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Fiat Is a Four-Letter Word

When asked to look back on my four decades of car companionship and pick a Worst One, it didn't take me long.  It would have taken more time to think of my worst injury. It was that bad. But before I reveal what this cursed vehicle was, I need to explain something about my general relationship history with cars and trucks.

I am incapable of forming long-term bonds with vehicles. I like some better than others. I might go so far as to admit that I've loved one or two. But even those I once loved were sold or traded with little more than a cursory look through the glove box and trunk for stray tools and Tic-Tacs.

I do have a work truck I've owned for over five years, which is the longest I've owned any vehicle since the last work truck I owned for ten years. That's because I don't drive my work rigs as much as my other cars and it takes me longer to become repulsed by them.

Tom Bodett still in the honeymoon phase with his current work truck. (Tom Bodett Photo)Repulsed may seem too strong of a word, but I guarantee you it's not.  Something happens around year two when suddenly I can't stand to be in them anymore. I hate the sight of them in the driveway. I wish I could walk right past them in parking lots. I don't even like the music they play and it's the music I choose. I can't explain why this is and I've only come to peace with this dark fold of my character in recent years -- I now lease my vehicles. I've known unhappy friends who have romantic lives like this, and I feel fortunate it is only cars and light trucks whose hearts I've broken and whose dogged devotion I've betrayed.

But of all the mentionable and unmentionable cars I've owned, there is one that stands headlamp and fenders above the rest. I hated this car from the very first day it came into my life and more and more each day after. The year was 1982. The place was Anchorage, Alaska. 

The car was a robin's egg blue circa 1974 Fiat. Probably a 124. I say circa and probably because I have no records of this hideous car and am relying solely on memories triggered by a soul crushing Internet search. There are pictures of cars that look alarmingly familiar. Like this one...

Don't be fooled by the cheery color. (Flickr photo by exxodus)And this one...

The car that haunts Tom's nightmares. (Flickr photo by Sherlock77 (James))But memories of my Fiat are more like this one...

The source of Tom's "commitment issues"? (Flickr photo by Frank Kehren)It was a piece of junk. My wife and I bought it because she needed a front-wheel-drive vehicle to get up the steep road we lived on at the time and this was the only vehicle within 300 miles with FWD that we could afford. Only rich people drove Subarus in those days. It was also the same color as my wife's first car--a 1962 Rambler station wagon, which come to think of it, hardly ran either -- and she insisted we buy it.  Fiat by fiat -- my only defense.

After staying overnight with friends we woke up the next morning to a dead battery. That was easy enough to work around, and we were soon making our way the 220 miles down to Homer through marsh and mountain pass.

The front-end shimmy that started at 45 mph went away at 55. Forty-five was too slow for the cars on our tail.  Fifty-five was too fast for the cornering capabilities of the circa 1974-probably-model-124-Fiat. Rack and pinion would better describe the sounds it made on sharp curves than the actual front-end design. The feel of it on the road was not unlike the handling of a warehouse pallet being dragged behind a cannery forklift, but not as safe.

For the most part the heater kept frost from forming on the inside of the windshield, but nowhere else. After hitting a pavement break in Cooper Landing the shimmy went away, and the gas gauge stopped working. Still, we made it all the way on one tank. Great mileage potential, but it never ran long enough in any given stretch after that to really know.

The first in a long litany of failed components was the starter motor. I still did all of my own machinating in those days and changing a starter was as routine as swapping out snow tires -- two or three bolts, a couple wires, presto chango, off we go.

I ordered the part, which arrived six weeks later after being flown in from Torino by carrier goose, I suppose. I wiggled underneath the front of the car -- tight but was able to remove the old starter without too much drama. Then the show began. I had the starter off, but I could not get it out of the engine compartment where, I discovered while juggling the thing with frozen fingers from one possibility to the next, there was no starter-sized hole to push it through.  

This was a Sunday repair job and I was by-god going to get it done on Sunday, so I removed the right-front wheel and the fender and finished the job. I was told later by a mechanic who seemed to know that Fiat assembles their engines complete and then puts them into the car, and that to remove the starter you have to loosen the engine mounts and the exhaust manifold, and rock it over on its side. That might have been easier than the way I did it, but not much.

This car did not last two years in our warm embrace.  We'd have sold it sooner, except it never worked long enough to close the deal. One good test drive and something else would fall off.  From electrical puzzles that would have left Marconi mumbling incoherently into a microphone, to exhaust leaks that did leave me mumbling into one, the blue Fiat was a symphony of horrors that still rings in my head.

We finally did sell it only after turning away two eager buyers we felt sorry for.

"You don't want this car." We told the young couple with the car seat in hand.

"This will ruin our friendship," we told the friend.

"You like to work on cars,” we asked the young man looking at his first with love in his eyes? Of course he did. "You promise not to die in this one?" He did promise.

I never saw the circa 1974-probably-model-124-Fiat again. Unless it's that blue beater above. But somewhere out there is a middle-aged man recalling his first car. Bitterly, no doubt. And wondering why he can't seem to keep a car for more than a couple of years.

Call me, brother.  I have a hunch about that.

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