ASHEVILLE, N.C., July 23 (UPI) -- Like hundreds of thousands of people each year, Shawn Folkerts was planning a leisurely drive across the country this summer. But unlike most people, he was planning his drive from Oregon to North Carolina in a car made by the troubled Italian auto manufacturer Fiat from the mid-1970s.
And by the time his car sputtered into Idaho, it had broken down three times and he was running out of time. So Folkerts called a friend and rented a Dodge R/T to make sure he would make it for the start of the annual Fiat festival, held this year in Asheville.
The Dodge had no mechanical problems whatsoever, and yet for Folkerts, the driving experience from Idaho to the final destination was simply too straightforward and downright dull.
Such is the mindset of the Fiat enthusiast who not only readily puts up with the Italian car's tendency to go on the fritz, but also enjoys swapping stories of mechanical problems with fellow Fiat owners. Not for nothing do most people know the car by its nickname, Fix It Again Tony, rather than its true name, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino.
In fact, partly due to increased competition and the reputation it had suffered, the manufacturer ceased to distribute Fiats in U.S. markets by 1983. Meanwhile, in Italy, Fiat's fortunes have been in steady decline, especially with the death of its charismatic founder, Gianni Agnelli, earlier this year.
Having built up the car manufacturer into one of Italy's biggest industrial conglomerates, Agnelli remained fiercely loyal about the company's identity and insisted on keeping the group within the family, as he refused to sell off Fiat even as it accumulated losses close to $3.2 billion. With his death, there has been increased speculation that the company will finally be able to sell at least its auto manufacturing arm, possibly to General Motors. GM already owns 20 percent of total Fiat Auto shares, whilst the Agnelli family owns about 30 percent of shares.
Fiat was once by far the dominant carmaker in Italy, and it was also a source of pride for Italians to drive domestically-produced vehicles. Even though it still has about 30 percent market share, that foothold has been shrinking steadily, especially as European integration has meant Italians no longer need to look solely to their home market for quality, low-cost cars.
Such harsh realities, however, have had little bearing on the die-hard fans of the compact cars, which come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, the small number of fans established a club 20 years ago, which comes together at least once a year for a weekend of swapping stories of horror and triumph, sharing information about places to get cars fixed, drive together in convoy along mountain roads to see the vehicles in action, and of course, it's also an opportunity to show off the cars in their full glory.
At the latest Fiat gathering, 156 cars and 350 fans took part in competing for the best in their respective nine categories, as well as that most sought-after title, Best in Show.
Like dog grooming for major shows such as New York's Westminster and London's Crufts dog shows, a car is not just washed with tender loving care, they're cleaned with Q-tips to get rid of grime built up in cracks and crevices, buffed with the finest suede cloths, and rubbed down with an array of cleaning products that would equal in number those of an upscale hair salon. And not only are they polished spotlessly, even the engine of the cars are gleamed to perfection, as the judges open the hoods of cars to inspect the innards of the Fiat.
So extensive is the examination of cars, that some over-protective owners go as far as to insist on towing their cars to the site, ostensibly to prevent them from getting scratched up and dirty. It's also probably because they are well aware of the risks of driving a Fiat from Ontario and the Rocky Mountains to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and are loathe to be susceptible to mechanical problems that are all too common in Fiats, regardless of how they may look from the outside.
Certainly, the frailties of the Italian car were all too apparent driving from mid-Atlantic to the upper south of the East Coast, as all three Fiats encountered on the road either had their hoods up, one because of a broken fan-belt, or were being towed away.
Still, the owners remain fiercely proud of their vehicles, and each participant of the Asheville get-together was provided with a tag to wear, that listed not only their names, but also the type of Fiat, including the year it was manufactured, that they own.
One proud owner said he only got his 1980 convertible weeks ago through on-line auction house eBay for $8,500, whilst others boasted of being owners of a fleet of Fiats for decades. But John Wright, who has a number of Fiats at home at any given time and has been a loyal participant of Fiat get-together for years, had never actually attend any event by driving his own Fiat to the site as all the cars were usually under repair.
Still, such stories were greeted with glee, rather than shame or embarrassment.
"We own Fiats, not Ferraris," said one attendee, noting the camaraderie shared by the breakdown-prone cars.
Dealing with the car's inevitable weaknesses and lavishing time and attention to keeping the vehicle in working order is part and parcel of a Fiat owner's destiny. Enjoying its frailties and rejoicing in its basic achievements such as actually being drivable are something that Ferrari and Maserati owners simply cannot buy.