Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Track Days Aren't Cheap

A Caterham kit in full flight at a Lotus On Track event Yesterday evening I was killing some time by idly clicking my own AdSense ads, in a vain attempt to defraud Google to the tune of approximately $1.57, when I actually spotted an ad which grabbed my interest. (I suppose this is likely, given that my blog is about my interest and my ads are based on my blog. Anyway, I digress.) Under the broader heading of "Lotus Cars" there was a link advertising Lotus-specific track days run by a group calling themselves (in truly original fashion) Lotus On Track.

This, I thought, sounded like a lot of fun. I read the introductions and the rules and it sounded even better. These cheery folk have a lot of good, safe enjoyment, in the company of their peers, out of harms way and without causing a nuisance to anyone. Then I clicked on the gallery and was slightly disappointed and surprised to see very few "classic" Lotuses. (Or should that be Loti?) Everyone was hurtling around in Lotus Seven kits or Elises/Exiges and there wasn't an original Elan in sight. Strange. Finally, I read the FAQ and things began to make sense.

If you own an irreplaceable classic like an old Elan, with which you have a certain affinity and don't particularly want to see mangled, reading advice such as this is not exactly going to encourage you to partake in the activity:

"... if you decide to take your car on to a track, you must be aware that you are accepting the risk ..."

Further examination reveals, depending on how much fun you have, you are likely to have to shell out for a set of tyres, some brake pads and an oil and filter change as a matter of course ... every time you go! And this note sends shivers down the spine of any sane, mortal, classic Lotus owner, knowing as you do that your engine is over 30 years old:

"... your engine will spend more time at high revs than ever before ..."

I don't know how much a Lotus engine rebuild costs, and I don't want to find out just yet (though I suppose it's inevitable I will one day). Track days are suddenly sounding less like the picnic I initially considered them to be.

All of the above leads to me only one possible conclusion. In order to thoroughly enjoy a track day, you have to be one (or more) of the following:

  1. Rich.
  2. A good home mechanic with ample access to inexpensive parts.
  3. Driving a hire car and insured to the hilt! (Something Lotus On Track won't let you do, probably on account of the fact you'll be driving like Jason Plato in the BTCC!)
I am unable to match any of the above descriptions to myself, so it is with great sadness I admit I'm going to have to limit my track day experiences to those adventure packs you see in WHSmith. You know, the ones where you pay £150, use someone elses car, wear someone elses helmet and overalls and thrash someone elses engine and tyres to pieces.

It got me thinking it would be wonderful to be able to fix your own car like our friend Bob. His Fiat 500L is his pride and joy. He tells us he was the first person in the UK to do the now popular "Panda head conversion" (which is apparently neither cruel to animals nor illegal) making his 500L on 126 running gear good for 90mph.

I can tell you travelling at 60mph in an unmodified 500F - which is only possible downhill and with a following wind, by the way - is bloody terrifying, so 126 running gear or not, 90mph must be pure white-knuckle-inducing terror! The other day Bob apparently decided to push it a little. At an unmentionable speed (I wouldn't want to get the man in trouble) and egged on by his mate in an Alfa Romeo, the entire exhaust system sheered itself straight off the block.

"I'm an idiot," says Bob, "but never mind. I'll just fix it."

If I could say that, I'd be going to track days!

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Series 1 Jaguar XJ6 classic car You could well consider all this interest in classic cars to be my father's fault. I certainly do. Not that I'm complaining. Except now I've picked up another of his expensive habits. Jaguars.

He is the extremely proud owner of a 5.3 litre V12 XJS Convertible, which I have to say, in spite of being a car of an era I don't particularly admire (I was far happier when he was considering a nice 1968 S-Type) is a lovely car.

And mine? Well I recently began reading Martyn's XJ6 diary (sadly now offline it seems, but the link goes to his web page) on the Classic Cars Magazine website and this has added fuel to the little Jaguar-loving fire in my belly. I was already aware of what a bargain the old XJ6s are and I really quite fancied getting one at some point. Martyn simply served to remind me of their existence. I mean look at the wonderful machine in the photograph. Isn't she beautiful? And you can get hold of a mint one for less than £4,000, according to Classic Cars Magazine's current price guide. "Light blue touch paper and retire ... " as the saying goes.

