Decision Time

In 1977 we had need of a second car. A challenging prospect at that time because it had to be economical and cheap!

We were living in a small village in Oxfordshire and by chance we heard that there was a Fiat 500 for sale “behind the garage” in the village. First Registered in 1968, with about 43000 miles on the clock, it was an opportunity not to be missed and so we were introduced to the world of 500’s.

Our children were thrilled and over the years grew to view Toppy with great affection.

She became a real little “workhorse”. Luckily, a friend of ours, who had also owned a 500, was able to service and maintain the car for us and my husband, Jack was always willing to learn along the way. Having, previously, owned a 1937 Morris 8 Series 2 and then a 1947 Morris 8 Series E, he had had some practice tinkering with old cars with help from my Dad and another friend. Inevitably we had the odd hiccup!  I recall one particular incident when the car slowed to a stop and I was some five miles from home. I opened the back and realized that something was missing, the elbow above the carburettor! I walked back along the road to see if I could find it but had no luck. Reluctantly, I had to ring for help! Jack had to get from work to home, change and scour the route that I had taken. Again, with no luck. Scratching his head and wondering what to do next, he put his hand down the back of the engine to discover that it was resting on the apron under the engine! We were soon back on the road.

We used Toppy through all kinds of weather and covered some 10000 miles a year. Another memorable occasion was when I had to get our son, some seven miles, to catch the school bus after a heavy downfall of snow. The little car sailed through the newly fallen snow with no problem, only for us to discover that the bus was not running!

The car could “turn on a sixpence” and so parking was really easy. With such a low powered engine, Toppy enjoyed going down hills much more than up them! On one occasion I greatly challenged a Jaguar driver going down a steep hill. Having built up a good speed, with my son and his friend travelling in the back shouting “overtake”, I did in fact sail past, much to the indignation of the male driver, who then let us know that he could go a lot faster as he screamed past us!

In the following years with the children getting bigger, the space at the back inevitably became cramped. The position of the heater switch was a constant source of their amusement as, without notice, they switched the temperature from extreme cold to sweltering heat.

All was well until, after about four years, the engine blew up at 84500 miles. Jack resorted to trawling all the scrapyards in a ten miles radius for another engine and that is a story in itself. Suffice to say, ultimately, he was successful and we were mobile again. In the next 18 months the milometer was getting close to 99999 miles. Jack took the car to work knowing that it would pass the milestone somewhere on the way home. The children were on Summer holidays so it was arranged that he would ring me so that we could join him and watch the spectacle of the milometer rolling over and starting again.

I shared a school car run and, on another memorable day, I collected my son and his school friend and, on the way home, I could not understand why people passing us were smiling, giving the “thumbs up” and laughing. The reason became clear when I realized that swimming trunks were being held up through the sunroof to dry. Finally, with Rugby kit, musical instruments and other paraphernalia and the remark from my son that “they would soon need to put their legs out of the window”, the replacement engine failed and we reluctantly decided that it was time to retire Toppy and move on to a Fiat 126.

The car had completed 100993 miles and, with work needing to be done, our 500 went into retirement. So Toppy remained, uncovered in the garage. At that point in our lives it was not possible to lay out the money for a restoration. The commitment to a growing family had to be our priority. In later years, it was our daughter’s wish to travel in the car to her wedding but it remained forlorn in the garage!

After an unbelievable 40 years and, well into our retirement, we needed to make a decision! That decision was once again put on the “back burner” as other priorities came to the fore, one of which became our main expenditure priority. Our Daughter, Son in law and Grandchildren were now in Australia! It was becoming a challenge as to whether a restoration could ever happen!

Then, the world faced the Corona Virus pandemic and we went in to “Lockdown”. With our minds focused and life turned upside down we reviewed our options. We had known for some considerable time that the asbestos ceiling panels in our garage had to be removed to conform to building regulations. To facilitate that happening the garage had to be completely emptied. We were at a “T” junction – turn left and sell the car as it was (our daughter, son and grandchildren wouldn’t countenance) and so – we decided to turn right and have it restored.

Where would be the best place to get the task done? Jack and I remembered that at one of the Club’s Annual dinners, a number of years ago, we sat next to the owners of “Weenie Fiats” which had recently opened in nearby Swindon. We had greatly enjoyed talking to Manj and Amelia, the owners, and Manj was clearly very interested to hear that I had been born in India and that my father had been in the Motor Trade there, including servicing Rolls Royce.

We decided to go in and speak to Manj and seek his advice. The emphasis was to retain as much of the original as possible. The following morning, Saturday, Manj came out, gave us an honest and helpful assessment. We had absolute confidence in placing the work in his enthusiastic and capable hands as he winched Toppy into the back of his “Weenie Fiats” van. The adventure of restoration had begun!

Throughout the period, even with lockdown, we have been kept informed of the progress being made and have greatly appreciated all his sound advice which has come from his very detailed and expert knowledge of Fait 500’s. He undertakes the restoration and likes the owner to take some part in the process. With us it was to rub down, paint and spray the wheels. Often one is left feeling that it is the only car being restored! To see the car stripped was somewhat daunting! His workshop is an amazing vista of Fiat 500’s in all states of restoration. It is a clear demonstration that many other people also have complete confidence in his ability to return the little car back to its former glory! Manj’s meticulous attention to detail, obvious enthusiasm and superb workmanship throughout the process has manifested in us now having a beautifully restored Fiat 500.

Road testing the car was a nerve wracking experience after so many years!  How things have changed Off the road since 1982 means that it pre-dates DVLA records and we have had to apply to register it with its original number plate. A complicated process for which we have needed authentication by the Club and Secretary, Paul, supported by his wife, Christine’s, guidance, advice and assistance have been invaluable.  

Hopefully, by the time this article is in print, we will be able to take Toppy on the road with its original number plate registered with the DVLA. We may only make it to Rallys and Events near to us but, thanks to Manj’s undoubted consummate expertise, we now have a gem of a much loved little car.

                                                                            Gillian Thornton