by Larry Palletti
The Lady and the Tramp
She was my first love.
She wasn’t very flashy, at
least not on the outside – she was more the type who faded into the background.
If you took her to a
dance, you could be sure
no one else would try to grab her away.
All grey, she was, except
for that touch of pink on her left side where some clod ran into her. And
she fit me like a glove – a very tight glove.
"She" was a 1953 MG-TD, one
of the least rowdy of the post-War sports cars. Veddy British. No fenders;
"wings." Instead of a hood, she had a "bonnet." And where other, less aristocratic
cars had convertible tops, the MG wore her "hood."
She had no trunk, of course.
That tiny space behind the cramped leather seats (just two, thank you)
was called a "boot."
She’d do a mere 87 miles
an hour, flat-out, if the wind were right and the road didn’t tend to climb.
But she’d do that 87 all day long. On the winding mountain roads of upstate
Pennsylvania, the little TD shone like a star of the first magnitude. Together
we’d eat ’57 Chevies and ’56 Fords for breakfast – on the curves, anyway.
WE RAN THE roads well, the
MG and I. Top down, winter and summer; it took a major meteorological cataclysm
to make me put up the ragtop. Even the windshield – sorry, "windscreen"
– folded flat for that squinty, bugs-in-the-mouth thrill of old-timey motoring.
If you want to make 50 mph feel like 120, try driving without benefit of
In Europe in the early Sixties,
the aging MG kept pace with most of the Autobahn traffic … unless a Porsche
showed up. But while the TD could put up a valiant fight against the hot
Continental automobiles, she couldn’t keep up with me.
FAMILIES HAVE an absolutely
terrifying way of growing. For most folks, "We’re going to have a baby"
is an announcement fraught with mental bells and whistles. Generally, it’s
Happy Time. If the child is to be the family’s first, papa may tend to
wander off into a philosophical world of wonderment.
All the wonderment is there
for the papa who happens to own a sports car. But it’s tempered very quickly
by economic considerations. The Happy Time words crash thunderously into
his suddenly-numbed brain. They translate into "You’re going to have to
get rid of that thing."
The joy of coming fatherhood
takes a temporary back seat to the dread of imminent loss. "The car must
"BACK SEAT." Is that all
it would take? A lousy back seat that could accommodate a child? If there
were some way to come up with another pair of seats…
WHEN LAUREL WAS born, she
and the MG became instant enemies. Sitting in Mom’s lap, just inches away
from that utilitarian dashboard, the baby learned early on that she could
reach the interesting stuff like the horn button. (Usually at the most
The shiny ignition key was
too much for Laurie’s curiosity. Off… on… off again. Trips to Heidelberg
became more of an adventure each time.
And the headlight switch.
It too fell within Laurie’s questing grasp. Surprise…
Back seat. Back seat. The
tiny MG was suddenly inept at the task my wife mistakenly thought a car
should perform as its primary mission: transportation for a family. All
for the want of a back seat.
THEN ONE DAY there appeared
the elusive Back Seat. Just by chance, mind you, it came wrapped in the
wondrous raiment of a serious sports machine.
The car: a 1962 Alfa Romeo.
Giulietta was her name; for me, compromise was her game. A racy Italian
coupe, Giulietta managed to satisfy the impossible dream – a true sports
car with a hard roof and, mirabile dictu, a bench in back that could accommodate
two and even three kids. Little ones, you understand.
I bought her. Well, no –
not really. Because you never actually own an Italian sports car.
In fact, Giulietta and I
A LOVELY MACHINE, that Alfa
Romeo. I wasn’t good enough for her, and I knew that. The knowledge made
me try harder to please her.
She was patient with me,
and gentle; almost as though she understood my relative virginity in the
world of real sports machinery.
"Never mind that old MG,"
she seemed to say. "I will make you forget her. I will show you what true
love is all about.
"Keep me well-oiled, and
engage my clutch fully before you shift. And make sure you keep the revs
high. That’s all I ask," Giulietta would whisper.
"Do these things for me,
and my back seat is yours – forever."
"Yes, Giulietta," I murmured
into her air intake. "Anything you want. I’m yours to command."
THE BRIGHT RED Alfa Romeo
and I had a marvelous and comfortable relationship for many years. She
took me places I had never been, and she always managed to get me back
in one piece. It was a marriage made in heaven.
