The Great Fiat Debacle
by Ed Collins/December, 1997
I figure it’s time to come clean about the Great Fiat Debacle.
After all, I’m 50 years-old and my parents have long since passed on, and even if today they’re providing some kind of guardian angel service for me, I’d like to think they would forgive me.
The GFD took place in 1963, when I was a senior at Monte Vista High School, I think in the fall, probably in October, most likely on a weeknight. I think it was planned, but I’m not sure. It’s possible that it was a spontaneous decision. Maybe we had gone cruising and were bored.
During those days, driving endlessly was a favorite pastime for teenagers. Sometimes the destination was one of several local drive-ins. Drive-ins were fast-food places where, from the parking lot, in your car, you press a button on a speaker-phone, place your order, then wait for a teenage girl to bring your food, which always seemed to include fries and a Coke. When she arrived you’d roll the driver’s window down and she’d hook a tray onto it; meanwhile, you could listen to Motown, Beatles or Beach Boys songs for the umpteenth time that day, while checking out who else was either cruising the drive-in or stopping for fries and a coke.
I can’t say for sure who was with me, but I know that Mike Dell was in the front passenger seat and that Susie Sarkela was in the back seat. I want to say that Ron Hammett and Ed Gerrish were there too, because they always were. There must’ve been another girl too, but I can’t recall. I’m pretty sure there were five of us.
I was driving: That’s the point of this story.
I was driving my father’s 1957 Fiat––a four-door compact that wasn’t much larger than a Volkswagen beetle. The odd thing about this car was that the front doors opened backwards (In the 30s and/or 40s they were called suicide doors).
My dad bought the Fiat because it got great gas mileage––he being a dairy-products salesman with a broad San Diego territory. I imagine that he must have been proud of that car, because in an odd way, the Fiat was kinda sporty. Prior to the Fiat my dad had owned Ramblers. As well as I can remember, he owned two.
Ramblers were the quintessential middle-class family car. They were high on practicality and low on style. We had a pale green or beige, five-door station wagon with odd-shaped fins protruding out the back, and broad white-wall tires. I think it had a built-in luggage rack on top.
The Fiat was our first second car. Prior to its purchase, in 1961, I think, we were a one-car family. My mother didn’t work––outside of the house––and so wherever we needed to go by car, she waited until my father came home.
So I’m driving the Fiat, and it was jam-packed with my friends, and we’re on a teenage trouble-making mission.
To toilet paper a teacher’s house.
I wish I could remember how we picked this particular teacher, whose name I can’t recall. I do remember that we didn’t do it out of endearment or hatred. I think he taught English, and that we thought he was nerdy.
I remember his house was dark as we blanketed his yard and trees, each with our own roll. I remember that after finishing we hurriedly jumped back in the car and took off, giggling to beat the band, I’m sure. Where we went then I don’t remember.
We could have dropped someone off, and picked up somebody else, or maybe we got something to eat,
probably at Gaetano’s Pizza Restaurant, in Casa de Oro. Anyway, the point is, we went back to the scene of the crime.
They say you should never do that.
I drove slowly past the house, so could savor our work. And then I remember seeing a car parked in the driveway––a car that wasn’t there before, pointed in the direction of the street. When its lights suddenly came on everyone screamed. Or maybe it was just Susie who screamed. I just know that when that car started rolling down the driveway everyone started hollering and my heart practically burst through my letterman’s jacket (mandatory evening apparel at that time).
“Let’s get the shit outta here,” I imagine Mike said.
Now here is where common sense and my conservative nature abandoned me (not for the first time, more than a few times since), but for whatever reason, I followed Mike’s suggestion––that we try to lose this guy.
What I was thinking I haven’t a clue. I was driving a 4-cylinder toy car with five or six people weighing it down. Our pursuer was driving a 1940s Ford sedan that looked like something Bonnie and Clyde made their fateful last trip in.
Well, here I am, with one eye on the road and one on this hulk of a car that is right on my ass. Mike is yelling at me to turn here, turn there, turn here. Before I know it we’re on dirt roads and my dad’s Fiat is bouncing along so bad that someone in the back seat yelled “Ow!” after hitting their head on the roof.
At first everyone was laughing hysterically––like we were on some amusement park ride. But after a while the laughs stopped and things got quiet in the car. This guy was following us way too close, like he was mad.
Although the whole chase scene probably only took five minutes, it seemed like it lasted a lot longer than that. There were never any harrowing turns, or near accidents––just a long, seemingly fast, mostly bumpy ride with a car crawling up my exhaust pipe.
After exiting the guy’s neighborhood, I turned onto Jamacha Blvd, a main road leading back to Casa de Oro. We were going up an incline, with the Ford still adjoined to my back bumper, when, all of a sudden my dad’s Fiat lost power. I looked down at the gauges and saw that the temperature read Hot. Then I looked at the hood. Then I saw the smoke. Then I looked at Mike.
Then I pulled over.
It wasn’t our teacher. It was his roommate. And he obviously didn’t like kids. Nor cleaning up toilet paper.
So we followed him back to his house, cleaned up the mess, and my dad’s Fiat took us home, which took quite a long time, because it wouldn’t go faster than ten miles-an-hour.
I didn’t, and still don’t, know anything about cars, but when Mike told me the Fiat could have a “big problem,” I broke into a cold sweat.
The next morning before breakfast, the cold sweat returned when I told my father that “The Fiat got overheated last night, for some reason I don’t know.”
God, what a lie.
Addendum: My Dad traded the Fiat in on a 1963 Volkswagen beetle. Years later I saw the Fiat again, on a street in downtown Ensenada. Two guys were pushing it to get it started.