Laughing Around Town in a Fiat Jolly
A 1958 deckchair on wheels brightens everyone’s day.
Pure, delighted laughter rings out all around me, echoing as I pass. There's misery enough in this world, so it's a joy on this sunny day to spread a little cheer around—courtesy of an insanely dangerous, canary-yellow deckchair on wheels.
This is a 1958 Fiat Jolly. It's nearly a half-century old, it was coachbuilt to be used as a land-tender for the yachts of the very wealthy, and it's utterly, completely ridiculous. It doesn't have doors, or a roof, but at least its owner installed a couple of seatbelts.
“Oh shit,” she says, as we lean through a particularly sharp corner, “I just about fell out there.” Then, about twenty minutes later, “I suppose it would actually be preferable, in the event of a crash, to be thrown clear.”
You may remember Helen Poon as the owner of that V12 Toyota Century we featured not so long ago. To say she has an eclectic taste in vehicles is an understatement; this Jolly, a recent, almost accidental acquisition, shares a parking stall in Vancouver's West End with a 1938 MG TA. We've decided to take the Jolly out for a bit of a meander around the city because . . . well, just look at it. Wouldn't you like to drive it? Assuming your life insurance was all paid up?
Fewer than one hundred of these things are still in existence. Built on the bones of the Fiat 600, the Cinquecento's slightly more powerful cousin, it features a 28 hp, water-cooled, 767cc inline-four and a four-speed manual transmission. The original version of this car was capable of a top speed close to 70 mph, and when handled roughly by an enthusiastic Italian driver, likely rose to the challenge.
The Jolly, on the other hand, is not intended for the string-backed glove set. Never mind bucket seats; this thing is fitted with wicker chairs front and rear, such as might be comfortable driven while wearing a damp swimsuit. Each Jolly was coachbuilt by Ghia, and at three times the cost of the standard car, each one was a luxurious extravagance. Famous owners include Princess Grace Kelly, Aristotle Onassis, and longtime Fiat President Gianni Agnelli.
“The Rake of the Riviera,” as the dashing Agnelli was known, had the frilly little Jolly created to use around town when his yacht was moored in Monaco. Ghia built one based on the Fiat 500 specifically at his behest, and then the orders started rolling in from other wealthy yacht owners. Ghia would go on to build versions based on the Fiat 600, the Renault 4CV, and even the Multipla van.
Driving around in a car that looks like a cross between an AWOL bumper car and a junior Pokemon is not for the shy. By comparison, the crimson-red Huracán I had a few weeks back might as well have been a beige Corolla. People are elbowing each other, laughing, pointing, fumbling for their smartphones. Enthusiastic drivers nudge close to try and get a better look. Which is terrifying.
Noodling around Stanley Park is one thing, but hurtling high over the Lion's Gate bridge in a stream of distracted crossover drivers is not an experience to be undertaken lightly. Having survived, we loop back around to do it again. The Jolly does not have a radio, so I quietly hum Don't Fear The Reaper. The speedometer is purely decorative. The steering wanders like Silvio Berlusconi's hands. Helen adjusts her leather flying helmet, and then makes a suggestion.
“If we need the camera car, we can always take the MG out.”
Some moments later (the Jolly needs to be prodded to life with a spritz of Easy-Start; Helen sparks up a cigar), our ludicrous procession heads out towards the market at Granville Island. The lycra-clad citizenry of Vancouver are jaded towards Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis. They care nothing for your aspirational entry-level luxury BMW or Mercedes sedan.
But this Yakety Sax nonsense right here? I've never seen so many people so happy. We might as well be distributing balloon animals at a child's birthday party. The Jolly jounces over the bumps, squeaks past a mammoth Ford F-150, and hangs a left under the bridge. I heel-toe into second (ridiculously easy, as the accelerator pedal is mounted basically underneath the brake), zip through the intersection, and slow to a crawl.
“What the hell is that?” a guy says from the back of a taxi.
“It's a Fiat Jolly,” I reply.
“Pretty good in the winter?”
“Sure. If you were born in Manitoba.”
A gaggle of Japanese tourists run out in front of me to take pictures. We park and a lady with a strong Minnesotan accent asks to take a picture of Helen and her car. I buy a couple of Americanos and a half-pound of finnochiona salami in the market, and then line the car up against the rail for a photo with False Creek and the yachts in the background.
“That's a cutie!” somebody shouts from the deck of one of the harbor cruisers.
No ma'am, it's a Jolly—and we could all use a few more of them around.