Thirty years ago there was a group called Fiat Club of America, founded by FIAT owner Santo Bimbo in New York. Santo ran a hand typed correspondence newsletter that was mostly composed of letters from members who wanted to share their experiences of FIAT and Lancia cars. Santo wanted Fiat Club of America to remain a correspondence club while some his members wanted to get together to share the enthusiasm on road trips and get togethers. The original idea was to come up with a “Freak Sheet” to share information between like minded members on a regular basis.
Enthusiasts Bobb Rayner and Dwight Varnes decided to meet in 1982 and discuss an idea for gathering like minded enthusiasts in eastern Pennsylvania. Ironically it was the same year that FIAT and Lancia distribution ceased in leave North America. Bobb and Dwight met, and along with Scott Hill, Jim Manbeck, Tracy Harber, Mike Becciarini, Brian Sullivan, Steve Bruck and a few others formed a small group. The original name of the new club was Fiat Lancia Underground or “FLU”, since it had no affiliation with FIAT S.p.A. and they were on their own without factory support. Scott Hill designed a FLU logo, inspired from the top of a peanut butter jar lid! The club grew quickly and decided to print their own newsletter to announce events, post member stories and offer helpful tech tips. Dues were $5 per year. The newsletter was still hand typed and copied, but it was a great way to spread the word. Brian Sullivan did a great job as illustrator to add more zing to the publication.
Meanwhile, vendors in the FIAT parts business wanted to put ads in the newsletter. Three early ones were International Auto Parts, Bayless (Midwest-Bayless) and Fiat Plus (C. Obert & Co). These fine vendors are still with us today.
Over the years the club grew and Chapters began to form in places like Detroit (who were already established on their own), Western New York Southern Ontario (WNYSO) and Blue Ridge. Eventually over 25 Chapters joined ranks. Bobb and Dwight put together a summer meeting for Fiat Lancia Underground in 1983 at Pocono Raceway and named the show FIAT FreakOut. The first meeting was held at Pocono Raceway in 1983. Since then the FIAT FreakOut has grown to become the annual event that members enjoy from all over the world. The show moved from it’s modest beginnings to Hagarstown, MD, then eventually to over a dozen places throughout the eastern United States.
The club decided to change it’s name to Fiat Lancia Unlimited in 1986 to welcome all Italian automobiles and widen it’s appeal to enthusiasts all over the world. The club magazine went from the early days hand typed newsletter to a professional style on glossy paper after club members Darryl and Deb Stacey took over production and publication. The magazine called “Ricambi” and was published 6 times per year. The issue featured columns by Dwight, Bobb Rayner, Scott Hill, Jim Aitken, Joel Hailey, and members who gladly shared their wonderful adventures with FIAT and Lancia automobiles.
FIAT FreakOut moved from Hagarstown to Poughkeepsie, NY, then to Fontana, NC, Grand Island, NY, Dunkirk, NY, Canaan Valley, WV, Asheville, NC, Osage Beach, MO, Detroit and finally back to the Poconos for the 25th Anniversary FreakOut in 2008. We met in Valley Forge, PA and once again in Asheville, NC on 2010.
Ricambi magazine has blazed the trail along the way. Brett Melancon took over for Darryl and Deb Stacy in 1997. A full color magazine was created to replace the black and white one from before. The publication expanded to cover more chapters, more activities, events and stories from the road. The issue went from standard 16 pages to 32 pages, even a 64 page issue was done for the 20th anniversary in 2003. Ricambi has got better and better, going to a full glossy paper in 2009 and even higher production quality in 2010. Ricambi is the only club magazine of it’s kind, packed with full color reader submitted stories, technical articles, editorials and helpful vendor listings and ads.
In 2008, club member Jim Magill from Ireland shipped a brand new 2008 Fiat 500 to attend FLU’s 25th anniversary show in the Poconos. After a quarter century, FIAT fans in North America got a chance to see a brand new car. Jim arrived at the show and was immediately mobbed buy several hundred fans eager to see the new FIAT. (They were happy to see Jim too.) What a fantastic automobile! The members loved it. Jim kindly offered rides and actual member drives for a small donation to support a children’s charity back in Ireland. After the show, Jim drove the FIAT 500 across America, perhaps the very first time a private, current model FIAT took to American roads in a generation. Jim’s 500 was dubbed “The little car that could” and posted his experiences on a web site called www.littlefiatbigadventure.com”. Jim did a great job to introduce the 500 to a wide audience, especially out West and larger cities. We knew then that America was ready for the return of FIAT and FIAT was ready for America.
After the FIAT-Chrysler alliance in 2009, Chrysler sent representative Lisa Barrow and a brand new 2008 FIAT 500 Lounge to FIAT FreakOut for the club members to see. It was the first time a manufacturer owned FIAT 500 had been shown outside of an indoor auto show in North America. Lisa did a fantastic job as the ambassador of FIAT to FLU members. Local TV stations and Motorweek ran great photos and helped build the anticipation toward what was in store. FIAT FreakOut’s 2010 show was held in Asheville the summer of 2010, and the new FIAT team with Laura Soave joined us for the show to celebrate imminent return of FIAT to North America. Ms. Laura made a surprise announcement at the show that FLU members would be the very first to reserve one of 500 new cars called the Prima Edizione 500. FIAT had 2 new cars on display at FreakOut and a special state of the art kiosk complete with a cafe and boutique. The members enjoyed hot cappuccino and frozen gelato and the company of the 20 member Chrysler-FIAT entourage.
Many new FIAT 500s were sold that night. Last September, FLU members and others were able to reserve cars online. The remaining cars sold out within 45 minutes, selling at the rate of about one every 5 seconds. Many FLU members will also have the new cars, solving many elements of the transition as the new vehicles come to North American roads.
Fiat Lancia Unlimited has come a long way, but the original idea to get together, have fun and share our enthusiasm has remained the same. Why not join us, it will make us a better club with you on board! Ciao!