Regular readers will recall our “Viva Italia” issue, released five months ago and packed chock-full of stories about Italy and Italian cars. For that issue, I was supposed to go to Italy and do something with a Ferrari, but within hours of my departure I had a bit of a personal situation. Long story short, you can tell your wife that there’s a very slim chance of a baby being born a month early, but that won’t prevent a baby from arriving a month early and royally derailing your plan to drive a Ferrari in Italy. When he’s old enough, I plan to sit the boy down and give him a lecture about excessive punctuality.
However, I recently got another chance for Italian adventure, this time driving an Alfa Romeo to a wedding in Florence. And based on my latest experience, I might be glad the Ferrari drive got scrubbed. That could’ve been just an exercise in frustration, because Italy is no longer a place to drive fast.
I first drove in Italy in 1998, and the place was a complete free-for-all. In any ten-mile stretch of road, you’d be guaranteed to witness at least two cars upside down in a ditch, one set of fresh skid marks leading to a Fiat-sized hole in a fence, and three new world speed records for diesel Lancia station wagons. As far as I could tell, there were no speed limits whatsoever, anywhere.
Back in those days, the average Italian citizen would reluctantly wrap up his cappuccino hour, bid farewell to the cafe regulars, deliberately straighten his tie, then get in the car and streak toward the horizon at 135 mph while weaving, honking, and screaming enraged profanities. To an American, it was perplexing — you know, maybe if you had coffee to go, you wouldn’t need to drive so fast.
Some years later, I was driving around the Bologna region in a Lamborghini Murcielago. Out on the autostrada, traffic still moved at nearly a 100-mph clip, with occasional adventures north of that — one Audi R8 needed to be reprimanded for having the insolence to pass its V-12-powered Italian cousin. In the city and on secondary roads, however, the manic Italian driving style that I remembered seemed to have morphed into a more orderly sort of aggression. Compared to 1998, most drivers seemed to keep four wheels on the ground more of the time.
I ascribed this unexpected mellowness to the Murcielago Effect, wherein awe and national pride cause Italians to momentarily genuflect to the mighty Lambo, forgetting for a moment that they’re engaged in a high-stakes road race with all other cars in the nation. On its native turf, the Murcielago projects a force field of deference. In Bologna, I’m pretty sure I drove through some normally off-limits areas — bike paths,
al fresco restaurants, people’s living rooms — because there was really no way to back up once I charted a course. But nobody ever gave me any trouble about it, because the citizens of Bologna were too busy taking photos and trying to figure out whether I was an obscure German soccer player or just a car thief.
But it turns out that traffic in Italy wasn’t slowing down just to rubberneck the orange Lambo. Having just spent five days in Tuscany, I’ve realized that there’s been a fundamental shift in Italian driving culture. There are still roads in Italy where you can properly exercise a car, but those spots are like secret surf breaks in an ocean of resentful obedience. In the general thrust and parry of everyday traffic, Italy’s once-indomitable speed demons have been thoroughly cowed.
Italians surely still love fast cars, but the driving-as-competition habit has been ruthlessly crushed by traffic enforcement. In the denser parts of the cities, there are cops everywhere. And out on the open road, the infestation of speed cameras effectively discourages the maniacs who used to set the pace. I drove twenty miles on a divided highway outside Florence, and traffic was flowing at or near the 90-kph (56-mph) speed limit during the short interludes between cameras — and at the cameras, everyone stabbed the brakes and slowed down even more, just to be on the safe side. It was sad.
This time around, I know that my fellow motorists weren’t slowing down to check out my wheels. My wife, two friends, and I were comfortably ensconced in a handsome yet innocuous Alfa Romeo Giulietta, plucked off the lot from the airport Avis.
The Alfa cuts a rakish profile with artfully disguised rear doors, a broad track, and big chrome dual exhausts. Under the hood is a punchy, 140-hp turbo-diesel engine connected to a six-speed manual transmission, the shifter topped with a shiny metal ball obviously meant to evoke a certain other Italian car company. Another Ferrari allusion is found on the console, where a rocker switch toggles different performance modes — sort of like a Ferrari manettino, except that switching between “dynamic” and “normal” had no discernible effect on anything.
Not so long ago, I’m sure I could’ve reported on the Alfa’s top speed, whatever it is. But the ubiquitous traffic cameras put the fear in me, and my brief full-throttle blasts were limited to the lower gears. It’s hard to enjoy a session of frisky driving when you’re worried that it’s going to lead to the Italian government somehow owning your house.
Back home in Boston, I landed at 9 p.m. and collected the Jaguar XK that I’d left at the airport. I merged onto the highway and was immediately dusted by absolutely everyone, including an eighteen-wheeler that passed me on the right. In a 45-mph zone, traffic was weaving along at an easy 70 mph.
I’m generally the first one to disparage driving in Boston, but five minutes out of the airport I’d already redlined the Jag’s 5.0-liter V-8 multiple times and easily exceeded my top speed back in Tuscany. Everyone was driving as if they were competing in a timed event. There were no speed cameras. And Fiat and Alfa are returning to the States. Viva Italia, after all.