Fiat fanatics share joy, pain

Fiats may stand for Fix It Again Tony, as the joke goes, but the pain only brings their owners closer together, say Fiat lovers who are gathering this weekend at Howard Prairie Lake to barbecue and swap Fiat tales.

"They're a hell of a lot of fun and they're stylish, but the big attraction is you meet great people," said Andy Jossy of Medford as he showed off his 1980 Fiat Spider that he found on Craigslist for $500 and fixed up.

"It's like a family reunion," he said of the three-day annual event. "Everyone is friends and that's far more important than the vehicles."

Fiat lovers from all over Oregon and its neighboring states have been coming to the popular Howard Prairie rendezvous every summer for 13 years.

"We all hang out and talk about how to keep 'em going and fix 'em up," said Pierre Beniston of San Francisco, emerging from his 1971 Fiat 124 Spider. "When Fiat first came out with that Italian design and style, it was the leading technology of the times."

Beniston found his for $250 and estimates its rebuilt value at $7,000. It helps if you know how to work on a car, because, he says, you will.

"Fiat owners share a bond of pain about the maintenance required to keep them on the road," says Beniston. "They're beautiful things and, like beautiful women, they're high maintenance. They're not easy."

A "peak experience" with a Fiat Spider, he notes, is "third gear, 70 mph, in a turn at 5,500 rpms."

His road pal, Dan Wilson of Eureka, Calif., driving a 1978 Fiat Spider, said the machine's styling, four-wheel disc brakes and overhead cam were way ahead of their time.

"The handling is very liquid, as if you're part of the automobile — and the smell of the open road and the leaking oil, nothing like it. But the big attraction here is the camaraderie with people who love and enjoy what you do."

Wilson found his Spider on eBay for $2,300 and has rebuilt every part of it that can be rebuilt, he says.

Rolling in from Portland with sticker-bedecked Fiat X19 in tow, Mark Scholz says the breed often gets discovered by sports car lovers "who've done their British penance," that is, tried to embrace and work on British machines.

"I got into the Italian cars because of their engineering, balance and the fun factor," says Scholz. "They're cheap, fun and easy."

Scholz enters his X19 in Chump Car races, where the requirements are that you have to build the car for under $500 (minus safety equipment) and race it on a track for 24 hours.

One of the big topics of conversation at the lakeside gathering Thursday was Fiat's acquisition of Chrysler, which will allow new Fiats (made in Mexico) to be sold in the U.S. after a 20-some-year break.

The gathering includes a track day today at Jackson County Sports Park in White City and a big potluck spaghetti feed Saturday night by campfire at the lake.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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