Fiat 500 Abarth Takes Us Back to the Future in South Bay

19th, 20th Century Icons Updated to Thrive in Today’s World

I call this San Diego day trip, “Back to the Future.”

First off, no flying cars, but our test vehicle today is a mid-century icon updated to 21st century performance, the hot and flashy Fiat 500C Abarth. Our stops are at a revitalized coffee shop (diner for you from the east), the bustling port terminal importing the 500’s larger cousin, the only remaining original transcontinental railroad terminal and some back-to-the-roots organic farms. It’s a mostly urban drive, although the scenic Tijuana River Valley is one of the region’s best nature preserves.

Head south on Interstate 5, in San Diego’s South Bay is named for John J. Montgomery, an early aviation pioneer. He’s credited with creating the first glider flown in the US and tested it nearby.

Take the Main Street/Division Street exit, scoot over to National City Boulevard and you’ll find Aunt Emma’s Pancakes new location at 214 National City Boulevard. Locals will remember there were many Aunt Emma’s locations around; the chain had shrunk to just the Chula Vista location several years ago. They’ve now expanded to the former Keith’s location; Keith’s dated back even farther, to the 1930s when it had several drive-ins around (my aunt was car hop at the El Cajon Boulevard location in the 40s).

Packed on a Saturday morning, Aunt Emma’s has 24 different kinds of pancakes, plus other breakfast goodies. It’s as good today and as reasonably priced as it was when I was a starving student filling up at the old El Cajon Boulevard cafe. The National City location has been refurbished but a few old Keith’s touches remain, such as the big photos above the counter.

21st Century Fiat 500 Abarth in front of 19th Century housing built for Santa Fe Railroad personnel.
21st Century Fiat 500 Abarth in front of 19th Century housing built for Santa Fe Railroad personnel.

Drive down National City Boulevard a few blocks, turning east (left) at East 8th Street, then a quick right at A Street to our first railroad-related site, the Brick Row on Heritage Square. Built in 1887 by Frank Kimball, it served as housing for Santa Fe Railroad executives when the western terminus of the railroad was a short distance away.

On the way to the depot, wind through National City’s old neighborhoods and Kimball Park over to the bayfront, the working 24th Street terminal of the Port of San Diego. All those new cars in view on Tidelands Avenue are the work of Pasha Automotive Services, which unloads an estimated 360,000 Honda, Acura, Volkswagen, Audi, Fiat, Mazda, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, Lotus, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Hyundai and Kia vehicles this year. The first 387 of our Fiat 500c Abarth’s larger cousin, the new 500L, arrived here in mid-July from its Kragujevac, Serbia, assembly plant.

Organic ranch Suzie’s Farm is one of the sites in the Tijuana River Valley.
Organic ranch Suzie’s Farm is one of the sites in the Tijuana River Valley.

And what about our tested car, the Fiat 500c Abarth? It scores a 10 on the cute meter, has a spiffy looking interior and lots of sunshine with when the three-position roof opens. The extra power from the Abarth goodies, which boosts horsepower by almost 50 percent from the base model, plus a tighter and lower suspension, bigger brakes and a more aggressive look. It’s a lot of fun at speed on twisting, curving roads.

Not so fun on a city drive is the stiffer suspension, which picks up every bump and crack in the street. The manual shifter, which sticks out from the dash, is so lifeless it causes drivers to guess what gear they’re choosing. The seats appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. And if the top is fully down, rear visibility falls to nil. My biggest complaint about the Abarth was the larger turning circle, rising from a tight 30.6 feet in the base model, to 37.6 feet on the Abarth.

And then there was the “exhaust note.” Tuners might like the trumped coming from the back, but to me it made the car sound like it was an old, rear-engined, two-cylinder air cooled 500, rather than its front-engined high tech grandson. On urban drives, it echos off of buildings and drew stares on freeway underpasses.

But it did look cute in front of the old National City Depot. I could image back in the day drivers in the original 500s picking up loved ones at a town train station looking like this one. Passenger service here ended in the early 50s, before a few of the Cinquecento models were imported to the US.

