On Americans Turning Italian

There’s this problem with Italians in American culture. We turn them into cartoons. You get your pneumatic sex goddesses like Sophia Loren, and all the mobsters from the Godfather through the Sopranos, and the eccentrics like Fellini and his literary equivalent, Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum is as strange as Fellini’s Satyricon). And there’s Bugs Bunny as Arturo Toscanini – and the fat tenor is always Italian, just as the fat contralto with the metal bullet-bra is always German. Italians provide comic relief, as in 1934 with Erik Rhodes as Rodolfo Tonetti in The Gay Divorcee – “Your wife is save with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti!” Sure, they fought against us in World War II, but they couldn’t even handle Ethiopia.

And there was Benito Mussolini. You recall Hemingway started out as a reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, and remember what he reported in January 1923:

As a young reporter, Hemingway met Mussolini. He recognized him as an act from quite early on, when he and a crowd of fellow reporters were summoned into Il Duce’s black-shirted presence at the Lausanne Conference.

“Mussolini sat at his desk reading a book. His face was contorted into the famous frown. He was registering Dictator … I tiptoed over behind him to see what the book was he was reading with such avid interest. It was a French-English dictionary – held upside down.”

One thinks of Silvio Berlusconi – supremely proud and flamboyant, and very strange. Italians always seem to be the joke, or the punch line – “Momma Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!”

But we love them, of course – even if they are scattered and over-the-top passionate (see Antonin Scalia) and often suave and stylish. And there are the great shoes, and the Ferraris.

But now, we have to become them:

Italian car maker Fiat has completed the deal for a global alliance with Chrysler, making way for the American auto maker to steer itself out of bankruptcy as a new company.

Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne would take over the reins of the new Chrysler, which would begin operations immediately.

This is a done deal:

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has become Chrysler CEO as well. The board of directors now consists of three representatives from Fiat, four from the U.S. government, and one each from the UAW and the Canadian government. Marchionne, who turned around Fiat after taking over in 2004, has his work cut out for him in seeking to do the same for Chrysler.

It will be awhile before we know if Chrysler is on the road to survival, for it will take 18 months to two years before it begins producing smaller cars developed with Fiat’s expertise. How well these cars will sell looks like anyone’s guess at this point. But as the smallest and least stable of the automotive Big Three, Chrysler has always managed to stay in business during its long and rocky history. After its previous failed merger with Daimler, Fiat appears to be a more appropriate partner.

Well, that’s the opinion of Dave Hornstein, but some people are thinking of other matters:

The No. 2 Republican in the House on Thursday compared President Barack Obama’s plans for the auto industry to the policies of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, saying the White House has stripped credit holders of rights and given them to Democratic allies.

“They said, ‘Set aside the rule of law, let’s strip secured creditors, bondholders, of their rights. Take them away outside of the bankruptcy process and give them to the political cronies and the auto workers’ unions,” Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“It’s almost like looking at Putin’s Russia,” added Cantor, the GOP’s House whip. “You want to reward your political friends at the expense of the certainty of law?”

Well, the issue is the precedence of types of debt-holders in bankruptcy law – who gets paid first, and who gets what share of what’s left. And yes, this was unusual. But it went through the courts, and those who tried to block what was happening lost, and lost on appeal, and the Supreme Court – packed with pro-business conservatives – looked it over and decided to let it be. And that was that.

But Eric Cantor had bigger fish to fry:

In a wide-ranging interview, Cantor said that Obama’s economic rescue plans and Democrats’ sweeping overhaul of the health care system will sour with recession-weary voters before the 2010 midterm elections. He predicted Republicans will retake control of the House.

While acknowledging that Democrats may well have the votes to push Obama’s health plan through Congress with few or no Republican votes, “it will be at a huge political cost,” Cantor said.

“The Democratic agenda is unraveling,” he said, elucidating what’s become the Republicans’ main talking point in recent weeks. “My sense is by November of 2010, (there will be) an electorate that really wants to see a check and a balance on unfettered power.”

