The AACA Museum Hosts “Amore della Strada” Opening Reception

On the evening of November 18, 2016, the AACA Museum in Hershey PA officially opened its “Amore della Strada” Italian machinery exhibit with a reception at the museum. The public was invited to attend, and turnout was large, making for crowded aisles. The doors opened at 6pm, and your $20 admission included antipasti, beer, and wine. Those who owned cars on display were admitted “gratuito”.

Italian cars come in colors other that red!
Italian cars come in colors other than red!

There were approximately 20 Italian cars, and perhaps a dozen or so Italian motorcycles. The museum is arranged in such a way that there was no practical way for the curators to place all the special exhibits together. Therefore, they were arranged in smaller groups of 2, 3, 4, or more, and placards with each vehicle provided sufficient history regarding the make and model. Owners who were loaning their wares for the five-month duration of the show were dutifully acknowledged. (Last week’s blog entry covered this author’s drive to deliver his ’67 Alfa Romeo GT 1300 Junior to the exhibit.)

Fiat, Alfa, and Christmas tree
Fiat, Alfa, and Christmas tree

Fiats and Alfa Romeos seemed to comprise the bulk of the vehicle displays, and some might agree with me that it was a refreshing change of pace for an “Italian Car Show” to NOT be dominated by late-model supercars from the Big 3 of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati. (Of these three makes, I counted only two Ferraris.)

 

Ferrari 308GTB shares floor space with modified Fiat 124 Spider
Ferrari 308GTB shares floor space with modified Fiat 124 Spider

Among the Fiats, we saw three 124 Spiders, two X1/9s, and an 850 Spider. The X1/9s were a study in contrasts, as the bright green one was a first year example wearing the original bumper-less design, while the white one from 1987 wore no Fiat badges at all, as it was manufactured and sold by Bertone, and badged as such, since Fiat left the U.S. market after 1982. The only Italian prewar car on the floor was a delightful 1937 Fiat Topolino (Little Mouse).

Adorable 1937 Fiat Topolino (owned by AACA Museum)
Adorable 1937 Fiat Topolino (owned by AACA Museum)

 

1974 Fiat X1/9 - note lack of battering ram bumpers
1974 Fiat X1/9 – note lack of battering ram bumpers

 

1987 Bertone X1/9, one of the last of the breed
1987 Bertone X1/9, one of the last of the breed

 

Nose of '87 X1/9 wears this in place of Fiat badge
Nose of ’87 X1/9 wears this in place of Fiat badge

 

 

Fiat 850 Spider
Fiat 850 Spider

The four Alfa Romeos included two Giulia coupes, one early step-nose and one 2nd generation design, a rare Montreal Coupe (with a factory V8), and the last Alfa sold in the U.S. market (until Sergio’s recent resurgence), the large front-wheel-drive 164 sedan.

 

 

Owners Ed and Shayna Geller with their stunning Alfa Montreal
Owners Ed and Shayna Geller with their stunning Alfa Montreal

 

Alfa GTV in red, Alfa 164 in black
Alfa GTV in red, Alfa 164 in black. Snake eats man; it’s part of the Alfa legend.

 

Yes, there were speeches too
Yes, there were speeches too

The show included vehicles that required an explanation how they passed the entrance exam, as two of them had big American V8 engines, and one had a British 4-cylinder lump. The DeTomaso Longchamp and Italia Omega are vehicles belonging to a class long known as ‘hybrids’ (decades before that term was used to describe a gas/electric vehicle).

Most car aficionados have heard of the DeTomaso Pantera, sold here by Lincoln-Mercury dealers in the early 1970s. The Longchamp is the squared-off, four-seat sister to the Pantera. The one on display featured a Ford 351 Cleveland engine mated to a 3-speed automatic. I’ve seen many a photo of Longchamps, and this was the first one I’ve ever seen in the metal.

The car labeled as a 1967 Italia Omega is more familiarly known to me as an Intermeccanica Italia. Based on my reading of the car’s placard, the history of this car company is convoluted at best. (Indeed, none of the several import-based compilation books in my library make any mention at all of this company.) The vehicle in the museum was an attractive convertible, using a front-mounted Ford 302 V8 paired with a 4-speed manual transmission.

The 1961 Triumph Italia on display is one of 329 built. While the design is certainly in the Italian mold, the sheetmetal hides what is essentially the drivetrain and chassis of a stock Triumph TR-3.  One of the outstanding features of the Italia is that it is the handiwork of a young Giovanni Michelotti, who would later pen the restyle of the TR-4 into the TR-6.

