When last we were together in this space, I was waxing poetic about a nearly 12-year-old dirt colored Volvo. It was the final piece in an automotive genealogy of my driving life. A few of those in the know felt as though the story had one notable omission.
It did and it was intentional.
There was one car in my life that deserved its own story. I’ll try to keep it short but, given that I had that car for a time period that spanned nearly five years before what I called my “first” car to two years after I bought the one I just replaced, well, it’s kind of a long story. And, for the record, the car in question is a year older than I am.
It also relates more or less directly to the car I bought just a few weeks ago. That car is the first truly new car I’ve ever had. I literally bought it off the showroom floor.
It started in 1987, not long after my family and I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. During the time we lived there, everything was dirt-cheap. We’re not talking about “Walmart cheap” as much as we are “how can they even sell this for so little” cheap. We’re talking about going out for a steak dinner for three adults, two kids, and one adolescent with a voraciously bottomless appetite. We’re talking about steaks and fries and salads and cokes and, yes, wine. We’re talking about Argentine steaks and wine too. This is good stuff. And we’re talking about all of that costing about the equivalent of twenty dollars. Not each, either, but twenty bucks for the whole table.
Not surprisingly we were a group spending like drunken American sailors (or is the idiom swearing like a drunken sailor? Either way, drunken sailors are apparently up to no good.) There were shopping sprees to buy paintings and sculptures and leather goods of all ilk. I had no fewer than three custom-made leather jackets (it was the 80’s, please remember.) In fact, getting things custom made was not-at-all out of the ordinary. We had a most enormous white leather sectional custom made along with a dozen wood and upholstered dining room chairs. We had pets like you wouldn’t believe: parrots, parakeets, turtles, owls, rabbits, fish, and one very outnumbered dog. I regularly went for a walk in the nearby shopping district and came back with any number of sundry items from books to houseplants. Conspicuous consumption indeed.
All of these were small ticket items, to be sure. There were the occasional bigger expenses as well. Intra-country travel was cheap. We flew to cities like Salta, Bahia Blanca, Puerto Madryn, and Bariloche. When there we stayed in nice hotels, ate in nice restaurants, and chartered private tours. Eventually it simply became ingrained in you that you, the family of American oil company executive, could pretty much afford anything.
Another thing about living in Argentina is that everything was simply so foreign. I was sixteen when we moved there and the only other foreign countries I had been to were Canada and the Bahamas. I don’t know if you’ve been but a sojourn in Canada between Niagara Falls and Detroit hardly requires a pocket translator. Nassau isn’t as similar to Timbuktu as you may guess.
To me, everything in Argentina looked different. The buildings and houses looked nothing like any I had ever seen. People’s homes had no front yards – none. There were walls with spikes everywhere or (for the frugal or artsy – not sure which) broken glass mixed with concrete spread along the top. The stores, the food they sold and the packaging it came in were all new to me. Even the hours they kept, what with their two-hour siesta in the middle of the day, were hard to get used to.
And then there were the cars. As I wrote about last time, I had amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of cars by the time I moved to South America. It, like my English language skills, were mostly for naught as soon as I landed at Ministro Pistarini International Airport. Many of the brands were the same — Ford and Volkswagen were both very popular – but the cars they made were unrecognizable.
Ford’s biggest seller, for instance, seemed to be the Falcon. The Falcon was last produced in American in 1970 but was still being churned out in Argentina for years after we left. Volkwagen was filling the streets with innocuous looking sedans and wagons known simply as 1500’s. These two models were both omnipresent all around the country and in our driveway. My father had selected one of each in the six months before the rest of us followed him down there.
Aside from these brands, though, were others that, while known to me, were not to be seen on the streets of New Jersey with which I was so familiar. Peugeot and Renault had both been in and out of the American market but were well represented on the streets of Buenos Aires. Citroen wasn’t making anything new, but their iconic 2CV was all around, often aging less than gracefully. And there was FIAT.
FIAT was probably second in popularity to the Fords. Like all the others, they were producing boxy uninspired cars like the Spazio hatchback and Regata sedan. That was pretty much the whole of their offerings by 1987 but for many years before they had been producing the wonderful little FIAT 600.
For anyone who has ever been to Italy, you’re no doubt familiar with the 600 or its little brother (and more common) 500. The cinquecento was Italy’s answer to the VW Beetle; it was a little round two-door car made for the masses. The 500 was first produced in 1957 and nearly four million of them were spit out until 1975.
