Old­est in SA: 1911 Fiat Tor­pedo 15 hp

Now owned by the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of the same fam­ily, we tracked down the old­est run­ning Fiat in South Africa

Car (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY: Wil­helm Lut­je­harms Wil­helm­l_­car­mag PHO­TOS: Peet Mocke Petridish_­mooks

AS Amod­ern-day com­muter, it’s hard to imag­ine the chal­lenges driv­ers faced pi­lot­ing cars a cen­tury ago. This 1911 Fiat, for ex­am­ple, feels a world away from any­thing else on the road to­day. Some parts, like the brass an­cil­lar­ies, foot pedals and four-spoke steer­ing wheel, are won­der­fully solid but, as we leave the owner’s drive­way, notable twist in the chas­sis points to its engi­neer­ing naivety. It’s both a clear il­lus­tra­tion of a cen­tury of de­vel­op­ment in au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy and a strong re­minder of the place in his­tory cars like this have.

Among the Tor­pedo’s metic­u­lously main­tained his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments is the sales in­voice dated 9 Au­gust 1911 in­di­cat­ing that the 15 hp No. 13432 was sold for the princely sum of £500. The let­ter also con­firms the Fiat was to be de­liv­ered to its new owner in Brighton, af­ter which the driver de­liv­er­ing the car would stay with the new owner for a week. The paint­work is de­scribed as “French grey with black mould­ings and fine line of green” and the up­hol­stery as “green leather through­out”, while the wheels were fit­ted with Miche­lin tyres.

To­day, the car still has the orig­i­nal paint­work that’s in re­mark­able con­di­tion given its age, although the mud­guards have been re­painted. In terms of the driv­e­train, the only ma­jor work the cur­rent owner has done has been to re­place the crank­shaft, a part for­tu­nately sourced from a backup en­gine he has.

Among the fo­lio of doc­u­ments is a fas­ci­nat­ing First World War-era pho­to­graph of the car parked in the back­ground while some gen­tle­men visit a lo­cal shoot­ing range. An­other is a clip­ping from The Star news­pa­per from 22 June 1933 show­ing the Fiat be­low the head­ing “Twenty-three years old and still go­ing strong”.

In­ter­est­ingly, this car was ac­tu­ally man­u­fac­tured in the UK and bod­ied by The Brighton Mo­tor Coach­works. The amount of brass (lamps, mir­rors, door levers and ra­di­a­tor cov­ers) and wood is a clear in­di­ca­tor of its Ed­war­dian prove­nance, as is the colour­ful 10-spoke red steel “ar­tillery” wheels with their brass cen­tre hubs. The wind­screen is flat and rec­tan­gu­lar, while the top half opens out­wards. A close look at the ra­di­a­tor cap re­veals the Queen’s crown at the top and a Union Jack in the cen­tre. Open the en­gine cover and the cop­per plumb­ing is an­other in­di­ca­tor of its age.

This Fiat be­longed to the cur­rent owner’s fa­ther, who ac­quired it in 1938 af­ter first spot­ting it in the 1936 Sun­day Ex­press Old Crocks Race (he was driv­ing a 1913 Metz).

The front and rear benches are com­fort­able but, with the roof down, you are to­tally ex­posed to the el­e­ments, in­dica­tive of the vis­ceral driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind the wheel. And pi­lot­ing this is no easy job. There are a num­ber of chores to go through be­fore you even get to use the clutch and change gears.

The start­ing pro­ce­dure en­tails first prim­ing the en­gine with the petrol pump be­fore crank­ing it at the front (turn­ing the han­dle bar in cir­cu­lar move­ments to turn the crank­shaft), the job a starter mo­tor does in mod­ern cars.

Although ob­vi­ously louder than a mod­ern en­gine, the pow­er­train runs smoother than I had an­tic­i­pated. Once on the go, fuel is au­to­mat­i­cally sucked into en­gine. The top speed is 60 km/h, al­low­ing you to just about keep up with city traf­fic.

That’s not to im­ply you can sit back and re­lax, though. You need to op­er­ate both the foot and hand­brake, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion, while man­ual ad­just­ment of the air­flow to the car­bu­ret­tors is also re­quired. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther is the fact that two of the pedals are switched round to their mod­ern po­si­tions and the gears don’t flow in the nor­mal H-pat­tern. With no syn­chro on any of the gears, you need to “feel” the teeth en­gage be­fore com­mit­ting the lever into the next gear. Get it right, though, and you're flooded with a sense of ac­com­plish­ment.

We’re happy to re­port this grand old dame is no mu­seum piece but con­tin­ues to en­joy reg­u­lar out­ings. She of­ten em­barks on longer road trips round Jo­han­nes­burg and even fam­ily ex­cur­sions to Kwazulu-na­tal. And it would be en­tirely ac­cu­rate to say this car is in­deed a mem­ber of the fam­ily. It’s the ve­hi­cle its cur­rent owner learnt to drive in and is ear­marked to go to the third gen­er­a­tion of the same fam­ily. Not many cars can lay claim to that.

We're happy to re­port this grand old dame is no mu­seum piece but con­tin­ues to en­joy reg­u­lar out­ings

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