Inside the station, the San Diego Electric Railway Association has exhibits telling the story of the depot, a gift shop and train layout. Vintage streetcars are being restored, including the Birney model that sat for years in the dining room of the downtown Spaghetti Factory. Across the street is Railcar Plaza, containing an original car dating from 1887. Across the freeway, the modern San Diego Trolley whirrs by, full of paying passengers.

Horse trails are down the road but not appropriate for the little Fiat.
Horse trails are down the road but not appropriate for the little Fiat.

National City’s waterfront is the busiest civilian portion of the working Port of San Diego. Back in Kimball’s day, raw materials such as sand and salt, fruits and vegetables, dried fish and other item were exported from here by ship and rail, while lumber, grain, coal and other essentials arrived. Today, we import cars and lumber, with sand, salt and manufactured products exported. Kimball’s dream worked out in the long run. Kids will love this part of our San Diego day trip, as there are some big ships, lots of autos, train cars and cargo visible.

Jump back on the Montgomery Freeway (I-5) south for a few minutes, exiting at Dairy Mart Road to the Tijuana Estuary. Dairy Mart Road and the other byways through the estuary are as enjoyable as any in the county. We’ll take a detour down Sunset Avenue to the Suzie’s Farm vegetable stand and Wild Willow Farms. Suzie’s offers produce grown organic right in the valley… in fact some of the fields are adjacent to the stand. Wild Willow Farms offers visitors the opportunity to get their hands dirty and help farm. There’s been farming in this valley for more than a century, but here in the 21st century, we’ve put an emphasis on locally grown, sustainable agriculture. Our Back to the Future moment here is that farming is once again seen as something positive for the local community, rather than just land waiting for development.

When in the area, I never miss stopping in at the Tijuana Estuary visitors center, located northwest of the farms in Imperial Beach. The exhibits tell the story of the Tijuana River watershed, which extends east to Lake Morena and beyond. There are also several easy hiking trails to explore the wetlands. Even if you don’t take the rest of the drive, the Estuary is a great San Diego day trip.

From here, you can head back to I-5 and home, or continue through Imperial Beach and up the Silver Strand to Coronado.

If you are fortunate to be driving one of the current updated classics, such as the Fiat 500, MINI Cooper, Volkswagen Beetle or Jeep Wrangler, or a neo-classic such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser or Chevrolet HHR, take a moment to see how this area has used the strengths of its past to build the future.

Frankly, for all the fun that is nostalgia, I’d rather be driving a turbocharged, 21st century Fiat 500, having my sour cream pancakes at today’s Aunt Emma’s and buying organic produce at Suzie’s. I’ll leave to others the joy of arriving by steam train at the National City depot after a five-day trip in a wooden coach from Chicago, or wheezing around these streets in an original Cinquecento.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 18 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy

Directions

  • Go to Google Map.
  • Interstate 5 south to Main Street/Division Street exit.
  • Left at Main Street.
  • Right at National City Boulevard. Aunt Emma’s Pancakes is at 214 National City Boulevard.
  • Continue on National City Boulevard.
  • Left at East Eighth Street.
  • Right at A Avenue. A Avenue dead-ends at Brick Row Houses.
  • East on East Ninth Avenue.
  • Right at B Avenue.
  • Right at East 12th Street.
  • Left at National City Boulevard.
  • Right at Civic Center Drive. Continue onto Tidelands Avenue.
  • Left at Bay Marina Drive.
  • Left at Cleveland Avenue.
  • Left at West 23rd Street. National City Depot is at 922 West 23rd Street.
  • Return to Bay Marina Drive. Go east (left) to Interstate 5.
  • Take Interstate 5 south.
  • Exit Dairy Mart Road. Turn right onto Dairy Mart Road. Continue onto Monument Road.
  • Right at Hollister Street.
  • Right at Sunset Avenue. Suzie’s Farm stand is on left; Wild Willow Farm is on right.
  • Return to Hollister Street. Continue north (right).
  • Left at Coronado Avenue. Changes name to Imperial Beach Boulevard when entering city of Imperial Beach.
  • Left at Fourth Street. Continue onto Caspian Way. Tijuana Estuary Visitors Center is at 301 Caspian Way.
  • Return to Imperial Beach Boulevard. Beach is west (left), Interstate 5 is east (right).

Links

From July 2013

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