Once Upon a Time there was a Car

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
The cars and the people who lived in Ferrara in the old times.
From Milan, where I live, I go to Ferrara at least three or four times a year and I have seen that this town has radically changed. So, I get used to innovations.

But there is something I cannot get used to. I am talking about the traffic, the long queues in front of the traffic lights, the problem of parking. As I live in Milan, I should get used to it, but when I come to Ferrara, I always think that everything is different. This is due to the fact that the new images do not coincide with the ones of my childhood.

At that time, there were very few cars. Sometimes, some cars appeared in corso Roma, taking viale Cavour and disappearing in the two Porti di Guardia of the Dazio. They rarely stopped and when they did it, they attracted our attention.

Most of them had large driver's cabins just like those of the coaches, solid wheels, rubber horns, thin wheels with few and rigid spokes.

I remember Fiat 501's curved hood which was similar to the one of a steam locomotive and Lancia Lambda's long and angular hood, but I remember above all the smell coming from the cars which stopped: the smell of hot iron, hides, petrol, burnt oil. Even if there were few cars, there were many motor industries, such as Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Ceirano, Diatto, OM and Bianchi.

As regards Isotta Fraschini, the most luxurious and expensive car which was in vogue at that time, I have never seen it, but I still remember that it was carefully described by our father's young proxy, who saw it in front of Caffè Foschini. It was an extraordinary car: a "brougham" model car, whose front compartment, which was reserved to the liveried driver, was separated from passenger compartment, with a large leather lined driver's cabin, an ear trumpet so that the master and the chauffeur could be in contact one with the other, a framed mirror, and, near the windows, two crystal flower vases, which were necessary in the presence of a lady.

In this case, it seems that the lady was young, attractive and fashionable. For many days, people talked about this at Caffè Foschini, as most of them were not motorised. At that time, between the Twenties and the Thirties, even most famous professionals went by bicycle. I remember that two of our father's friends first drove the car. One of them was Luigi Risso, a notary. It was a sort of "clandestine" activity. He bought a Bianchi S5 limousine, which was immediately stored in a room on the ground floor, and brushed daily by the housemaid. It was removed from the store room only in case of extraordinary events.

The other "converted" friend, Raffaello Melli, a lawyer, bought a small Fiat 509 spider and he was proud of it, easily driving it. "This afternoon, ON the road LEADING TO Pontelagoscuro, I did eighty kilometres an HOUR" - he told with satisfaction one evening at our house. This induced our mother to prevent us from sitting on a Fiat 509 car.

Our father treated Luigi Risso and Raffaello Melli with indulgence, as if they were children who were playing with a new toy. As he was a strict university teacher, he never thought it was necessary to buy a car. According to the family motto: "we ARE satisfied WITH little", he thought that cars were a good invention, but absolutely unnecessary for us.

It seems strange, but, as we grew up in this rigorous atmosphere, we accepted his rules and his philosophy. Even if my brother and I passed much time looking at Fiat window display, we have never thought that one of those cars could be easily purchased like a radio or a bicycle. We felt a great admiration for them. This feeling, which was restrained during the winter, broke out in spring, during the Mille Miglia, which took place in Ferrara.

The Mille Miglia! Dozens of racing cars running on the trunk roads which were cleared for the occasion, from Brescia to Rome and vice versa, going up and down the hairpin bends of the Appennines, between two long lines of enthusiastic people.

Well, the Mille Miglia has been abolished for a long time, owing to the slaughter caused by De Portago's car running over the crowd near Mantua. It's something old such as medieval knights tournaments, young people don't know anything about it and the old people can't regret it. Today, whoever could tolerate a road block between Brescia and Rome?