The Korean Italian job

Italians love small cars, but why are there no Fords, and why is Italy’s favourite micro Italian-designed, but Korean- made?

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It was my son who pointed out something I’d missed: the roads of Lazio, with which we’d become intimate, were almost entirely free of Fords. Once noticed, this fact – akin to finding a country where Coca-Cola is unavailable – seemed odder and odder. Fords, I had assumed, were just part of the trafficscape of everywhere. Why not here?

Studying the roads suddenly became a pleasure. It reminded me of the day in 1962 when, a child leaving the country for the first time on an ancient ferry, I scanned the approaching quayside of Dunkirk and saw weird things such as I had never dreamed of: a Citroen 2CV, a Panhard, a Simca Aronde, a Berliet truck. In those days, each European country bought the vehicles it made itself: there was a relatively insignificant import-export trade in things with wheels. But in central Italy in 1999, I had not expected the clock to be turned back in quite this way.

We were an hour outside Rome, staying in one of a string of working hilltop towns that command the foothills of the Apennines. This isn’t Chiantishire: tourists don’t usually go there (it was pure chance that we ended up there) and even the guidebooks ignore the area. The settlements are not conventionally pretty, the landscape is a touch too arid, and anyway Rome exerts too strong a magnetic pull. So we had fun comparing our host nation’s city and country vehicle preferences as we flogged our hire car through the afternoon heat.

Rome, being relatively posh (though not a patch on Milan, nor curiously Palermo, style-wise) has lots of well-dressed people nipping about in those two-seater Smart cars, or the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. These latter, which look little and nippy in Britain, seem positively overweight in this small-car economy. Most of Rome’s buses are the usual big smoky jolting things – some proudly claiming to be designed by Pininfarina, whatever that means these days. I can tell you these are no more comfortable than all the others. However, the city has developed a service of small electric buses, well-used, that somehow seems more attuned to the vehicular scale of the country.

Yes, of course, this is the land that first produced Dante Giacosa’s tiny Fiat 500 in 1957, plenty of which are still around despite the fact that they stopped making them in 1975. In the poor countryside of Lazio, the commonest car of all is, however, Giorgio Giugiaro’s slightly larger utility vehicle originating in 1980, the Panda. Though they are still made, you seldom see a shiny new Panda, only beat-up old ones. Thousands of them. But the Fiat grip on home sales, so steadfast for so long, is under challenge.

Nobody, in Rome or outside, seems much interested in the latest Fiat attempt at a mouse-car, the Seicento. And the self-conscious Ford Ka makes no more headway here than any other Ford, small or large. Instead, the good folk of Lazio are buying huge numbers of a car that is still rare in Britain: the tiny, appealing, Daewoo Matiz. This looks even cuter than the original 500, is a much more efficient package, somehow manages to have five doors instead of two, and is Korean. How did those Far Easterners get under the skin of Italian car culture so effectively? Easy – it is designed by Giugiaro’s ItalDesign.

A little history: Giugiaro’s first real job in the mid-1950s was to work in Fiat’s design studio with the great Giacosa, at the time the 500 design was being finalised. Enough said: the Matiz is the new 500 not only by virtue of is design lineage, but by common consent – the people of Lazio, you can’t help noticing, have voted with their wallets. They still want micro-cars. Indeed, because the Italians don’t have big families any more they want them more than ever. But they don’t want the home-grown ones nearly so much as they want the foreign ones.

If I was part of the Agnelli dynasty that controls the Fiat empire and so much else in the Italian economy, I would be sweating nervously at the spectacle of all those Matiz drivers gunning their 800cc three-cylinder engines between one hill town and the next. This is how industrial decline begins, isn’t it? The British precedent is there: first fail to make the cars your own people want, then lose your grip on the export market, and finally console yourself with the thought that you are brilliant at designing cars for others. Sorry, but design doesn’t earn the same kind of export dollars as manufacture. No point holding off Ford if the Koreans come in and snaffle your best designer.

I always see a car I like on holiday. The Matiz is so dead cute I’m even considering buying one myself. It’s a guilt-free trip: Britain makes nothing comparable and, for reasons not altogether clear to me, I’m not running the Italian economy. Ciao, baby!

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