The 600 was only slightly bigger and started its South American run in 1960 and was mass produced in Argentina for twenty-two years. Having never been to either Italy or Argentina, I was wholly unfamiliar with the car until that summer of 1987 when we moved. I had at least seen the CV2 in movies but never noticed the even smaller FIAT.
I had just become of driving age when we moved down south and, given this newfound economic reality where anything was affordable, there was actually talk of getting me a car – something that NEVER would have happened stateside. The idea gained great traction when my mother and I happened upon a beautifully restored mid-60’s 600 in a showroom near our home. It was a dark cherry red with a convertible-ish top and fantastic leather interior. It was show car quality and ready to drive out the showroom. It cost a whopping $4000.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as though I had that kind of money but when my father was pulling down a U.S. quality salary while living in South America, it wasn’t so big a number. The notion of my getting a car had already been broached and this was a beautiful one. Four grand was a heckuva bargain for a car that would have been shipped back to New Jersey at which point you could keep it or certainly sell it at a tidy profit. It could have been a nice investment.
Problem was, by this time, the seeming uber-affordability of all things was getting the better of my father. He looked at the finished product and its reasonable price tag and was convinced he could do better by just having it done himself.
This, my friends, this was a mistake of what turned out to be nearly epic proportions.
The first step was finding the car itself. I don’t know where he came up with it, but one Saturday we drove out to some distant Buenos Aires barrio and picked up this little taxi cab yellow 1969 FIAT 600. My father tells me it cost him about $200 to buy.
I drove it that day for the first time, but not very far. We took it straight from there to a mechanic, not even stopping at the house. First up for the car was a complete mechanical overhaul.
It needed, I’ve since been told, a completely rebuilt engine. It seemed to run fine that day beyond the fact that it was a nearly Herculean task to keep it moving in a straight line. It wasn’t without issues.
The plan was simple, or so it seemed. It was going to get pretty much an all-new everything. The engine, paint, interior – everything was being re-done. I suppose those $200 really bought nothing more than the frame. That was about the only thing being kept.
I know I had never been part of a project like this and I highly doubt my father had. Surely neither of us had ever done in down in the lower parts of South America. So when they gave us a one or two month ETA, it probably seemed reasonable. If only. At two months they hadn’t even finished taking the thing all apart.
It should be noted that products produced in Argentina were hardly known for their reliability. New purchases would often break very quickly. While, for us, this was more inconvenience that anything (see description above re: prices), I can only imagine it was less so for those who couldn’t afford to just toss things aside. “Industria Argentina” (“made in Argentina” is your translation) just became something we’d say when purchases inevitably failed.
This little project of ours was definitively Industria Argentina. It was taking forever. After eight months, the car had moved from the engine people to the paint and interior people. Every once in awhile, I would take a trip out to whatever barrio it was getting worked on to check. The project manager of this endeavor was the colorfully named Julio Iglesias and he was always happy to see us, whether he had good news or no. For he would always tell us the car was casi listo (almost ready.)
When a year had gone by we were still casi listo. We had bought this car at the start of my junior year in high school. By Christmas break of my senior year, I had more or less given up on the thing. My mother was only a part time resident in the country so I was often driving that tan VW wagon around town. It was probably a better car for a high schooler anyway. I had once fit twelve people in it for a lunchtime trip to one of the two McDonald’s in a city of twelve million people. A classmate of mine had been banned by her father from consorting with me because of that car. I can only guess why. Given my high school dating track record, certainly nothing he had in mind ever happened in that car.
All the while, some people across town were, kind of, working on my FIAT. I think the check-ins became more infrequent as my time in the country was drawing to a close. I would be leaving to move back to the States and the rest of my family was relocating to Belgium.
Aside from the time, there was also the money. While this was of no concern to me (I wasn’t paying a single centavo, after all) it was to my father. Every trip out to the barrio would involve the passage of another chunk of change for unforeseen costs. I’m not sure when the price tag surpassed the $4000 that the finished one was sticker-priced at, but it was well before it was a completed project.
The car was finally delivered, I kid you not, one week before I was set to move away. I drove it up to the front of the school, as I had been imagining doing for almost two years, one single time. It was after classes had let out but before graduation. Only one of my classmates was there to see it. Being an Argentine who drove an Alpha Romeo, he was not at all impressed with our fascination with the FIAT. He may have been slightly disgusted even. It would be akin to someone here in the U.S. getting really excited about a souped-up Chevette.
