How Fiats turn into station wagons

March 01, 1997|By ROB KASPER

ON A RECENT balmy afternoon an image from my past flashed by me. It was a guy driving a convertible.

I once was a convertible guy. Now, depending on the transportation plans of my family, I am either a station-wagon guy or a four-door-sedan guy. These cars are roomy, reliable, practical.

The convertible I used to drive, a two-seat Fiat X 1/9, was none of the above. It was small, quixotic and gorgeous.

Its roof could be lifted off and stored in the front of the car, where you would expect the engine to be. The engine was located in the middle of the car, behind two leather seats, and in front of a tiny, attractive rear end. This design made the car nimble, terrific on turns, and a real head-turner.

It was designed by Nuccio Bertone, who died this week in Turin, Italy, at the age of 82. The sports car, which I bought new in 1977 for $5,000, was one of Bertone's less expensive creations. He also designed Alfa Romeos like the one Dustin Hoffman drove in the 1967 film "The Graduate," a couple of pricey Lamborghinis, ++ and a Ferrari Dino, a sports car in the price range of movie stars and sultans.

Yesterday Bertone's obituary in the New York Times said the Fiat was noted for its "sleek lines and aggressive animal-like looks." I never thought of my convertible that way. I likened it to an Italian shoe, beautiful but not durable. Not something you took out in the rain.

It is no coincidence that every time I lust for my old convertible, the sun is shining. Rain is the enemy of a convertible. Mine never leaked, but if moisture was in the air, my convertible simply refused to work. On misty, moisty mornings, it wouldn't start, at least not easily.

At night I would park the car at the top of a hill. The next morning, if the engine balked, I would put this "aggressive animal" in second gear and push it down the hill. Usually the roll down the hill got the engine to turn over. If not, I would call a friend, Sandy, to give me a ride to work. Late in the convertible's life, Sandy didn't have to call. She knew that if it was raining, the "animal" was immobile. Another time in my life as a convertible guy, I was sitting down on Russell Street in South Baltimore when a guy driving a tractor-trailer truck rolled up next to me at a stoplight. I saw him, but apparently my convertible's road-hugging design made the car too low for the trucker to see. I watched in terror as one of the truck's massive black tires sheared off my side-view mirror. What scared me even more was that the truck driver wasn't aware of what had happened. He drove off. When I waved him over at the next traffic light, he told me he had not felt a thing.

Not long after almost getting squashed by a semi, I sold the convertible. Other factors figured in this decision. One was that owning a vehicle that seated two people was impractical as the household became a three-person, then eventually a four-person unit. I held onto the convertible long enough to get a few snapshots of our first-born bouncing on the seat of the stylish sports car. A convertible guy in the making.

XTC Several cars have come and gone in our household since the days of the convertible. Last year, when I was in the market for a new car, I didn't even glance at convertibles. Instead I looked at four-door sedans with ample leg room in the back seat, a comfort few convertibles can provide. We need the room because the "little guy" who once bounced on the seat of the old convertible is now a teen-ager, a category his younger brother will soon join as well.

While I think it is probably best to avoid spending long periods of time in a car with teen-agers, I also think that if you have to do this, it helps to do it in a car with a big back seat.

Also, I was keenly interested in the comforts of the back seat because I have a feeling that is where I will be riding. The teen-ager is in the early stages of getting his driver's license. It will be a lengthy process, one that involves getting a learner's permit, taking practice drives with white-knuckled parents, and taking driver's education classes.

But eventually it will happen. The kid will get a driver's license and I will become a back seat driver, giving out advice like "Watch the road, not that lovely, red convertible."

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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