“When the little car awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, it found itself transformed in its garage into a monstrous hybrid.”
-Franz Kafka (probably)
But perhaps not the hybrid you’re thinking of. This is a 1974 Fiat 126, and first things first, it’s on a wall. There’s that cat out of the bag. Where to start with this thing? Well, I think it’s best to begin with the car and then talk about why someone was so taken with it that they decided to nail it to a Chicago art museum.
The little 126 was designed to be a replacement for Italy’s car for the masses, the Fiat 500. Much of the underpinnings from the 500 remain, which means that the 126’s engine is in the trunk, kind of like a Beetle. That two-cylinder did grow a bit during its time on the market, eventually producing a scorching 25 horsepower. This model had one of the slightly smaller engines, however, at a merely smoldering 23 horsepower. Those lawnmower-levels of power were sent directly to the rear wheels via a four speed transmission, rocketing the little car from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 48 seconds.
So, fast the 126 wasn’t. But, as we are taught from a young age, it isn’t what’s on the inside that counts: what really matters is that people like you. And, thankfully, the little Fiat was popular. Very much so, in fact. Over its thirty years on sale, Fiat sold over four and a half million 126’s. People liked its small size and buzzy little engine. The 126 was fun. It was also, you know, dirt cheap. But fun too.
Fun enough, apparently, that someone decided to hang it in a museum. That someone, British artist Simon Starling, installed the 126 in the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002 as part of a larger project called Metamorphology, a series that explores, among other things, the idea of transformation. It really is fascinating, and any attempt by me to talk about it would do the art a disservice, so you can learn more about the series here. What I can tell you about is the car. You see, the 126 was originally built in Fiat’s big factory in Turin, Italy (which has a racetrack on the roof. A racetrack. On the roof). However, production shifted to a factory in Poland from 1973 to 2000. This particular car (which was red at the time) was driven from Turin to that factory in Poland, where the hood, doors and trunk were replaced with white parts from the Polish car. The custom 126 was then hung on the wall like, appropriately, a flag.
- The 126 eventually became known as “Maluch,” the Polish word for little.
- On the roof. A racetrack. They put an awesome racetrack on their awesome roof.
- It’s worth mentioning that, while Fiats were sold in the United States up until the nineties, the 126 was never officially offered here.