And then it broke.
That was it. I got one day of driving my super-customized FIAT in Argentina. And it cost $7000 to get it.
Ah, but the story doesn’t end there…unfortunately. The plan was always to ship this car back to the U.S. at the end of our stay. So we did. The story of this car, and how it relates to my new car, is only half over.
Some months later it showed up on a container ship in Elizabeth, New Jersey. My father tells me the people at the port tried to hold him up for more cash before letting it into the country. His response was to tell them to keep it. They relented.
I barely ever drove the thing mainly because it barely ever worked. For one summer, though, it functioned, more or less, reliably. That was a good summer. Worthy of note, it came a full two years after the car came stateside and four years from when it was originally purchased.
It had its issues. The fuel gauge never worked and so I had to rely on my gut to know when it needed filling up. It ran out of gas a couple times though, as luck would have it, both times right at the foot of our driveway. It certainly turned heads, what with its two-tone paint job, convertible-like top, and overall out-of-place look. At first I enjoyed the attention it garnered at stoplights but eventually grew tired of all the questions.
It was after this summer that, upon returning to school that I set about purchasing my real “first car” as we covered last time. As it would happen, I drove the FIAT only a handful of times after that point despite owning it for another fifteen years or so.
It rotted away in the garage in New Jersey up until the point that the house was sold. At that point we transferred it over to my friend Rick who also happens to be a gifted mechanic. As often happens in life, I was about to repeat the mistakes of my father.
Through non-use, this car was essentially back to being what it was when it became mine in 1987. It needed to be overhauled all over again. Rather than just letting go, I went all in.
Rick had that car for, I don’t know, a year or more? He brought it back to life mechanically. Given that, even in mint condition, it wasn’t exactly the sort of car you take for a 250-mile drive, we put it on a car transport one day and it moved to Massachusetts.
I drove it around a couple times before I sent off to an Italian car guy in a nearby town for a complete makeover. In doing the job the first time, my mother and I had decided to go the ironic route. We bought one of those hot rod magazines and choose a paint job out of it. Now, as an adult, I wanted to return it to a more-or-less accurate look. Point of fact, Carlo was going to make it look as though it was an Italian antique and not an Argentine one.
Carlo, for the record, was also going to work at a South American’s pace in getting the job done.
The deadline I had set for him was June 28th, 2001. This was two days before my wedding. I wanted this car to be the one in which my new bride and I would leave our reception. Carlo didn’t hit that deadline despite, just as Julio Iglesias had years before, his continued promises he would. We took a town car instead.
Amy and I drove it around a few times but, lacking a driveway in our new home, it stayed at my mother’s house in Salem. Inactivity set in again. Old cars aren’t good at sitting still. When it stopped working again, it came as no surprise.
When my mother sold her house, I convinced her neighbor to allow me to keep it in her driveway. It stayed there for over a year. When I finally had to bring it over to my house, it took a flatbed to do it. I parked it in a nearby parking lot. It stayed there for yet another year or so.
It had become a real weight for me. We continued to pay insurance on it because it was occasionally on (or at least near) the road. I just wanted it to go away at this point but, given the amount of my own money that had been poured into it, I was reluctant to let it go for pennies.
One day a FIAT collector drove by and decided he needed this car. My pricetag at the time was $2500. It was too rich for him. When he checked in a few months later, I had one cash offer of $500 on the table for it. I told him the price was $1500 and he accepted. He could only pay $500 up front but we worked out a payment plan for the rest. I figured if I never saw him again, I would at least get the same $500 that someone else was offering.
He came one day while I was at work to take it away. I saw it only one more time after that, two years later when I went to his house to collect the final $500.
It may still be out there, I can’t say for sure. I doubt it is running. The guy is not someone you would want as a neighbor, as his yard was filled with rusting hulks of all sorts of great old cars. He fancied himself a collector, don’t forget. He had all the great plans in the world to bring that car back to life for yet a third time. He and that car were made for each other.
Despite my tumultuous relationship with this particular FIAT I always had a big soft spot for it. While not in the traditional sense, it was still a great car. It had so much personality. It also cost my father and I combined what I would estimate to be around $20,000 over the 20 years it was part of our lives. That was a tad too much, I suppose.
