Last weekend, I drove down a Bologna high street at 80mph, wondering why the Italians were so crazy, crazy about cars. They were waving their flags - Italian flags, Ferrari flags, Alfa Romeo flags - and were waving their hands exuberantly at the drivers in the Mille Miglia historic car "race", cheering as though we were returning sporting heroes (which, in a sense, our cars were).

We were following a police motorcyclist on his big blue Moto Guzzi motorcycle, as he carved his way down the middle of a crowded high street during heavy Saturday afternoon traffic, splitting the traffic like Moses parting the Red Sea. He set the pace. We, like the children of Israel, followed.

And despite the crowded road and the crowded pavements and the fact that you're supposed to obey traffic laws in the Mille Miglia, he chose to ride at 80mph, three times the speed limit. Even the other motorists, stuck in a terrible traffic jam because of us, seemed cheerful. Most waved as we sped by. It was crazy and dangerous but we were in Italy and because people were enjoying themselves, then that was fine.

The response had been the same in Rome the day before and was the same in the numerous small medieval villages that the cars drove through, and out on the country roads of Emilia Romagna, Marche, Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany. Well over one million people (it was probably nearer 2 million) enthusiastically watched at least part of the event - for old historic cars built from 1927-57 - as it sped from Brescia to Rome via the Adriatic coast and then back to Brescia through Tuscany, over two-and-half days.

The welcome knew no geographic barriers, nor age or gender boundaries. Teenage youths waved (can you imagine young Britons waving little flags at old cars driving by?); teenage girls were waving; so were old ladies and men. They were all at it: doing something that we "sophisticated" Britons would regard as profoundly uncool. The Italians, perversely the coolest people in the world, had no such hang-ups: there was some fun going on and they wanted to be part of it.

They also love cars, of course. In Britain, it's almost anti-social to display a liking for cars. Teachers tell school kids how bad they are, shortly before their mums pick them up in one. But in Italy, cars are part of the heritage, part of the national psyche, part of the individual, self-expressionist culture. In Britain, the Mille Miglia would have been barricaded by Friends of the Earth cyclists trying to reclaim the roads (not that politically correct opinion-formers would have let it happen in the first place). In Italy, it was ringed by friendly, uninhibited people genuinely enjoying themselves and showing their appreciation at 340 of the most beautiful cars in the world. The police enthusiastically egged on drivers.

Many of the cars were Italian, of course, which helped. One reason the Italians love cars so much is because they have designed most of the loveliest ones. Good cars should be like sculptures: the best ones are. A car, like a building, is part of our environment: it should be as pleasing to the eye as possible. A Ferrari or a Maserati is like a mobile Michelangelo, and the rarer ones are worth almost as much. They are worth looking at, especially if driven in anger.

Italians have also been very good at making the oily bits. They have long had great metallurgical skills, one reason they are such sublime makers of high performance engines, in which a profound knowledge of alloys is crucial. Italy is proud of its contribution to the car. Britain was, but is no longer. Partly because, it now has little to be proud of. How can it be, when it has no industry to call its own?

Logically, of course, an event like the Mille Miglia makes no sense. Neither does smoking cigarettes and drinking strong coffee and waving your arms and getting heated about whether Juventus is a better team than Parma. But it's all part of the Italian psyche, part of the charm of the place.

There's nothing illogical about the Italians' love of cars, however. They depend on them for their transport and, in many cases, for their livelihoods - Fiat is Italy's biggest company and biggest employer. Cars can be lovely, although many modern ones are not, and most people like driving them.

In many ways we in Britain like cars just as much. But social mores preclude us from showing it, at least in such an uninhibited way. One of the many advantages of an uninhibited, self-expressionist culture is that there is rarely a place for hypocrisy.

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