ED'S COLUMN: Italian Thoughts On Lotus Cars

by Greg N. Brown

Eurpoean Car, August 1998

"Che bella macchina!"

"What a beautiful car!"

Those two sentences, heard nine years and continents apart, flashed through my mind as 1 sought to sort out this new entity called DaimlerChrysler.

Yes, there's a connection, which begins in the fertile valley of Italy's Po River. I was driving a new Alfa Romeo 164 and had stopped to shoot some pics in a small village-no more than a cluster of farm buildings, quiet and empty. Then, as will happen when a stranger interrupts the prosaic flow of local life, a small crowd of locals emerged and surrounded me as though I were an itinerant musician, come to play for a cabbage head, pigs ear and jug of local plonk.

My non-existent Italian matched their command of English, but one phrase rang through the din and gesticulations and was understood by all: Che bella maccina!

Not so much spoken but sung by a tiny, craggy woman-in black, of course-who had probably never spent a minute behind the wheel of an automobile in her life, the phrase was curiously affecting, and to this day it comes unbidden to my lips when I'm caught by a car's spell.

Che bella macchina.

Now flash forward, a decade later, just a couple weeks shy of summer. I was idling in a Lotus Esprit V8 at a traffic light in Santa Monica, at the edge of the continent, overlooking a placid Pacific. The warm afternoon and gentle throb of motor drew me into a semi-stupor, when I was wrenched to attention by a shout from a pedestrian, who, with blue hair and various body piercings, blended in nicely with the locals.

"What a beautiful car!"

A nerve impulse passed across a certain synapse, and I was transported back to that small Italian village. I could almost smell the fields and the manure-scented dust, and I saw, through my memory's eye,' the old woman's gesture, and remembered the simple enthusiasm of her statement: Che bella macchina!

The connection between the old Italian woman and the California Dude - that visceral, unrehearsed reaction to the physical presence of a machine - is exactly what lies at the heart of the matter. And it's exactly what I fear may be missing in the cars of the future.

To wit: A week later, days after DaimlerBenz announced it was taking over Chrysler, I pulled in front of a doughnut shop in the magazine's long-term Mercedes-Benz SLK, and as I walked through the door was greeted by a genial man saying, "Hey, nice Chrysler you've got there."

His wry observation, and the memory of that 164 and Esprit and the reactions they created, congealed into reflection over the fates of Alfa Romeo and Lotus, along with thoughts about the cars of the future.

Will those cars - designed and engineered out of huge R&D enclaves, homogenized by consumer clinics, signed off by legions of gray suits, and sold through the internet - have the personality or panache which might cause us to spontaneously cry out our appreciation?

Will such giant consortiums as DaimlerChrysler use its corporate power to keep the spirit alive?

Although Alfa and Lotus face different problems, each currently shares one huge obstacle: Neither has much impact in the most vital car market, the U.S., although each has much to offer to those of us who like cars which are far removed from the ordinary. Alfa and Lotus, each for reasons of their own, are not well equipped to deal with the harsh realities of doing business in the world's toughest car market, and it is our loss that such cars as the Elise and 156 will likely not make it to American showrooms.

There's still a chance, however, that the Italian car maker will return to the United States, perhaps by the year 2000. It's the honored marque at Concours Italiano this year, and the factory is bringing over some of its new and historically significant cars, and public reaction could do much to sway parent company Fiat over the fate of Alfa in America. It's our chance to speak up and welcome the return of Alfa.