The Best Best of France and Italy Car Show Ever
By Mark Vaughn
Why drive to Monterey in August with everyone else when you can drive only as far as beautiful Van Nuys and get much of the same old-car thrill?
This was the 14th year of the Best of France and Italy Car Show, held on Sunday in Van Nuys, Calif., and it was the biggest turnout in the history of the event.
"Why?" we asked co-organizer Chuck Forward. Was it the fact that collector-car prices have dropped perilously, meaning owners of these rides have held onto their cars? Was it a form of escapism from the drumming madness of economic collapse? Was it nostalgia for a simpler time when carburetors ruled the world and you could actually get Fiat parts?
"The weather!" said Forward.
Indeed, at Woodley Park, it was a sunny, warm and clear day. Last year at the Best of France and Italy, it rained in the morning and was considerably cooler. This year was just about perfect. So, despite what car guys may say about their "passion," they're really just as flippant as anyone else.
On this day in Van Nuys, everyone was a laissez-faire southern European. Last year, in the rain, 330 cars showed up. This year, organizers brought only 400 of those little goody bags they give to entrants, and they ran out with plenty of Fiats, Alfas and Renaults still rolling onto Woodley's grass and dirt.
We saw a beautiful 1924 Lancia Lambda, one of the earliest cars to have a monocoque construction and independent front suspension. The hood was open and the machined (not cast) narrow-angle V4 was right there.
Next to it was a Maserati 200SI that raced in the Targa Florio, according to the info booklet left on the deck lid.
We wandered among Citroëns and across the dirt to the "Italian Exotic" row just as Claudio Zampolli was parking his V16-powered Cizeta. He popped the hood, and a crowd gathered. The 16 cylinders were arranged in a V, mounted transversely amidships and driving the rear wheels.
"It's a casting," Zampolli said. "Everybody thinks it's two V8s, but you can't do that."
At the last show he attended, Zampolli brought an engine to display next to the car for all to see. A ZF transmission takes power from the middle of the block.
Zampolli said he has made 12 of the cars, two of which are in the United States. Did he ever make money off the deal?
"You don't make money doing this," he said.
Then why, for love?
The next guy we met was Etienne Goldet, dressed up in a disco-looking suit that was half Elvis, half John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He owned a 1970 Citroën SM.
"If you're going to go '70s, you have to go all the way," said Goldet, posing on the hood of his SM.
Is that car fun to drive?
"Oh yeah, it's a jet fighter," he said. "But it's an Italian engine [a Maserati V6], so you have to floor it all the time."
There were more cars there than we could count. From little postwar sedans that tried to make the most out of the scant resources in Europe at the time, to more modern supercars such as Ferrari and Lamborghini V8s, 10s and 12s. There were Renault Dauphines, Alfa Giuliettas and Fiat 500s. There were two Tatras, one a beautiful black and one a hideous and contorted blue/white disaster (we averted our eyes). We liked and longed for a 1967 Saab 96. We almost bought a little crank car jack for $40, even though we would never trust it under a car (it was sooo cool). Everyone was friendly. Everyone was happy. We felt European, but in a less expensive way than what you'd normally think of it. This was real Europe, represented by the cars that got the Continent rolling again after the devastation of the war.
And it was one of the few places where we could see these cars, amid calendars crammed with rod and custom cruise-ins.
"That's why we started the show," said Forward. "We got tired of being ignored by all the other shows."
But these cars, ratty though some were in their loveableness, may be dwindling in numbers.
"The repair centers have closed up over the years," said Forward. "A lot of cars are being sent back to Europe; the number of cars is dwindling."
So be sure to go see it next year. You can follow announcements at www.franceanditaly.com. See it before the cars are all gone. There is no Nethercutt Museum or National Auto Museum for Fiat 850s.
(Top photo: A Ferrari and a well-chapeaued fan at the Best of France and Italy Car Show on Sunday; bottom photo: Etienne Goldet, his 1970 Citroën SM and his disco suit. "If you're going to go '70s, you have to go all the way," he says. All photos courtesy of Mark Vaughn.)
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