Lindsay Chappell
Lindsay Chappell
Infiniti, Nissan Reporter

Why Americans are rediscovering Italian cars

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MONTEREY, Calif. -- Fiat aside, Italian cars live in a rarefied world of the very rich and the very few.

Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Pagani, Zagato -- those luminary brands barely add up to a percent of a percentage point worth of sales in America.

But oh, the mystique.

Oh, the power of the Italian design -- the curves of the Italian body and the seductiveness of their bold ways, even among Americans who in many cases have never owned one or even driven one.

This weekend, some 8,000 people will pay $155 each to crawl over a golf course here to murmur sei bella and ti amo to 800 or more classic Alfas, Ferraris and Maseratis parked on display at the annual Concorso Italiano.

Tom McDowell, who has been president of Concorso since 2009, says advanced ticket sales indicate the crowds will be up by one-fourth over last year. That’s partly due to moving it from Friday to Saturday for the first time in 28 years -- but even that doesn’t explain the simple fact that more fans of automobili italiane are out there than there used to be.

Why?

“It’s something about the curves,” McDowell says. “There’s something about the way Italians create those lines. They don’t recognize the limitation of design. Every year, they push the envelope on what’s creative.

“And that’s Italian culture. It’s a country that’s not run by regimentation. It’s a passionate culture.”

It can’t hurt that Italy’s mass-market brand, Fiat, is now back in U.S. retailing and running ads on TV that remind Americans that cars also come in red-white-and-green.

Fiat may be educating young Americans that Italy exists. But McDowell doubts that Fiat advertising will necessarily spark curiosity in Maserati and Lambo dealerships here.

“More young people are indeed coming to the Consorso now,” he notes. “But I don’t think Fiat will bring young people into the Italian higher end of the luxury market.

“But I do think the Alfa 4C will do that,” McDowell predicts, referring to the newly launched turbocharged four-cylinder Alfa that reintroduces the brand here with a sticker price of about $70,000.

“That vehicle has an opportunity to bring younger luxury buyers into Italian-brand luxury market,” he says. “That’s the car that can do it.”

But the showman cautions that Alfa has a tough challenge ahead.

“They’ve been missing from the U.S. market for many years,” he says. “They have to reintroduce themselves to a generation of Americans who have never heard of them. Fiat has been creative in their marketing in doing that. I’m confident Alfa will be just as creative.”

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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