Knowing me as I do, I realise this is the beginning of the end. I can see this going only one way. In a few years time, if not sooner, I will probably arrive home in a newly purchased S1 Jaguar XJ6. Watch this space. It might be a blog for three classics instead of two. And sooner than you might think. I just need to do the kitchen first, apparently. Bah!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

To Garage Or Not To Garage?

That is the unanswerable question.

Ever since I bought the Elan, the race has been on to find a garage. The car was sat on my parents' driveway for a good few months which meant two things. Firstly, my mother was getting rather fed-up with her driveway not being her driveway. (Something my girlfriend's mother can also appreciate, not having a garage at the moment courtesy of her son's Alfa Romeo GTV6 - but that's a different story.) Secondly, I wasn't exactly filled with joy at the prospect of my motor spending the winter exposed to the elements in the rain-soaked north of England.

Finally, after months of searching, I found a spot in a privately owned, ex-council garage block, with reasonable rent (£100 a quarter - actually cheaper than my council garage rent in Epping). With a good deal of relief, I removed the Lotus from the afforementioned driveway and parked it in its new home.

Until recently, like many others, I held firm to the idea that cars over-wintering in a garage were somehow protected from time and the worst that could happen to a car in such a condition was a thin covering of dust. But then I read this article in Classic Cars Magazine which scared me silly! To summarise, the piece warns of the dangers of storing a classic car for winter, covered and in a cold, damp, concrete garage. Furthermore, the author goes in to great detail about all the expensive and destructive things such conditions can wreak upon your precious automobile.

Heavens to Betsy! The present storage conditions of the Lotus precisely match their worst possible case. It's even covered. Sounds like I'm doing everything the article says you shouldn't do.

My first reaction was to email Classic Additions, the manufacturers of my cover, to find out what they advised. They informed me since I had the "light breathable" cover, it was ideal (their exact words) for using in a cold, damp garage - indeed this was exactly the purpose it was designed for. Great.

So I had a chat with my father, who noted it has lived happily for more than a couple of years now in that very garage with no obvious damp problems. On top of this, it goes out for a good run every dry weekend God deems to send us (not that many, as the geographical location would have it), even over winter.

One further point worthy of note is of course the body shell. It's glass fibre, and the chassis is all one metal (and a modern galvernised replacement, as most Elans are now on since the original chassis construction was prone to rotting to nothing at an alarming rate) so there are very few places where the chemical principles of rust can come in to play.


But what about the Fiat? It has no such luck. It is already renowned for its shoddy build quality, especially the native models which seemed to be made from the off-cuts of the "for export" versions. One of the sills is already well filled, though the chassis is remarkably sound. Here I will have to be careful, as it too resides in a cold, damp, concrete garage, but with none of the advantages of construction which help the Lotus.

I will be inspecting the few appearing rust blebs regularly. And it will certainly go out and about whenever the weather permits, just to get some air circulating around the bodywork. Fingers crossed, eh?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Back In The Fold

Hurrah! The Fiat is back home. Bob has done a stirling job, as ever, and the new starter cable is in place and functioning as it should. We should be alright for a few months now I imagine. These little Fiats are usually fairly mechanically reliable. (He says, thus cursing the car and all who ride in her ...)

One thing I didn't like was the alarming amount of dark, oily smoke which fled the exhaust when we started the car. I reckon oil must be leaking slightly down the valve stems while the car is stood, because after the engine has been running for a couple of minutes there are no more signs of smoke. This is probably because the worst of the oil which collected in the cylinder has burned off and the oil escape isn't significant enough to cause the engine to smoke in normal running. Indeed, it doesn't seem to use much oil, which is good.

Bob reckons it'll be alright on low mileage until the spring and it'll need a decoke then anyway, since to the best of our knowledge it's never been done. We were going to ask him to "convert" it to unleaded while he's at it, which involves replacement (harder) valve seats and that'll fix it. Then we should be good for another 35 years' motoring!

