As the Ford F-150 rushed past me, the mustachioed driver howling obscenities, I continued to white-knuckle the pencil-thin steering wheel of the 1939 Fiat. I maneuvered the pre-war roadster through moderate traffic, praying not only for a clean shift into the next gear but an extra ounce of power from the 0.9-liter four-cylinder. Sitting astride the microscopic Italian barchetta, I felt embroiled in the middle of the Mille Miglia, with bright sun, missing roof, and conspicuous lack of seat belts. Only, this wasn’t the Mille Miglia; I was 5,000 miles from Brescia, at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennesse.
Just as spring began to roll into summer, the Lane opened its paddocks to wide-eyed journalists. This was the Macchine Italiane rally, a celebration of what the Lane calls “the Italian motoring spirit.” For those who have yet to make the pilgrimage down to the Lane, shame on you. Make time, squirrel away some cash for the plane ticket, and treat yourself to the most eclectic collection of cars this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Over the years, owner Jeff Lane has amassed an inventory of the weirdest, most irreverent, and sometimes shocking four- (and three-) wheeled contraptions you will ever see. On that sunny Nashville morning, we weren’t visitors but participants. We were offered the rare opportunity to exercise some of the best Italian jewels in the collection and drive cars we may never see elsewhere.
It began in the museum’s parking lot, where the team assembled some of the “less” road-worthy runabouts. First up: a Fiat-powered six-wheeled wonder called the Ferrario Lucertola 500. Think of a three-way collision of a John Deere Gator 6×6, a Fiat Cinquecento, and, oh, a VW Thing for good measure. With six wheels and a dangerous sense of go-anywhere, we chugged around the former Sunbeam bakery grounds, crashing over curbs, gravel pits, and damn near everything we wanted to.
Next came the 1958 Vespa 400, a brief four-wheeled venture by the storied scooter company. “You’re going to have to rev it pretty high to get going. It doesn’t have much torque at all,” Lane told me as I folded myself into the dainty coupe. He wasn’t kidding about the torque, or lack thereof. Stall a couple times, and eventually you’ll figure it out. Rev it up to just beneath the point of valve float, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll get it moving. Once you manage this, you’re in for a treat. Steering was almost Lotus-like, and the shifter was a deliciously quick dogleg three-speed.
After sampling a few more oddities, we prepared for the journey to the local park that served as the rally home base. We were all given car assignments by the watchful mechanics of the Lane, as well as instructions on how to operate the delicate machinery. I was handed the keys to a fabulously voluptuous 1939 Fiat 508C Balilla 1100 barchetta. Just as I had imagined in my most feverish daydreams of the Targa Florio, driving the little Fiat proved to be as hairy-chested as the wheeling the biggest, sweatiest, meatiest muscle car from the Big Three.
First off, it was right-hand drive, my first time ever sitting on the “wrong” side of a car. The shifter was one of those angled contraptions you find in some pre-war cars, shooting straight toward the seatbacks, almost perpendicular to the windows. The shifter was connected to an unsynchronized four-speed that emitted all sorts of clunks, bangs, and other mechanical grievances as I bashed my way through the cogs. Speaking of windows, the little Fiat had none. As far as I could tell, there was no enclosure available. No seat belts, either. Out on the mean streets of Nashville, I was alone in my little roadster.
After some corporeal origami, I sat behind the wheel, albeit just barely. The banjo-style steering wheel rested firmly on my thighs, while my regular-sized feet could hardly operate the matchbook-sized pedals. Apropos, the clutch had a nasty habit of sticking to the floor. How far of a drive did you say? Fifteen miles? Andiamo.
It was one-third of the way there when I lost use of fourth gear. At the half-way point, third gear slogged the engine. The car began to slow down to the point that I posed a legitimate threat to the flow of traffic. Cue the rightfully vindictive F-150 driver. As I entered the park grounds in first gear, the Fiat could hardly manage 10 mph.
