Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 10...

The Italian company Fiat took control of Chrysler in 2011 after the German company Daimler had bailed Chrysler out during the great recession. As part of the transfer Fiat would share technology with Chrysler and help develop new platforms for future releases. Chrysler would help distribute Fiat cars through their dealership network as an additional concession. Undoubtedly the most popular of the Fiats was the small 500 series. It was to the Italians what the Beetle was to Germany and the Mini was to England. It was small, inexpensive to produce and tough as nails. It helped keep the nation going forward following the war. Like all great cars it became a cultural touchstone. It gave Italians a sense of identity. No other car looked quite like it. It was cute and quirky but also had some zip to it. It was also a durable car that could be passed down from generation to generation so long as it were taken care of. 

Fiat redesigned the 500 in 2007 for Europe but only recently brought it to the USA. Fiats had even less exposure in the US than even the original Mini. The company had to convince people in the US that the car was more than just a cute shape but also a solid performer. The new Mini had a reputation for performance thanks to BMW and Porsche lent its insight to make the Beetle sportier as well. The 500 had a performance package available by Abarth, the racing car manufacturer. Fiat had acquired the label decades earlier and applied it exclusively to their own rides as MOPAR and SRT did for Dodge.

The company took a page from the successful relaunches of the Beetle and Mini and went into advertising overdrive. Starting with a celebrity endorsement in late 2011 and then quickly following up with a Superbowl commercial. Ad campaigns were mostly on the humorous side, playing up the Italian tropes on passionate women, big family weddings and the difference between British and Italian sensibilities.

The original 500 was well known to car buffs the world over. In Japan the car became legendary. It was the preferred ride for the master thief Lupin the 3rd and his gunman Daisuke Jigen. The 1967 manga series Lupin III spawned several television shows, films and games. A few generations had grown up watching his exploits and took careful note of his European car. The Fiat was heavily modified but that didn't stop it from being wrecked by gunfire, bigger cars and off road adventures. The little car remained unstoppable, endearing it to audiences as Herbie the Love Bug had to western audiences.

Great cars were embraced by pop culture. It happened in every country. Songs were written about them, movies and television shows were produced around them. There were awe-inspiring machines that were limited only by the imagination. There was something universally appealing about the automobile. The ways in which each nation interpreted them were unique and at the same time very familiar. Many artists were able to caricature the lines of cars and feature them in comics and cartoons. The next blog will look at some of the best artists that worked outside of the car industry. These people nonetheless helped influence a generation of car lovers.

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