He predicts Republican landslides from here on out – his sense is that all the polls are wrong, that America is fed up with Obama, and really fed up with all this trying to fix things, rather than letting the free market decide who wins and who loses, who has a job and who doesn’t, and who lives and who dies. That really, really offends people. The people believe in personal responsibility and the notion the weak should either save themselves, with no help from anyone, or die – companies, industries, individuals. It’s a freedom thing. At least that’s his take on things. He doesn’t speak to the issue of strange and silly Italians running what was once a major American corporation.

And it won’t be easy. In the Detroit News – Fiat-Chrysler: Best To Start with Low Expectations. There are a lot of minivans and SUV’s and giant Dodge Ram pickup trucks to unload, and it’ll take time to either certify Fiat models to US standards or develop new products.

And no one knows how Americans will take to the tiny Fiat 500. The Boston Globe asks the question. Will the Fiat 500 replicate Mini’s US success?

The Fiat 500 – the direct descendant of the model that was better known as the Cinquecento, or original “pregnant rollerskate” – will be in the first wave of Fiat products coming to the United States in the Fiat/Chrysler marriage.

The 500 is an updated version of the original (think Mini), and it should arrive on our shores by the end of 2010 – significantly smaller than the Mini.

It’s not a bad car, in context – and the New York Times reports it’s on the fast track for us:

Richard Gadeselli, a Fiat spokesman at the automaker’s headquarters in Turin, Italy, sent an e-mail message to confirm plans to take the 500 – voted as Europe’s Car of the Year in 2008 – to Chrysler dealerships just in time for Christmas 2010. That’s barely 18 months away – just around the corner in auto development terms. …

Mr. Gadeselli said Fiat believed the 500 would appeal to the same sort of buyers who have made the Mini such a success. “It is the same sort of boutique car that we think will sell in good numbers in the U.S.,” he said.

And see Automobile Magazine – Fiat 500 Being Readied at Chrysler Headquarters for US Market.

It’s coming. And this must be amusing to our friend Ric Erickson, who created the website MetropoleParis in 1996 and maintained it until early this year, when he packed up and left Paris for good, or at least for the South of France. Each week, somewhere in his photo essays, there would be The Fiat 500 of the Week. They were all over Paris. They’d always been all over Paris.

And Ric liked them. From November 2004, see Save the Cinquecento! But it was a Paris thing.

At the sister site, Just Above Sunset Photography, the whole matter was discussed in November 2004 – with a lot of photographs and a discussion of the cultural history of this car that had appeared in the International Herald Tribune. He was not impressed: 

The Herald Tribune’s lady, even with a name like Elisabetta Povoledo, must be a modern version. How else could she write, “Fancy it isn’t. The back seat is barely big enough for two adults to crouch comfortably, driving requires complex shifting to change gears, and the retractable canvas roof hardly gives the 500 convertible status?” 

‘Driving requires complex shifting?’ No Italian cars are hard to shift. Motors are so small that shifting, often, is a major factor of moving ahead briskly. Shifting is an Italian way of life, helped along with noises like VROOM VROOOM – and keeping a cloth handy to wipe spit off the inside of the windshield. 

Not enough room in the back seat for two adults? Is she blind? The car is so small that the having seats in the back at all is a huge Italian joke. Three Fiat 500s would fit inside Madonna’s limo, and combined, could have more open roof than an open-top double-decker bus.

And he argued that she missed the essential mystery of the Fiat 500:

Of all the cars made in Europe between 1957 and 1975 practically the only survivor one sees on the road these days is the Fiat 500. VWs ‘beetle’ has almost disappeared, as have most Fiat 600s, Renault R4s and R5s, Peugeots, Opels, Fords, and all British cars except the Mini. Naturally there’s a French ‘exception’ – the 2CV. These share longevity with the Fiat 500. 

