Me and Centoventotto camping
Those of you who know me, know that I am not a car lover. But I guess just about everyone has at least one car in a lifetime that they were excited about. Mine was a 1974 Fiat 128 Sport Coupe with front wheel drive, 4-on-the-floor and a trunk, not a hatchback. Ever since I had spent my Junior Year in college in Roma, I knew that I wanted a Fiat. By 1974 I had been working a few years out of college and had saved for a new car.
It was early September. I found a Fiat dealer somewhere outside of Hartford and went shopping. I don’t know what happened. I was naive. I had never purchased a new car before. I was not prepared for the human sub-species known as a “car salesman”. I remember looking at the Fiats when approached by some guy with fangs and big club. After that is a big blur. I was just about to put a deposit on an Opel (Cadet, I believe), which the Neanderthal had talked me into. I suddenly came to, frightened and disoriented, and it was all I could do to keep from screaming “No….” at the top of my lungs. “No, no, I can’t do it. I don’t want an Opel. I really, really, really want a Fiat.” I got up and left the dealership in a daze.
On the rebound, I visited Pellotti and Poole in Hartford. It was a more sublime experience. I felt at home in Little Italy and they were like family (not mine, but someone’s). They had a very sporty Fiat 124, 5-speed for around $3,600 (over my budget) and a few other models (like the X-1/9 and the Spider, both out of my range), including one 128 Sport Coupe, red with beige interior and black dash and armrests. The armrests/door handles though sexily curved and very sleek just didn’t go with beige. They looked like they belonged to the car I ordered: red with black interior. $3,100. Two hundred more than the cheaper 128 sedan model. It took six long weeks for the bambino to arrive - which it finally did in late October. I was glad to not have to ride my zippy 175cc Honda motorcycle to and from work. After all, all I had was a fake imitation Nagahyde “leather” jacket to keep me warm.
It was love. I immediately had a cassette player installed so I could play my copy of 1969 Tutto San Remo Music Festival hits and, when the weather got warm, my Beach Boys albums. She was truly sporty for an economy car. You could feel the road connected to the steering wheel. I went to visit friends in Vermont that spring and pretended I was in the Apennines. I might have scared them just a little on the curves around Stowe.
I am not a car person, but I maintained my spark plugs and, after my uncle made me a metric Allen wrench in his machine shop, I changed my oil regularly. I was not, however, prepared for the whining noise in my front wheel that indicated bad wheel bearings. After that replacement and the end of warranty, I found Tony (as in Fix It Again Tony- "F-I-A-T") – a garage owner in Southington.
Tony was a life-saver on several occasions, having replaced each of my wheels bearings at one time or another. Sometimes, if he was real busy, he’d say, “If you go get the part, I’ll fix it when you get back.” Who could ask for more. A few times he tinkered under the hood and when I asked, “How much?” he’d say, “Forget it”. Tony was a keeper.
I once drove the car back from Sound View with no clutch. When the clutch cable snapped, someone (I don’t remember who) advised me to just shift by the sound of the engine. I was surprised how easy it was. The stoplights required me to stall the engine to stop, then put it in first while turning the ignition. That was quite fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it on a regular basis. The second time it happened, I cruised into Tony’s shop, stalled the car and probably said, “Fix it again, Tony”. The fifth set of wheel bearings, which were replaced during a hurricane in Nova Scotia, put me over the edge.
My affair with “Centoventotto” reminded me of an old Neapolitan song, Mala Femmina:
tu si 'a cchiù bella femmena,(you are such a beautiful woman)
te voglio bene e t'odio (I love you and I hate you)
nun te pozzo scurdà... (I can never forget you)
After “Centoventotto” I turned to another object of infatuation, a Mustang. By then it had become something entirely different and I hated it. But that’s another story.
1974 Fiat Centoventotto Sport Coupe
(picture from internet in public domain)