By Fred A. Reed
Cognoscenti of things Italian will recognize the title of this short essay as ‘four leaf clover’, as esteemed a good-luck charm in Italy as it is in Canadian latitudes…though not in Morocco, I note.
In fact, there is very little clover at all in Morocco these days, as the country is experiencing drought conditions so severe that crops are endangered and public prayers for rain have taken place under royal patronage.
But these considerations have only an incidental bearing on the four-leaf clover I spotted a few months ago: the small green one discretely affixed to the flank of an upstairs neighbour’s white Alfa-Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio.
This particular car belongs to a man named Sami, who owns three other modified, high-performance vehicles, which, because the access ramp to our building’s garage is too steep, he must park on the street. Sami is a native of Agadir who spent twelve years in France, did very well in IT and moved back to his hometown.
Allow me to preface my short tale with apologies to readers who may be indifferent or even hostile to automobiles. Only half-hypocritically I agree with them. Rarely has a human invention proved to be such a curse, such a destroyer of our beautiful blue planet, such a wrecker of lives and such a harbinger of environmental disaster.
So why am I drooling, now in advanced old age, at the white Alfa-Romeo Quadrifoglio sedan parked across the street from our living room window?
Let us begin with a scene from the film The Tender Bar, the coming-of-age tale of a young writer and his uncle and mentor Charlie, touchingly played by Ben Affleck, owner of a modest bar somewhere on Long Island, in which he imparts advice to his protégé:
“Always keep two extra ten-spots in your wallet in case you have to buy somebody a drink. And get a car.”
The last bit of advice resonated powerfully throughout my Southern California childhood and youth. For Los Angeles was in the vanguard of the onrushing culture of the automobile that was soon to swamp North America, then Europe, then all other once-remote outposts of Civilization, where it is seen, promoted and sold as a symbol of individual liberty.
It was unstated but widely understood that upon learning to drive, which I did at the wheel of my father’s turquoise Oldsmobile 88, a young man would acquire a car. Ours was a respectable middle-class family and our tastes and aspirations were those of our social class.
“What kind of car would you like?” my parents would have asked me. My answer would have disconcerted them, as it could not have been farther from my father’s. But did not stop them from following through, as dutiful parents reluctant to refuse their eldest son’s every wish and/or whim.
“A Fiat 600,” I said, assuring them I knew just where to get it. Not only that, it would be modified with a kit produced by Abarth, a leading Italian performance-tuning specialist. In short order my pedestrian little Fiat graduated to the big little leagues of what were then called ‘souped-up cars.’ A modest little putt-putt was thus transformed into a speedy automobile with very rapid acceleration.
So rapid that one night on my way home from Hollywood, I rushed up the on-ramp and, flooring the accelerator, sliced full speed across four lanes of traffic, causing drivers I’d cut off to brake suddenly: I could see their alarmed faces in my rear-view mirror. The adrenalin was pumping at floodtide. Three minutes later, in that same rear-view mirror, I spotted the traffic cop who pulled me over, certified that I was white, clearly not of the inferior classes, and not intoxicated. He let me go with a warning.
There was more: the same vehicle was available with a two-seater custom body made by the Italian custom body firm Zagato. ‘Piccola e imbattibile’ they wrote about that minuscule and rakishly handsome morsel of automotive craftsmanship that ruled racecourses between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties. Best (or worst) of all, the Italian car dealer where I bought the Fiat also sold Alfa-Romeos, back when the firm was an independent sports-car manufacturer that competed successfully in Formula One and other major automobile races like the mythical Mille Miglia. And had a look and manner unlike any other. Owning and driving an Alfa was, of course, an impossible dream, as, unlike my Fiat, it required substantial amounts of money.
All of this I related to Sami when I engaged him in conversation in the foyer of our building one afternoon after I’d asked him about his car. It was obvious I had captured his interest, as his Alfa had snared mine.
“Would you like to take a ride?” he volunteered.
Would I ever!
A few days passed, and then, one warm evening, a WhatsApp™ message popped up on my mobile phone. It was Sami: “Let’s go!”
“When?” I texted. “Right now,” came the reply. It was 11:00 p.m.
Five minutes later we met on the sidewalk, walked over to the Alfa, provocatively parked just across from our building, as if daring driver and passenger to do something rash and outlandish.
Easing down into the leather-upholstered bucket seats and strapping myself in, I peppered Sami with questions while volunteering that I knew Alfa had been purchased by the multinational conglomerate Fiat years before.
The facts as he presented them are these: this particular model, the one with the Quadrifoglio, was a limited production high performance four door with a six-cylinder, 500 horsepower Ferrari engine (thanks to Fiat, which now owned both), and featured a ‘race’ mode available at the touch of a lever attached to the steering wheel.
Indeed, the Quadrifoglio should best be described as a ‘poor man’s Ferrari’, that lofty summit of automotive art, whose roar at full throttle Herbert Von Karajan—who should know—once asserted was surpassed only by the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Engine revving provocatively, Sami drove through the drowsy night streets of Agadir until we reached the six-lane north-south boulevard that passes by our city’s two royal palaces before heading south toward the Sahara. We weren’t going that far, of course. Just a few dozen kilometers.
But what kilometers they were! Sami punched the accelerator and in a few seconds the Alfa was doing 160 kilometers per hour as he wove aggressively through the late evening traffic. I sat there transfixed, head thrust back into the headrest, clutching the edge of my seat, as excited as I’d been when I cut across four lanes of Hollywood Freeway traffic in my Fiat Abarth 750 some sixty-five years before.
You might, some claim, get similar stimulus on a rollercoaster, or on a jet taking off before it leaves the ground. But this was not a plane, and not on rails. This was a car with four wheels making its way at high speed along an urban thoroughfare, engine snorting, roaring, gears shifting up and down in rapid succession, brakes gripping the discs and bringing us to a quick stop, then off again.
Meanwhile, Sami was chortling, glancing at me to measure the success of his venture, and from time to time casually vaped through the open driver’s window.
Changing course, we headed north along the coast road that overlooks the port of Agadir. In an instant we were back over 100 kilometers per hour, sweeping by a red Audi that attempted—supreme presumptuousness!—to keep up with us. A tap on the gas and the Audi was, so to speak, toast. Sami’s laughter took on a quasi-diabolical tone. Close behind two slow-moving intercity taxis he drew and revved the engine, causing them to part like the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus.
By now the speed and the rapid-fire lane changes had addled my mind, and I was laughing hysterically.
I had stepped into a four-wheeled time machine: sixty five years were erased and for an instant I was an eighteen year-old again, gangling and clumsy but swept up by speed and the thrill, cheap though it might have been, of high-speed transgression.