I wish.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hitting The Marque

1965 to 1968 Fiat 500F (I think) with moustache badgeIt seems to me the correct badge for any given Fiat 500 is an ever-open debate. There was some recent chat on the Fiat 500 Club message board regarding the never ending confusion over this very issue. A lady by the name of Sue had posted a question about her 1966-registered Fiat 500F. She wanted to know if her 500 should sport the L-type badge (a small silver oblong on its end with Fiat written within in silver on a red background) or the D-type badge, or moustache as it is known, as pictured. At present her F apparently has the L badge, but appears to have a dimple in the front panel ready to take a "moustache". Mysterious!

You would think it would be relatively easy to badge a model of car correctly. Not so with the Fiat 500F. In fact, it seems many people mis-badge their Fiats of all types, either deliberately or out of ignorance. There are a number of factors which don't help owners when it comes to deciphering which badge your 500 should carry.

Firstly, the F overlaps with both the D and the L and never had its own definitive badge. For this reason it is often sighted with both sets of badging, or even mixtures of the two. Why the D and the F overlapped for so long, Fiat alone know, since the F clearly supercedes the D, but they did. The L at least makes some sense, given as it was the "luxury" (ha ha ha!) model.

Secondly, there are all kinds of variations on the available themes out there, largely thanks to generations of owners being somewhat 'creative' in their badging. Some of this is down to front or rear panels rotting and being replaced with incorrect panel/badge combinations, and some of it is simply because everyone seems to prefer the "moustache" badge. Owners the world over apply it to every vehicle they get their hands on, even though Fiat no longer used it after 1968. (Fortunately the previous owner of ours had acquired a "moustache", but never got around to fitting it so we retain the correct L-type badge on our '71 500F.)

I imagine there is also a degree of confusion caused by the frequent mis-selling of models. While looking to try and find something reasonably definitive to post in my initial message board comment, I found two 500D cars being sold as F-types! (The D and Nuova models are easy to spot with their "suicide doors".) For people who are new to 500s and don't know what they're looking at, this breeds misconception and confusion.

So what's the rule when it comes to correctly badging a Fiat 500 then? (If you really care, of course.) It goes something like this:

  • All D and Nuova models have the "moustache"
  • F cars from 1965 to spring 1969 have the "moustache" badge
  • F cars from spring 1969 to 1972 share badges with the L
  • L cars should never have the "moustache"
  • Same applies to the R, which has a completely new set of badges again, the front of which is apparently shared with the 126

So basically, the F should be badged by its year rather than its model letter. The rules (should you choose to follow them) are fairly similar for rear badging and number plate lamps too (pre-'69 lamps were aluminium, post-'69 were plastic), except I think the F had a different rear model badge to the L in the 1969 to 1972 run.

To put this in terms of practical examples, our 500 carries the same front badge as an L which is correct for its year (though we've cheekily added an aluminium number plate lamp because they're rare and look nicer - ours should be plastic). As for Sue, she does indeed have the wrong badge on her 1966 F. 1966 is the realm of the D badges and her suspicions about the moustache-shaped dimple in the front panel are confirmed. She now has the arduous task of scouring the world for an original Fiat moustache.

There is still some debate as to whether these should be aluminium or plastic, since most after-market moustache badges seem to be plastic though there are some aluminium versions around. Prevalent opinion is divided: For example Fiat 500 message board frequenter, "Paul 1947", refers to La Guida as saying early badges were plastic, however the equally frequent "Mike A." says he has owned two Nuovas which were in definite, genuine and original trim, both sporting aluminium badges he's certain were factory fitted.

Good luck Sue! And I hope you find the right badge!

Edits courtesy of extra information from "Paul 1947" and "Mike A." on the Fiat 500 message board. Thanks!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Most Under-valued Classic"

Classic Cars Magazine article Thanks to McReis, a chap from the Ultimate Car Page where I occasionally irritate others with my opinions, for re-surfacing an old article from Classic Cars Magazine (in this thread on their forum) regarding under-valued classics. And what was number 1? Why the Lotus Elan +2 of course!

I haven't really told you much about the cars themselves yet apart from the problems! This isn't entirely fair, so I figured it's high time I extolled some of the great virtues they possess which make up the reason for us to remain in the honey trap of maintaining them. Starting with "the green one" ...

