DAY OUT

Once a rich per­son’s beach buggy, this wicker-seated, fringe-topped Fiat 500 still causes jaws to be dropped in amaze­ment

Classic Cars (UK) - - Driven - JOLLY RESTORA­TION

Words AN­DREW ROBERTS Pho­tos LAU­RENS PAR­SONS ‘Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli re­quired a ve­hi­cle that could be car­ried aboard his yacht’

Should you wish to keep a low pro­file, it’s prob­a­bly best not to drive a 1958 Fiat 500 Jolly on to the Sand­banks Ferry across the en­trance of Poole Har­bour. Within nanosec­onds, the finest beach car of its era is sur­rounded by crowds tak­ing pic­tures, ask­ing if it’s bat­tery-pow­ered and of­fer­ing to buy it. And of course, the lat­ter was the re­ac­tion Car­rozze­ria Ghia wanted when it cre­ated its open-topped ver­sion of the baby Fiat some 60 years ago.

The green Jolly we’re tak­ing from Bournemouth to Swan­age is the prop­erty of the in­de­pen­dent car de­sign mae­stro Andy Saun­ders, who came across it eight years ago. ‘It was in a field some­where in the New For­est and although its his­tory is vague, it prob­a­bly came into the UK when it was about 15 years old,’ he says. ‘Over time it had been left in yards – when I bought it the engine and badges were miss­ing. The body was shot – you could de­scribe the state of the car as “des­e­crated”. At that time, the Jolly would prob­a­bly have been re­garded as just a very prob­lem­atic restora­tion project.’ Skip for­ward to 2014, Bon­hams sold one in the US for $88,000.

Today, the Fiat looks re­splen­dent, but be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the plea­sures of Jolly mo­tor­ing, there are a few ground rules. First, if you are above a cer­tain size, seats made from wo­ven cane are not go­ing to take your weight – full stop. Sec­ond, height should never be al­lowed to de­ter you from tak­ing the wheel. Andy stands at 6ft 4in but as one of the UK’S most fa­mous cus­tomis­ers, he is used to driv­ing chopped cars where he has to bend down to look through a nar­row screen. ‘If I don’t do this with the 500 the airstream hits me full in the face,’ he says. Third, and pos­si­bly the most cru­cial point of all, be pre­pared for gasps of amaze­ment from pedes­tri­ans.

A Jolly looks in­con­gru­ous among 21st-cen­tury Bri­tish traf­fic, not least be­cause, com­pared with mod­ern com­pact cars, it has the stature of a roller skate. The most ex­treme re­ac­tion to the Jolly Andy ever ex­pe­ri­enced was when ‘a bloke was so dis­tracted he missed his mouth and hit him­self in the face with an ice cream.’

He’s only ever driven it lo­cally, but then chairs that look as though they have been bor­rowed from a gar­den cen­tre are not de­signed for long jour­neys. Andy has never ven­tured on to a mo­tor­way with it but he has driven the Fiat on a dual car­riage­way. ‘It felt fine, but at low speeds it does drift. Pas­sen­gers tend to grab for any­thing the first time we go around a cor­ner,’ he says.

The idea of a small Fiat-based beach car dates back to 1956 when Pinin Fa­rina dis­played a con­cept ve­hi­cle based on the new 600 Mul­ti­pla at the Paris Mo­tor Show. The fol­low­ing year Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli re­quired a ve­hi­cle that could be eas­ily car­ried aboard his yacht, the Agneta, and one that was ca­pa­ble of trans­port­ing him­self and guests to and from the beach when­ever he docked. It would also have to be light enough for the crew to load and un­load, and pos­sess suf­fi­cient power for oc­ca­sional road use.

The log­i­cal choice was Fiat’s re­cently launched Nuova 500 and so Agnelli dis­patched an ex­am­ple to the Ghia work­shops where, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Ser­gio Sar­torelli, the doors, side win­dows, rear screen and roof were re­moved. The engine re­mained as stan­dard, but to en­sure struc­tural rigid­ity Ghia added re­in­force­ments and Andy notes that the coach­work was

‘High-pro­file own­ers in­cluded Aris­to­tle Onas­sis, Yul Bryn­ner, Princess Grace of Monaco and Elvis’

Andy Saun­ders used a stan­dard 500 as a donor car, in­clud­ing the engine – the later 499cc rather than the orig­i­nal 479cc unit. ‘I had new wicker seats made. I found a lo­cal ex­pert named Steve and, in­cred­i­bly, he was trained by the Ghia crafts­man who made the orig­i­nal items! The wicker feels fine for two to three miles but if you drive it for any longer the ef­fect is like a cheese grater on your spine. My so­lu­tion was to fit a cover over the back­rest. I found the steer­ing wheel at a Beaulieu Au­to­jum­ble and Steve “wick­ered it” for me.’ strength­ened with a cou­ple of metal ‘top hats’. If you look at the Jolly, one of its main strong points is in the bottom of the door open­ings. As fin­ish­ing touches, the front wind­screen was low­ered, a ‘Sur­rey’ canopy was in­stalled to of­fer the oc­cu­pants a mea­sure of shade and, best of all, wicker seats were in­stalled.

