On a Saturday morning in late summer some months before the pandemic, Mr Blue-Shirt was waiting to order us a late breakfast in a café on the main square Fermo. A poster behind the bar caught his eye: it featured photos of a gaggle of classic Fiat 500s parked on the square outside the café and was promoting the annual rally and get-together of the local Fiat 500 owners’ club. And as the barista rustled up our cappuccini, the seed of an idea was planted. After all, we had both developed a huge fondness for these lovely little cars that to us are almost the epitome of La Dolce Vita. Then there was Mr Blue-Shirt’s life-long love of tinkering with classic cars – he had completely restored a rare Reliant Scimitar back in the ‘90s, a Triumph Spitfire in the ‘80s and an original Mini a few years before that, not to mention the countless wrecks he had also done up over the years. And finally, there was his enthusiasm for owners’ clubs, which, as well as being a useful source of technical advice, had always proved to be a great way to meet like-minded people and make new friends. So why not combine all three interests and actually buy a Topolino…?
To see whether that seed might grow, he downloaded an Italian car trading app and set the filters for classic Fiat 500s, joined a few Fiat 500 fan groups on Facebook and started researching the availability of original parts and accessories. And to his delight, as summer faded into autumn, Mr Blue-Shirt discovered a buoyant market for these hugely popular vehicles, an active community of fellow-enthusiasts and, as a result, a good number of specialist suppliers of original and replica parts of every conceivable type and at very reasonable prices. So it seemed we might now have a proper seedling to tend. But within a couple of months, Covid had arrived. The world went into lockdown and the notion of rallies and get-togethers seemed as far off and unrealistic as flying to the moon. And as for our sturdy little seedling, dormancy beckoned.
Mr Blue-Shirt carried on looking, though, and over time shortlisted the models he most favoured, considered how ‘finished’ a car he wanted, thought about how much we were prepared to spend and looked into the cost of various spare parts, and – for when lockdown eventually lifted – estimated how big a search area we would consider. While movement was still restricted, he also discovered that huge discounts on insurance were available to cars that are certified as authentic/original by the Automotoclub Storico Italiano (ASI), the Italian Classic Car Club whose mission is to safeguard and celebrate the country’s motoring heritage and which has nearly three hundred local affiliates nationally. A little more digging as restrictions eased revealed that our nearest one is just down the in the valley, not far from the builders’ merchants we use on an almost weekly basis, that joining was very straightforward, and that they could handle all the paperwork to secure certification. And brief phone call to our insurance adviser established that he was completely au fait with cover for ASI-certified vehicles – and that he too had a soft spot for the Topolino as his father had had one.
As life gradually returned to normal, we brought our little seedling back with us out into the light and it soon began to flourish once more. Following lengthy discussions, Mr Blue-Shirt decided exactly which model was best for us (an original 500L), we fixed the search area (central Italy), fixed the budget (close to the bottom of a price range that can extend to €20,000 or more for an especially fine example of an especially rare model) and he set up alerts on his trading app for cars that met his criteria. The first few matches that came in were right at the limit of our search area, so we just used them for market research purposes and to confirm that what we were after was realistic. But by spring this year, more of the matches were a lot closer to home: it was time for our now vigorous seedling to be planted out and for us to take the next step: actually go and look at a couple and take them for a spin.
First was a lovely, buff-coloured one with a red interior down at the coast in Porto Sant’Elpidio. It was immaculate, came with all the right paperwork and was very attractively priced, but because it was the only one we had seen, we were reluctant to make an offer as we had nothing to measure it against – and, in our excitement, had also omitted to take it for a test drive. Then came the teal-blue one with a tan interior up the road in Loreto that also had a luggage rack on the back, complete with vintage leather suitcase. We did take this one for a test drive, and it ran very well, but it had been poorly re-sprayed and there were ugly cigarette burns on the passenger seat, so in the end it was a no. The next, another buff-coloured one, this time with tan interior, was a little further afield up in the north of the region near Urbino. It was fairly priced, in terrific condition and ran reasonably well. However, the paperwork was incomplete, the vendor would only accept some kind of slightly dodgy-sounding part cash deal and the salesman was everything that gives his profession a bad name, so it was another no. After that came another teal-blue one about 45 minutes away in Tolentino that had recently been reduced in price as, unusually, it had been on the market for some time. And we soon found out why: although mechanically sound with good-condition bodywork, it had the most hideous, messed-about-with interior and laughably awful rally-style seats that quickly made it yet another no. One near Perugia went before we had a chance to arrange to view it, and another in Gubbio had already been taken off the market when we called to make further enquiries. Then came another teal-blue one with a tan interior, this time right at the limit of our search area up in Bologna. But since this is one of our favourite cities, it at least seemed like a good excuse for a nice day out.
It was love at first sight. This little gem was in immaculate condition inside and out: its paintwork was faultless, it chrome-work unblemished, its carpets almost as new and its seats with the lovely rich patina that comes with regular use and with their stitching and black piping all intact. More importantly, it was also impressively well-maintained mechanically, passing Mr Blue-Shirt’s rigorous end to end inspection without a single red flag, and performed correspondingly well when he took it for a test drive and really put it through its paces. The salesman Davide gave us satisfactory answers to all our questions about its history and why the owner was selling it, employed no hard-sell tactics and even discreetly retreated to his desk to allow us space to talk about how we wanted to proceed.
Less than an hour later, we were enjoying a celebratory lunch on the terrace of a quirky trattoria in a quiet, tree-lined square on the edge of Bologna’s historical centre. In the end it had taken us barely a couple of minutes to agree that this was The One. Almost as quickly, we agreed terms with Davide, who immediately set the process of transferring ownership in motion. We even pencilled in a date to come and collect what was soon to be our gorgeous little Topolino. Well, strictly speaking, it was going to be Mr Blue-Shirt’s; in fact, because of the time it was likely to take to get it formally on the road, we decided it would make the perfect present for his 60th birthday in mid-June.
The following week, we trundled back up to Bologna in the van to collect it, and yes, it did fit (just) – although the only way out was through the sun roof. We stored it for the next few weeks in our friend Antonio’s warehouse while Mr Blue-Shirt carried out a full service and waited for his ASI certification to come through so he could finally insure it, tax it and bring it home – hopefully in time for his birthday. We were therefore both thrilled that everything eventually fell into place exactly as planned, and Il Cinquino was duly certified, taxed, insured and back on the drive just in time for me to wrap it up in a giant red ribbon for Mr Blue-Shirt’s 60th birthday last weekend, when we at last took it out on its maiden voyage under his custodianship…