You may not look at the Mazda Miata-based Fiat 124 Spider and say, “Viva l’italia!” But why would you? It’s a Japanese car sold by an Italian-American company. But when I drove one for the first time, something strange happened. I think I found the automotive embodiment of myself: energetic, easy to beat up, made here and there, with borderline Italian looks and a cuore italiano, if you know what I mean. It’s not an Italian car, it’s an Italian-American car.
I’m an unlikely Italian-American. My bland, slightly Southern suburban upringing and British-sounding surname have never done much to bind me to my ancestral culture. My claim to this ancestry comes by way of my mother’s fully Sicilian family, and the cuisine that comes with it.
But neither my mother nor my little brother and I grew up among the fist-pumping diaspora made famous by such gems as Real Housewives of New Jersey, “My New Haircut” and the talking douche in Sausage Party. I think my grandmother grew up among other Italian-Americans, but way back in the 1940s when people in her section of Brooklyn either gravitated toward the local diocese or hung out in front of pool halls, squinting at passersby through clouds of exhaled cigarette smoke and saying things like, “Keep wawkin’ you, ‘less ya know what’s good fa ya.”
Not too many Italian-Americans moved to the Washington, D.C. suburbs where I grew up, so my brother and I missed out on all the classic stuff you see in movies: clumps of guys sitting around on lawn chairs on the sidewalk on hot summer days (I’ve noticed that they do this in the old country, too, except in public squares that have faded from the American landscape).
Sure, we had the intensely emotional mother experience—always at the ready to suffocate us with love’s embrace or skewer us with the barbs of criticism (something I’m sure we share with quite a few other cultures)—but there was no communal sausage and pepper frying in the summer. It was just us.
Our separation from the herd, as well as the fact that our grandfather was an Italian immigrant who spoke Desi Arnaz-accented English and was full of stories about his distant life across the Atlantic Ocean, pushed us more toward an Italian-centric vision of ourselves than one bound by diaspora. He arrived in the late-’40s and lived most of his life through a time when it was OK to be from somewhere else. During our lifetime, he made no attempt to become more American by, say, trying to quash his accent or by pretending he was from New Jersey or something.
The cars he drove over the years are a perfect example of this. He completely sat out fins, muscle and land yachts, opting instead for an Austin with no fuel gauge, a couple of Volkswagen Beetles, a Corvair, an Opel Kadett, and some of the early Toyotas, among others. You know, small, practical stuff. He even bought one of the first Mustang IIs because he liked the fact that it came with a four-cylinder engine. There is nothing American about that, my friends.
Among the many anecdotes my grandfather told us over the years, a regular canon of pre-war Italy stories featured prominently: “I was never into cars, but bicycles, those were our thing.” Or, “we took the streetcar to the beach in Mondello.” When he saw his first Americans—the ones who landed in Sicily in 1943, guns blazing, to rid the island of Germans—he was floored by the size of the cars they drove. His father, one of the Italian Army staff officers who handed over the surrender when Sicily fell to Allied Forces, had use of a staff car—a tiny, two-seat Fiat Topolino—in which he rode shoulder-to-shoulder with his driver. The Americans had brought with them giant gray Buicks which seemed impossibly long to the natives. There was something intriguing to my grandfather and others like him about American grandiosity, even if they saw it as pointless.
But Italians—the ones who are actually from Italy—are a funny lot. Grandiosity may impress them on some level, but they’re set in their ways. They’re not interested in your food or your cars. They know theirs are the best. They haveossobuco and Ferraris, after all.
The Italians who made a new home in the United States held on to their culinary customs (although they often drastically increased portion sizes). Cars were another story. It’s easy to import tins of extra virgin olive oil, but Alfa Romeos and the myriad parts needed to keep them running? Not so much. Nice Italian clothing is apparently too expensive, so track suits and blocky shoes became de rigueur. Whaddya gonna do?
