The first thing you learn about members of the Fiat Club of America is that they each have an interesting story to tell. At the 34th Annual Fiat Freakout in Brookfield, Wisconsin, all 125 participants had their own stories, and they were happy to share them.
Buying a Fiat in the U.S. was never a convenient affair – you really had to have a passion for the innovative and eccentric little Italian cars to seek them out. Sold in the U.S. from the early 1950s through 1983, before resuming in 2010 with the new Fiat 500, they were relatively rare in the U.S.
Fiat is one of the world’s largest automakers, having licensed their manufacturing around the world for more than a century. In recovering post-war Europe, Fiats played crucial roles as both economical family transport and as unintimidating, easy-to-operate vehicles that offered independence to European housewives, bringing feminism to the fore.
Perhaps that’s why Holden Horning of Brooklyn, Michigan selected a Fiat 1200 Cabriolet as an appropriate car for his wife, Alice, in the summer of 1961. Enlisting his son Mike, the two drove past the factories of the Big Three automakers to the Port of Detroit, where they received the shiny, white Pininfarina-styled convertible from a dockside warehouse.
Holden unexpectedly passed shortly after, but the Fiat remained a cherished gift from her late husband until Alice passed it on to Mike in 2003. Mike commissioned a sensitive restoration of the car, which still shows only 25,471 original miles.
Riding in the car is a conduit to recollections of his parents and past family events, Horning said. “Cars are memories – emotional memories. Cars can become a very rewarding, emotional part of your life if you let them.”
Another lady not afraid to drive her Fiat –and drive it hard – is racer Denise Burchette of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Burchette hails from the heart of NASCAR country, where her husband Ron raced stock cars in the ARCA Series from 1988-1996, and daughter Amber currently pilots short-track stockers. All that heavy metal makes Burchette’s Fiat X-19 race car an unlikely choice for competition.
Burchette brought her “street” car to the Freakout, a nicely modified 124 Spider with a 2.0-liter twin-cam four running gold-plated dual Webers and a rare, polished Alquatti velocity-stack set. The perennial hot shoe at club autocross competitions, this “Spider Lady” prefers her jewelry under the hood instead of on her hand.
Bob Martin from Radcliff, Kentucky, is accustomed to seeing gold as a retired soldier formerly guarding Fort Knox. His wife, Melody, fell in love with the new 2012 Fiat 500 convertible, pre-ordering the car before its release. The Fiat dealership opened on a Sunday so Melody could take delivery, and Bob called ahead to request that a huge red bow be attached to the car.
Earlier in 2011, it had been Melody’s turn to surprise Bob when she purchased a 1986 Bertone X-19 Dallara replica he had been eyeing, and presented it to him at his 60th birthday party.
“I have never been so surprised in my whole life,” Martin said of his beloved black Group 5 racer replica. “I just can’t believe my wife and son were able to pull off the surprise.”
Ari Kyrtatas drove his 1979 Fiat Spider 784 miles from Montreal, Canada, to be at the event, garnering waves and thumbs-up along the way because of his “Freakout or Bust” windshield lettering. Kyrtatas was introduced to the car from a former girlfriend who always wanted to own one of the stylish Spiders.
When the girlfriend moved to Germany, the car stayed with Ari. He attended his first Freakout in 2015 after meeting like-minded enthusiasts in Quebec, and quickly bonded with the larger group.
“What keeps us coming back is the fact that we know that we will see the same faces in a different city every year,” Kyrtatas said.
The five-day national meet rotates cities annually, with next year’s event being held August 15-18, 2018, in Orlando, Florida. This year’s gettogether included an urban geocaching car tour, indoor go-karting, a winding country drive, an outdoor barbecue, and a tasting-tour by bus of ethnic neighborhoods pizzerias.
A Friday drive to nearby Elkhart Lake’s Road America took in the sights of the famous race track during the Weathertech International Challenge Vintage Races, with a sunset cruise on the four-mile road course. Saturday’s Concorso was set against the architecturally stunning Mitchell Park Domes.
Although a diverse group, the Fiat owners at the annual Freakout share an extraordinary enthusiasm towards anyone who inquire about their cars. Like the vehicles themselves, they are an unpretentious, friendly and eclectic group of individuals who revel in adding some zest to everyday living.