Journal: This Is A Day In The Life Of A Classic Italian Car Dealer

This Is A Day In The Life Of A Classic Italian Car Dealer

Nat Twiss By Nat Twiss
March 8, 2016
1 comments

Photography by Nat Twiss

I’ve been looking forward to this visit since setting on a date with Jamie from Targa Florio Classics—and on the morning you would have known by my rather spirited drive down Fosse Way, an ancient Roman road en route to his garage in south west England. Why was I interested? He was expecting to take delivery of a new car today, straight from Italy: an Autobianchi A112, with a metric ton of hillclimbing credentials, but that wasn’t all we were supposed to be getting up to today—I was going to follow him around for the day, and see what life as a classic car restorer and seller is really like.

Being a restorer and dealer is the dream job for any classic car enthusiast, right? Not only do you get to get your hands dirty every now and then, but you have a fluid, ever-changing collection of cars coming through your garage, and fairly regular excursions out to Europe and sometimes further afield. Or, at least, that’s how it seems—but being the cynic that I am, I wasn’t sure that was actually totally true.

Jamie greeted me outside his small garage and opened the shutters for me. Staring back was a beautiful silver Lancia Fulvia 1.3, and a rolling shell of a MkII Ford Escort. Tucked away behind there was a superb-looking rally-equipped original Mini Cooper S, and an Abarth 1500S that I remembered seeing racing against the Cortinas and Falcons at the Goodwood Revival last year. In the very back corner, next to the kettle and mugs, is a stunning Fiat X1/9—built and painted to be as close to the Abarth ‘prototipo’ Gr.4 rally car as possible. I’m told it’s leaking fuel at the moment.

“We can take the Mini out if you’d like, I need to run out to Castle Combe for some parts. Means I can get petrol on the way, too,” he begins. Clearly, the offer for a ride in the Mini was a rhetorical proposition, because every person would answer “Yes!” After a minute fiddling with the six-point harness, we were on our way, the little Mini bumbling under the race seats.

When better to talk about life than in a deafeningly loud racecar? With a name like Targa Florio Classics, it should be obvious that Jamie has a flair for Italian metal, but running a classic car garage wasn’t always Jamie’s life calling. Until a few years ago he was a painter and decorator, and after flipping a couple of cars out of his own home, he took it to the next level. We pull into the little Gulf petrol station up the hill from the garage. The tank is full, but the engine won’t start.

Dead battery. We’re stuck at the station for the time being—I’d say we made it around a mile. We make jokes about this being a test of our love for classic cars. A couple of calls are made, and a jump starter will arrive shortly, delivered kindly by Jamie’s wife.

In the meantime, smartphones are pulled out of pockets and emails are checked. Jamie has an inbox full of questions, about matching engine and chassis numbers, previous owners, provenance—“People can be a bit too obsessive sometimes, I’ve had people requesting numbers so they can add them to their databases.”

Some bad news was also on the way: the A112 rally car that was supposed to arrive today was now arriving the day later. Not a big deal, though, there’s plenty of other items on the agenda. I decided to ask about the car regardless. It’s already sold and on its way to Japan soon; a buyer purchased it sight unseen, apparently something that happens more often than not. “Once the value of the car in question goes up, you have clients send inspectors or friends to look. One client in the U.S. had someone else fly out for him to view the car, and then go straight back.”

We made the wise decision to return the Mini to base, and ride out to the circuit in a more reliable, modern car—Jamie’s Fiat Coupé daily driver.

Thud. Feathers, and a pheasant flailing in the rear view mirror. “Aww, poor guy!” I get the feeling today is slightly unlucky, but we arrive at Castle Combe with no more trouble, and a luckily undamaged Fiat Coupé. We head into one of the local parts sellers based at the circuit, and Jamie picks up some small parts for the Fiat X1/9, which should hopefully remedy the fuel leaks. Parts in hand, and it’s time to head back to the garage and take the Abarth 1500S out to a road nearby where we can shoot it for a feature.

We took the 1500S to a road Jamie is really familiar with, just out of town—a huge expanse of farmland with a tiny ribbon of tarmac running through it, perfect for a shoot. We move the car around, and I get everything I need. The Abarth takes it in its stride, even if the locked differential hates making tight maneuvers—this is a race car, after all. A race car with a small battery. A detail we may have forgotten, and for the second time today found ourselves with a car that wouldn’t start.

On the plus side, I had much longer than anticipated to get the shots I needed! Jamie kindly volunteered to walk back to town to pick up the starter, and I was left keeping an eye on the Abarth. Cyclists rode past ogling, and one or two stopped to ask what it is, “I remember seeing these things on the road, must be nearly fifty years ago now!” one chap offered.

Jamie rolled up in his Fiat not long after, and with that, we headed back to the garage. The day was starting to come to an end, and it was time to see if those parts we picked up earlier would fix the problem on the X1/9, but not before a cup of tea. The car has been in his possession for over a year now; it’s technically for sale, but it’s also been something of a continuing labour of love for Jamie, and it’s now considered faithful enough to the original Abarth prototypes that it can compete in FIA Historic rallies.

The rear hatch on the X1/9 pops open, and starting back is a slightly disassembled Lancia engine. Jamie confidently tells me that the problem is down to the fuel lines being 2mm too large for the inlet—hence the leak. But fixing it is more challenging that it sounds on paper. Jamie has has to turn the inlets 90 degrees to access them, and make them easier to get to if there are problems in the future. After some grinding and wrenching, and a couple of tweaks later, and Jamie heads round to the front to fire her up.

The small garage is filled with the sounds of a working engine, and smells of petrol and success. A happy ending to a slightly challenging day, I’d say! “I’ll definitely take her out on a drive next week, shake off the cobwebs.” You can see the childlike glimmer in Jamie’s eyes. A dash of a good luck in an otherwise quite unlucky day.

I arrived this morning expecting it to be a relatively normal day for Jamie, but I’m not exactly sure it was. It did tell me one thing, though: I kinda want to do this for a living, too. At times it can be a test of patience, frustrating when your plans are suddenly changed, but none of that matters when you’re surrounded, and working on, some of your favourite things in the whole world.

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Frank Anigbo
Frank Anigbo

Fixing and selling vintage Italian cars — my dream life! Only problem is, I have little wrenching experience (but keen to learn) and have great difficulty letting cars go.