Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 126 in 2011.
This tale of a beautiful car is really about infatuation and true beauty.
High School was a revelation, a beginning. I came from eight years in a small parochial school – with the old-style black and white nuns. A great education, I was told, if somewhat narrow.
High school had a library, my first, and the wonders I found there! I knew Popular Mechanics, but I had never before come across a Popular Science magazine. There were other wonders. I knew novels, but didn’t realize they existed in such great profusion.
In the library I could finally get answers to questions I didn’t know I had. What was the biggest, the best, the fastest? We were talking about cars. I knew those answers: Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Cadillac…one of those would fit.
“Ferrari,” said some guy walking by, a senior. “Ferrari? What’s that?”
“Italian car,” he said.
I had seen a Fiat once. A puny thing; it didn’t impress me. I didn’t dare say so to a senior - the guy was probably putting us on anyway – so I just filed that name away: Ferrari.
It was only a week or so later - in the library again – that it happened. Paging through Popular Mechanics, I turned the page to a Champion spark plug ad. A chunky guy in a leather helmet, wearing a T-shirt, was sitting in this tomato-soup-colored race car and sort of smirking. His name was Alberto Ascari. I would never forget that.
I stared at that picture for a long, long time. The car was a Ferrari! World Champion, the ad said. Or maybe Ascari was the champion. The spark plug company suffered from a bad print job. I learned later that Ferraris are not tomato-soup-colored.
Bad print job or not, there was something magic about that ad – magic that would never wear off. From those first moments I was a tifosi - a Ferrari supporter – although I didn’t know the word then.
Over the months and years that followed, I became entranced with Ferrari as it battled for world championships in Grand Prix races all over Europe. Being a tifosi then was not as easy as it is now. Today you can record real-time races on T.V. and watch at your leisure. Then, no one in America cared about Grand Prix races. I found one American magazine, and a few from England, where I could follow the races - but it would be December before you could read of Ferrari’s victory in Germany in August. High school was rough.
Ferrari was it, and my interest in European cars grew. American cars did not have their simple elegance; Japanese cars weren’t even on the radar screen. About a year after I first became enthralled by Ferrari – although I had yet to see one – I learned there would be an International Auto show in New York. From the car magazines it appeared likely there would be at least one Ferrari there. I had to go.
That 1953 New York International Auto show was a mind-opener. Big and bright, full of people, well-dressed ones for the most part – and no music or shouting; it was all quietly respectful. I headed directly for the Ferrari display.
There they were! Two of them, a roadster and a coupe. Not tomato-soup-colored, but brilliant red. Smaller in life than I expected, taunt-looking, elegant – and fast. You could tell they were fast just by looking. They stood behind velvet ropes. I walked around clockwise, then counter-clockwise, and then just stood and stared.
Standing near me was a “kid” – about my age – the only kid I could see on the premises. He looked rather sophisticated, standing there with an armful of Ferrari brochures. I could not hold myself back. “Hey kid,” I said, “Where did you get that stuff - those brochures?”
He turned to look me over, sniffed, made me think of Holden Caulfield. “You have to ask for them,” he said. “They won’t give them to you. You have to tell them your old man sent you to find out about the roadster. He wants information and he needs to look at brochures. If he doesn’t get them he will be royally pissed off.”
That sounded reasonable. “Hey Mac,” I called to the nearest Italian-looking guy behind the ropes. He did kind of glance toward me, then very deliberately – it seemed - walked to the other side of the display. Well, I can always come back later, I thought. “Thanks kid,” I said to Caulfield, and walked off to look at the Hitler staff-car display. En route I was ambushed.
It was the color that ensnared me. I could say it was a brilliant, sparkling yellow, but that doesn’t do justice to how it looked. It may have been a very special paint job with orange and red and gold highlights masterfully blended into the curves of the fenders and the hood. Maybe it was the bright overhead lights that added the luster and depth. This yellow was incredibly deep, multi-toned, and it drew me towards this car that wore it. Not a Ferrari this one, but something absolutely remarkable. I had never seen anything like it – but for hints of it in the Saturday Buck Rogers serials.
