ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
After the Austin 10/4 debacle (March 2017 Blog) there was something of a motoring hiatus in my life, as my father refused to subsidize what he called an ‘extravagant lifestyle.’ Of course it was a valuable lesson in the choice of friends, and given the circumstances, a great chum of mine was a six feet something taxi driver called Jumbo. As I was at the youthful phase of a long haired bohemian it was, I suppose, a most unlikely entente cordiale. Perhaps it was because he ferried me to country soirees, and managed to stay for the liquid refreshments. He even charmed a nurse, who took a fancy to our Jumbo, and provided an egg and bacon supper. Sadly for me, it turned out to be very serious, and it was back to ‘Shanks’s pony’. I had to wait some years before the opportunity of wheels presented itself again. Eventually, of course, I had a desirable ‘trouble and strife’ of my own, to which we added the usual marital appendices – one with nappies and no MOT. All these responsibilities had to be transported in something more accommodating than the local double decker bus. How a Singer 4AB came into my possession I can’t recall, but it added a new dimension to my mother-in-law's garden by refusing to turn a wheel. I was a little miffed, having laid out a small fortune on a set of Whitworth spanners and a screwdriver. I fancied I was better equipped than Herbert Austin when first he ventured to make the wheels go round. But then he didn’t invent the Singer, and no one was going to make any revolving parts for mine. Neither can I recall how I got rid of this loafer that wasn’t going anywhere, except that a man knocked on her door and enquired if the languishing Singer was for sale. She said it was negotiable. He said, he’d swap it for a running Morris 8? Well, I’d hardly stopped swapping things – marbles, stamps, and a champion conker came to mind. Why should motorcars be any different? He swiftly handed over the logbook for the Morris, told me where to collect the car, and drove the Singer away – on the back of a low-loader. My mother-in-law was distinctly relieved to be rid of this sitting tenant. Of course, first impressions are full of false hopes, and I remembered my brother in law had a Morris 8, and if it didn’t turn my ignition on at ten, it wasn’t likely to umpteen years later. Therefore, I wasn’t actually filled with enthusiasm when I set out to find this bargain. On the outskirts of town, in a coal yard amongst stacks of Welsh steam coal and dusty balls of anthracite, I found the Morris. With such an inauspicious start things could only look up. A Morris 8 it may have been, but it was an up together two-seater tourer. I was back on the open road with the wind in my hair, following the overlarge aerodynamic radiator cap on the front of the bonnet. My wife was not enamoured of this motor, and I didn’t dare ask my daughter. Four year olds can be very picky. Neither seemed impressed by this squat black missile with a wooden platform behind, and spare wheel strapped on the back. If it ran noisily, it stopped when you told it to, and if my good maid rubbed hard enough the paint came off the radiator. Eventually, to her satisfaction, she produced one of gleaming brass. The purists would have turned their noses up at such ersatz goings on. The double-duck hood didn’t leak, but it was draughtier with the hood up than down. A heater was a mere flight of fancy, for these were Spartan days of duffle coats, and Norwegian sweaters, and even my wife, with a good pair of pins, started to wear trousers! It was not exactly a pretty motorcar, but it still had its nave plates – the posh Bristol automobile nomenclature for hubcaps. ‘Easy Clean’, an odd euphemism for wire wheels, were just then (1938) beginning to cut a dash, but hardly added style to the bottom end of the market. Opening the bonnet revealed the ubiquitous, now quite forgotten, side valve engine with four plugs and a six-volt battery. It was rowed along by a three speed gearbox, not going fast enough to need four, but it could reach sixty miles per hour down Pepperbox hill on the Southampton road, and managed forty miles per gallon of petrol at four shillings and five pence. It was a stoic little beast, and could seat five young things at a push. The ‘boys in blue’ were interested in this phenomenon, and pulled us over one evening whilst cruising to a party. “How many seats are in there?” one very large and droll policeman demanded. “Two”, my wife answered in a George Washington moment. This did not go down well with the forces of law, who demanded those in the back wriggle themselves down further, at which you ask yourself, how many more sardines can you get in the tin? The busty young lady in the back took a deep breath in a desperate attempt, to make room, but moved not an inch. The PC rolled his eyes to heaven, groaned in despair, and waved us disparagingly on our way, threatening to book me if he saw us again. I don’t suppose they make amicable Bobbies like that these days! The Morris never let us down, even in dire moments. One late evening, exiting from a jazz club in Southampton, with two friends destined to cuddle up on the plank in the back, the ammeter indicated a negative charge. The accumulator had always been temperamental, and occasionally needed a bump start. Now it was registering a protest, even after it had burst into life. My friend nodded sagely, and in a voice of doom said, ‘Dynamo”. The problem was, could we make the thirty miles home on the temperamental accumulator? Without lights, perhaps. With lights, we wouldn’t make it as far as Totton! So, by the light of the moon… but it wouldn’t start the next morning.