After the Army transferred
me to Italy, the Alfa found herself back in her own element. This is where
she belonged. Oh, the wonderful times we had together … plunging headlong
toward Rome on the Autostrada del Sole, or dancing hand-in-hand along the
tortuous Via Aurelia on our way northward to Genoa and Monte Carlo. We
were as one, and the memories of the stoic MG soon faded.
Nothing would come between
my lovely Giulietta and me.
BUT ONE DAY she came into
I should have expected it.
It happens in the best of marriages.
There she stood, beneath
a lamppost near the PX, all decked out in what Time Magazine likes to call
"blood red" paint. (Italian cars are "blood red" after they crash and kill
She was a Maserati, and she
was a putana. No car ever looked so whorelike, especially to a man happily
married to the sweet Giulietta.
She wore little black dancing
slippers made by Pirelli. Her tail was bobbed; her nose, unlike those of
her Ferrari and Alfa Romeo rivals, was held low like a shark’s.
She thrust her fenders high,
arching them enticingly forward, inviting the innocents to touch.
And she wore no bumpers.
This wench of a Maserati was a pur sang racing machine.
No doors. Her lovers stepped
gingerly over her low threshold. No windshield. Just a piece of plexiglass
to deflect most road
No speedometer. Race drivers
don’t need them. In its place a huge tachometer stared at me from between
the spokes of the
wood-rimmed steering wheel.
Back seat? Forget it. There
wasn’t even room for a single passenger, not with the twin batteries and
a pair of noisy electric fuel pumps occupying the space normally reserved
for a rider.
She made room for only one
man – at a time.
THE MASERATI was for sale.
It was the sole survivor of the 1956 Caracas 1000 Kilometer race, the event
in Venezuela that cost the Maserati factory five of its six cars.
Five wrecks in one race.
The destruction put Maserati out of the racing business as a factory team.
And here, outside the PX
on a remote U.S. Army base in Italy, was the surviving car. Lightly modified
for street use, the outrageous scarlet machine sat in unaccustomed silence
… waiting … waiting.
I asked the owner for a little
prova, a test drive, before making a decision about buying the swift 300S.
Sure, he said. But please hold the revs down to 3500 or it might get away
No problem, says I; 3500
RPM should be enough for the Maserati to show me her stuff.
And show me she did.
THERE WAS NO chance to ease
in the clutch; it was either all the way in or completely out with this
vixen. Not like my lovely, forgiving Alfa. The Maserati stalled.
We finally got rolling, tooling
along the narrow back road from Livorno to Pisa, when the Maserati called
out to me.
"More," she seemed to say.
"Let me run. Give me what I need." I pressed her throttle, and she nearly
squirted out from under me.
Into second gear with a metallic
snick and the tiny racer took the bit in her mouth. She was gone. Third
gear – snick – then fourth, and the tachometer needle reached for the redline.
Seven thousand revolutions
per minute, almost before I knew what the putana had done to me. Seven
grand in that 300S equated to a shade over 140 miles per hour – on a high-crowned
two-lane country road near Pisa.
It was insane … and I loved
Who had been enticed by this
temptress before, I wondered. Fangio? Moss? Ascari? Which of the greats
of motor racing had taken this very seat in the past? Which of them had
fallen victim to her brazen charms?
And who among them did not
love her as I did in this moment of driving passion?
SHE ROARED like the very
hammers of hell as we dashed along the seawall separating us from the Tyrrhenian’s
azure waters. Depth perception left me. The blacktop road and the green
eucalyptus trees that lined it became a solid two-dimensional backdrop
for me and my new mistress.
I backed off the throttle
and downshifted for a sharp curve that the Alfa and I normally took at
80 mph, with only a little bit of tail-out sliding. The Maserati bit into
the corner at well over a hundred, handling as though she had been painted
down the middle of the road.
"More!" she demanded. "More!"
BUT I HAD had enough. My
hands were unsteady on the wheel, and my knees were none too solid. It
was time to come back to reality.
The Maserati had given me
the ride of my life. Back at the PX, her exhaust burbled angrily – as though
she knew I must reject her.
"I can’t keep you," I whispered,
placing a trembling hand on her upturned fender. "I can’t keep up with
you. You’re out of my league. I’m … I’m sorry."
Across the way, the little
Alfa Romeo sat primly, in complete disapproval of my foray into the nether
world of flashy ladies.
Eventually, I hoped, Giulietta
would forgive me.
I got in, started her engine,
and motored gently home.