It was a coupe, low slung, with a tailpipe and muffler peeking through a gleaming perforated chrome shield that extended under driver’s door. But it was the roof that drew the eye, gave this car its character: all glass, a long streamlined glass bubble that extended from behind the driver all the way back. A glass roof! I knew that was the future – and it was beautiful!
A sign identified the car as a Pegaso. I was no linguist, but I knew what that meant. Besides, the badge on the car showed a horse with wings. This beautiful yellow flying horse had been built in Spain.
I spent the rest of that afternoon shuttling between Ferrari and the Pegaso. I learned that Pegaso was a new venture, a Spanish constructor of trucks and tractors that was challenging Ferrari. I loved the two Ferraris, but it was the beautiful yellow Pegaso that I gave my last look.
The show closed for the day, and there the story ended. But only for a while.
Years later - three or four or five - and I was walking down a street in Queens, a street of no distinction, a short-cut probably – when along a row of parallel-parked cars - just like that! - I was suddenly standing alongside the beautiful yellow Pegaso.
I was stunned – so much so that I have no recollection of the fabulous paint job, except that it was yellow, not glittering – perhaps it was an overcast day – but I don’t remember it as shopworn-looking either. The Pegaso was just there, and it was yellow.
There was no question it was the same car. There was never another like it. I knew that, and I also knew that the yellow Pegaso should not have been in Queens: After the car show - I had learned from car magazines - the yellow Pegaso had been bought by one General Rafael Trujillo, the strongman of the Dominican Republic. He had taken the car home with him. Whatever else might have been said of the man, he had good taste.
But that no longer mattered. He had been assassinated.
So I stayed on that street for a while and admired the yellow Pegaso, walked around it, looked at it from different angles. There were no ropes to keep me back - I could even touch it now, but I don’t think I did. I remember leaves on the roof and other tree crud, and thought that it had been parked there for days. There was no way to say where the owner was. Not that it mattered. I was pleased to just renew my acquaintance with that beautiful yellow car. I was quite satisfied with that. I had something new to remember now: What were the odds against this encounter happening? That was enough.
And so the story ended again … for quite a while, this time.
Years passed, about fifty of them. I was still following Ferrari battles on the Formula One circuits of the world. One day, paging through a booklet on travel offered by the Smithsonian Institution, a trip to Italy caught my eye. It was billed as an exploration of Italian automotive design. That sounded neat! The tour would visit car factories in Turin, famous design studios in Milan, and even go to Modena – where Ferrari began.
This was interesting enough to show to my wife. “Something I’d like to do one day.”
“Do it now,” she said.
“Well, it’s expensive…. and not the best time for me.”
She signed me up.
It was the best tour I’ve ever taken - anywhere. There were about fifteen of us. Two ladies and the rest were car guys. It was cars twenty-four hours a day. If you had a car question, somebody had the answer. We stayed in some really nice hotels – I don’t think anybody noticed. Visits to palaces and gardens were on the schedule. “Ah, what the hell, let’s stay longer at the factory.”
We did Fiat and Lancia, and Alfa Romeo. We went to Modena, to the Ferrari museum at Maranello. We ate in the restaurant across the street from the Ferrari factory. (Enzo Ferrari lunched there every day, didn’t he?) Down the road, in the little town of Santa Marta, Lamborghini opened its factory for us on a Sunday morning.
It was the afternoon of the same day, I think, that we sat in the town square at Modena, ate the local Parmesan cheese and watched the Mille Miglia come through. The great old race across a thousand miles of Italy is now a rally, more like a procession of the priceless old cars that once participated. I stood on a corner, and from two feet away looked down as Stirling Moss – Sir Stirling, now - drove around it – in the same Mercedes 300 SLR that he used to win the race in 1955. It was my youth all over again, but this time in 3D.
All of this - and a day of historic Grand Prix racing at Monza – but for me, the highlight came in the Alfa Romero executive dining room. We had been invited there after a tour of the Alfa design center. Some of Alfa’s designers were to join us. As we waited, I looked out a window to the driveway below, where an elegant black sedan dropped off an equally elegant elderly Italian gentleman. He had to be Italian, he was so well-dressed.