1961 Triumph Italia, with TR-3 mechanicals
1961 Triumph Italia, with TR-3 mechanicals

Scan through the photos below for shots of other vehicles which were on display. (And as always, click on any of the photos to enlarge them.)

Among the motorcycles, which are not my primary interest, I could not help but be drawn to the 1958 Iso Moto, built by the same company that originally designed the Iso Isetta. Like the Longchamp, it was a first for me to actually see one of these in person.

The “Amore della Strada” exhibit runs through April 22, 2017. There’s plenty to see at the Museum besides the Italian stuff. If you’ve never made the trip, this is a good excuse to do so. If you have, the Italian cars are a nice addition to what you may have seen before.

 

1960 Fiat Autobianchi
1960 Fiat Autobianchi

 

1954 S.I.A.T.A, with Fiat 8V engine
1954 S.I.A.T.A, with Fiat 8V engine

 

1957 Vespa 400, designed in Italy but built in France
1957 Vespa 400, designed in Italy but built in France

 

1971 O.T.A.S. 820 Grand Prix, built on Fiat 850 chassis
1971 O.T.A.S. 820 Grand Prix, built on Fiat 850 chassis

 

This 1954 Fiat 1100 wears custom sheetmetal reminiscent of the Alfa BAT cars
This 1954 Fiat 1100 wears custom bodywork reminiscent of the Alfa B.A.T. cars

 

Unlike the cars, the bikes fit into one room
Unlike the cars, the bikes fit into one room

 

Yes, it's an ISO; same parent company as the Isetta and the Griffo
Yes, it’s an ISO; same parent company as the Isetta and the Griffo

 

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The 1970 Fiat 124 Sport Coupe

The post about my family’s 1966 Buick Sport Wagon ends with the statement that I sold the wagon in order to purchase a Fiat. This is the story of that Fiat. My “first car”, the Mustang, was mine to drive, but it belonged to my father. The Buick was registered in my name, but I bought it from my mother and had given her a token sum for it. Up until this point, I had yet to go out and purchase a car on my own. That changed in 1974.

 

First, some background on what led to this. In 1973, I was nineteen, and having withdrawn (temporarily) from college, was working full-time in a clerical position for an insurance company in downtown Manhattan. The Buick, while a reliable beast, was also very thirsty. In my earlier post, I stated that local driving returned 8 mpg. Highway driving did not do much to improve on that figure.

 

In late 1973, the U.S., indeed the world, was struck by the first oil embargo, sharply driving the price of gasoline upward, while at the same time, severely limiting supplies. My full-time salary of $110/week was being stretched by the suddenly more expensive fill-ups. Besides, I really wanted to ditch the wagon and get a sports car, and had always been attracted to the looks of the Fiat 124 coupe, first introduced to this market in 1968. Scanning the classifieds for several weeks with no luck, I noticed there was one parked on the street about two miles from my house with a For Sale sign on it.

 

It was February of 1974. I called the number on the placard, and the seller agreed to show me the car. My friend Vinny came along. We looked at the car. It looked OK to me. I had no idea what I was looking at! My mind was made up before the owner showed it to me. His ask was $1700. There was no negotiation. I had the money, gave it to him, he signed it over, handed me the key, and wished me luck.

My Valentine's present to myself
My Valentine’s present to myself

The Fiat, of course, was a stick shift, a 5-speed, when my two best friends, one driving a VW Beetle, the other a Toyota Corolla, were both rowing 4-speeds. There was just one small problem in getting this thing home: I did not know how to drive a manual transmission car. Oh, I knew the theory of driving one. However, I had never actually put the theory in practice. (Typing this 42 years later makes me realize that I did not test drive my own used car purchase.) Vinny had dropped me off and went on his merry way, so I was alone. I started the car, put it into gear, and was thankful it was just two miles home. Somehow, after stalling only 10-12 times, I made it. Breathing a sigh of relief, I coasted into the driveway, turned it off, and went inside.

Yes, it weighed 1,648 lb.
Yes, it weighed 1,648 lb.

First call was to my best friend Richard Sawler, whom I sheepishly asked to give me lessons. We went out together, me driving, he riding shotgun. Richard would instruct me on the finer points of shifting. He worked the parking brake whenever I had to stop on an incline. After about a week, enough confidence was gained to venture out solo.

