Life In A Triumph Italia Is A Journey, Not A Destination
Owner: Paul Harvey
Year, Make, and Model: 1962 Triumph Italia
Location: Oversley Castle, Warwickshire, England
Photographer: Steve Key
So here we are, it’s the end of the journey. And the start. The journey to find THE car, and the start of the road ahead.
April 12th 2013 I see a white car on EBay that looks like a TR4 coupe. Was there such a thing? Same bonnet bulge. Same bodyline swooping up over the door handle. Same boot. Is it a Maserati? Aston? Lancia? This thing just looks right from every angle. Simple lines. No fancy embellishments. Incredibly slim roof pillars. Chrome where chrome is meant to be. This car is completely original and untouched. Tired but usable. What’s not to like?
Diligent research all that night found the story of the Triumph Italia. The coupe from Standard Triumph that never was. The heart of an Englishman in a smart Italian suit. Designed by Mr. Giovanni Michelotti at the height of his powers. Built by Carrozzeria Vignale alongside the Maserati 3500GT in Milan and marketed by Mr. Salvatore Ruffino out of Turin. Older than a TR4 though. Triumph TR3 Chassis and engine from the Coventry factory. Conceived as a full production run of 1,000 cars but destined to fail when Triumph changed their minds. I knew about TR’s. I’d bought a TR4A way back in ’79 as a penniless student at medical school. Drove it until it broke. Restored it and thrashed it. Lost interest when new sports cars took over my drive. And then found it again when the Ferrari broke down and the invoices piled in. They say it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast, than a fast car slow. And they’re right, the TR4 became my daily driver and the car is just great fun everywhere.
But this is something different. Look at the little details. This is a car I need to own. Better looking than my Maranello 550 but as honest as my TR4. No need to be embarrassed driving one of these. Better start bidding. $50,000 isn’t enough to meet the reserve, and the man from Monaco with his white Italia disappears from my life. Damn. No problem, better find another one. That was where the journey started–right there on Google. Research, research, research. A few restored ones for lots of money, but somehow not quite right. A couple of basket cases needing everything. Rare cars – only just over 300 ever made. Less than 100 known to survive. Maybe sixty still on the road. A tiny handful have a special badge on the boot pull ‘Styled by G. Michelotti.” Nobody knows why. This might take a while. Day after day of searching. Chase every detail. Check every possible lead. Go to Coventry Motor Museum and there’s a red one on a quaint rotating stand. Petite, pure, utterly beautiful in the flesh.
And then there’s this quiet little entry on a blog post from a classic car shop in San Luis Obispo, California, USA. “Green Italia, very original car, only 6,000 kilometres” and an email address. These guys are English and specialists in what the Americans love to call LBCs: Little British Cars. And they know about Triumph Italias–the blog is all about the one they are restoring. I call the owner’s son to ask if they had bought the green car. “No. The guy is kidding, we’ve seen some pictures but he won’t give us a price. Might not be genuine.” “Mind if I try him?” “No problem, good luck.”
So I email and wait. And wait. And then a few fuzzy pictures arrived–the car looks to be restored, too clean to be original. And a video–driving the thing onto a garage ramp. Unrestored Italias are never driveable but this car looks right. Ask for a price, don’t get one. Ask again, get a price too low to be for an original proper car. Only one way to find out. It’s not far by plane from Birmingham to Milan and car hire is cheap enough. £250 round trip and a day in the Italian Alps, it’s worth a punt. I finally find the tiny little village of Casargo just up from Lake Como, a nice area with fabulous views. The car is going to be fake, but the journey is worth the ticket. Remember the journey, forget the destination.