By a circuitous route I’ll get to the central point of this story, by reason of the Morris having a a vague, but dubious historical connexion with it. An old school friend, hearing of my interest in keeping the wheels turning, turned up with a ‘Fiat Topolino’ of dubious ancestry, very probably taken in war reparation, and recently swapped for his Austin Seven, as if that wasn’t small enough. From its scruffy condition it certainly wasn’t the property of one careful owner. Topolino is the affectionate name for the Fiat Cinquecento, the Italian for small mouse. He wanted one hundred pounds for it, and as it was a soft top, I took it for a run, but it felt slower than the Morris, and a decidedly tight squeeze. I couldn’t see my good lady struggling in there with her ball gown, even though there was enough space in the back for a daughter and a loaf of bread. I wasn’t to see one of these baby Fiats again for another twenty-five years. This event was brought about by way of my wife knocking the exhaust pipe adrift on our Scimitar GTE on a rock strewn white road in the Appenines above Arezzo. It was not helped by me telling her to ‘give it some wellie’ on what appeared to be the North face of the Eiger! We very noisily returned to base, and a garage at Colle Val d’Elsa who hauled the car aloft, and set to welding the box together again. There in the back of the gloomy workshop, almost out of sight, were two Topolini in pristine condition, and exactly as I remembered their much scruffier cousin. No, they were not for sale. Not for one hundred pounds they weren’t! Just as well, noticing my wife blanch at the thought of having to drive one all the way back to the UK. Many more years later we learnt from the estate agent who was negotiating for a client the sale of our future home in Italy, that they could cover prodigious distances. As a young man, he and five companions had set out for the French Riviera, four in one Topolino, and two in another with the luggage. All in the hope of meeting Brigitte Bardot. Fat chance. And you thought only the English crazy?
Having invested in an appropriately sensible Fiat saloon in the UK to accommodate our new life, it wasn’t exactly forever before I realized that this wise precaution had certain drawbacks. Being a right hand drive vehicle, with everything in miles per hour, caused a host of problems. Camshaft belts need changing at 14000 miles, but the mechanic sees kilometres on the milometer, and he’s waiting for 22000 before he swings into action. None of the instruments are individual units, meaning a complete new dashboard, which to an Italian is back to front. Even the windscreen wipers are reversed. The local garage began to find the going difficult, and definitely not their cup of tea. Take my word for it. Don’t bring anything to Italy with you, except a clean set of underwear.
But in life, one is always turning corners. Filling up with petrol at a station in what appeared to be a town that had turned over and fallen asleep, we were apprised of an excellent mechanic - Alberto - who specialized in Fiat motorcars, and something of a wizard having started out at the tender age of six helping his father in the garage. At first sight fifteen kilometres from home hardly seemed very convenient, but there was a bus stop by the garage, and one by our village. Not really much of a bother. Proper Italian garages have tiled floors, and a clean one, as slippery as ice, is a sure sign of trouble for a heavy right foot. I had visions of the grand piano during the storm in Tornatore’s ‘The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean’. Considering said Alberto wouldn’t take kindly to a waltzing Fiat, we left it outside. He appropriately had his head under a bonnet. That he was wearing surgical gloves, and using a stethascope was a good sign, and naturally there was a Cinquecento peeping round the corner. A shuffle in that direction disclosed three, including the rare estate, which at least is a 500 with elbowroom.
You might well ask how a busy mechanic of a sensible disposition could find the time, or the inclination, to restore vehicles more awkward than an English Fiat. Hadn't they closed the door and thrown away the key on the little 500? I’m told they made half a million of these so called ‘peoples car’ between 1936 and 1955. Something to do with the Socialist paradise Mussolini was building. The post war models are still around everywhere, and not expensive. However, as you can see, being tall is something of a problem. This one is the post war 500 Nuova Cinquecento with its engine pushing you along. One can quite believe it was the smallest car in the world in 1938.
The same cannot be said for the earlier ones, where you’ll need a deep pocket. At c. eighty years old they nearly always need a bit of fettling.
But Alberto is some sort of sorcerer whose philosophy is the very antitheses of the high obsolescent scrapping economy, and aims to do the impossible, albeit in no sort of timescale. When they came in they faced a long haul, but when they went out they looked the business.
Those with sharp eyes will notice the engine is in the right place and pulls you along, though the radiator still doesn't seem to know where it's supposed to be. Anyway, what can one make of a motorcar where the dynamo is as large as the engine? It has advantages, but lifting the motor out is still a two handed job!
I have no idea how long he’ll manage to keep our Fiat on the road. But you’ve got to have faith. And if you can’t muster up a lot of that in the despotic state of Europe, just cross your fingers, and take a punt on a proper Cinquecento.
Does anyone want to make an offer on a pristine set of Whitworth spanners! One careful owner. Really?