The Lotus Elan +2S 130/5 is enormous fun. It is fast, it sounds great, it handles like a dream, it looks great, it's (reasonably) economical and it's amazingly comfortable.

That's right. I said comfortable. So comfortable my girlfriend actually falls asleep in it every time we go anywhere! Believe it or not, Colin Chapman's theories on car suspension meant he didn't subscribe to the idea of racing cars being skittery surface-skaters on suspension with about as much give as an orthopaedic mattress. He believed good racing suspension was about perfect balance rather than a hard ride, and he proved it with the Elan (amongst other cars) and with the development of the famous Chapman Strut. They are actually surprisingly softly sprung.

Indeed, when climbing in to the cockpit of what is essentially a walnut-lined go-kart, passengers often expect their bones to be shattered by the first unfortunately placed pebble in the road. They visibly flinch as you hit a speed hump and then remark with surprise when it handles afforementioned hump better than their BMW 318. And then the real clincher. As you accelerate out of town, tailed by the magical boom of the exhaust note, and hurl the car in to the first corner, you realise this vehicle simply redefines the term "cornering on rails". The grip is just amazing and the confidence this entails in the driver is second to none.

It is also fair to say the 130/5 model (with the "big valve" engine and 5-speed box - early ones were all 4-speed) is perfectly at home in the modern world. It is comfortable and relaxing during a long run down the M1, with its electric windows, original radio (albeit restricting you to long wave) and comfortable seats. Yet if you discard 5th gear and thrash the (slightly clumsy) gearbox it out-performs the S1, S2 and S3 coupés in the country lanes. According to Classic Cars Magazine's monthly price guide, it has the same top speed as the Sprint coupé too, though I'm not so sure about that. Sounds dubious to me, as the +2S definitely carries more weight.

The only place I wouldn't recommend an Elan is in the city. The heavy clutch soon causes you to become rather tired of changing gear in slow-moving traffic. It's definitely a car for the open road (while we still have some!) and is much happier at 3,500 RPM than when sat idling in a queue.

Finally, I am pleased to report (though marginally disappointed as an owner) the perceived value of this particular model of Lotus remains the same. Despite all the hype from the various magazines in the classic car genre about the Lotus coupé's poorer cousin, they're still an absolute bargain! Bear this in mind next time you're poking around Autotrader thinking of replacing your classic, adding to your collection or even starting from scratch as a classic car virgin. I can tell you from personal experience that you won't go far wrong if you buy a well looked after +2S 130/5.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Naming Cars

There are two types of car owner. Those who name their cars, and those who don't. I fall firmly on the side of those who don't. Quite frankly, I find it all a bit ridiculous.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not cold hearted about these wonderful machines. Sentimentality does creep in, and I might refer to the Lotus as "her" ocassionally (for reasons to follow) but fond as I am of my cars, naming them goes a bit beyond the pale in my opinion. At the end of the day it's a lump of steel and plastic. It's great fun, but then so is the TV and I haven't named that. It's pretty, but so are the curtains, and I don't refer to them by name. It's useful, but then so is the microwave, and no, I haven't named that either. Have you? For that matter, have you named your car?

If the answer to the former is "no, of course not!" and the answer to the latter is "yes!" then I have to ask you why?!

My sister named the battered old Volvo 240 she used to barge around the Estonian highways in. The bloody thing was a disaster area. It would've failed any sensible road safety test and the boot was held shut with a padlock. To be fair, my father and I called this car several different names at various points in its life, none of them complimentary. We can't fathom how she even came to be attached to it, never mind name it ...

Indeed, were it up to my sister (and in spite of my frequent protests she still insists on this) the Lotus would be called "Lotty". Now quite apart from the fact that "Lotty" sounds like the name of a TV presenter trapped in the multi-coloured world of pre-school programming, what kind of name is it for a vehicle of outstanding racing heritage and prestige?? Even the script writer for Bob The Builder wouldn't call a Lotus "Lotty". (Not twice if I found out where he lived, at any rate!)

Furthermore, a colleague of mine has a VW Beetle called Benjamin. What sort of name is that for a car? All other reservations aside, it's a male name and everyone knows cars are female. I'm not being sexist here. In all the Latinate languages, except the ones I'll ignore for the purposes of this post, car is a feminine word. In French, la voiture; in Italian, la macchina; etc. So this particular car namer is not only daft, but also misguided.