All other Fiats made during the production years of the Fiat 500 have oxidized. They were infamous for it at the time. Most people knew you could drive them like crazy until your foot went through the floorboard; eight to ten years, or 250,000 kilometers. And then there was nothing left to save.

But if you liked driving – VROOM VROOOM – Fiats were wonderful. One idiot I knew wondered why his 124 was smelling odd after a round-trip to Gibraltar from Hamburg. The oil sump was dry. He filled it up and pounded it at 6200 rpm until the floorboards gave up. 

But he didn’t think much of the new Fiats: 

New Fiats I’d rather not have because they have next-to-no Fiat essence. The small ones feel like they’re going to fall on their nose. But Alfa Romeo is looking good these days. There are few cars anywhere in the world that look as good as the 146, 156, 166 Alfas. They still look like Italian cars. They look like VROOM VROOOM!

And Italian cars really are like that. Upon arriving in California, that was my own experience:

The first order of business was, of course, to get a car, to get to job interviews, to get a job. That’s where things got dicey – the well-used red Fiat 124 convertible was inexpensive, but for a lot of reasons. Previous owners had beaten it up a bit, or a lot actually, and it was, after all, a Fiat – things were always breaking, at least those things that sometimes worked. But it would do – it looked great and the aftermarket stereo system would crank out Earth, Wind and Fire or Steely Dan quite nicely as you glided through the velvet night. Hey – the seventies had just ended. Maybe you had to be there. The cassette with the Eagles doing Life in the Fast Lane finally just wore out.

Maybe Americans can get used to Fiats, or even come to like them. But Ric is uncertain about the new Fiat 500. In December 2007 they started showing up in Paris and he was wary:

Thursday was a zigzag day. Forecast on Monday to be sunny, Wednesday’s forecast said it was to be cloudy and rainy, so on Thursday it was bright and sunny – but cool! – and it was on the way to the club that I spotted my first Fiat Nuova 500 since production began last summer. It was a fleeting shot, of a black one. Black is not what fans were waiting for.

The picture tells it all. It looks snazzy, but not eccentric. The early models were known as the Topolino – the little mouse. It’s not longer mousey. Maybe that will make it marketable in America.

But at Salon, Gary Kamiya asks an important question – Will Fiat kill the U.S. male libido?

Actually, he’s halfway serious, about “the potentially deflating effects on 100 million American men of outsourcing their sexual self-image to a company whose most famous product was known as the ‘little mouse.’”

Here’s his reasoning:

Ever since the first American car clanked off an assembly line, American males have been programmed to associate virility with large, overpowered steel-and-chrome automobiles, preferably adorned with tumescent hood ornaments and protruding, D-cup-size bumper boobs. Buffeted by divorce, feminism, potbellies, a useless repertoire of lame pickup lines and the thousand other natural shocks that flesh is heir to, the long-suffering American male has always known he could find solace in the long, rigid-chassis object reposing in his garage. Indeed, only their function as a kind of auxiliary national phallus can explain why Detroit’s gas-guzzling dinosaurs have survived as long as they have.

But with one rash, emasculating decision, the Supreme Court has drained the oil out of our national crankcase. The merger of Fiat and Chrysler means that the all-American era of he-man Jeeps, phallocentric Chargers and randy Rams has yielded to humiliating automotive domination by a country whose most famous building cannot even attain full verticality.

Ric may like these little cars, and here in Hollywood the car is a Mini Cooper S – supercharged with a six-speed stick on the floor and low, wide tires, that is essentially a very fast go-kart – but we are the exceptions. Kamiya explains the more common view of things:

From their effete command post in a metrosexual-dominated cafe on the Piazza Navona, snivelling Euro-socialists will whine that the Fiat deal is no biggie because American consumers have long since made their peace with cars made in Germany and Japan. If American men can accept driving around in cars made by two of our arch-enemies in World War II, why shouldn’t they feel the same way about ones made by the third member of the original Axis of Evil?

