COAL 4: Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino

The car auction listing sheet showed a beautiful blue, 1972 Dodge station wagon, formally owned by the mayor, with a big block, hidden headlights, and air conditioning. Just the thing for a traveling family in a climate that was -30 degrees in the winter and 100 degrees in the summer. Alas, the bidding took it out of the bargain range favored by my Dad.  Something else that wasn’t really a bargain, though it was cheap, followed him home though, which after a few unfortunate events allowed me to have my first car and more than a little wrenching experience.

My Dad was afflicted with a mania about auctions, rarely missing one or coming come home empty-handed. Usually, this was harmless enough like the time I became the owner of a Kawasaki 100 that would never run right, most likely because the carb needle had been replaced by a drill bit resulting in it never going more than 100 feet or so before spluttering to a stop. So rather than return empty handed after failing to win the bid on the Dodge wagon he had managed to buy a FIAT 128 which hadn’t attracted many bids at all.

We were lucky enough that every so often, my Dad saved enough to take us back to the old country for a month or two. One of the negatives about the immigrant experience was that my relatives really didn’t get to see us kids much. International phoning was prohibitively expensive so letters were how we communicated. This was pretty tough on the grandparents, though my Gran dutifully sent me The Beano, Buster, and The Beezer comics regularly which I enjoyed immensely. Enough so, that I had an incentive to run along the highway to the mailbox, braving the possible appearance of the fearful car-based ambulances to get special brown paper-wrapped package. Every few summers we flew off to see the relatives and broaden our horizons about our heritage.  I personally wanted to broaden my relatively comprehensive knowledge of cars and prepared by studying my Top Trump cards and taking out books on world cars from the library.

My maternal Granddad worked for a Ford Dealer. I remember him having nice little Mark 1 and Mark 2 Escorts which seemed like great cars as they moved smartly around the roundabouts and hummed along the motorways. That side of the family had Capri 1600s and Granadas that seemed so tidy and efficient compared to the dull old Mopars at home. Young me thought all cars should be like that, 4 cylinders and 4 speeds and the ability to corner and stop without a lot of undue body motion. I looked up the 0-60 times and top speeds of these little cars recently and of course, Polaras and Furys were way faster than anything other than the 2.8 Granadas.  Even the Coal Wagon, which had a few mods and an RV cam would probably outrun those little cars on a long hill. I can’t find a single picture in my files of any of these cars so I will remind myself that as respectable and proper as my Granddad turned out to be, he at one time rocked this look on a BSA motorcycle.

Anyone who has been following along and has an understanding of either genetics and/or children being a product of their environment, might anticipate that my Dad’s side may have been different automotively. My aunt had a new green Peugeot 304 wagon with a nice tan interior which had some stalling issue causing all manner of scary traffic moments. Also nominally, on the plus side my Granddad was willing to lend a car to us to use. Much less on the plus side was the condition of his cars. He had a friend who would help him get them through the stringent MOT in place at the time. Apparently, he always had something to drive as can be seen in this undated photo of him with some old heap or other.

The first visit we borrowed a Green Hillman Imp which overheated as a result of my rev-happy father and a trip down the M1 motorway. Next visit we were lent a G-Reg (1968) VW Beetle which performed well car, other than its frightful backfiring on deceleration. We toured the Northeast in that VW visiting castles, cathedrals and other ancient things that didn’t exist in the new world.

The visit after there was a white Morris Marina with a maroon vinyl roof which must have been the last straw for everyone involved as on any trip after that we rented a car. One fantastic summer though, my Grandad had a company car to use. Actually, a Ford Fiesta 1100 panel van which was just a Fiesta with no back windows or seat. I have indelible memories of him taking me and my brother all over the fishing villages, old shipbuilding sites, and the abandoned collieries of the North East. Plus the odd stop off at a pub for him to refuel with a pint. I really loved riding in a sharp little car like that and that’s what I wanted my first car to be like just like the reading I had done in Road and Track that told me that European cars were far superior to North American ones. I wanted a Euro car.

Which takes us back to the 128. Very shortly after it arrived home it became apparent there was a major issue with the transmission. There was a mechanic familiar with FIATS in town who said he could fix it. The real complication was getting the part which took two long months to arrive, presumably on a slow boat from Torino. Other than the electric fuel pump shutting down occasionally until the mechanic adapted a Honda one to fit, the car did what it was supposed to do in a noisy but competent way. It went hunting, ice fishing, even a family holiday over the Going To the Sun Road in Montana. Theresa’s reasonable room in it and it proved to be good in the snow with its Firestone Town and Country tires. My Dad who was still revving the absolute heck out of everything was in his element as the little 1300 was willing to do just that.

