Florence: A Car Enthusiast’s Microcosm?

Photo credit to Wesley Aring.

Hello, my name is Wesley Aring, and there’s a chance you might remember me from an opinion series called Loma Drives (don’t worry I’ll be back very soon). However, I’m coming at you from Florence, Itay; as I am currently studying abroad in an attempt to show a subculture in the automotive space you might not have thought about before.

Florence is a tightly packed ancient city full of tourists milling about on their merry way through its elegant city center, alongside a huge range of compact cars and Vespas. But every once in a while, and I mean, every once in a while, a seriously interesting car shows up. These rare occasions show that even though the densest parts of this city are not geometrically optimized for full-size, enthusiast cars, the culture of car enthusiasm is still very much alive and well.

 Photo credit to Wesley Aring. 

In my two-ish months studying and living in the city center of Florence, I have only seen three seriously cool cars. On separate occasions, I was able to see a mid-2010s Ferrari 458, a Lancia Delta Integrale (a rally car from the 1980-90s) and a very, very new Porsche 911 GT3 RS.  The Lancia is a holy grail car for car enthusiast car-spotting, given the model’s extensive WRC (World Rally Championship) heritage and its limited numbers of production.

This is a particularly unsurprising situation. The city as mentioned in my introduction is very tight and unwelcoming to car ownership, and in developing this story further, I interviewed a past professor of mine: Lapo Morgantini. Morgantini is a professor at Florence University of Arts, and he commutes to his classes which are spread throughout the city here in Florence. He owns all three of the popular modes of independent travel here in Florence: a motorbike, bicycle and a car. As a vast majority of Florentines do; Morgantini bikes when distances are around 500 meters, and beyond this (within) the city he rides his Vespa.

For all intents and purposes, “Driving a car [on a regular basis] in the city center is impossible” Morgantini said.

The obvious problems of driving a car in a very tight city, with thousands of pedestrians and limited parking aside, there is a more interesting reason for his choice of the words “impossible.” In certain parts of the historic city center, there is a system of cameras and physical barriers that are only open to those with local permits. Morgantini highlighted that in a well-designed city with many roads, he finds the scalability of his methods of transport to be the best way to enjoy the city.

It’s easy to see that (even on a surface level) owning a car for most people in the city of Florence is just not reasonable. So how does the worldwide historical phenomenon of car culture survive in Florence?

Tuscany has some of the most well-thought-out car-based infrastructure plans in the country, which gradually fade, the closer one gets to the city center; however, it is plain to see, daily that people still care. There are several cars scattered around the city, which are key indicators of this refusal of ‘petrol heads’ to give up their exciting cars.  There are several very common options from the Mini Cooper with its historical British pedigree of racing and class, the Ford Focus ST a sporty American Hatchback, and the Audi S3 and RS3 hatchbacks. Here I’ll just examine one: the iconic Fiat 500 Abarth.

The Abarth is a sportified version of the classic two-seater, that the historic Italian auto manufacturer Fiat has been cranking out since the 1950s.

With a small, rather economical 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, tighter/higher quality suspension and manual transmission, this nippy little go-cart of a car is a bastion of small, practical (and affordable) enthusiast cars in Europe. Heck, in 2018 there were nearly 23,500 Fiat 500 Abarth’s sold.

So-called hot hatches have been a staple of cheap enthusiast car manufacturing from basically every brand under the sun. The 500 Abarth’s are everywhere in Florence. They represent Fiat’s wellness to produce a cheap widely affordable driver’s car for the masses. Walk down Lunganro Corsini or Lunganro di Santa Rosa, on a crisp weekday morning and I guarantee; that you will see at least one of these cookers.

Aside from affordable souped-up economy cars, a car that is very popular on the street is the Citroen Ami, it is an even smaller, electric-only car that has recently gone viral in car-influencer circles. This is in part due to its spunky looks, and extreme affordability. These two cars sneak under the radar but seem to be owned by people who are looking for a fun enthusiast-based driving experience in Florence but find themselves boxed in by a lack of parking and the issues mentioned previously. So, they roll with the punches and make it work, and that is what I would say automotive enthusiasm is all about. No matter how reliable your car or bike is, things break, and no matter how sure you are that it is not going to rain on that road trip or camping trip, there is always a possibility, and you make the best of it with your beloved tools. Lapo was right, in his advice people like us petrol heads must be adaptable in a city like Florence.

Petrol enthusiasts; who enjoy the rush of an engine beneath their feet (and now even electric cars) are hindered in a city like Florence but there is a beautiful uniqueness to pushing one’s self and going the extra mile to enjoy whatever piece of motoring one can get their hands on. Whether it’s a Fiat 500, a gas motorcycle or an e-bike, it’s always possible to find a fun slice of motoring here in Florence.