I Adopted an Orphan
by Merkel Weiss
I don’t know what came over me. It wasn’t my fault. While I try to explain this or maybe just rationalize it to myself, there seems to be some sense that I can make of it. Last year I wrote about adopting an orphan car as a project that could help to defray fuel economy-related costs. Since then the price of gasoline has slid downward toward what looks fairly reasonable at the moment. Do you or anyone that you have ever spoken with really believe that the price of fuel will stay this low? I thought so. Clearly, these are the good old days. (Clearly written just before the prices have rocketed! Our Merkel is psycho, uh, psychic!-Ed.)
We know that the economy is in the toilet, both here and abroad. What better to do than to take my own advice? I bought a 1970 FIAT Strada. It’s an Italian 1.5 liter, 5-speed, front wheel drive 2-door hatchback automobile. The car was reasonably straight and rust free with about 70K miles on the clock. The roof needed paint so that was done. The interior is still serviceable. The hatchback opens, the back seat folds down and Countach! (a Euro exclamation meaning "Hey Presto!-Ed.) there’s a plethora of Italian space back there. The thing gets 40 miles per gallon and seats 5 comfortably. Most importantly, it’s fun to drive in a way that only an Italian car can be.
No, it’s not a fast car and we already know that it’s not an American car. Regardless, a good set of modern radial tires go a long way toward good grip. And the handling, what happens when the grip runs out, is wonderful; it’s mostly neutral with mild understeer. I can live with that.
I view the modern people-mover car as a transverse-oriented front wheel drive unibody, with McPherson struts up front and a rear twist beam axle. A lot of people probably don’t know that the very first modern car was engineered by Dante Giacosa, the Chief designer at FIAT in the early 60’s. It was produced as the Autobianchi Primula in 1966, then a bit larger as the FIAT 128 into the 70’s and finally as the Strada (Ritmo or 138 in Europe) in the late 70’s. Coincidentally I’m sure, the VW Rabbit (Golf in Europe) was produced later than but was surprisingly similar to the 128 in almost all details down to the Italian designed body.
A couple of other neat things happened that I thought might be of interest. The first thing is that it is now 30 years old. It qualifies for the Historic Vehicle License program. With this registration, and a fresh smog test, the car no longer needs to be smog tested. That’s a big plus for me. The other biggie is that it is old enough to be eligible for classic car insurance, which is significantly cheaper than a regular, over the road policy. Further, the classic car insurance coverage and deductibles are significantly better. The only drawback is the mileage (2000 per year) and use restrictions (generally, not for daily commuting) which is really not that much of a problem and fits into my life nicely.
The result is that I can own and drive this neat old car for a couple thousand miles a year and save considerable money while at the same time having a great deal more fun. I see you scoffing over there. Don’t believe it, right? OK, I’ll try to explain it basic terms that the owner of a big-nostril Firebird can understand and relate to.
There are two different ways to have fun in the driver’s seat of a car, excluding your old girlfriend. One is acceleration, and the power of the adrenaline rush cannot be denied. After all there are whole cultures built on it. The other is steering and handling, both of which Firebirds do quite well. The issue becomes the cost of ownership of a car that gets only about 12mpg. Once fuel returns to the costly structure which held us captive for all those years, we will be back at the same place wondering if we really want to spend so much just to commute alone in a V8 car or truck.
Interestingly enough, it turns out that driving a European econobox is an excellent counterpoint to American big iron and the differences between the two only serve to aid in appreciating the good points and the weak spots of each a little better. The grand layout of an American car is a stark contrast to the sheer simplicity of a Strada. The most brisk acceleration of the Strada can best be achieved by pushing it off a cliff. Handling on the other hand is nimble, a term which doesn’t find it’s way to the American car vernacular very often.
The Strada will seat 4 comfortably and there is room for 5. Do not even attempt this in a Firebird lest the rear passengers risk paraplegia when the seatbacks drop into place. You’ll like the hatchback loading of each car, and they are both well suited to the obligatory supermarket safari for that 50 pound sack of dog food. The 2 cars actually balance each other quite well and each makes you appreciate the other all the more. The difference is (and I hate to say this out loud) however, the FIAT is generally the more practical of the two and on the canyon roads, more fun.
Don’t go to the Bakersfield Vintage Drag Races in the Fiat, however. Take the Trans Am.