But my grandmother’s contemporaries, although surrounded by all the food, the Vinnies, Sals, Carmines, Maries and Donnas that make up a real Italian-American community, weren’t so Italian when it came to their choices of cars. My grandmother’s father, Joe Saulia, drove a big black Cadillac. He worked at the docks in Red Hook, Brooklyn, so of course he had a Cadillac. Some of the older guys (which is to say, everyone) in the mostly Italian-American classic car club I belong to in South Brooklyn were around in those days, too. There are no Alfa owners. They all go for old Cadillacs, Buicks, muscle cars, finned barges—it’s all American cars.
My brother and I, too, were always into cars in a manner our Italian grandfather could not comprehend. Ferraris and Alfa Romeos weren’t even on our radar. Like most people, our tastes coincided with the time and place where we were raised, so it was muscle cars that got us drooling. The handful of times we drove up to Long Island to visit our great-grandmother, Etta, I took note of the IROC-Z Camaros, 5.0 Mustangs, Monte Carlo SSs and the track-suited men we usually saw polishing them in their driveways.
In our south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line upbringing, we’d grown accustomed to mullet-festooned rednecks in primered Chevelles and Roadrunners, and dudes driving down from the hills in beat-up F-150s full of firewood to sell. The urban crowd closer to D.C. went more for the wet-fart-can-mufflered Civics and Mitsubishi Eclipses, and their rural imitators were never far behind. Since neither my brother nor I had any money of our own—our parents were too smart to buy us big-ticket stuff like cars and motorcycles—we wanted anything with a V8 under the hood.
So when I crashed the Toyota my grandfather had given me, my dad plunked down $1,800 and bought us a geriatric-owned 12-year-old Lincoln Town Car. It still smelled like the seller’s White Owl cigars, but we were elated nonetheless.
Fast forward to today, and although I’ve made many pilgrimages back to Sicily and Italy (yes, they’re different), I still can’t go all native and embrace Italian cars. I’ve watched people buzz up and down treacherous mountain roads in classic Lancias and Fiats in re-creations of the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia, for god’s sake. And still, I was stuck on the V8-powered corner wallowers I grew up with.
But something changed when I drove the 124, a Mazda Miata with a new turbocharged Fiat engine and an Italian facelift. It broke the opacity of my Americanness and appealed to my vestigial Italianismo. It was as if a Japanese businessman had appeared from thin air and politely uttered a few words that made sense. “Preston-san, this car is good—because we made it—but its guts are Italian, like yours.”
Why thank you, Mr. Japanese Businessman, for pointing that out. But all I had to do to reach this realization was toss back the convertible top with a deft flick of my right arm and take off down a California mountain highway that winds through a landscape not at all unlike the Sicilian countryside. Ti amo, 124. Giudiamo insieme sotto il sole Americano.
Unlike the loud, mushy Detroit iron I’d always lusted after, the Fiat 124 was light and lively. I was able to huck it around corners and, if I nailed the rpm range that was best for the tiny four-cylinder engine’s turbocharger, rocket out of them. Confident in the car’s Japanese robustness, I could concentrate on its Italian aspect—the engine. The turbo took some getting used to, but when I treated it like that Sicilian uncle of mine handled extramarital affairs—by just going at it full throttle all the time—the engine did just what I wanted it to.
The car’s handling, it’s throaty howl and turbo hiss and the Italianate California sun caused me to see everything in green, white and red. I felt like the Italian racecar driver from “Gumball Rally,” and had half a mind to rip off the rear view mirror and toss out of the car as I sped along Highway 150.
“And now, my friend, the first-a rule-a of Italian driving,” I’d say to myself in a Franco Bertollini fake Italian accent. “What’s-a behind me is not important.”
Benjamin Preston is an automotive journalist who holds the dubious distinction of having worked both as a writer and editor for the New York Times Automobiles section and as a mechanic at the Pep Boys in Fredericksburg, Va. His work has taken him to a few war zones, including Baghdad and the Detroit Auto Show.