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Reminiscing – My 1959 Fiat 1200 Roadster

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Brochure image from the editor’s collection.

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Mark Bryson of Clifton, Virginia.]

It was the early summer of 1970 and I had a driver’s license and a couple of hundred dollars to spend on a set of wheels. This two hundred dollars was earned by doing yard work and combined with savings from my old paper route. As a high school junior, I was now working part time as a stock boy for a local mom and pop drug store for minimum wage, which was $1.60 at the time. I really had no business owning a car, but I was about to learn some good lessons.

I’d also had the long boring talk with my dad about the responsibilities of automobile ownership (although it would be titled in his name, of course), including insurance, gasoline, oil, periodic maintenance and unexpected repairs. Much to my dad’s chagrin, I had my eye on a very rough 1959 Fiat 1200 Roadster. Dad tried his best to dissuade me from this purchase, but I’d made up my mind. On a hot Saturday afternoon, $175 changed hands and I drove my new car home.

To say this Fiat was rough would be an understatement. It was red but had some rust in the fender wells and rocker panels. The black convertible top was actually in decent shape, except the plastic rear window was torn and yellow with age. The interior was dirty and the carpet was torn and threadbare, but the gauges all worked. The car had a neat little option whereby the driver’s seat would swivel outward to make egress much more comfortable. The passenger seat had this same option but the mechanism was broken. It also needed tires, and my mistake was buying oversize tires (that were cheap and on sale) that scraped the fenders when making a hard turn in either direction. The brakes were decent but probably should have been better, especially given the oversized tires. The most confounding thing was the vapor lock that occurred on particularly warm days and at the most inconvenient times. The shifting was good with only a small and manageable amount of play in the gearshift. The old saying “you get what you pay for” never rang more true with this car. Also, my dad reminded me that FIAT was an acronym for “Fix It Again, Tony.”

The good news was that it had a cool wraparound windshield, was very easy on gas and oil, and nobody in my little town had one. Some said it looked like a giant peddle car. It had a nice forward looking stance that gave the illusion it was always ready to go; unfortunately, that was often not the case. The vapor lock issue was always kicking in and I spent a lot of time on the side of the road waiting for the fuel lines to cool down. (There was probably an easy fix, but I didn’t know what it was).  Also, the battery never seemed to hold a charge even after replacing it and the generator. So, whenever I looked for a place to park, I tried to find a hill where it would be easy for me to roll and pop the clutch to get it started. It also had a choke, which you don’t see on automobiles today.  I never really got used to the choke and ended up flooding the engine on most starting attempts. Thus, another good reason for parking on hills.

One of the most frustrating issues was finding parts for the Fiat. The car was not hard to work on, once the parts arrived. I quickly got acquainted with the J.C. Whitney catalog, since even minor replacement items like taillamp lenses, headlamps, and window cranks were not in stock at the local auto parts shops. I’d never been to Chicago but I sure got a lot of mail from that city!

In the fall of 1970 the clutch failed. The car sat dormant for a couple of months while I hustled enough money for the repair. Again, J.C. Whitney came through with the parts, although they had to get the pilot bearing from Milan, Italy. This small but important piece connects the transmission input shaft to the engine crankshaft.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Dad announced that we would get the clutch installed. This was another of his lessons in responsibility, life is hard, and there’s more to owning an automobile than cruising the drive-in and flying down the road with the wind in your hair. We worked on our backs in 30-degree Midwestern weather on the concrete driveway for four hours that afternoon. As I look back on that cold January day, it’s when my dad should have been nominated for sainthood.

That spring and into summer was an adventure. On one occasion, my girlfriend and I went to a party at her friend’s house. I quickly noticed the kids were all from the rival high school and didn’t appreciate me since I was from the other side of the tracks. We made a dramatic getaway as we were chased from the house. We jumped in the car (which I had remembered to park on a small hill) and of course it would not start. I let it coast, popped the clutch, and we made our narrow escape.

Another time, I tested the reserve tank and ran out of gas near one of the outlying villages on a country road. My girlfriend and I coasted into a gas station that had been closed for two hours. It was after dark and there were no pay phones. Just as we were about to give up hope, the owner and his wife happened by in formal attire. They were returning home from a dance. His wife browbeat him into opening up the pumps just long enough to give us some gas. He gave me a push to get started and we limped home with fingers crossed hoping a vapor lock would not derail us. I can still see him in my rearview mirror in his tuxedo with hands on his hips.

The final ride in the Fiat was a night to remember. A friend and I went to a party out on a farm at the edge of town. We met two female classmates who were in need of a ride home. I put on my white hat of chivalry and said that we could surely give them a ride in my little roadster, though it was barely big enough for two six-foot guys. They warily accepted the offer. The girls were sitting on our laps as we gaily drove past the police station. Within a minute we were pulled over by the sheriff. Parents were called. Lectures were given. And yes, a car was sold.

I didn’t drive another car for six months. My dad was furious, and rightly so. Many lessons were learned with that first car, and some were harder than others. It was fun while it lasted, and my next car was a 1960 Thunderbird. But that’s a story for another time….