Experience D’Orth By Bill Orth
I’VE GOT AN IDEA! LET’S GO TO CZECHO!
Ferrari SpA opened its doors and conference rooms to all North American dealers late last month to introduce us to the new Ferrari California GT. The car’s development was a poorly kept secret for the past two years, always denied by SpA, but those in the know leaked to the world that a new ‘small’ Ferrari was being planned. Many called it a reincarnation of the fabled Dino, but that really isn’t accurate. Where the Dino was a significantly less expensive car than the Ferraris of the time, it was also considered an altogether separate brand of car, sharing more Fiat components than Ferrari. But it was beautiful.
Instead of being a separate car line, the California GT is considered an additional model to Ferrari’s lineup, and shares a great deal of Ferrari technology and components. While it is intended to be the least costly car in the lineup, it certainly isn’t inexpensive, with a price planned to be about 15% under that of a 430 coupe. Much has been written in the press and on the official Ferrari websites about the car, so I’m not going to rehash all that here. We were given two days of meetings, technological discussions and a visit to the big new assembly building that has been purpose-built for the car. Ferrari truly is planning for a steadily-growing world presence and what we saw was impressive. I have no doubt that the California will be a very popular car, even though it is somewhat less intense than the Ferraris we currently have. By mid-week I was tired of the summer heat in Maranello, so we headed North across the mountains to Germany in our rental car, a new FIAT model called the Idea. This is a sawed-off small SUV-type thing with four doors and a hatch in the rear. It had a 1.3 liter turbo diesel and manual transmission, very adequate power even with the surprisingly good A/C on full blast.
80-90 mph was easily maintained over the Brenner Pass, and after turning left at Innsbruck, we began a circuitous trip to a scenic mountain town near the Czech border. Relaxing in the Bavarian mountains for a few days was very nice, but I had another agenda in mind. I have a couple of elderly Czech racing motorcycles and several vintage handguns all made by the CZ works in a small industrial town called Strachonice, and I was curious to see the place…since we were in the neighborhood anyway. The trip through the Western end of the Czech Republic was through scenic, rolling farmland on well-maintained two-lane roads. Occasionally you would pass through small villages that do not appear to have changed much since the ‘50s. The 1850s. Things there are a little grim, and other than a couple of stores providing food and hardware, the principal businesses were always sleazy strip bars…and used car lots.
That was really strange. All over Italy and Germany one sees franchised auto dealers who will have some preowned units lied up, but virtually no independent lots offering various makes of used cars. The Czechs, however, have a vast selection, despite the local economies appearing to offer scant clientele. Bicycles & mopeds are far more numerous parked outside the local grocery markets than private autos. Nevertheless, each small town has at least two chain-link fenced lots with a mixed bag of usually lower echelon cars therein. Odd, because if you added up the houses in these villages, there were more used cars available in each than there are (apparently) available drivers. Must be something going on I don’t understand. Even stranger, in one of the larger villages, right next to a used car lot, was a brand new Chevrolet dealership. No Impalas and Suburbans on display, though; just some little economy car with the familiar bow-tie badge.
Scrakonice turned out to be somewhat of a letdown. Much larger than the rural villages, it is situated on a river and has apparently been an industrial center for eons. And it’s not picturesque like most cities in Western Europe. Little interesting architecture is evident; instead there are grimy industrial plants and many bare concrete high-rise apartment buildings from the Khruschev-era school of design. The folks there looked hard-worked and not very frisky…but they still had plenty of those strip bars and cigarette shops. Thinking about it while leaving town, I realized my CZ items were truly products of their environment: they are rough around the edges, inelegantly designed with little concern for aesthetics, but they work very well at what they were made to do...and that’s all that’s required in a Worker’s Paradise.
Anyway, Prague eventually came into sight and is really a very attractive city, spread down both banks of the Vltava River and under the eye of gigantic Castle Prague, perched on a hillside across the famous Charles Bridge from the original Old Town. (largest castle in the world, according to Wickipedia) Prague avoided Allied bombing during WW II, so its historic buildings are still beautiful examples of the Cubist architectural style from the late 1800s. Our hotel was in a nicely-restored older building that still exuded the flavor of those days, but with modern plumbing and even air conditioning! We strolled around the city, enjoying the old-world ambiance, but vowing to do it during a cooler time of year next time. Cars in the Czech Republic are predominately Seats and Skodas—which is now a part of VW—both of recent manufacture, (which look like Jettas) and old, rusty beaters that look like they were designed during the Soviet era. I noticed a curious fact regarding the cars on Prague’s streets: every third one has a trailer hitch. I took a scientific poll while sitting on a bench in the shade by an intersection for five minutes, and 30% of passing cars had the typical European hook-shaped hitch…but not a single one was towing a trailer.
(The Germans, however, are real trailer fans. Even in early July, the roads there were already teeming with folks towing their travel trailers to wherever it is they spend August. It’s like a hermit crab migration, all trundling along in the right lane with four bicycles hung on the back of the trailer. Curiously, despite the tow vehicles being typical European four-cylinder cars, all the trailers were full-size—not tiny little things or even the ones that collapse to half-size for better aerodynamics. Another cultural phenomenon explained simply by air conditioning: If you have it, you stay home. If you don’t—like most Europeans—you get out of the city and camp in the woods where there’s a breeze.)
Other observations peculiar to Prague include the fact that, unlike anywhere else I have ever been, the taxi cabs are all red. In fact, red is easily the predominant color on all cars. Must be some Cold War nostalgia thing. Also unexpected was the Czech appreciation for Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are KFC kiosks scattered all over the place, both in town and out in the country at the Autobahn exits and rest stops. The Republic has also discovered a revenue source overlooked in most other places of my experience: the overpass bridges along major highways. Nearly every one has narrow billboards advertising something available at the next exit or a generic ad for consumer products. The funds are apparently put to good use, as the roads, both major and secondary, are uniformly in excellent condition and people seem to drive at whatever speed they want—there was no sign of any enforcement. No Ferraris were spotted on the streets of Prague—although most being red, they’d fit right in.
The only political commentary I will present involves our new national concern over fuel mileage. The Europeans have had very expensive fuel for decades, so they developed vehicles that maximized mileage. True, none are like our SUV-like giants, but their level of diesel technology has to be experienced to be appreciated. Our FIAT Idea returned over 45mpg while being steadily driven 20 mph faster than allowable here. Its performance was perfectly adequate in nearly any situation short of towing a boat—as has been all the cars I have rented over there for the past ten years. With this kind of commuter mileage available so simply and inexpensively—and immediately—why are we preoccupied with inventing costly hybrid, electric and other technologies overnight? True, they are necessary for the greater good as years go by, but modern diesel emissions are well-controlled and these cars make our oil-based fuel resource go so much farther while new avenues are developed. Small diesels sound like a pretty good Idea to me.
-- Bill Orth –