This diddy Fiat 500 ar­rived in boxes – now it looks fresh out of one!

Practical Classics (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JOHN SIMIS­TER PHO­TOS LAU­RENS PAR­SONS

NNever buy a car that’s just a box of bits, the ex­perts al­ways tell us. All sorts of parts might be miss­ing, and you’ll have no feel for what the car was like be­fore it came apart. ‘Yes,’ says Colin Hitch­cock, ‘I know it’s a big no-no but I wanted a project to do.’ Now he’s done it, and very nicely it has turned out. ‘I wanted it to be in the spirit of the orig­i­nal 500 as launched in 1957 rather than an ex­act restora­tion, so I’ve made a few changes. Peo­ple look at it and smile when I’m driv­ing it, es­pe­cially teenagers when I put the klaxon on. My wife Julie en­joys driv­ing it, too.’

Colin’s Fiat is a 1973 500L, the (rel­a­tively) posh ver­sion launched late in the lit­tle car’s life. The L model fea­tured front and rear nudge bars, bright me­tal trim around the wind­screen and rear win­dow, a big­ger instrument pod, ribbed trim in black vinyl, a cov­ered dash­board and car­pets. Colin’s car, though, has lost the bars and the black vinyl.

In­stead its dash­board is fin­ished in the cream colour used for the pod and steer­ing wheel of ear­lier 500s. As for the seat cov­ers, door trims and sun­roof, their ma­te­ri­als are re­pro­duc­tions of those used in the very first 500s. It’s all set off beau­ti­fully by the pe­riod pale blue paint.

Mak­ing a start

Such vis­ual niceties were far down the list when Colin found the Fiat, orig­i­nally Brighton-reg­is­tered, in March 2014. ‘It had been in Scot­land, half stripped down, and a lady in Swin­don called He­len bought it with the in­ten­tion of restor­ing it. She fin­ished the strip­down, had it chem­i­cally dipped and coated, and then she had a mi­nor stroke and couldn’t fin­ish it. So, the Fiat sat in her garage for five years be­fore she even­tu­ally put it on ebay.

‘I went to have a look. She was quite pas­sion­ate about it and re­ally didn’t want it to go to a dealer. She agreed to end the list­ing early for £1200 on

con­di­tion I took it back to show her when it was fin­ished. I’ll be do­ing that soon – she’s al­ready seen the video.’

Colin col­lected the crum­bling Fiat and its as­so­ci­ated boxes of bits in a Tran­sit box van, and headed back east along the M4. Once he had it all back home, just out­side Read­ing, Colin’s first task was to go through every com­po­nent to find out what was miss­ing. Ev­ery­thing was there ex­cept the rear brake drums and a bumper, dis­carded through ter­mi­nal wear and ter­mi­nal rot re­spec­tively. And, of course, the al­ready chopped-off sills, front wings and quar­ter pan­els.

‘Next, I tried to un­der­stand the work in­volved in re­pair­ing the body,’ says Colin with the logic of one whose day job in­volves mak­ing in­tri­cate tool­ing for plas­tic mould­ings. ‘The acid-dip­ping had re­moved all the rust, so as the Fiat sat in the garage the weight of the roof and doors grad­u­ally crushed what lit­tle steel was left in the lower sec­tions. The bulk­head had sunk by about two inches and there was hardly any struc­ture left along the lower sides apart from part of one in­ner sill. All that was hold­ing it to­gether was the cen­tre tun­nel.’

Jack of all trades

So, Colin jacked the col­lapsed su­per­struc­ture back into po­si­tion, and set about chop­ping out the re­main­ing rot­ten sec­tions. New pan­els, pat­tern items from a sup­plier in Scot­land, were fet­tled and grad­u­ally fit­ted as he pro­gressed, to main­tain a vi­able struc­ture. He used a method sug­gested by his fa­ther, who had worked at the Ford fac­tory in Da­gen­ham for many years. ‘I used self-tap­pers to po­si­tion the pan­els un­til the whole car was ‘tapped’ to­gether, and then I plug-welded where there would have been spot welds orig­i­nally. Fi­nally, I un­screwed all the self-tap­pers and plug-welded the holes.’ ‘It was start­ing to get back to where it should be struc­turally, so the un­der­side was next. But it was dif­fi­cult work­ing above my head. I tried to do two welds and there was splat­ter ev­ery­where. I needed to turn the car up­side down.’ But how? By build­ing a struc­ture out of wooden fence posts and get­ting a bunch of friends from Colin’s cricket club – bribed with cof­fee and ba­con rolls – to pick the Fiat up, ro­tate it and set it back down on the posts. Now it was time to weld in the new floors. ‘I taught my son Nathan to Mig-weld,’ says Colin proudly, ‘and after half an hour’s prac­tice he was

‘The bulk­head sunk by two inches – the cen­tre tun­nel was hold­ing it to­gether’

THE RE­STORER Paint apart, Colin Hitch­cock car­ried out all the work on the Fiat in his sin­gle garage, en­cour­aged by his wife, four chil­dren and two spaniels. His daily driver is a BMW 5-series GT. ‘You could prob­a­bly fit the Fiat in the boot,’ he ob­serves.

You would never be­lieve that the steer­ing wheel was orig­i­nally black.

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