1 November 2016

How many cars are too many to drive in one day?

The headline is not a question you usually have to answer. But for the experienced – and fortunate – driver, the answer is “mai abbastanza!” (Never enough!) That’s why I flew out to Nashville to join the Macchine Italiane road rally, sponsored by the Lane Motor Museum, home to North America’s most eclectic collection of conveyances on two and four wheels.

Museum founder and noted collector Jeff Lane organized a daylong excursion in and around Nashville to highlight the breadth of Italian cars over the years. Why Italian cars? Why not? Last year, the Lane museum celebrated French cars and trucks to great success.

Throughout the day, there were breakdowns and there was overheating, but nothing truly impeded a day of unexpected driving. Here’s how I fared:

1964 Ferrario Lucertola 500

What it is: A six-wheeled, go-anywhere off-roader based on the Fiat 500. Assumed to be one of several dozen ever produced, the 18-hp, two-stroke Ferrario Lucertola 500 has all the feeling of a military golf cart, having the gravitas of a Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen and the footprint of a mouse.

How it drives: I was told that there were brakes associated with each wheel, but that was of little import. Sitting on garden chairs mounted to the floor, maneuvering the manual transmission hither and yon, you’re never really going fast enough for anything to go wrong, even though it always feels too fast.

What it does best: Crawl up tight passes and nudge its way down steep hills.

What it does worst: Instill any feeling of stability while motoring fearlessly down the road, paved or otherwise.

In one sentence: The dream machine for a weekend hobbyist with a penchant for Home Depot runs.

1977 Alfa Romeo Alfetta

What it is: A feisty sedan about the size of a contemporary BMW 5-series.

How it drives: Like a modern car. Unlike some of the tinny-feeling but fun-to-drive sports cars of the day, the Alfetta felt like a car I could drive daily. The 130-hp Alfetta punches far above its weight, delivering a fun driving experience all the way up to 113 mph, assuming it’s running.

What it does best: An impression of a German sport sedan.

What it does worst: Remain in a parking position.

In one sentence: The Alfa you could drive every day.

1958 Vespa 400

What it is: A two-plus-two coupe built in France by the well-known Italian scooter producer, Vespa. It was a novel, rear-engine concept with few creature comforts, let alone sound deadening material. Against modern minicars, the pipsqueak Vespa 400 seems a toy.

How it drives: Like a single-seater microcar, acting frighteningly claustrophobic.

What it does best: An impression of a motorcycle when it goes around a corner.

What it does worst: Carry two passengers in back. Don’t even try it.

In one sentence: The Vespa you want has two wheels, never four.

1990 Lancia Delta HF Integrale

What it is: A record-setting Italian rally car posing as a civilian rocket. Any Forza fanboy can spit out the facts about the Integrale: Four-wheel drive and a turbocharged engine are only part of the reason for its domination in the World Rally Championship. And thanks to the 25-year import rule, you can now have one here legally.

How it drives: Heroically.

What it does best: Transport the driver and passengers to a forest rally stage. The tight-fitting front seats and stiff suspension are there to coax the driver into trouble. (Resist the urge.)

What it does worst: Blend in to a crowd.

In one sentence: Beg, borrow or steal to get one.

1962 Alfa Romeo 2600 Berlina

What it is: A relatively rare version of the top-of-the-line ‘60s Alfa Romeo. The 2600 Berlina was devoid of previous models’ sexy styling, and it was also the first Alfa to have an inline-six under the hood.

How it drives: Like a Cadillac, with smooth moves and lots of untapped power.

What it does best: An impression of a period American car. Led by barely touching front seats that almost form a bench, there’s a feeling of airiness in the squared-off sedan. The enormous steering wheel and landscape-oriented gauges lend themselves to perceived spaciousness.

What it does worst: Make a good first impression on styling alone.

In one sentence: Once a stately alternative to a large luxury sedan, it’s now a collectible midsizer.

1977 Piaggio VespaCar P501

What it is: A tiny cab attached to a short bed, with the beating heart of a motorcycle. They’re found the world over as tuk-tuks and tiny farm equipment, and there’s a reason the Ape (say ahh-PAY) formula works so well.

How it drives: It’s remarkably sturdy, for a scooter in disguise.

What it does best: Transporting all kinds of goods in the tiniest of spaces.

