The post about my family’s 1966 Buick Sport Wagon ends with the statement that I sold the wagon in order to purchase a Fiat. This is the story of that Fiat. My “first car”, the Mustang, was mine to drive, but it belonged to my father. The Buick was registered in my name, but I bought it from my mother and had given her a token sum for it. Up until this point, I had yet to go out and purchase a car on my own. That changed in 1974.
First, some background on what led to this. In 1973, I was nineteen, and having withdrawn (temporarily) from college, was working full-time in a clerical position for an insurance company in downtown Manhattan. The Buick, while a reliable beast, was also very thirsty. In my earlier post, I stated that local driving returned 8 mpg. Highway driving did not do much to improve on that figure.
In late 1973, the U.S., indeed the world, was struck by the first oil embargo, sharply driving the price of gasoline upward, while at the same time, severely limiting supplies. My full-time salary of $110/week was being stretched by the suddenly more expensive fill-ups. Besides, I really wanted to ditch the wagon and get a sports car, and had always been attracted to the looks of the Fiat 124 coupe, first introduced to this market in 1968. Scanning the classifieds for several weeks with no luck, I noticed there was one parked on the street about two miles from my house with a For Sale sign on it.
It was February of 1974. I called the number on the placard, and the seller agreed to show me the car. My friend Vinny came along. We looked at the car. It looked OK to me. I had no idea what I was looking at! My mind was made up before the owner showed it to me. His ask was $1700. There was no negotiation. I had the money, gave it to him, he signed it over, handed me the key, and wished me luck.
The Fiat, of course, was a stick shift, a 5-speed, when my two best friends, one driving a VW Beetle, the other a Toyota Corolla, were both rowing 4-speeds. There was just one small problem in getting this thing home: I did not know how to drive a manual transmission car. Oh, I knew the theory of driving one. However, I had never actually put the theory in practice. (Typing this 42 years later makes me realize that I did not test drive my own used car purchase.) Vinny had dropped me off and went on his merry way, so I was alone. I started the car, put it into gear, and was thankful it was just two miles home. Somehow, after stalling only 10-12 times, I made it. Breathing a sigh of relief, I coasted into the driveway, turned it off, and went inside.
First call was to my best friend Richard Sawler, whom I sheepishly asked to give me lessons. We went out together, me driving, he riding shotgun. Richard would instruct me on the finer points of shifting. He worked the parking brake whenever I had to stop on an incline. After about a week, enough confidence was gained to venture out solo.
Acquaintances presume that my automotive mechanical knowledge came from working at car dealerships, which began in 1978. That is not exactly true. It really started with the purchase of this Fiat. The car was an absolute joy to drive, and I drove it a lot. However, “something” happened to that car about once every other week. There was no way I could afford to pay someone to fix the car that frequently (see weekly salary quoted above). Soon after the purchase, I was at my local Sears, buying my first set of metric tools, a set of 1/2” drive sockets which I still own (Dad had nothing metric). I also obtained a Haynes Workshop Manual for the car, which I read on the ferry as I commuted to and from my insurance company job.
Small jobs I could do, and I started small, doing the brakes, a tune-up, and a coolant flush. But a U-joint went, then the exhaust, and I needed someone to make those repairs for me. On Staten Island, two brothers had opened a “foreign car only” repair shop. The name of the business was “Brothers”. By the summer of 1974, we were on a first-name basis with each other. To be fair, they were great guys, and were very fair to me, realizing that I couldn’t afford to take care of every single thing that poor piece of Italian transportation needed.
Frequent repairs or not, the Fiat was taking me all over the place. In March, a friend and I used the car to make a successful round trip to Buffalo, NY, the farthest I had driven from home in my life. Its cavernous back seat could hold my drum set, so the Fiat was the car driven to all my music gigs. Vinny was so impressed, he traded the Corolla for a new 124 Coupe. My car had about 57,000 miles on it at the time of my purchase. Within the first six months, I had driven it about 8,000 miles.
Then the timing belt broke.
On a warm summer August evening, heading back from Brooklyn to Staten Island via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, I paid the toll on the S.I. side, accelerated out of the toll booth, aimed for the Bay St. exit on my right, and the car died. It cranked just fine, but made no attempt to catch. Finding a phone booth, I called my dad, and somebody called a tow truck. The car was brought to Todd Motors, Staten Island’s only Fiat (and coincidentally, only Volvo) dealer.
They called me with the bad news. All I heard was a litany of parts: head gasket, valves, pistons, rods, etc. They said the job would take a while, perhaps a week. In a matter of days, I was heading back to college. Being without transportation was torture. But the real torture was seeing that repair bill. At the age of 20, I wasn’t exactly floating in spare cash; $345! Were they kidding? Look at this Repair Order: Nine hours of labor at $16/hour! Four exhaust valves at $8 a piece! A SIX DOLLAR head gasket, for cryin’ out loud! Did they think I owned Fort Knox?
This is all quite funny now. We have become accustomed to labor rates close to 10 times this figure. Somehow, I found the money, paid the dealer, and picked up my car. The good news was that it ran well. Yet, the car continued to penny-pinch me. The brake master cylinder went (for which I bought a rebuild kit, and rebuilt it in my dorm room). A carburetor screw fell out, and the car would not idle. A steering tie rod went bad. The Fiat got me through my sophomore year of college.
Returning home from college for the summer of ’76, the rust was getting worse, with an actual hole in the left front fender, large enough to see through. When the water pump quit that summer, I felt defeated. The fun-to-drive aspect never went away, and my technical skills were improving, but I could no longer count on the car to get me around. The Fiat, at 6 years of age, its cancerous rust eating away at all four corners, was sold to Stuckers, the well-known foreign-car junkyard on Staten Island. It had been mine for the last two-and-a-half years and 40,000 miles of its life.
As time went on, I only remembered the good things about the Fiat, never dwelling on the breakdowns or repair costs. At my father’s urging, the next car was an American make, but after that came a succession of German cars, then a career in the car business with a Swedish auto maker (and many Swedish cars in the driveway). It would be 37 years before another Italian car entered my life. While that car is my delightful Alfa, it has not stopped me from thinking that someday, I’ll find room for another Fiat. I remain that impressed by the little coupe’s capabilities.
All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.