And then we find the car. Hidden in a dingy garage surrounded by cheap Italian cars in for service. Turns out the guys here are ski instructors in the winter, and fix cars in the summer to pay the bills. It’s a father and son, and gorgeous daughter who speaks good English and tells me she can teach me to ski. Dad speaks good Italian and says he has looked after cars for folks from Milan up in the mountains all his life. It is where the old boys come on holiday, and rates are cheaper than in the big city. Dad tells me he has looked after this Italia from new. Yeah right. Dad shows me the speedometer reading 6642 kilometres and smiles at me. Yeah right. Dad gets his big file out and shows me the original sales invoice dated 1981. 1981? They stopped making these in 1962. Better look at the car which still looks right. Is that possible? Paint is flaking everywhere but everything else is like new. Interior is absolutely mint. Broken interior door handle but that’s it. Vignale #215 is unknown on the Italia website. Chassis plate cannot have been changed. Engine number seems right. All the unobtanium bits are right there on the car. The tread on the spare tyre says Michelin X and it has never been out of the boot. Rummage about and the tools are all there. The jack has never been used. Put the car on that same lift from the video and there can be no doubt–this car is the real deal.
I’m talking to a ski instructor in the Italian Alps and living my dream. A Triumph Italia. Untouched. Original. One elderly owner. 6,642 kms from new. Full service history. Original sales invoice. Certificate of Originality from Sr. Ruffino. I tell them quietly the car is a fair price. I’d like to pay a deposit please. ” No, no. We must talk to the owner. Don’t worry, the car is yours.” Yeah right.
I don’t really remember the journey home. Turns out I’ve somehow managed to book a return flight to a different airport. I have to bribe the valet parking guys to drive my wife’s car across London so I can get home. I don’t care. The next two weeks go slowly. I email and receive no answer. The ski instructors seem busy. Odd reply to say they are waiting for the owner to come home off holiday. This thing is drifting away. A mate from the TR Register rings up on Saturday morning and says there’s a German classic car dealer who’s asking about a green Italia somewhere near Milan. No choice – we’re on a mission. Borrow a trailer and pinch the 4×4 off my site manager at work. I tell the wife I’ll be back soon. Another journey, same destination. 1,000 miles to Casargo and I’ll draw the cash on the way. Twenty-four hours and sleep at the filling stations. Doesn’t seem hard even at 56. Forget to draw the cash.
I told the mechanics I was coming but I didn’t mention the trailer. They seem surprised but we all have dinner together none the less. Italian pasta in their favourite local restaurant. Ridiculously cheap. Absolutely fantastic. I tell them I can’t leave without the car. They tell me I’m mad but I think they believe me. The owner is back but he wants to transfer all the paperwork before the car leaves Italy. Dad knows the local vehicle licensing office but it usually takes two weeks. They tell me I won’t get over the border without the export paperwork and they have to keep the number plates. The owner wants cash. We have another bottle of wine and Dad says he’ll see what he can do. Shame it’s not snowing or I’d book a ski lesson with the daughter.
In the morning they ask me if I can return another time for the car. They know the answer and the son says he’ll sort it out. It’s a long day so I go down to Lake Como and remember why everyone wants to be Italian. The son gives me a load of Swiss bank account numbers and I get on the case. All we need is the export paperwork. Another sleepless night but dinner is even better by Lake Como. An Italia entered the Concours d’Elegance there a few years back and did quite well. A Nissan Navara is hardly the right transport but who cares, we’re on the right journey. Dad is up early and back off to the Licensing office. He brings back a piece of paper and says I can go. We load the Italia on the trailer and I wind slowly down the mountain until there’s a place to pull over. This is what life is supposed to feel like. When I get to the border tunnel at Mont Blanc I take a picture of the car and trailer just in case they tell me I can’t leave with the car. The border guard stops me at the barrier and asks me for the ticket. “Nice car, what is it?” I show him the Export Document and he laughs. He just wants to see the tunnel ticket. Actually, if I’d put the ticket in the window he wouldn’t even have stopped me. I could have stolen the Italia and they couldn’t care less. “Have a good journey.” Not half. Twenty-three hours home doesn’t seem long or far. The view through the rear view mirror is green and handsome and that will do nicely. Same again at Eurotunnel in France, they just wave me through. Dover is the same and we’re back on British soil. Mission accomplished. No import tax. No VAT. No Customs charges. I take back everything I’ve said about Britain being in the European Union!
MOT test on the original 50 year old Michelin X tyres – pass first time. Age related UK number plate from the Triumph chassis number – no problem. Completely refurbish the mechanical systems – takes a while but it’s TR3 so everything is available and really quite cheap.
And that’s the journey. The pictures show the destination. I can now drive this car as the maker intended on any new journey I like. Which is what it is all about.
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