What it does worst: Any kind of extreme handling, staying upright in a corner, keeping quiet, feeling quick. It is awful to drive, although it’s easier than it seems to master its handlebar control layout.

In one sentence: It’s named after the buzzy Italian ape (bee) for a reason.

1971 Fiat 124 Spider

What it is: This gorgeous, blue droptop is as fun to drive as it is beautiful to behold. There’s nothing particularly special about the design or purpose of the Fiat 124 Spider, but it nails the basics of the convertible formula. It became an icon in its own right, in the 1970s, so much so that Fiat’s newest convertible stole/revived its nameplate for a car co-developed with Mazda.

How it drives: Precisely, and without much body roll.

What it does best: Tossing about on back roads, with a quick snick-snick of its manual transmission. Touch the thin-rimmed wood steering wheel and be transported back to another era.

What it does worst: Nothing disastrous happened the day of our drive, but 124s aren’t known for their ability to remain mobile.

In one sentence: Skip the Fiata (the new Fiat 124 based on the Mazda Miata): You want this.

1976 Lamborghini Urraco P300

What it is: A contemporary of the Countach and Espada, the Lamborghini Urraco is often forgotten in the pantheon of fast, Italian supercars.

How it drives: Step on the gas from a standstill, let out the ultrastiff clutch, and cane it. You’ll be glad you did.

What it does best: The Urraco acts the part of a drivable Lamborghini. Neither too powerful nor too brutish, this Lamborghini is a special-occasion car that’s fast enough but not overpowering. The 3.0-liter V-8 in this Urrraco P300 is a treat to exploit.

What it does worst: Distribute heat. On the day of my drive, it was close to 90º outside, and 120º in the cockpit of the Urraco. The windows partially opened. My right knee burned as it brushed against the center stack.

In one sentence: Hot.

1975 Casalini Sulky A18

What it is: Think of this bizarre Casalini Sulky A18 as a tiny step up from the Ape. With a center-mounted driving position and only three drive wheels, the Sulky A18 is part of a long line of Casalini minicars but doesn’t make a strong case for their survival. Doing 45 mph, the top speed, in this thing would be virtual suicide.

How it drives: Don’t find out, if possible.

What it does best: Keep you dry when it rains.

What it does worst: Everything else.

In one sentence: A wobbly reminder of how far automotive technology has come.

1970 Fiat Giannini Camioncino Replica

>What it is: Hey, someone built a Fiat 500 pickup truck! This replica began life as a 500 Giardinera station wagon, and it makes a ‘ute that’s cute as a button. You won’t find much cargo-hauling ability, but this Fiat makes an effort.

How it drives: Exactly like a Cinquecento hatchback.

What it does best: Impresses the neighbors.

What it does worst: Moves plywood.

In one sentence: A recipe for success.

1963 Fiat Multipla

What it is: One of the automotive world’s first attempts at creating a minivan. Based on a tiny Fiat hatchback, the Multipla proved that a small platform could blossom into a significant conveyance.

How it drives: Like a compact car, not a van.

What it does best: Fits a lot of people and things into a small package. Its flip-and-fold rear seats make Stow’n’Go seating look primitive. Driving it, you hardly feel its extended size.

What it does worst: Accommodate more than a couple of ever-growing Americans in said back seats.

In one sentence: Not a modern minivan, but a marvel nonetheless.

3 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Will Owen Pasadena CA November 2, 2016 at 18:32
    "it was also the first Alfa to have an inline-six under the hood." NO!! All the road-going Alfas from the Twenties through WW2 had either six- or eight-cylinder engines, designated 6C or 8C followed by the engine displacement. Not sure, but I think the postwar 1900 was their first four-cylinder engine. It was also their first mass-production car.
  • 2
    Pete Loscalzo Lebanon, NJ November 3, 2016 at 12:51
    Nice interesting selection of odd ball cars, but a picture of the 1964 Ferrario Lucertola 500 would have been a nice addition to this article.
  • 3
    Joe Elliott Seattle November 6, 2016 at 16:42
    2600 "the first Alfa to have an inline-six under the hood?" You're forgetting its 6C 2500 predecessor (of _Godfather_ 'fame') and the more noteworthy pre-war 6C 1750.

Join the Discussion