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Licenses, registrations, and one of the oldest cars in the country: a visit to an Italian DMV office

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Photos by the author.

The Italian version of the DMV likely doesn’t appear on most folks’ European vacation itineraries. After all, there’s Roman ruins, stunning artwork, castles and clocktowers to see and plenty of gelato to consume. But a side trip to the Automobile Club Verona offers a unique juxtaposition not mentioned in many travel guides: a counter for renewing driver’s licenses right next to one of Italy’s oldest cars.

As seems to be standard throughout Italy, a small cafe actually fills the lobby of the Automobile Club Verona, which occupies a relatively anonymous building just off the busy street that connects the train station to the city’s Roman-era Arena. Only after peeking around the corner of the cafe does one find the aforementioned counter, the club’s offices, and the display dedicated to Enrico Bernardi, one of Verona’s favorite sons (alongside Dante Alighieri, Catullus, and the fictional Romeo Montague).


Bernardi might go unknown to all but Verona residents and the most fervent Italian automotive historians today, but he could actually lay claim to building a gas engine-powered vehicle two years before Karl Benz and to starting one of the first – if not the first – Italian auto manufacturing companies.

Born in Verona in 1841, he studied physics and later became a professor of hydraulic and agricultural machinery in nearby Padua. He also spent a good amount of time as a child hanging around the local blacksmiths and learning how steam engines operated. In 1876 he began experimenting with internal combustion engines, leading to the August 1882 presentation of his first working gasoline engine, a 122cc four-stroke water-cooled horizontal single-cylinder good for about .024 horsepower.

(Benz, who was also working on gasoline engines in Mannheim at the time, first patented his engine almost three months later.)


Bernardi first put his engine to use powering his daughter Pia’s sewing machine, thus the engine’s “Motrice Pia” nickname. Two years later he formally presented the Motrice Pia at the National Exhibition in Turin, and he also decided to remove the engine from the sewing machine and instead install it on his son’s three-wheeled buckboard. His son then drove the buckboard on the roads of Quinzano, a village just north of Verona, and possibly from Quinzano into Verona itself.

His more powerful Lauro engine came along in 1889 (which he later installed in his son’s bicycle), but it wasn’t until 1894, eight years after Benz built his first automobile, that Bernardi got around to building an automobile specifically for adults to use for transportation. That same year, a pair of entrepreneurs, Giacomo Francesco Miari and Giusti Del Giardino, approached Bernardi with the suggestion they produce and sell his automobile. They set up shop in Padua under the name Miari e Giusti and eventually offered steering wheel-equipped and four-wheeled versions as well as more powerful engines – up to about 6 horsepower – but ultimately folded in 1901.


Bernardi_03_3000 Bernardi_04_3000

A number of Miari e Giusti-built Bernardi automobiles still exist in museums around Italy, in addition to the three-wheeler in the Automobile Club Verona lobby. Steered by tiller, it appeared to employ sliding pillar front suspension and no suspension at all for its single rear wheel. While it looked to be in decent shape, the placard with it related no history on the car and instead appeared to refer to the replica of the 1884 buckboard in the glass case behind it, alleging that the original Motrice Pia engine was mounted to it. However, Verona’s Museo Nicolis also has what it claims to be the original Motrice Pia engine on display in its museum.

While plenty of Verona area guides – and even the placard in the Automobile Club Verona – laud Bernardi as the inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile, that all depends not just on how one defines the term automobile (does a child’s toy count?) but also on whether one accepts even earlier claims to that title, such as Siegfried Marcus’s.

Regardless, the Verona display is at least a fascinating way to while away the wait for the next desk clerk to process your car’s registration.