Mrs. Hansberry’s Fiat

By Ean McDowell, March 2010

“1965 Fiat Sedan, unable to get spare parts, is unroadworthy, so cannot be sold. I would give it to anyone who is interested in restoring old bodies. Has done approximately 40,000 miles. White in colour and quite dusty as it has been sitting in a carport for several years; Mrs Lorna Hansberry, Landt Hostel.”

The faded notice was in frail handwriting taken down from a noticeboard long ago. It was said the car was given away four times but no-one ever collected it and sadly Mrs Hansberry passed away in late 2009. There was no family. Eventually the house was sold and to help out one of the nurses at the hostel and her “Uncle Frank” moved the car so the new owners could take possession. One can only imagine the contrast of this sad ending to the day the new Fiat came home for the first time on 7th April 1965.

Frank was a Stock and Station Agent in the Warracknabeal area… the type of guy who knew everyone within 100 kilometres. He didn’t know Mrs Hansberry well but he was aware that she and her husband owned a successful plaster business in the town for many years. Long since retired he had time on his side and started to clean up the Fiat to get it running again. It needed a windscreen and he sourced one in Bacchus March, about 300km away. When the windscreen arrived it had “round corners” from the earlier model so it was returned and replaced. Such is the way in the country. The Fiat also needed a water pump. Enquiries were made and eventually it was removed and sent to Portland, 200km in the opposite direction, for repair. Frank had spent a bit of money which he hoped to recover and his friend Dirk suggested they put it on eBay. Dirk obviously had a way with words and despite all the car sales pitches in history, here was the genuine case of “Driven only to church by a little old lady”.

To every old car purchase there is a story. I happened to be browsing on eBay only an hour after the advertisement was placed. The advertisement said it needed a clutch and my initial thought was that clutches don’t wear out at 40,000 miles on a Fiat 1100… it has probably done 140,000miles. The bodywork looked average in the photos on eBay but the interior looked very clean. I thought it was worth a try and I hit the “Buy it Now” button. The adventure was about to start.

The Fiat 1100 Riviera comes home.

The Fiat 1100 Riviera comes home. Click for bigger.

Rainbow, the town where the car was located was about 450km from Melbourne. Dirk said there would be a bed if I wanted to stay but I reckoned I could get there and back in a day. I was on the road by 7.30am on a day that was so typical of Australian summers. The weather forecast was for the mid-30s in Melbourne… probably 37 at Rainbow on the edge of the little desert. On the Western highway the speed limit was 110kph and it was no trouble at all to maintain that, the trailer was empty but the back of the ute was well loaded with ramps, extra wooden beams and blocks, trolley jack, ropes, tools, and two spare trailer wheels. Many people say the western plains are boring with gently undulating broad-acre grain farms as far as the eye can see. I think the opposite and enjoyed every bit of the trip. I pulled into Rainbow just after noon and there was the Fiat on the side of the road … parked as arranged so I would recognize the house. I did a U-turn and pulled alongside…. It was rusty and dirty… not at all as I expected. I had paid too much! I met Frank and Dirk, and Dirk’s wife made us a coffee. Pretty soon we were laughing and joking. Dirk had worked all his life in mines in North Queensland but said “they found two young guys for the cost of an old guy like me”. He and his wife looked on the internet for the cheapest house in Australia and they found it at Rainbow. They had never even heard of Rainbow let alone been to that part of Australia. Within three years they had transformed the dry and sandy block of land into a mini rainforest by recycling everything. It was a fantastic garden. Frank told us stories of the land and the characters of the past. They knew nothing about Fiats but hoped I would save it. Soon we went out to load it up. I set up the ramps and Frank started the car to drive it on… he didn’t make it… he never even looked like making it. I took over and as I felt the steering and eased it into gear it was very obvious that the 39,100 miles showing on the speedometer was genuine. I brightened up. Frank suggested I navigate down the back roads and small towns rather than going via the highway and with a touch of genuine country hospitality came out with two cold soft drinks for the trip back home. This was most appreciated as the temperature was probably well over 37degrees.

Mazda Ute towing the Fiat 1100 Riviera in the Western Plains of Victoria. A 900km trip on one day.

Mazda Ute towing the Fiat 1100 Riviera in the Western Plains of Victoria. A 900km trip on one day. Click for bigger.

The ute with fully loaded trailer still pulled well but 90kph was enough. The back roads were rough but the scenery was great. I was watching the Fiat in the mirror and thinking about it. I stopped for fuel and people came over to look at it. I brightened up even more. About 150km out of Melbourne I was glad to rejoin the highway but then it happened. The inside trailer tyre blew out, the tread came loose, and it flopped around and dragged the mudguard firmly into the wheel. I had all the equipment to jack the trailer and replace the wheel, but the heavy steel mudguard was so firmly jammed against the wheel. To make things worse it was late afternoon and the damaged tyre had ripped out the trailer lighting. With some effort I eventually managed to lever the mudguard away with the trailer ramps, change the wheel and reach home. I drove the Fiat up and down the road and put it away.

There are little things that show Mrs Hansberry cared for her Fiat. The boot is in perfect condition… almost never used you would say. The rubber mat in the boot was unmarked and in the little wells on each side there was a plastic “mat” to create a floor. I have never seen a car that still had these. In fact I made a mental note to look in the parts book to confirm they all had them when new. The rear seats and carpets cleaned up and are also like new although the sun has taken its toll on the top of the back seat and the vinyl has cracked and faded. I will try to find a seat from a similar model as there is sufficient vinyl in the lower squab to cut out and replace the damaged section. The tools are all there and the original driver’s handbook and guarantee are in the plastic bag they were delivered in with “Fiat” printed on the front … probably opened once or twice when the car was new but then untouched for 45 years. Being a country car there are a lot of stone chips and some small rust holes that will have to be sympathetically repaired but most of the rust and grime has polished off.

I am in no hurry… in fact I enjoy I leisurely cleaning and refurbishing each bit of the car. I will continue to clean and detail the exterior over the coming months and to run and tune the motor. The clutch is strong but sticking and hopefully it will come good with some use. The rear brakes are also binding. Maybe it was left for 10 years with the handbrake on or maybe the flexible hose to the rear axle is blocked. Generally the need for refurbishment is lack of use rather than wear.

Mrs Hansberry’s Fiat will be looked after in the manner I am sure she looked after it.

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One Response to Mrs. Hansberry’s Fiat

  1. Lorraine Jones August 9, 2013 at 12:58 #

    I loved reading this story as it meant so much to me. This was my mothers car which I have had many family holidays and trips in it with mum. My mother used to look after this car like it was a child. I remember washing it many times, mum was very proud owner. It was such a shame that it got left for so long but I’m happy it has found a new home and will be looked after and restored.

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