It was wonderful to take my first days off from work this year the week of Labor Day Monday. Before this happened, that little break from work was something I didn’t even realize would do me that much good. It’s odd for me to think about not having taken any form of transportation for over six months, but a true blessing of living where I do is that I can travel on foot to most places I need to go. This year, unlike those prior, there were no end-of-summer barbecues. The beaches were still closed, though many parks were still open. I miss many friends. I had taken time off from work not because I was particularly out of sorts or feeling overworked, but simply because they were available.
“Vacation time” has taken on new meaning this year, given my reluctance to travel. That doesn’t mean that I had spent all of my leisure time this summer on my couch in front of the television. What I came to realize is that travel is as much a state of mind as it is an actual thing one does. For an example of what I mean by this, many areas around my neighborhood look very different while exploring them on foot than when I had previously passed by or through them from a CTA train or ride share. Often times, my observations of places, houses, parks and storefronts were limited to the split-second takes afforded me from a window seat in a moving vehicle.
Even some of the parks I had passed maybe even a hundred times in a car while on Lake Shore Drive next to Lake Michigan have suddenly looked completely different when traversing their trails by foot. It has sometimes almost felt like I had moved to a different city while exploring new areas. A little more focus on the “micro” versus what had previously been observed on a “macro” level has given me a whole, new appreciation for many locales that are basically just beyond my backyard.
One thing that helped me maximize my so-called “staycation” time was to be deliberate about what I was going to do that week. As I had mentioned last Tuesday, the weather forecast for the week of September 7th was substantially cooler than what had come immediately before, overcast most of the time, and even rainy for a couple of those days. Knowing that I was likely going to be homebound for much of the week, I made a point to do my household chores and cleaning or catch up on my entertainment watching during those dark, wet days. The exception was Labor Day Monday, which had a warm and sunny forecast. It was on that Monday that I set out on a miles-long loop with my camera that both started and ended at my house.
I’ll get to the featured car in a moment, but I also want to share what has been something I have enjoyed very much as I await getting to use my recently renewed passport. YouTube has innumerable videos available (for free) of walking tours through many cities throughout the world. It has brought me great joy, especially on days that are cloudy or when the outdoors are otherwise off limits to me for some reason, to pick a city, queue up some accompanying music on my stereo (as if I had my earbuds in), and do some exploring for an hour or more from the comfort of my own couch.
At first, I had worried that this activity might make it too painful to face the reality that I won’t be traveling anywhere abroad anytime soon, but the opposite has turned out to be true. Not only has this been an amazing, fun, and cost-effective pastime, it has been a way to see the world in some way and started to give me some ideas of where I’d like to go once it’s much safer to do so. I treasure my 2017 vacation trip to Italy. I’ll be ready to go somewhere else once all the dust settles from the current pandemic.
I was of this mindset while taking a walk on the week of my vacation when I stumbled upon this dark yellow FIAT 500L parked in front of one of my favorite gastropubs. Car-spotting hadn’t been part of my deliberate, initial plans for Labor Day, but when I saw this diminutive car, I figured it was worth a look since only one stoplight stood between me and it.
This car is really tiny. Of these accompanying photographs, it’s the wide shot of the car parked in front of a row of businesses that gives any sort of true perception of its miniscule dimensions. Parked on the street, it comes up to only a little above the waist of an average-sized passerby on the slightly elevated sidewalk. The base model 500s measure only just under 117 inches long, riding on a 72″ wheelbase. (I’m about six feet tall, so this would be like me laying down on the sidewalk next to it, with the top of my head and the bottom of my toes reaching the wheel center at each axle.) I find it almost comical that their width, at 52″, and height, at 52.6″, are almost identical. Base curb weight was just under 1,200 pounds.
The original 500’s proportions, especially the similar width and height, seem almost like those of the AMC Pacer, but rotated on its lengthwise horizontal axis (or something like that). Of course, the Pacer coupe only looked as long as it was wide. Just for fun, try these comparisons with the 500 on for size: its length of 171.8″ was 54.8″ longer (+32%) and its width of 77.3″ was 25.3″ wider (+49%), while its height was about the same, at 52.8″ (vs. 52.6″). Three 500Ls parked side by side would be about as wide as two Pacers.