The problem? Apparently, every time I used the brakes, they locked themselves closed a little more, eventually clenching to the point of a near four-wheel lockup. The mechanic, who was a hero that day, administered a quick hammer blow to the master cylinder, popping the brakes free of the drums. I was hot, weary, and stank heavily of gas and exhaust. Would Tazio Nuvolari complain? Probably not. With this in mind, I quickly regained composure. With both confidence and energy returned, I worked my way over to a rather pernicious-looking Lancia Delta HF Integrale ticking over in the shade.
This was my first foot-to-pedal interaction with what many consider to be a “hero car,” the great-granddaddy of the modern super-hatch. Forget the Evo I or the original WRX, this all-wheel-drive terror was one of the first roadbound rally specials. Like all great rally homologation specials, the car was an exercise in unrestraint. The 2.0-liter turbo-four was pressure-fed to the point of popping, the steering was quick, and the shifter was notchy.
Easily the fastest car at the rally, we surged through the surrounding roads with the overconfidence these all-wheel-drive terrors are often blessed with. Despite the cocaine attitude, it was easy to drive, even slowly. Insane turbo lag meant you could pull away from a stop sign without launching into the rump of the car ahead of you, and the surprisingly soft suspension kept things comfy when the road turns rough. I burbled back into the park wearing a mile-wide smile. Don’t meet your heroes? Oh, please. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Signore Integrale.
Next, a handful of vintage Fiats. An original Cinquecento here, a 1963 Fiat Multipla there. Like my long bygone 1974 VW Beetle, these were cheap and cheerful. Built for the tight alleys of Rome, they were a laugh out on public roads, dwarfed more than once by a Mini or VW Golf. They made a righteous racket as we clattered around tight service roads with the aural ferocity of a straight-piped golf cart.
After a short blast in a wonderful 1971 Fiat 124 Spider, I approached the vermilion 1976 Lamborghini Urraco P300 that waited under a nearby tree. Inside, it’s exactly as you’d imagine a 1970s Lamborghini is. Gauges are haphazardly shotgunned onto the center binnacle, easily visible through the freakishly concave steering wheel that had to have been lifted from a concept car. A note written on strips of painter’s tape plastered next to the tachometer sternly warned me to stay under 5,500 rpm. Right. Apparently, Urraco transmissions aren’t a dime a dozen, so I nursed the dogleg transmission from gear to gear. Even if I wanted to, it’s not as if I could have banged through the cogs with any sense of urgency. The gated shifter was heavy, requiring a deliberate hand to smoothly engage each gear.
After so many delicate microcars, the Urraco was an earthbound bolide. The 3.0-liter V-8 engine was a raucous, snarling dynamo compared to the minuscule two- and four-cylinders that populated the rest of the 1960s and 1970s fleet in attendance. The Fiat 124 was a contemporary of the Urraco, and by comparison the Lambo was as capable as a modern-day Ferrari is to a Miata. The 247-hp 3.0-liter might be downright asthmatic by today’s standards, but lined up next to the buzzy twin-cam four-banger in the Spider, it was explosive.
I roared through the park’s recreation area, the howl of the 3.0-liter reverberating through the nearby residential streets. As I passed in a fit of exhaust crackles, kids playing on front lawns stopped, stared, and pointed at the orange wedge, a timelessly appropriate reaction to a Lamborghini making a public appearance.
I returned to the 124 Spider, attempting to mentally frame the Urraco as much as I could. As I pointed the bright blue roadster down the main access road, I was a quarter-mile behind a Multipla. Halfway down the route, the Urraco blasted by the opposite direction with righteous sound and fury. For the briefest of moments, I was in Italy circa 1974. The wind was warm, the engines were loud, and I was 5,000 miles away, rushing through the foothills of the Italian Alps. I returned to the parking lot, stopped the 124 in the cluster of little Fiats, and waited for the return of the Lamborghini. I had to have at least one more run before I returned home from my personal Mille Miglia.