Italian products always impart a sense of style. A Bezzera cappuccino machine, a chair by Cassina, a motor scooter from Vespa, and the rolling sculpture that is a Ferrari all are readily identifiable as both functional and elegant, hallmarks of Italian design. It might be surprising then that in the heart of America's Midwest, a part of the country more usually known for its stalwart and no-nonsense approach to life, the con brio of Italian motoring is savored by more than a few Italian automotive enthusiasts.
It all started about eight years ago. Italian car fans Phil Slavik and Dan Schaefer met at a car show in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. There were lots of old British cars on display and more than a few Porsches, but a distinct lack of Italian machinery. With their shared passion for machines from Italy, the two men set about forming a place that would cater to the needs of like-minded tifosi who happened to live in the Midwest.
"There was nothing for Italian cars and bikes when we came up with the concept," Slavik explains. At first the pair thought about calling the company Cars of Italy, but quickly realized their interests also spread to motorcycles and even bicycles. So they called it Wheels of Italy, created a slick logo, and set about bringing Italian car fans together in the upper Midwest.
One of the first projects was scheduling a car show, an event that celebrated WOI's sixth year in 2008. The show is held on a Sunday in August and located in the parking lot next to fashionable Lake Calhoun in downtown Minneapolis. The location is easy to reach from the city's high-end western suburbs and guarantees a large crowd as runners, bikers, rollerbladers and walkers from the nearby park can't resist examining the gathering of brightly colored Italian machinery. The show has grown each year, and this year attracted more than 100 cars and a couple dozen motorcycles and scooters.
The variety is impressive. Certainly there are more than a few late-model Ferraris and Maseratis, along with a few Lamborghinis, to wow the crowds. More impressive is the number of orphaned cars, both well-known marques like Fiat and Alfa Romeo and lesser know nameplates such as Lancia, Iso, deTomaso and ATS.
"Given the cost of these cars, it's amazing how many owners do their own work," says Schaefer. He admits that Italian-car ownership can be frustrating. "You can wait months to get a part from Italy, and then it's the wrong one."
Sometimes owners order their entire car from Italy. Bob Sierra from Columbia Heights, Minn., arrived at this year's show in his 1970 Fiat 500. The diminutive, egg-shaped, rear-engine car was a staple of low-cost Italian motoring for decades. Sierra's car came from Sicily and he bought it sight unseen. "You just send them a check and they send you a car," he says.
The tiny car averages 44 miles per gallon and requires its owner to answer myriad questions at every fill-up. "People hear about its gas mileage and figure that they want one. They forget that this is a 38-year-old car that requires lots of maintenance," Sierra says. Battered and dented, Sierra's car is nevertheless a crowd pleaser.
There's no judged competition at the WOI show. It's really just a celebration of wheeled Italian machinery. And the crowd plays its own role. The last Alfa Romeo was officially imported here in 1995, the last Fiat in 1984, and the last Lancia the same year. Many young people aren't familiar with the curving shapes and evocative style of such automobiles and it's fun to see the looks of wonder as the flowing lines of an Alfa Guilietta or an angular Fiat 124 are discovered for the first time. Children seem especially captivated by a car that's neither a minivan nor a sport utility vehicle. At the same time, more knowledgeable enthusiasts admire gleaming rows of Weber carburetors, polished Borrani wire wheels, and the artful white-on-black marking of Veglia gauges.