 

Acquaintances presume that my automotive mechanical knowledge came from working at car dealerships, which began in 1978. That is not exactly true. It really started with the purchase of this Fiat. The car was an absolute joy to drive, and I drove it a lot. However, “something” happened to that car about once every other week. There was no way I could afford to pay someone to fix the car that frequently (see weekly salary quoted above). Soon after the purchase, I was at my local Sears, buying my first set of metric tools, a set of 1/2” drive sockets which I still own (Dad had nothing metric). I also obtained a Haynes Workshop Manual for the car, which I read on the ferry as I commuted to and from my insurance company job.

Kept the book in case I get another...
Kept the book in case I get another…

Small jobs I could do, and I started small, doing the brakes, a tune-up, and a coolant flush. But a U-joint went, then the exhaust, and I needed someone to make those repairs for me. On Staten Island, two brothers had opened a “foreign car only” repair shop. The name of the business was “Brothers”. By the summer of 1974, we were on a first-name basis with each other. To be fair, they were great guys, and were very fair to me, realizing that I couldn’t afford to take care of every single thing that poor piece of Italian transportation needed.

Brothers they were. I was there so much I considered getting a part-time job with them.
Brothers they were. I was there so much I considered getting a part-time job with them.

 

Frequent repairs or not, the Fiat was taking me all over the place. In March, a friend and I used the car to make a successful round trip to Buffalo, NY, the farthest I had driven from home in my life. Its cavernous back seat could hold my drum set, so the Fiat was the car driven to all my music gigs. Vinny was so impressed, he traded the Corolla for a new 124 Coupe. My car had about 57,000 miles on it at the time of my purchase. Within the first six months, I had driven it about 8,000 miles.

March, 1974, unwashed but safely back from Buffalo
March, 1974, unwashed but safely back from Buffalo

Then the timing belt broke.

 

On a warm summer August evening, heading back from Brooklyn to Staten Island via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, I paid the toll on the S.I. side, accelerated out of the toll booth, aimed for the Bay St. exit on my right, and the car died. It cranked just fine, but made no attempt to catch. Finding a phone booth, I called my dad, and somebody called a tow truck. The car was brought to Todd Motors, Staten Island’s only Fiat (and coincidentally, only Volvo) dealer.

 

They called me with the bad news. All I heard was a litany of parts: head gasket, valves, pistons, rods, etc. They said the job would take a while, perhaps a week. In a matter of days, I was heading back to college. Being without transportation was torture. But the real torture was seeing that repair bill. At the age of 20, I wasn’t exactly floating in spare cash; $345! Were they kidding? Look at this Repair Order: Nine hours of labor at $16/hour! Four exhaust valves at $8 a piece! A SIX DOLLAR head gasket, for cryin’ out loud! Did they think I owned Fort Knox?

At the time, highway robbery. In retrospect, quite fair.
At the time, highway robbery. In retrospect, quite fair.

This is all quite funny now. We have become accustomed to labor rates close to 10 times this figure. Somehow, I found the money, paid the dealer, and picked up my car. The good news was that it ran well. Yet, the car continued to penny-pinch me. The brake master cylinder went (for which I bought a rebuild kit, and rebuilt it in my dorm room). A carburetor screw fell out, and the car would not idle. A steering tie rod went bad. The Fiat got me through my sophomore year of college.

NYC phone nos. still used 2-letter exchanges, and area code was not needed (all 212)
NYC phone nos. still used 2-letter exchanges, and area code was not needed (all 212)

Returning home from college for the summer of ’76, the rust was getting worse, with an actual hole in the left front fender, large enough to see through. When the water pump quit that summer, I felt defeated. The fun-to-drive aspect never went away, and my technical skills were improving, but I could no longer count on the car to get me around. The Fiat, at 6 years of age, its cancerous rust eating away at all four corners, was sold to Stuckers, the well-known foreign-car junkyard on Staten Island. It had been mine for the last two-and-a-half years and 40,000 miles of its life.

Stuckers was a great source for parts, and the car's final resting place
Stuckers was a great source for parts, and the car’s final resting place

As time went on, I only remembered the good things about the Fiat, never dwelling on the breakdowns or repair costs. At my father’s urging, the next car was an American make, but after that came a succession of German cars, then a career in the car business with a Swedish auto maker (and many Swedish cars in the driveway). It would be 37 years before another Italian car entered my life. While that car is my delightful Alfa, it has not stopped me from thinking that someday, I’ll find room for another Fiat. I remain that impressed by the little coupe’s capabilities.

Richard Sawler (L) and Vinny Signoriello (R) prove that rust has yet to permeate door sills. Good times, good memories.
Richard Sawler (L) and Vinny Signoriello (R) prove that rust has yet to permeate door sills. Good times, good memories.

 

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.