BROOKFIELD, Wisconsin — Bobb Rayner gets to the crux of what makes Fiat freaks Fiat freaks well into his presentation at the national club’s awards ceremony Saturday night. And he does so by repeating a quote by Automobile founder David E. Davis Jr. every year at the Fiat Freakout, held this time around in metropolitan Milwaukee.
“The Germans invented the automobile. The Americans made it a dispensable product. The Italians taught it how to dance and sing.”
Can our Four Seasons 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus live up to that standard? What if it dances like Elaine Benes on “Seinfeld”?
Flashback to two days earlier: I pull our orange 500X into the Sheraton Hotel Brookfield parking lot to a section cordoned off for club members’ Fiats, Alfa Romeos, and Lancias. There are more Bertone-designed Fiat X1/9s here, running the full original-to-modified spectrum, than you might have thought survived. There are nearly as many 124 Spiders, mostly the 1966 to Malcolm Bricklin mid-’80s imports, a couple of new Fiat 124 Spider Abarths, and a Barchetta brought in from Canada. Some random Lancias and Alfa Romeos. A couple of 600s, a boxy sedan or two from the ’70s, and a 1971 Zastava AR-55, a preternatural Fiat Chrysler based off the Jeep-like Fiat 1101. Probably half the lot is filled by the new generation of Fiats, especially 500s and 500 Abarths, plus two other 500Xs, one 500L, and an Alfa Romeo Giulia.
With no organized events this Thursday evening, just a few club members hang around. One asks, “How do you like your 500X?” The question comes up again Friday for the drive to Elkhart Lake and Road America and on Saturday morning at the Concorso. I reply with something close to, “I like the way it handles. Not crazy about the powertrain.”
Drizzle the next day forces some of the 124 Spider drivers to raise their soft tops before we reach Elkhart Lake in the afternoon so we can retrace most of the original public-
road race circuit. Then it’s on to Road America for three laps before sundown.
“We’re only going to go 40, 50 mph,” our Road America pace-car driver, Bill, tells us at the drivers’ meeting. “Enjoy the scenery.”
We enter the circuit somewhere in the middle of the pack, persistent drizzle keeping the road slick. I slow down and speed up for Jessica Walker in the passenger seat. She is taking photos of other Fiats on the track. My nephew and budding car guy Jeffery Dziadulewicz is having the time of his 17 years in back, even with the enforced slow, offline pace. On this hilly, wooded 4-mile racetrack, “America’s Nürburgring,” we might not see either of the two Corvette pace cars assigned to us after the first corner. Even with 78 Fiats, Lancias, and Alfas on the track, there’s room to spread out between the two 500s behind us and the 500 and X1/9 ahead of us.
“Too slow!” Paul Perger exclaims after we finish our laps. He brought his 500 Sport, modified for autocrossing, up from Lewis Center, Ohio.
Eric Fredricks of Davenport, Iowa, went “off on the grass” with his often autocrossed 500 Abarth, “and I just got back on. There were cheers from the infield.”
On Saturday morning we arrive for the Fiat Freakout Concorso at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Conservatory, known colloquially as The Domes, thanks to three half-spherical glass greenhouses. Although I’m a new Fiat Club of America member, I haven’t spent much time meeting the organization’s muckety-mucks, which speaks to its casual attitude. Somewhere along the way, I shake hands with the club’s president, John Montgomery, who’s about to step down after 17 years.
Club secretary and board member Tim Beeble is one of my two competitors in the 500X class, having driven his Verde Bosco Perla 2016 500X from Connecticut instead of his ’74 124 Spider (with 154,000 miles on the odo). On this sunny summer Saturday morning in the beer capital of the world, he’s wearing a white engineer’s lab coat and helping to usher cars into The Domes’ northeast lot. I have to pull our 500X out of formation to let in more traditional Fiats showing up later.
Pep Stojanovic’s 1971 Zastava 101 was restored in Serbia. The interior needed just a minor refurbishment. “It smells like Yugoslavia in there,” he says.
Will it hurt our chances for first place if we’re parked out of formation? What about the trim cap covering our car’s rear window wiper arm bolt that has been missing since before I drove it east from El Segundo, California?
I give my nephew a nickel tour of the Italian cars gathered, and the budding car guy quickly becomes a budding Fiat guy. He gravitates to the X1/9s, though he peeks under raised hoods and asks about every model.
