The Washington Times - June 4, 2008, 06:50AM

Ciao!

My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Rome, a city where it’s impossible to get a bad meal or a parking space. That makes me half Italian, which is probably the reason I’ve always been drawn toward Fiat and Alfa Romeo cars, although the closest I’ve come to owning one was during the 13 years my wife drove an Alfa spyder. I fixed it; she drove it. Alfa stopped selling cars in the U.S. in 1994 and never sold more than 5,000 cars here in any given year. Fiat’s last car was the X19 (called the “Bertone” here) and it disappeared by the late 80s.

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Back in my high school days a friend’s father owned a tiny Fiat 600, with “suicide” doors, a tiny engine and a heater that sucked exhaust smoke into the interior. We loved riding around in the little car because girls thought it (and by extension: us) was cute. Granted, our brains were probably suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, but we drove around in the car whenever the chance came up. The tiny Fiat 600 was to be found all over Europe, having been produced from 1955 to 1969. It was incredibly functional and inexpensive and could be squeezed into the smallest of parking spots. It was the Smart car of its era and over the years Fiat has continued to produce many, many more small and efficient cars.

Now they plan to come back to the United States in the form of the Fiat 500. The Fiat 500 is a thoroughly modern version of the old 600 and will retain all the size/functional advantages of the older car while providing all the things today’s buyers expect. There might even be a convertible version and a station wagon later on, but for now Fiat’s management isn’t committing to anything more than the basics. What’s really interesting about their plans is that Fiat is scouting available plants in the U.S. to build the cars here.

Not only that, but they want to build an Alfa Romeo sports sedan here as well, and all this is scheduled to happen as early as late next year! I think this is a great thing for a number of reasons. If these guys manage to pull it off they will be creating more jobs while providing the market with some small, efficient and fun-to-drive cars. As our economy re-shapes itself to accommodate what is certain to be a new era of expensive energy, food and transportation we’ll welcome these guys and their little cars.

Now all we need to do is convince Vespa to build a scooter factory here…