I had been on my learner’s permit in the Polara and doing well so my Dad wanted me to switch to the manual 128 for my driving instruction so I found myself one pleasant evening finally getting to drive a real European car on the road. Fiat 128s have an odd driving position, where you stretch out your arms to get far enough away from the closely set little pedals. The same closely set little pedals that allowed me to slide my foot off of the gas pedal and under the brake, which for a driver on their first outing on the highway with a manual transmission was a big problem. Preoccupied with my inability to slow down I turned late into the driveway, the front wheel caught the ditch, and the next thing I knew we were hanging by the seatbelts in an upside-down car. We unbelted, fell to the roof, opened the doors, and climbed out, both unscathed.  My Dad was fine about the accident but very worried someone would happen along the road and tell the police. Within a couple of minutes of the accident  the car was flipped back onto its wheels and driven into the yard.

Sadly the car had a smashed windscreen and a dented roof, though it wasn’t worth much before the accident, so it wasn’t a big financial loss. As often was the case in these stories, a solution presented itself quite quickly. A wife of a co-worker of my Dad’s had a timing belt go in her 1973 128 wagon. It had a mere 20,000 around-town miles on it and he offered it to us for $100. My Dad jumped on the offer, bought me a Haynes manual, and told me to get wrenching. He, being an expert rigger, supervised me while we set up a lifting arrangement for the engine but for the most part, I was on my own. It wasn’t that complicated. The engine drops out underneath and everything was lightweight enough that it was easy to handle. The wagon had an 1100 engine with slightly lower final drive than the sedan so I went with the transaxle from that to get a bit more acceleration. Within a few weeks, the little 3 door was on the road and I resumed driving.

The wagon had smaller bumpers on it which were lighter and looked better. That is until I did the exact same thing again with my foot and the pedals and I managed to drive the car into the side of a building while parking.  The non- energy absorbing bumpers did nothing to protect the car, so the grille got pushed back and something hit the distributor which broke the cap. We got a ride home in a neighbor’s Dodge Aspen Roadrunner and returned the next day with a glued-together distributor cap and rotor and drove the FIAT home. I had some spare body parts kicking around and after a weekend it was all back together. I have no recollection of installing the big bumpers from the sedan on the wagon, but the pictures seem to show that.

I passed my driving test in the 128 and drove it to all the places a teenager with a car goes. There was an incident during the getaway phase of a stupid teen prank when I decided to pass a co-conspirator’s Chevy van on a corner. The maneuver was going quite well until oncoming traffic caused me to jerk to the right leading to a bit of paint swapping between my car and the van when we touched fenders. I then ended up commuting to college 30 miles away putting some miles on the little wagon. The mashup of the 1973 and 1974 bits caused a cold starting problem where the car would fire up fine if plugged in but I had to start it between classes when it was below minus 10 Celsius if I expected to make it home.  Something it didn’t do one hunting trip when it made a pocka  pocka glank sound signalling the expiry of the timing belt and with it a valve. I towed it home figuring that was the end of the 128. Happily fate intervened again with an ad in the paper for a 128 engine for $100. I spent a weekend swapping it in and I was back in business. I remember breaking a motor mount and the engine pivoting backwards causing full throttle to be applied one day on the way home. But by that time I had learned not to panic. I inserted a screwdriver in the broken mount, and drove home. An encounter with a deer caused me to undertake another round of body repairs and I became a bit concerned about structural integrity. I was also running out of spare parts as FIATS were getting thin on the ground by that time.

Soon after I went away to University and then to work, needing a car in neither location. Once I needed a vehicle again I went another direction,  the FIAT became surplus so I sold it to someone to use on their farm to check irrigation. Despite its Italian reputation I’ve owned vehicles since that either broke more or rusted more. With only one upcoming relapse, I learned not to drive cars with small pedals while wearing anything but runners. Of all the cars that I experienced in England, the only two I would love to see in my garage now would be an original Fiesta or for some perverse reason a Peugeot, despite the scary experiences with the ill running 304. And of course, a FIAT 128 would always have a home with me. Something I couldn’t say for nearly any other vehicle I have owned since.

Next week I end up in the family motor pool again with another auction surprise.