An Accessory That Goes, if It Goes, With Everything
(The New York Times, Sept. 4, 2009)
RITA KONIG leaned forward inside her tiny orange Fiat 500L, which was zipping westward from the East Village.
“Driving the car, I’m always paying attention, so it’s exhausting,” she said with her eyes wide and glued to the road.
She sat upright. Her left hand was firmly on the steering wheel, her right fist tight around the gear stick.
The 1971 Fiat bobbed up and down on the cratered Manhattan pavement, like a dinghy on choppy waters, while taxicabs and other land yachts swallowed the view.
Ms. Konig had come from John Derian Company, a home accessories store on East Second Street, where she bought a gift for her sister. She was on the way to Greenwich Electra Auto and Body Repair in the West Village.
The Fiat was acting up. “It’s overrevving,” she said.
An interior decorator, Ms. Konig has written about the subject for British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; she occasionally writes posts for The Moment, a blog on fashion and style at NYTimes.com. She is also the author of “Domestic Bliss: Simple Ways to Add Style to Your Life” (Simon & Schuster, 2003).
On this particular Thursday, she was wearing a pink shirt, gray pants, a bright yellow scarf and purple shoes. Naturally, it all worked.
The Fiat, however, was a different matter. In addition to the loud idle (“It goes ‘vrooooom!’” she said loudly), it bogged down from time to time. The oil had been changed the previous day, so the malfunction was curious.
But it didn’t stop her from driving assertively. Dashing across an avenue, she jabbed the horn and swung around a Honda Accord. “You can’t be a timid driver because you won’t get anywhere,” she said.
There are also benefits to driving a car that is a fraction of the size of an Accord.
“You can get through the traffic because you can always go up the side,” she said, though she did not demonstrate the maneuver. “The other cars actually notice me because I’m so small. They see me and look after me.”
The car jiggled along to a stop sign, where a light blue Mercedes-Benz SL500 slipped around the Fiat on the right.
“And then this happens,” she said, gesturing at the wide convertible and making an acerbic comment about the kind of person who gets his kicks by beating an old Fiat off the line.
Nevertheless, Ms. Konig says she loves driving in Manhattan, where she recently finished decorating a downtown townhouse and the Pret a Manger cafe in Union Square. It is not unusual to see the Fiat with floor lamps and window shades popping out of its fold-back top.
Ms. Konig is British — her mother, Nina Campbell, is a well-known interior designer in London — and moved to New York in 2005.
“I’ve always wanted a Fiat,” she said. But it wasn’t until she visited a friend in the Bahamas that she felt inspired to pull the trigger. Her friend owned a Fiat Jolly, as did several inhabitants of the island. The Jolly was a special conversion for beach resorts that Ghia, an Italian coachbuilder, made for Fiat in the 1960s. Yul Brynner was a famous owner.
“It has cane seats,” Ms. Konig said. “There’s a canvas roof and some pom-poms around the edge — so pretty. I absolutely fell in love with it.”
One night on her Bahamanian visit, she searched eBay for a Fiat 500. She found one in Boston, and her friend persuaded her to buy it.
“I didn’t do very sensible checks,” Ms. Konig admitted. “I was slightly fatalistic about it — somebody who’s got a car like this has got to take care of it.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t problems. “It kept stalling because the engine was getting flooded,” she said, explaining that her inexperience might have contributed to the difficulties (“I was starting with the choke”), though that doesn’t explain the half of it.
“I needed a new carburetor,” she added. “The starter cable broke. I’ve had my engine stolen twice.”
The engine thefts were bizarre, even for New York. The motor is a 500-cubic-centimeter 2-cylinder in the back of the car. “It was really weird,” she said. “And then it happened a second time. The second time it was sort of upsetting.”
Through the early stages of her ownership, Ms. Konig forged a relationship with Greenwich Electra, which didn’t have any previous Fiat clients, she said. Now it has several.
Shali Dean, the shop’s owner, and a mechanic, Ari Madera, greeted Ms. Konig as she got out of the car.
She explained the problem. The engine cover was popped open. The customer and the two mechanics stared down at the small engine.
“It sounds healthy,” Mr. Dean said with a serious look on his face. The Fiat 500L came with less than 20 horsepower, so “healthy” is a relative term. Mr. Dean asked Ms. Konig to get in and goose the gas pedal, which unleashed a rather ambitious roar, seemingly confirming Mr. Dean’s assessment. “It sounds really healthy,” he said.
There was more staring.
Finally, Mr. Madera noticed that a spring — just two inches long — had sprung out of place. The mechanic retrieved needle-nose pliers and connected the spring back to the throttle body. Ms. Konig stepped on the gas once more and the revs rose and fell evenly. Problem solved.
Later, at the Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District, Ms. Konig sat at an outside table with a San Pellegrino Limonata. She was relieved about the Fiat’s clean bill of health and recounted a difficult drive earlier in the day.
“Lunchtime, I came back from 70th Street down Second Avenue,” she said, “and it was exhausting. It was exhausting because it was revving so much and making so much noise. And it got so hot. And it was bad traffic. And at the time, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t take it,’ you know? It’s been emotional.”
She went on: “The noise is quite stressful. Now I feel much happier that it’s got its spring back in place.”
Minutes later, she finished her drink and stood up. She was off to the Bahamas the next day for a long weekend and still had much to do.