The “L” submodel of the 500, which was produced from between 1967 and ’71, was a fancier version of the standard “F” model next to which it was sold next to for a few model years. (The “F” was sold between 1965 and ’73.) The easiest external identifier of the “L”, I’ve learned, are the tubular bumper guards affixed to the front and rear that increase the overall length by a couple of inches. The “L” included many upgrades over the base car, including and not limited to exterior bright trim, a nicer dashboard, door cards, and steering wheel, and a few more things. I see these upgrades not so much as making the 500 into a truly luxurious small car (the “L” stood for “lusso”, or luxury), so much as making up the difference between, say, an early Chevette “Scooter” and a regular one.
I tried hard to think of some metaphor or common, Italian point of reference with which to compare the color of this one’s exterior. It doesn’t have enough red in it for the deep orange of Aperol, and… well, that’s all I could come up with. According to Google , “spicy mustard” would translate as “senape piccante”. I think this is somewhat fitting, given that mustard seeds are also tiny. It’s a shame the popularity of the reborn 500 in the United States didn’t take off and spread like mustard plants are capable of doing, with this line being discontinued here as of the end of 2019. I did take note of many of these older 500s on the streets of Rome, three years ago. I’m the meantime, I’ll continue to do my due diligence to research what I hope will be my next, great adventure traveling abroad. Ciao for now.
Andersonville, Chicago, Illinois.
Monday, September 7, 2020.
Aperol will do, as it is bitter and clingy in the mouth and a digestif at base, a serious or practical sort of thing. This somewhat thick mustardy color was common to shaggy carpets and Euro cars in the ’70’s, and suited neither. It is certainly too plodding for a cheery 500 cheekmobile, though the car was ofcourse an entirely practical proposition itself in its home and time.
I am as susceptible to the doleful charms of these little eggs as anyone – apart from their sound, an out-of-balance washing machine – but wouldn’t have the braves to drive one about today. A distracted thwack from something as small as a modern 500 could easily end in my demise.
This idea of walking to see familiar things anew is true. Mindfulness has had too much quackery and other weights from the marketer put upon it, sometimes to the point of parody, but it is a real thing that can be practised. Done right, you will always see something new in the most mundane and apparently familiar environment, if you look. It might not surprise you to hear that I am an over-vigilant and poor practitioner of this art, but I do try, and it is worth it.
Travel to far places will happen again. For now, a tiny touch of mindfulness on the walks allowed must be the substitute, and it can be. I am, though poor, immensely priveleged in this current mess anyway: heated, electrified, housed, not hungry, and with access to healthcare that 85% of the world does not.
A very nice piece, as ever, Mr Joe.
Thank you so much, Justy Baum. And your final thoughts on being thankful for what one has is key, I think, to getting through much of this. Well stated.
I haven’t been to Hopleaf since February. Thanks for the reminder. It is a favorite place for my wife and myself.
I, too, was glad to see it open. Love their cone-of-fries.
Joe, you have company in exploring local areas. I’ve been spending a few Saturday mornings exploring local county roads simply to see what treasures exist. Fire up the pickup and go. There have been a few surprises along the way.
On September 11 I had to make a trip for personal business. It was my first time leaving the state since November – never in my life have I gone that long without leaving the state where I was living. And never had Overland Park, Kansas, seemed so exotic.
As for the Fiat, the color seems to be a good match for it, almost like that of a yellow bell pepper.
Wow – Jason, your ten-month stretch between ventures out of state are probably what my next trip downtown is going to feel like.
I think a lot of us are going to welcome everyday-seeming sights we had once taken for granted.
Thanks for taking us along with your stroll. This car brought back fond memories of friendships in Germany and Italy because they included some seat time in NUOVO FIAT 500. In Catania Sicily it seemed more than half of the cars were FIAT 500 and I felt like being one bee in a swarm buzzing around among another swarm of Vespa. Also, four friends in a FIAT 500 makes for a fun time.
Wolfgang, I can imagine that four adults in a FIAT 500 would make for close quarters, but there’s something to be said for an adventure like that. I always smile when I see one of these older 500s still on the street in one of those YouTube walking tours.
I spent some time in the essentially identical (except for the engine) Steyr-Puch 650 that my aunt in Innsbruck owned. That was when I was 15 and quickly passing the 6′ mark. Along with my mother and a couple of other kids. We had some great trips up into the mountains above Innsbruck. Somewhat slowly.
Knowing a bit about Chicago traffic, there’s a braver man than I piloting that virtual go-kart of an automobile around town. Even if it never sees the Dan Ryan or Eisenhower…
It’s really hard to show the difference in scale between a ur-500 and almost any new car. A Smart car compared to this is an overgrown oaf. The new ‘Nuovo’ 500 looks like an old 500 that has suffered from some sort of Gigantism.