Fast forward to present day. I have been in the market for a new car for many months now. I am very slow and deliberate when it comes to making these sorts of decisions. It took me almost a year of research and shopping before I decided on which flat panel HDTV would be our first. You can imagine what goes into my deciding on a car.
At the start of the search I was convinced that I would be getting an SUV with a third row of seats. It made sense to me that we should both have cars that could carry our whole brood. As such, I decided to get a Mazda CX-9.
But then, when I traveled to Atlanta on business, I had occasion to rent a Kia Sorento. I did some research into it, drove another one and decided that would be my new car.
So then I decided I was getting a Volvo S60 to replace the one I had. Then I decided I was getting a Mini. Then a VW Eos. And then and then and then…
In the end, over the past 10 months, I came to firm decisions on no fewer than a dozen different cars that I decided, at one point or another, would be the one. I was perhaps a bit unclear on the meaning of “firm.”
The problem for me is that there are so many variables. There is the cost, the size, the warranty, two doors, four doors, fuel efficiency, power, color, brand, price, price, and price. Every firm decision would move the sliders on all these different ideas and then one or two of them would be not where I wanted. My next firm decision would put me in the right place on some while messing up others.
I could never decide want I truly wanted in one car. The fact of the matter is that I want too much. I want an SUV but I also want a sedan. I want a convertible in the spring and fall but not in the winter and summer. I want a nice semi-luxurious car but I want it to be cheap. I want it to be fuel-efficient but I also want it to be powerful.
There is simply no one purchase that can be everything I wanted. Thus why it was so hard to come to any conclusions.
At one point, I thought about a story my parents had told me once. Many, many years ago, a few at least before I was born, it is said that they looked out in the driveway and saw a boring station wagon next to a boring sedan. These were parked in the driveway of their suburban split-level ranch and it was all too much. They traded in the sedan for a yellow Triumph Spitfire two-seat convertible. Take that suburbs!
Well, we don’t have a driveway but we did have a minivan and a sedan. I felt perhaps it was time to shake it up a bit too. There was one car I had test driven (twice, in fact) that I thought may do that very thing. It even came in a convertible form.
One afternoon I stopped by the dealership and unleashed my whole family on the showroom. A very patient salesman named Sergio was there, seeing me for the third time but all of the rest of my family for the first. He not only welcomed but encouraged my kids to run all around the place and in and out of cars. They loved the car in question.
After we had corralled everyone back into the van, I asked Amy what she thought of the car. Every other one I had looked at elicited some form of “Meh…it’s okay” from her. This one:
“I love it!” she said.
And that is how we ended up going back out to Kelly FIAT and eventually buying my new, bright red, 2012 FIAT 500. Sergio was the best salesman I dealt with a my long search for a car and I also found everyone else at Kelly, from Brian Heney to Isaac Bruton to Brian Kelly himself, to be great to work with. If you’re in the market for a car check out the Kelly Automotive Group. (No, this is not a paid endorsement; I just really liked them.)
It was a perfect sequel to my FIAT ownership history. My 1969 600 may still be out there someplace but I think I’ve already put more miles on this one in three weeks than I did the other one in 20 years.
I would like to say that it was as impractical a decision as my parents’ over 40 years ago but alas, it is not. I was very close to picking the convertible version but changed my mind at the last moment. This means I ended up with a small hatchback that cost less than the $20,000 my last FIAT did. It gets great gas mileage (though the tank itself is frustratingly small.) It also has some bells and whistles including the biggest sunroof I’ve ever owned, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and multiple iPod jacks. Given that I now park on the streets of downtown Boston most days, it’s diminutive stature is a great asset.
It, like its predecessor, also turns heads. In the first few hours of ownership, I had people at stoplights and parking lots looking and asking questions just as I had back when the 600 first came stateside. Of course, FIAT is reestablishing itself here in the U.S. and these cars are already far more common than my 600 ever was – and only becoming more so. Its notoriety will be short-lived.
So too, perhaps, will be the jokes:
What is it going to be when it grows up?
Where is the kickstand?
Do you get the rest of it when it’s paid off?
If it breaks down just call me. We’ll just throw it in the back of my pick-up.
I am enjoying my little car. It doesn’t have the push-button starter, navigation screen, or leather that were “must haves” when I started my search. But it does have personality. It has the love of my family and it has a history, of sorts, that no other new car could have come with.