And I'm also relatively sure my girlfriend has named the Fiat. I've wiped it from my mind (post-traumatic stress if you ask me) but I think I may have a vague recollection of being told the 500 had a name. My fuzzy picture of the event is something akin to me shouting "La La Laaaa, I'm not listening!" as I walk away with my fingers in my ears, girlfriend trailing behind me attempting to announce the unfortunate vehicle's ridiculous new title.

I can draw only one conclusion. I am surrounded by idiots.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Potential Disaster

I recently used Money Pit #1 for some very important formal duties. It isn't often one gets to do important things with one's classic car, but on this occasion I was most honoured and priviledged to be invited by an old friend to be the (joint) best man at his wedding.

As luck would have it, this particular friend is also a great fan of all things British, especially British, old and mechanical. It made absolute sense (and would please him down to the ground) to take the groom to his wedding in a Lotus Elan, and since I happened to have one to hand, that is precisely what I set out to do.

The morning of the wedding I fetched the Lotus (which involved spending twenty minutes down at the old council garage I rent indulging myself in the usual rigmarole of throttle pumping, attempting to start it, swearing, leaving it for a minute, trying again, etc.). Once I had it running I sped over to the village where the groom's parents live with the other best man, pulled up outside the house and in we went to have our ties straightened and carnations fixed by the groom's father (as he was wont to do, being an old hand in the sartorial game).

Pleasantries exchanged and time running out, the groom and I headed back outside. My fellow best man had hastily made other arrangements with the groom's brother. Either he couldn't stomach another batch of my driving or didn't fancy squeezing in the back of the laughably named "Plus Two". (Plus two what? Shopping bags? Midgets? Cats??) And so we hopped in the Lotus. I turned the key and the engine span over fast, the oil nice and warm from the ride over. But it didn't fire. Not even a hint of it!

Never mind. It's a warmish day and occasionally the fuel vaporises in the lines if it's warm and you have to pull some fresh fuel through before she fires, I lied to myself. I try again. The same. Ok, this is getting alarming, not to mention embarassing. I'm trying, and failing miserably, to look as though this is quite normal. It isn't! The Lotus always ... and I mean always ... fires first time once it's been running for five minutes. All I can think of are the infamous effects of Murphy's Law (or Sod's Law, as my father usually describes the same principle, rather more crudely than I, even if I do say so myself).

I try again. And again. Finally a bit of a kick back from the engine! An attempt to fire! We're getting somewhere! A couple more tries, a cough and a splutter, and it bursts in to life (much to the relief of both myself and the groom, who was rapidly looking like he might be arriving at his wedding in '02 Fiat Seicento rather than a '74 Lotus).

And so we arrived at the church, unfazed and on time, I deposited the groom at the steps and nipped around to the rear to stick the car in the church car park.

After the service I experienced the same reluctance to start when I went to run the Lotus home (literally around the corner) before festivities began. After a minute it fired and I popped down the road and backed up the drive. When I got out of the car, I noticed a little stream of something on the road and up the drive. A quick sniff of a sample collected with the tip of my finger confirmed this something was petrol.

(Note: I always check any errant fluids immediately I spy them, lest they evaporate. Something my girlfriend was less than impressed at:
"Do you have to do that now??")

The last time I experienced a similar fault, one of the twin Delortos got a stuck float and it cleared itself the next day. (The rather precarious location of the distributor, directly under the carbs, is precisely what makes the old Elan particularly prone to engine fires.) This time however the leak seemed to be out of harms way, but this was evidently why the car was struggling to start. Fuel starvation! So simple.

I'm not sure if I have the nerve for any more important occasions. I'm certainly extremely glad what might have been wasn't! I'm also going to recharge the fire extinguisher in the boot.