Nice write up, Joe.
Geo, this is at the top of the Cohort at this very moment and shows the size difference – its even the same color.
Camera angle makes that picture misleading, even if the difference is quite considerable. Here’s one of both in profile.
The one on the right looks like the one on the left as inflated by Dig Dug!
looking at that makes me pretty certain if one moved the seats dashboard and various bits out of the way you could park the old one inside it like a Russian doll.
Geozinger, my first thought (similar to yours) when I saw this 500L was that it seems there would be little to no chance of survival even in a minor collision. I might be comfortable taking it short distances around the north side of Chicago where I live, but I’m sure the owner has established a comfort level with operating it in traffic. Kudos to him or her!
The smallest things take on a larger scale when seen by walking around…My aunt in Germany had one of these when I was little, hers was light blue. And even then and there it seemed small…but perfectly sized. A beautiful piece of design that the Nuova did a very good job in preserving as much as they really could, one of the best stylistic re-interpretations among the retro genre.
Regarding walking tours, some of the best I have taken have been in and about Chicago. As an architecture student, our studio got an amazing day tour of the city by the famed local architect Hanno Weber, who highlighted the Inland Steel building, Mies’ work, KPF’s 333 W Wacker, the Fisher Studio building by Andrew Rebori, a number of Prairie Style masterpieces by Wright and other works from the context of the City as we toured the neighborhoods from the core all the way north to where you are in Andersonville.
Today, I would recommend the app ‘Detour’, which in Chicago includes guided tours from the Chicago Architecture Foundation, as well as good walking tours in other cities, including tours by David Rockwell, Ken Burns, and Joel Grey in New York. It is a great way to learn new things about cities that you think you know well (at least those that they’ve covered with tours thus far).
BEO, thank you so much for that recommendation. One thing I have sorely missed this year are both the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s walking tours as well as taking a river tour. The former was new to me last year, but the latter is something I’ve been doing for over ten years and never get sick of.
That color is called Giallo Positano, as that shade and variations of it are all over the buildings in that coastal city:
That’s beautiful. I can see that particular shade of giallo there on that hill.
Haven’t driven one of these, but I used to ride around in a baby-blue one in the early 60s.
Four speeds with no synchromesh I recall, and suicide doors.
My first car was a North American-spec ’59 500, bought as a present to myself in Anchorage AK in January 1961. Big difference was 7″ sealed beams in frog-eye pods and daily massive bumpers; otherwise 500D spec (=17 hp instead of 14). Perfect learning car for someone who’d never driven on ice or snow, and I put well over a thousand miles on it in a year or so. Traded it in on my first 850 Mini and discovered TORQUE!!
I did love the car, though it always fouled on plug when I was on a date and wearing a French-cuff shirt … but I have to bite back at people grousing about “no synchromesh”. It had a standard shift pattern, but was constant-mesh like a bike gearbox, and could be rev-matched for upshifting sans declutching in the same way. Downshifting needed double-clutching, but I’d been taught to do that anyway. Came in handy when the clutch cable broke, which it did with tiresome regularity.
As for the 1200-lb weight: An Italian spec car I’d been given, but failed to revive (it was pretty hopeless) was sent to the wrecking yard via a local hauling company whose policy was to haul the first ton for free. They used a built-in scale of some sort to weight the load on the spot, and told me that since it had registered around 950 lbs it was on the house!
Will, that’s awesome that yours ended up getting towed for free. I didn’t realize that these were ever sold in the U.S. when new.
The comments about walking around a familiar neighborhood to see new things rings a bell for me, too. For much of my career, I was involved in commercial real estate and store site selection, which involved visiting hundreds of places over the years. One of the cardinal rules in my field was to approach a prospective site multiple times from all angles. The idea was to see the location as a local would, in order to figure out which would be the most advantageous siting of the building from the standpoint of visibility, and access and hence the ability of a store to drive traffic and sales. In an urban environment, as in much of Chicago, where a majority of customers might arrive on foot, this exercise and keen observational skills become even more critical. With this background, I am not surprised the author has seen or rediscovered new things while on a walk through or near his neighborhood.
With respect to these pictures, it appears even in one of the denser urban parts of the U.S., Il Topolino (the little mouse, a favorite nickname for the 600 in Italy) is dwarfed by its surroundings. Perhaps the narrow streets of Positano would provide a more fitting context for this 600, along with its mustard coloring.
This is so interesting. I would love to revisit some corners or storefronts that have had an unusually high turnover to see what principles you’ve described would apply to why they’re so unsaleable.