to, the diva.
Bob's accident #5 occurred in Aix-en-Provence, France, on a mobylette in a medieval alleyway, but that's a whole other story.  Like several of my friends, he was lucky enough to enlist in the Coast Guard; he went off to the Chicago area to defend Lake Michigan and we lost contact.
With the retro trend still strong, the Fiat Abarth has been born again along with the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper.  Based on the new regular 500 reintroduced in 2007, it is "wicked" again, in red and black with 160 turbocharged horsepower, racing suspension and brakes.  It's no 750 Zagato, but that's probably wise.
Wherever he is, I suspect Bob's on the waiting list for a shiny new Abarth.  If you own a shopping center, I'm warning you now.

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