The process of trans­for­ma­tion took a mere four mouths and the Fiat Jolly – Ital­ian for ‘Joker’ – was dis­played at the Turin Mo­tor Show of Novem­ber 1957. Ghia went on to pro­duce about 400 ex­am­ples un­til 1966. The Jolly could be or­dered in an ar­ray of pas­tel shades but its equip­ment lev­els were spar­tan – though not much less lux­u­ri­ous than the first in­car­na­tion of the 500, which lacked wind­ing front win­dows, an ash­tray and hub­caps. Be­tween 1958 and 1961 the Jolly was ex­ported to the US and high-pro­file own­ers in­cluded Aris­to­tle Onas­sis, Yul Bryn­ner, Princess Grace of Monaco and Elvis Pres­ley. Fiat also pre­sented Pres­i­dent Lyndon B John­son with a Jolly, which he used as a mo­torised golf caddy, and another high-pro­file owner was John Wayne.

Such was the Jolly’s suc­cess that Ghia pro­duced fur­ther vari­ants. For those mo­torists with the am­bi­tion but not the credit fa­cil­i­ties to join this world there was the 1964 to 1966 econ­omy ver­sion, with stan­dard bumpers and more con­ven­tional seat­ing, al­beit still dec­o­rated with a wicker pat­tern. Fur­ther mod­els were based on the 600, the 600 Mul­ti­pla (in quite fab­u­lous six-seater

form with three rows of benches) and the 500 Giar­diniera. The lat­ter was the choice of those who needed a boot in their Jolly, although if you were se­ri­ously in the mar­ket for a new Jolly, such mun­dane mat­ters as the ca­pac­ity for car­ry­ing gro­ceries and other im­ped­i­ments were prob­a­bly not your main con­cern.

In the UK of 2017, as op­posed to St Tropez of 1959, it is ev­i­dent that the Jolly openly de­lights in a to­tal lack of prac­ti­cal­ity. The canopy is se­cured to the body via thin rods and is de­signed to pro­vide oc­ca­sional shade rather than any pro­tec­tion from the wind and the rain. As Andy’s car is based on the first gen­er­a­tion of 500 sa­loons there are air vents be­neath the head­lamps and, some­what bizarrely, the stan­dard heater is re­tained.

Sur­viv­ing ex­am­ples of the Jolly are in­evitably limited – their price was ap­prox­i­mately twice that of a 500 saloon and no Fiat of the Fifties or Six­ties was go­ing to cope well with be­ing reg­u­larly used in the salt air, or trans­ported on the deck of a yacht.

Of course, the Bri­tish weather is fa­mously un­pre­dictable but the jour­ney to the beach takes only a mat­ter of min­utes. Once the Fiat is at rest at the seafront, greeted by the sounds of passers-by ask­ing ‘is it a bub­ble car?’, it seems at home. Next Andy sug­gests con­tin­u­ing to Sand­banks, the re­gion of Dorset once de­scribed as the fourth most ex­pen­sive in the world – and pos­si­bly the one place in Eng­land suited to the Jolly.

A stop at the Sand­banks Ho­tel re­sults in count­less heads be­ing turned, and this is wholly in keep­ing with the rai­son d’être of Ghia’s de­sign, be­cause it re­mains one of the best cars for mak­ing an en­trance. When we take the ferry the Jolly causes pos­si­bly one of the great­est sen­sa­tions of the Bournemouth/poole area since Dusty Spring­field per­formed at the Win­ter Gar­dens in 1965. I am not say­ing ice creams are dropped in amaze­ment but quite a few shop­pers stop and point at the Fiat.

The fact it was never of­fi­cially ex­ported to the UK is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing, for it is not a car for Bri­tish roads. Light­weight util­ity ve­hi­cles were more com­mon in main­land Europe and th­ese can ar­guably be sub­di­vided into cars that were orig­i­nally in­tended for busi­ness or in­dus­trial use and those that never pre­tended to have any se­ri­ous pur­pose. Into the former cat­e­gory, one might place the Citroën Me­hari, the Volk­swa­gen 181, the DAF 55-YA and the Tra­bant Kü­bel­wa­gen, all ve­hi­cles that you might have ex­pected to see on a build­ing site or de­ployed in the ser­vices.

Mean­while, the likes of the Re­nault 4 Plein Air and Rodeo and the SEAT 127 Samba fol­lowed in the Jolly tra­di­tion of pro­vid­ing trans­port as­so­ci­ated with end­less hol­i­days. None of th­ese, how­ever, had the Ghia-bod­ied 500’s air of deca­dent fri­vol­ity. One Bri­tish ri­val was the ‘Riviera Buggy’, de­vel­oped by the Bri­tish Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion for use as a taxi in the more up­mar­ket re­sorts along the south coast. Long­bridge re­moved the Mini’s side pan­els and re­placed the seats with (nat­u­rally) wicker con­structed items, but only 15 were ever made.

Three years later the Mini Moke, which was first in­tended as a light­weight ve­hi­cle for the mil­i­tary, made rather more of an im­pact. By con­trast, the Jolly was de­signed solely for plea­sure.

The day ends far too soon, but leaves some in­deli­ble me­mories. I now have a new joint per­sonal favourite Fiat along­side the 600 Mul­ti­pla and the 2300 Ber­lina, but the last words must go to Andy. His sum­mary of the ex­tra­or­di­nary Fiat 500 Jolly is suc­cinct. ‘It’s just great fun,’ he says. Hear, hear.

Who needs more than this for the beach? Pos­si­bly the most stylish plate you’ll see on a 500 Wicker seats aren’t par­tic­u­lar sup­port­ive dur­ing en­thu­si­as­tic cor­ner­ing The 499cc engine is from a later Nuovo

Sur­rey-fringed top is not ter­ri­bly prac­ti­cal, but it’s cer­tainly eye-catch­ing

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