I thought no more of it until he appeared in the dining room. Someone introduced him as Engineer Anderloni, one of Alfa Romeo’s early designers. Someone said he was famous – at least in Italy. (I would later learn that Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni was responsible for the design of the Ferrari 166 Barchetta, the first Ferrari. Internationally respected, his long list of clients included Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and “Hudson in America.”) He would join us for lunch.
Tables had been reserved for us; by chance I found myself sitting next to Engineer Anderloni. There was a good bit of talk across the table at first, about cars and Alfa’s history mostly, but when the food came, Anderloni and I started to chat as we ate. He mentioned having been in Spain recently. “Nice holiday?” I asked.
“Things to do,” he said. “They’re starting a car museum in Spain, and they wanted to talk.”
“Ah, they’ll be showing Alfa’s? Ferraris?”
“No, Pegaso, the Spanish car.”
“Why did they want to talk about Pegaso with you?”
“I was involved with some of the early ones.”
“Oh….” I could already see where this was going. “You designed some of the early Pegasos?”
“Some of the first ones.”
I laughed. “Let me tell you about this beautiful yellow Pegaso I saw – back in the early 1950s.” And I told Engineer Anderloni the whole story, about the car show, about the improbable meeting on a New York street.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “I did the design. The car was bought by Trujillo. After he died it disappeared, but the Spanish have now found it. It will be in the museum.”
Food was forgotten. That beautiful car would now be where everyone could see it. It was unique for the time, beautiful – it must still be beautiful. I told Anderloni that, that I still thought it was most beautiful car I had ever seen. How did Anderloni come to design it?
“It was the times – jet planes, rockets, Cadillac fins. Designs like that were expected.”
But I didn’t see Anderloni getting caught up in my enthusiasm. Someone broke into our conversation and I sat back and reflected, and saw the beautiful yellow Pegaso as it had been under the auto show lights.
Engineer Anderloni broke into my thoughts. “After lunch we are to go down to the Alfa museum, I think. I want to show you something.”
The museum was the history of Alfa Romero, dozens of cars that I knew from old black and white photos. Anderloni took me to one side, from where we could see a small red roadster in profile. “There,” he said, “Do you know that car?”
I did - and that I found remarkable. I had seen that car once, at the same New York show where I saw the yellow Pegaso, although after the show I had seen its photo many times in magazines and books. “It’s the Disco Volante,” I said. The Flying Saucer.
And flying saucer it did indeed look like, at least in the 1950s, when most cars were large and slab-sided. An open two seat roadster, its bottom sloped up; it’s upper side sloped down; met at the waist in a thin line.
“I designed that. The same era. It was in the popular imagination.” We stood there a moment and admired the Disco. It was a beautiful thing – and I had long forgotten it.
“Let’s step back a bit, Andoloni said,” and when we did: “What do you see now?”
I know a trick question when I hear it. I stared for what seemed a long time, trying to see what Anderloni saw – and tried to look casual while my mind raced. What did the Disco Volante’s creator see that I couldn’t? What would be important to a designer? It had to be heritage - DNA! There had been a lot of talk about DNA among the Alfa designers. Then, like those trick pictures that seem to be one thing and then morph into something else…. It was there all the time. Any car guy would see it right away.
“It’s got the profile of an E-Jaguar!”
“Yes,” Engineer Andoloni said. “But long before there was an E-Jaguar.”
The pride in Andoloni’s face made me understand. I loved the Pegaso from the time I saw it, but I had also looked at the Disco then - and I had never noticed a beauty that others obviously had. The Pegaso’s flash drew me to it; the Disco had a catchy name but lines too subtle for me. Someone saw what those lines could be. Anderloni may not have designed the Jaguar E-type - one of the most successful sports car designs of all time - but you could see his connection to it. It was in the DNA.
I will never forget how the yellow Pegaso looked under the New York car show lights. But now I’ll remember the Disco Volante, too. The Disco must have left an impression with me from the start. I did remember it - when I saw it fifty years later.
But the beautiful yellow Pegaso has always been with me. What were the odds against these encounters? And now I can look forward to our next meeting - in Spain, where I hope the museum lights do justice to the beautiful yellow flying horse.