I find the Concorso’s single rear-engine 500, a 1960 model. But it has oddly bulging, nonoriginal headlamps. “I’ve had lots of Italian cars,” says Frank Nezrick, a physicist from St. Charles, Illinois, while standing next to his other Concorso entry, a 1960 Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato “Double Bubble.” The bulge-headlamp 500 has a better story.
“Franklin Roosevelt’s son brought it in for his race team,” Nezrick says. The feds told him its factory headlamps were too low for U.S. specifications, so the little car would either have to go back to Italy or face the crusher. “I don’t care if your father is president,” a bureaucrat had added sarcastically.
Dale Gordon, an anesthesiologist from Libertyville, Illinois, lobbies for my People’s Choice vote as I approach his 1977 Lancia Scorpion.
“One of 387 of the 1977 models sold in the U.S., 1,755-cc engine,” he says. “First flush windshield, only 1,801 made in 1976 and ’77. It’s got 25,000 miles. I’ve never opened the [targa-style] roof. I’m afraid to.”
A couple of boxy malaise-era Fiats actually are Soviet-era models built under license that belong to Pep Stojanovic, who runs commiecars.com. His 1971 Zastava 101, essentially a Fiat 128 hatchback, was restored in Serbia. The interior needed just a minor refurbishment.
“It smells like Yugoslavia in there,” he says.
Michael Louviere drives his ’52 Topolino around town and on dirt roads in Anamosa, Iowa. He proves a keen observer of the Fiat community, so I ask him whether X1/9 and 124 Spider owners ever switch sides.
“It’s not unheard of, but it’s typical for people to be in one of the two categories,” Louviere says. “Spider guys sometimes dabble in X1/9s. X1/9 people typically don’t go to Spiders.”
Spider fan Laura Ives has never switched. She bought her 1972 Fiat 124 ragtop in 1973.
“It was between an MG, because my family is British, and a Fiat,” she says, sitting between her husband, Richard, and me at the Fiat Freakout Awards Banquet Saturday at the Sheraton Brookfield. “The Fiat gearbox was easier than the MG’s. I loved it.”
The Ives couple, from Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, joined the Fiat Club of America in 2001 in order to attend their first Freakout in Grand Island, New York. Metro Milwaukee marks their fourth such event. Ives rejects the Italian brand’s reputation for poor reliability.
“As the car gets older, it’s good to meet other people trying to source parts,” she says. “I guess I’m lucky. The hardest parts to find are 13-inch tires.”
The Fiat Club of America is Eastern U.S.-centric, with most members living on that side of the Mississippi River or in Ontario or Quebec. Bobb Rayner, the awards ceremony emcee, co-founded the club with Dwight Varnes in Hagerstown, Maryland, in 1982, reacting to Fiat and Alfa Romeo’s impending withdrawal from the U.S. market.
Rayner, a presenter on home shopping channel QVC, gets to the heart of an enthusiast brand that’s within reach of virtually any driver.
“We don’t care how shiny and fast and expensive your car is.”
This warms my cold auto journo heart. It might be a cliché or even a stereotype, but it’s clear even from commodity products such as Fiat that Italy’s efficient, modern auto industry thrives with a workforce that knows how to take a good lunch break. Likewise, the Fiat Club of America draws sociable people who know how to throw a party more than they care about how to perfectly restore a car.
With that, the Fiat Club awards seven individuals and 53 of the 124 cars entered in the 2017 Concorso.
Ives’ ’72 takes second place among the 1966-’74 124 Spiders, Louviere’s patinated Topolino gets the Most Challenged award, Stojanovic’s Zastava 101 wins the Fiat Del Mondo class, and Gordon’s Scorpion takes first in the Fiat/Lancia Sport class. The Car I’d Most Like to Drive Home is Mark Rowan’s 1967 Fiat Dino coupe, and the People’s Choice for Best of Show goes to Nezrick’s Zagato “Double Bubble.”
In the Fiat 500X category—“Buy a car, get an award,” Rayner quips—Bryan Reiners of Hartford, Wisconsin, takes first with his tastefully decaled white XUV, Beeble’s emerald green car gets second, and Automobile’s Arancio Four Seasons car is awarded third. Ours proved shiny, though neither fast nor expensive. I should have replaced that wiper arm cap.
Our 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking
|MILES TO DATE||21,748|
|PRICE||$26,230/$27,730 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.4L SOHC 16-valve I-4/180 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||168.2 x 75.5 x 63.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||9.8 sec|