On the plus side, we all enjoyed a great day, a lovely service, a cracking wedding reception (largely made by the outstanding speech by the best men, of course) and much food, wine and merriment. Smashing, as Jimmy Saville would say!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Simple Show Stopper

Doubtless the folks reading this blog are of all sorts of backgrounds and ages, and depending on your motoring experience, or indeed your own era, you may or may not be familiar with vehicles which do not start with the turn of a key. (An alien concept to many these days!) Indeed, I myself remember my father's 1950s Ferguson "Petrol/Paraffin" tractor having a start gear with which you sparked up the electric "self-starter" if you were too lazy to have a go with the starting handle (which being a teenager, I invariably was). The revelation of not turning a key to start the engine made this rather fun. I'm not sure to this day why ... it just did.

The same is true of the Fiat 500, and when carrying a 500 "virgin" they always comment with something like "how funny!" or "how does that work then?" when you start the engine, not with a key of course, but with a little lever down between the front seats. Marvellous!

Far simpler than the electric start buttons on some sports cars of a certain age, the start lever on a Fiat 500 pulls a cable exactly the same in nature as you would expect to find operating the brakes on a push bicycle. This cable pulls the lever on the side of the starter motor through two positions. First position spins up the motor and second engages it with the flywheel to turn the engine over. In the course of a swift pull you don't notice these two positions, but they are very much there. All in all this remarkably simple starting system works very well without requiring any electronics. There is only one thing can scupper you. Any change in the relationship between the location of the lever, the location of the starter motor and the length of the cable.

That sounds pretty unlikely, but a good friend of mine couldn't start his any more after an unfortunate shunt. Everyone checked for damage, swapped insurance details, all the usual stuff and then he went to start his car only to discover the chassis had been compressed by an inch or two by the collision and the starter cable was subsequently too long to engage the starter motor of the newly shortened Fiat!

Or you can suffer simple wear and tear problems with the cable, as we did.

Being the intrepid "wannabe" mechanics we are, myself and my girlfriend decided to fit our new starter motor ourselves. We called our man Bob (the 500 genious) and asked him what to do. When he'd stopped lauging (I still can't figure out what Bob found so hilarious about the prospect of us fixing our car) he told us what we needed to know and off we went.

The task involves blindly disconnecting the afforementioned cable by cutting a wire pin holding it in place, removing the starter motor from a gap only fractionally larger than the unit itself and right at the back of the engine bay, replacing it and re-connecting the cable with a fresh pin. After much jiggling, swearing, sweating, swearing some more, jiggling and a lot more swearing we finally succeeded. (It is a b*stard of a job if you don't have the means to safely jack the vehicle up! And you're mechanically incompetent, which I confess, it hurts my male pride to admit but admit I must.)

Now, when you get to the "re-connecting" bit there are three holes on the end of the cable to allow for some basic minor adjustment of the cable length. We had to re-connect the cable using the hole that made it as short as it could possibly be. We did, then eagerly ran to the starting lever and gave it a tug. Nothing. We tried to start the car again, this time from the rear with an arm inside the engine bay pulling the lever. This time the starter whizzed up but failed to engage with the flywheel, preferring to sit there making a noise like a particularly large dentist's drill. (Now you see the significance of the two positions in the starter motor's operation?) The cable wasn't pulling the lever far enough, if at all.

This, coupled with a large degree of paranoia that we'd done something really stupid and potentially damaging to our little car, caused us to do what we always do when our Fiat doesn't work. We called Bob (who don't forget, knows us to be mechanically inept). He immediately announced to us we must have used the wrong hole. "No!" we cried, bitter at this gross injustice. We were particularly careful to use the right hole! Especially as Bob had well and truly instilled in us the consequences of using the wrong hole. Our holes, we were sure, were all in order.

There was nothing else for it. We would have to go and see Bob to prove to him we had indeed used the right hole and we weren't quite as incompetent as he thought (if not far off). We tow-started the car with the help of the runabout and took it over to Hersham (again!) and upon our our arrival, Bob immediately reminded us we must've used the wrong hole.

"Nooooo!!! We didn't!"
And after some banter, a surprise visit by a Fiat 500 loving friend of Bob's, an inspection of our handywork and some more banter;
"Oh. No. You didn't. Your starter cable's all stretched and frayed. That'll need replacing."

Vindication! Hurrah! We knew it! Wait ... what exactly does that mean for the Fiat?

