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The 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth is the spiritual descendant of the original Abarth. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
The 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth is the spiritual descendant of the original Abarth. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

To New York and back in a fun Fiat 500 Abarth Add to ...

I’m not an expert on the Theory of Relativity, but I do know that our conceptions of time and space were never the same after Albert Einstein. I thought of this as I prepared a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth for a trip to New York City with my favourite travelling companion: my wife.

As we loaded our bags into the little white Fiat, I was hoping that we could travel not just to New York, but to another era: I wanted the Abarth to teleport me back to the greatest driving days of my life, when I piloted a small, battered Fiat through the capitals of Europe.

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In the 1970s, I was a teenager, in love with machines and speed. My Fiat was no sports car, but it carried me through endless days and nights, its hard-working little motor providing the soundtrack for memories that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

And so Fiats are special to me, conjuring up a bygone age in the same way that a P-51 Mustang fighter makes me think of the Second World War. My Fiat years began when my family moved to Brussels, where my dad was part of the Canadian military attache at NATO. In North America, I had lived among Mercury Comets, Vista Cruiser station wagons and jacked-up muscle cars. In Europe, I entered the realm of the streamliner Citroën, the tweaked Lotus and the autobahn-blitzing BMW. I loved it.

We lived on a street lined with rosebushes. The radio crackled with French and Flemish, and I got my first car: a white Fiat 600 that needed a carburetor rebuild. It was a tiny, underpowered machine with a folding sunroof and a strange appeal to women – as I would learn, the Fiat was a four-wheeled panda bear, attracting the kind of female demographic I have always preferred (elegant, well-educated brunettes) in a way that no Corvette or Hemi Cuda could ever manage.

The Fiat schooled me in the ways of the road. I drifted it over rain-slicked cobblestones and watched the crenellated spires of the Grand Place through its open sunroof.

Down in my parent’s garage, I disassembled my Fiat on a regular basis, hoping (and usually failing) to increase its performance. I polished the intake manifold, shortened the shifter, and tweaked the carburetor for maximum output (about 20 horsepower, I believe). I removed the muffler baffles to give a race car tone (or so I hoped). What I really wanted was for my car to be an Abarth (a tuner Fiat that had achieved cult status among young gear heads like myself).

Abarth-modified Fiats had more power, fatter tires and better suspension than cooking-variety models like mine. And Abarths had a signature design element – their engine covers were propped open to let heat escape from the higher-output motor. (Like all Abarth wannabees, I propped open my Fiat’s engine lid and put on an Abarth sticker.)

Fast-forwarded to 2013. I was in Toronto, a grown man with a wife, two kids and a house. And there was an Abarth in my garage – a new Fiat 500 test car with a factory tuning kit. It had a 160-horsepower turbocharged motor, PireIli P-Zero tires and sport suspension. And I was about to hit the road to New York in it with my wife, the woman who has made all others pale in comparison from the moment I met her back in 1983.

My dream had come true. Or had it?

As I have learned through eye-opening experience, it’s not easy to reincarnate an automotive legend. Times and technologies change. And so do we. When I drove the new 2010 Camaro, I could see that it was a far improved car compared to the 1960s model that inspired it. But I didn’t like the 2010 – it was too big, too heavy, and it lacked the of-the-moment coolness that the original had. The new VW Beetle was also a huge disappointment – it was a decent car, but it wasn’t a Beetle. Ditto for the Dodge Challenger – too big, and too generic. The experience reminded me of running into an old girlfriend who’d had a million dollars worth of plastic surgery – some things are best left as memories.

Now it was time to drive the new Abarth. Would it take me back, or shatter my treasured recollections? My wife and I both agreed that at least the Fiat’s styling was good, capturing the spirit of the original 500 while accommodating modern essentials such as seatbelts, airbags, air conditioning, power windows, and impact-absorbing crush zones (unless you have a death wish, crashing an original Fiat 500 is not recommended).

Like the original car, the new Fiat 500 had a rounded, toy-like shape. (Although my wife is generally indifferent to cars, she really liked the Fiat.) I did, too. This was the car I really wanted back in the 1970s. The Abarth version is a cartoonish variation on the standard Fiat 500, with fattened tires, lowered suspension, and twin exhaust pipes. Perfect. (Unlike the original, the engine is in the front.)

As we burbled through the green hills of upstate New York, I realized that we were really enjoying the car. The roof was open, the exhaust pipes crooned away behind us like an internal combustion horn section, and the steering was tight and accurate – I pushed the Fiat through the curves, enjoying the G-forces. Although the original 500 had barely enough power to reach highway speed, the new Abarth was fast – on-ramps were no problem, and I set the cruise control to make sure we didn’t get a major ticket.

The Abarth’s designers have done a masterful job of packaging. Although it’s only a little longer than a Smart car, the Fiat can actually carry four adults (yes, we tried it). And with only two people aboard, there’s plenty of luggage room for a major trip.

When we emerged from the Holland Tunnel on to the streets of New York, I had sense of automotive déjà vu. Skyscrapers glittered overhead in the velvety night, and the Fiat’s stubby white hood was aimed down Fifth Avenue. I remembered driving through Paris and Brussels in my long-lost Fiat, loving the car and dreaming up ways to make it powerful and better handling. Now the modifications had all been done, courtesy of Fiat’s engineers. The Abarth was a blast. And while they were at it, the designers had put in leather seats, air conditioning and crash protection.

We zipped through the streets of Manhattan, heading north past the Dakota building where John Lennon lived and died. Central Park blurred by, and suddenly we were in Harlem. I parked in front of the Apollo Theatre, where James Brown and the Jackson Five had made their starts. The Abarth sat at the curb, a small, ovoid form, crouched over its fat little tires. Passersby came to stare at it. I was staring at it, too.

Time and space had somehow warped in optimum fashion, delivering me a perfect moment that I had never anticipated. Four decades ago, I had dreamed of turning my little white car into an Abarth, low-slung and tuned to perfection. And now I was driving its spiritual descendant with the woman I love. Change is good. (The car, I mean.)

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: @cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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