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.

No comments: