x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How a tiny Fiat proved to be the icing on our Italian wedding cake

The Fiat 500 unexpectedly provides the perfect transportation of bride and groom around the winding streets of Siena, Italy.

Erica and Warren Pole on their wedding day, with the Fiat 500.
Erica and Warren Pole on their wedding day, with the Fiat 500.

The Jaguar XKR was the ideal car for my carefully planned, cross-continental marriage proposal mission. The sleek, powerful car provided a perfectly refined and suitably British chunk of GT magic with which to tackle the 1,600km hack from London to Barcelona, at the end of which I dropped to one knee as the sun went down in that glorious city and popped the question. Of course, the XKR wasn't mine - as a motoring journalist, my finances barely stretch to a new bicycle, let alone a new supercar. I'd simply borrowed it for the occasion, and come the end of the loan period, with all the certainty of Cinderella vanishing at midnight, it was gone.

But months later, when it came to choosing the wedding car, and as my girlfriend Erica and I slipped deeper into the logistical nightmare that is wedding planning, it rapidly became clear that borrowing a car was more trouble than it was worth. So, reluctantly, I called a Siena firm and booked a nondescript Mercedes S-Class. The only other car I had to source was a runaround for our week in Italy. Being driven by budget alone, in five minutes over the internet, I'd booked the smallest Eurobox the rental firm at the Pisa airport had. It would be ideal to use on the streets of Italian villages, and it was cheap.

But after landing in Pisa, something happened. The chap at the rental office, on learning we were in town to get hitched, couldn't be more helpful - the only thing Italians love more than a strong espresso is a wedding. He was so excited, in fact, he upgraded us. We wondered what our new wheels would be, silently hoping for the luxury of an Opel Corsa or perhaps - dare we dream - a Fiat Punto, when our man came back beaming. "Cinquecento!" he said grandly, handing me a Fiat key. My Italian's not too good, but even I know that means 500, which meant we were about to drive away in 69hp's worth of motoring joy made in Turin.

The Fiat 500 is an Italian institution. First made in 1957, it did for small cars what the Vespa had done for scooters ten years earlier: bringing transport to the masses. Being just three metres long, and with only 13hp from the 479cc, twin-cylinder motor in its boot, those first 500s were neither big nor fast. But they were popular, and went on to become as synonymously Italian as pizza, breadsticks and bad driving.

These original 500s are still seen all over Italy today. Some are home to local wildlife in fields across the country, some backfire their way up and down mountain passes, while others have been lovingly restored and parade the catwalk thoroughfares of Rome and Milan. Either way, they're hard to miss. Production of the original 500 lasted until 1975, remarkable for such a basic vehicle with anaemic power. Then Fiat, bolstered by the success of the retro-inspired Mini Cooper and Volkswagen's New Beetle, previewed a modern take of the 500 at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show. It was so well received that it went into production in 2007 almost unchanged.

Like the original, this latest 500 is tiny (though it is much bigger than the diminutive original). But the boot swallowed our luggage - even if the two bags did fill it - and when we hopped in we found enough room for two fully grown adults in the front. Onto the autostrada and heading for Siena on a scorcher of an Italian summer's day, I discovered the tiny Fiat's ace card - it is perhaps the best vehicle in the world to drive with the windows down. Somehow, it creates a pocket of still air and you can comfortably cruise at 130kph, windows open, and still hear the radio. Although whether you want to hear Italian radio is another matter, as all the stations are either stuck in the 1980s or someone is arguing very loudly about football.

During this drive, Erica and I had a moment of clarity - the 500 would be our wedding car. It may have been prone to drifting in strong winds, and the accelerator pedal was little more than a volume control for the engine, but the tiny Fiat had charm, character, and was as Italian as a Ferrari at Monza. It would also save us the ?400 (Dh2,051) of hiring the faceless Merc. And it got better, simply because our wedding ceremony was being held in Siena's town hall, which is not your average civic establishment. Instead, it is the centrepiece of one of the most stunning fourteenth-century squares anywhere in the world - the very same square that James Bond pops up in after the opening car chase in Quantum of Solace.

For obvious reasons of preservation, this historic location is kept traffic-free. But this being the land of love, special dispensation is afforded to anyone marrying in the town hall and wedding cars are allowed. After all, you can't have newlyweds catching the bus. All of which meant, not only did the love of my life become my wife that day, and not only were we surrounded by our nearest and dearest in an unforgettable location, but when the time came to leave Siena for the reception in the countryside, I got to live out my own Italian Job fantasies (albeit not in a Mini Cooper), tearing through the majestic heart of an ancient Italian city and into the countryside.

First though, the wife had to get in, which proved somewhat difficult in a wedding dress, but with several helping hands folding up acres of frock into the footwell, we were off. Winding out of Siena, the little Fiat was ideal as we dodged waving pedestrians, slack-jawed tourists taking photos, and flocks of pigeons through the cobbled streets, tooting the horn all the way as is the custom for newlyweds in Italy.

And once free of the city, there was a half-hour dash into the hills. Here the roads twisted and turned their sinuous way ever upwards and the 500 really came alive. On roads this tight, the car's abject lack of power really didn't matter, while the short wheelbase made for hilariously fast steering. We eventually skidded to a halt outside the reception venue - an aged villa in the heart of a vineyard - grinning from ear to ear a full 20 minutes before the rest of the guests.

The XKR may have got the ball rolling, but it was the Fiat 500 which made the day. motoring@thenational.ae