The answer, of course, is that Germany and Japan represented Evil with a capital E. From overrunning France in a month to conquering practically the entire Far East, they brought dynamism, efficiency and a can-do attitude to world conquest – and they brought that same attitude to making cars. The Italians, by contrast, could barely defeat Ethiopia. This is not a track record that inspires confidence.

And he goes on a bit about the legendary unreliability of all Fiat cars – actually just a legend now, as they seem to work just fine these days, breaking down no more often than anyone else’s product. But Kamiya says that was never the problem, really:

The consequences of Fiat’s victory for the male American psyche could be devastating. Even though Chrysler will probably continue to make big cars for macho American dudes, the magical Euro-weeniness of the name “Fiat” alone will cause them to figuratively shrink. No nation can go directly from driving a Ram to driving a Little Mouse. Confused and belittled, American men will shrivel behind the wheels of their dinky cars. Millions of dates will end with a dry, perfunctory peck on the cheek, punctuated by the disillusioned slamming of a tinny, Platonic door. Misery will blight America’s bedrooms. The sale of “If this van’s rockin’, don’t come a knockin’” bumper stickers will plummet. Long-neglected American women will fall like ripe fruit into the hands of lecherous central-planning bureaucrats from Brussels.

This is a bleak scenario, but he says how bleak it actually is depends on how you frame things:

Fiat’s puny 500, the famous Cinquecento, a car so tiny and light that three men could pick it up and move it, may be an anti-aphrodisiac for American men, but for an entire generation of Italians, it was literally sex on wheels. In Italy’s postwar era, as the nation pulled itself out of poverty, destruction, hunger and despair, the ubiquitous 500 represented not just freedom, mobility and the promise of a better life, but an opportunity for young Italians to get out of mama’s house, park somewhere dark, put newspapers over the windows, crawl into its cramped interior, and begin the backbreaking process of increasing Italy’s population.

At this dark moment in American history, with millions of people out of work, Fiat’s lubricious legacy could resonate with American men and women alike. Moreover, while Americans may have their doubts about the sexiness of Italian cars (leaving aside the Alfa and the Ferrari), they have no such misgivings about the sexiness of Italians themselves. Properly marketed, Fiat could appeal to the latent desires of American men to be Marcello Mastroianni and American women to be Monica Vitti. I can see a glossy full-pager of two shapely Italian legs sticking out a newspaper-covered Fiat 500 window at an improbable angle, with the slogan below: “Fiat: Fun Inside All the Time!”

Okay, this would mean handing over a big piece of our national sexual imagery to a bunch of foreigners. But if it saves American jobs and pumps up American libidos, what patriot would shrink from the sacrifice?

Maybe so, but the marketing folks have their work cut out for them. See the first paragraph above – there is the whole Italians-as-clowns thing. Saving Chrysler is now more than a matter of product development in the worst of economic times. There is the century or more of bad jokes and cartoonish cultural references to overcome. That actually may prove to be impossible. The most important people are now the guys in marketing. And the work begins now. It may be time to contact the Frank Sinatra estate. He was cool.

The joke is that the right was always telling us to be afraid of all of us turning into the French – and it was the Italians all along.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America is Becoming Europe, Automobiles, Fiat 500, Fiat Buys Chrysler, Italian Stereotypes, Male Insecurity and Overcompensation, Paris, Ric Erickson. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Americans Turning Italian

  1. radio rico says:

    Ah, Fiat. After owning a 600D, an 1100 made in Germany, a new 850 coupé – the Neckermann Ferrari! – a wasted 124 coupé, and a sad 128 4-door, and driving a Panda or two, I switched, I admit it. But I’ve always missed Fiat. Now I’m thinking of a Renault Twingo, a modern 600D. Too bad it’s not Italian, has no VAROOM VAROOM. Still, with 16 valves and a proper paint job I can pretend.

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