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Comments 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 windshield.

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 go…"

"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 embarrassing times.)

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 were married.

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 my life.

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 somebody.)

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
detritus.

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 from you.

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 it.

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.

Just who is Larry Palletti?

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