Well it means we don't have the Fiat right now. It's at Bob's. The cable costs next to nothing, but replacing the cable means taking all the seats out and doing (you guessed it) a lot of jiggling and swearing. We decided to let Bob jiggle and swear this time. At least we know we did a good job of fitting the starter motor after all and were merely victims of circumstance. Though I have a sneaking suspicion Bob thinks we had a stroke of beginners luck.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Far Inferior Automotive Technology

That's what Fiat stands for, according to a particularly mean American mechanic with whom I was conversing while I was waiting for him to test the fuel pump on our little 500 one sunny afternoon in Richmond, Surrey. (Actually, he wasn't mean at all. He was a very nice man who was helping us out of an unfortunate spot. But he was being very mean about Fiats.)

Fortunately, that is not the opinion of our usual Fiat fixer (and a Fiat fixer of many many years' experience), a lovely chap by the name of Bob Caltagirone. He's a chatty, funny, easy-going man of Sicilian descent, with permanent overalls and cap (I suspect he might even sleep in them) whom it is impossible not to like. And his enthusiasm for the cars, and life in general for that matter, is infectious. Bob loves his cars. In particular, he loves his classic Fiats. And even more particularly, he loves his classic Fiat 500s.

Bob is a rare find for a classic car owner. The country is littered with classic car garages, but finding a mechanic who you just trust implicitly to get on with the job, do it right and charge you appropriately at the end of it is not as easy as it might sound.

That's not to say mechanics aren't trustworthy in the broader sense of the word. Garages have had a bad rap over the years and (almost) all the mechanics I've come across are decent, honest, hard working people, but in spite of all that, actually trusting them is about more than their personal integrity. It's about feeling they really genuinely do know all there is to possibly know about your little baby and that nothing can happen that this mechanic does not know how to deal with ... immediately, effectively and with minimum fuss.

Let me give you an example. As I mentioned earlier, our American friend had his head in the rear of our beloved 500, and while he gave us his opinions on Italian engineering he was testing the pressure from the fuel pump.

"Yup," he opined, "it's your fuel pump! Hardly any fuel pressure at all."

He sounded very certain indeed. Yet he failed to convince me, largely because this was his third expert diagnosis for our loss of power in the last hour. The first had (certainly) been a blocked fuel line or clogged air filter and then it was (had to be) the mixture and now he was absolutely, positively convinced it was the fuel pump. Hmmmmm ...

On top of this, he'd just taken me on a terrifying journey to the nearest roundabout and back where his dismal attempts at double-declutching caused my heart to stop with every gear change, and by way of an excuse for his dreadful driving skills he mumbled that the clutch needed changing. At this point all I wanted to do was pay the man and drive to Bob's in our under-powered Fiat 500 (and believe you me, an under-powered Fiat 500 is a serious lack of horses!) and get him to sort it out for us.

But this mechanic wasn't a bad person. In fact, he was clearly very knowledgeable about engines and a friendlier man it's hard to meet. He went through a checklist of things it could've been. He explained exactly what he was doing and why, in very clear laymen's terms and with the aid of props (old bits of engine lying around the 'shop). He marked each suspect off the list one by one. At the end of it he was stumped. He told us we needed a new fuel pump. We told him we knew a nearby expert who probably had the parts and he looked relieved and said we had best take it to our expert.

We settled up (£60 his boss insisted on charging us for his time, as I recall) and set off to visit Bob. In spite of the fact I'd paid £60 for nothing, I couldn't blame the mechanic and left feeling quite sorry for him. He did his best and looked genuinely a bit crest-fallen. His enthusiasm told me he didn't get many car lovers in his garage, and even less opportunity to work on classic cars. He would've liked nothing better than to set some happy customers on their merry way but he simply didn't know the car and with these quirky old beasts that is fundamental.

And so ten miles away in Hersham, having delivered our Fiat we briefly explained the problem to Bob.

"That'll be your condenser, that will! They get too hot you see; too close to the exhaust system. It's a design flaw really."

He took a screw driver, opened the boot, whipped a small metal cylinder off the side of the distributor, replaced it with a similar cylinder and off we went. It took five minutes, it cost £5 and he even gave us a spare (used, but functioning) for the glove compartment. ("They can go any time - always have a spare!") And that is why I trust Bob for all things Fiat. He just knows.