Hot Rods and Italian Design

In the first few opening minutes of Metallica’s documentary ‘Some kind of Monster’ James Hetfield roars down a Bay Area freeway in his bucket hot rod. He and his passenger sit awkwardly in the open wheeler, dangerous stick shift vibrating, chrome ‘German’ style helmets shining in the sun and noise roaring from the straight pipes coming right off the block.

It is a very cool sight, not because it’s Hetfield but because he and his passenger are making a statement, or several, to those around them. In a world of conformity, where everyone else on the freeway sit passively in their mass produced tin boxes, roaring along in a hot rod says something about you as a person

I like hot rods, always have. I don’t get the ‘rice boy’ phenomena of making everyday sedans and the like look even worse, but there is something about a ‘rod that is captivating. Perhaps at their most basic they are a very confronting and open from of ‘self’, with each being totally original, not only in the way it looks and performs but also in the intent and goals behind it. When you set about to the undertaking that is building a ‘rod, because buying one off the shelf defeats the whole purpose, you are committing to something some might liken to a marriage.

Not only that but you are also committing to the fact that you are going to make a very visible statement about yourself; no matter how subdued, a ‘rod is a very visible entity. The problem, for people like myself in anyway, is that building a ‘rod is, for whatever reason, just too much of a commitment for the lives we lead and like previously mentioned, buying one is just wrong.

Is though building a hot rod the only way to make a statement on the road, or anywhere else for that matter? What if you are the type of person that wants more than what is on the ‘shop shelf’, for whatever reason? Recently I have become an e-bay fiend and I am blaming coffee. As some might have garnered, the 50’s Atomic stove top coffee machine is one of our top 10 products of all time. So simple in its function, the Atomic embodies all that good stuff that is Italian design – unique, elegant, personal and of course somewhat temperamental. Lately I have been pointed to yet another cool coffee stove top from the same era. Though simpler, the Vesuviana has become the object of a weekly e-bay search, trying to find old and forgotten ones that want a little love and attention to bring them back to their former glory.

When I stand back from all of this I have to ask myself what is it that is attracting me to them; I like coffee but really, isn’t an Atomic enough? The answer dawned on me when I had to select a new set of forks for my mountain bike. Having gone through all the usual, I ended up buying a set of Marzocchi forks. I could ultimately have had any fork I wanted but a strange set of circumstances saw me selecting the Italian. At first I was buffudelled, I did not really want them but the more I thought about it and the more I looked at them, the more I realised that I could really not have settled on anything else. Like everything Italian they have that something about them, that undefinable blend of characteristics that make people yearn for the red, white and green. The Vesuviana is like that and ultimately makes it, judging by what’s going on at e-bay, a growing object of desire.

I should know better about Italian though. Having spent time working for Cagiva/Ducati as a designer, the logic in me tells me that avoiding Italian is good for my health. Close to ten years on though I have decided that I really do need a 999R in the garage. Sure, it will be temperamental, expensive to repair, parts hard to find, possibly leak oil all over the place and might even have bad electrics but when compared to the best offerings from the Japanese, English, Germans and even Americans, all I can say to myself is that there is no compare. The Ducati (as do the other Italian two wheeled marquis) has that, that…that BING!

So what does all this have to do with hot rods? Well, more than you think. Like a ‘rod, buying Italian is more than a consumer choice, it’s a choice that says something about you as a person. In many cases there are better options out there, or at least ones that do not cost as much, are a whole lot less idiosyncratic and are far more logical but by buying the Italian you are saying that you want and understand the ‘BING’. Similar in principle to building a hot rod, you are accepting the highs and the lows that committing to such a beast, be it a 999R or a 1940’s stove top coffee machine will bestow on your life. In some ways it also says you could very possibly have little respect for your savings and not have a whole lot of common sense.

The Vesuviana, or Atomic, to me is my little bit of attainable hot rod mentality. While I want the 999R, like building a ‘rod for others, the time is not right to commit that much cash to a very personal and decadent statement. And while the Vesuviana is not visible to the world (or even close to being in the same league as a 999 or a ‘rod), it, like the Atomic, attracts the same curiosity and mystique to those that come to the house and see it, much in the same manner that a ‘rod does cruising down the road; it has the ‘BING’ factor. People will look and say how cool, whilst at the same time also think that well, such a thing is not quite right for them – they like the ‘plug and play’ solutions a whole lot better. They probably would never even contemplate a hot rod in the garage either.

A mixer/measure for Alessi by Marta Sansoni, architect and designer, Florence.

Italian design, from the smallest plastic Allessi tit bit, to the most expensive car in many ways is the less demanding solution for those who would really like to build a hot rod but never will, for whatever reason; though it might be debatable as to how much less demanding the Italian product actually is of their owner over the long term. Even if you see twenty Ducati’s in a line, each one says something about the person who owns it; the sheer ownership defines something about that person right off the bat, the mass produced nature of each does not detract from this. No matter how small or cheap, the ‘BING’ factor of an Italian product gives so much more to those who connect with it. Italian design and products are like that.