Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Driving an Italian icon – a 500 tour in Tuscany

The economic boom of post-war Italy is often associated with two iconic vehicles, the Vespa, made here in Tuscany, and the Fiat 500. Both represent liberty of movement and accessible luxury. Aesthetically and mechanically, both have aged exceptionally well, creating a nostalgic market for the vintage as well as newer vehicles both brands produce. Before stepping into one of the tiny cars that belong to the 500 Touring Club, I had no idea how stripped down and powerless these cute little cars are! A day out in one proves quite the experience.

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Andrea Rashbrook, of Australian origin, and her Italian husband Beppe, are the owners of Florence-based 500 Touring Club. In their fleet of half a dozen vintage vehicles, they lead classic driving tours in the hills of Florence, combined with wine tasting, a picnic or other activities. Solidly within the top ten list of activities in Florence on Tripadvisor, they’re appreciated for their friendly service as much as for the unique experience driving these cars can provide. For me, Tommaso and a few blogger friends, they organized a special trip in November to see newly picked olives at the press, before retiring back to their home base at Villa le Piazzole for a lunch of cheese, tomatoes, salumi, bread, tasty new oil and wine.

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Before getting into the car, Beppe gave us a demonstration of how to drive the 500. I had heard about this before: these cars have a particular feature, the need to “double clutch”. When driving a normal standard car, you step down on the clutch and change gears, passing through neutral. In these cars, you clutch, shift, release, give a bit of gas in neutral, clutch again, gear shift and accelerate in the new gear. Right. Got that. Then he explains about the brakes, advising us to start stopping much earlier than we normally would. He said something like “don’t worry, it will eventually come to a stop.”

Stepping into our blue 1970 model named Roberto, I was surprised to see that it is just a metal box with no interior padding, a hard wheel, a few levers, and some really basic seating. Anything expensive had been stripped away from the concept of the 500. With a flip of a switch and a turn of a key, our convoy of colourful and adorable cars shuddered into life.  I concentrated massively on double clutching and, when picking up speed, not running into the driver ahead of me (Georgette AKA Girl in Florence’s Nico, driving a swanky white car named Giacomo). The brakes really suck. I was so sure I would never stop, but Beppe said we eventually would, so i just pressed harder and prayed. Every stop, every left turn, every ride up a hill in this loud-engined car is an adventure! White knuckled after the first leg of the trip, I happily handed over the wheel to Tommaso. At the end of the day, I marveled at how easy it is to drive our modern VW Golf.

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We stopped at a friend’s property in Chianti to see his olive groves and taste his newly pressed oil, but unfortunately it was too wet to lend a hand with the olive picking. After this, we went to a local olive press. This is where people come with their day’s pickings to run the olives through machines and take it home in big vats. The smell of fresh olives being crushed is incredibly spicy and strong. Personally I like it a lot more than the crushing of grapes!

The day ended at the Villa that Andrea and Beppe use as a home base, where participants of the wine tasting tours can safely drink all they want and then take the bus home. All were happy!

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You can read more about the fun day out in vintage cars from the other bloggers who participated in this day out: Georgette aka Girl in Florence, Tiana Kai, Lisa of My Tuscan Journal, and Alessandra from Rosaspina Vintage.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.