The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

1959 Fiat Bianchina Transformabile: My Third Car

NOTE: We're preparing for a trip to visit Joyce's sister and her husband in Delaware tomorrow. We won't return for about a week so I won't be posting much, if any at all, during that time since our laptop is not the fastest thing going.

1959 Fiat Bianchina Transformabile: My Third Car

Joyce and I were married in August of 1960 soon after we graduated from Martin Jr. College. During that summer, I worked at two jobs in order to save enough money to buy the essentials to start our marriage. I worked 8 hours on a construction crew at Nashville Electric  Service and about 5 more hours at a local grocery (that one only paid 50 cents and hour). Joyce was working as a receptionist as well and contributing to the nest egg. High on our list of necessities was a dependable, fuel efficient car.

Let me say first, that I could have bought a new Volkswagen for $1600. I wasn't making enough to buy it outright but for about $200 down and a reasonable monthly payment, I could have had a dependable Volkswagen. But I didn't buy a VW. I thought they were ugly. I think I've mentioned before that I have a tendency to prefer style over substance. It was a tendency that served me well in voting for liberal politicians over the years, but I learned that tendency should be avoided when selecting an automobile.

What I bought with our hard earned money, was an almost new 1959 Fiat Bianchina Transformabile. It cost as much as the VW, $200 down and a small monthly payment. I've got some pictures of the car but they are hidden away somewhere with some other embarrassing photos of things and events that Joyce and I don't especially like to be reminded of. As a matter of fact, if you look up embarrassing purchases on the Net, you'll probably find a picture of this car. I didn't take that approach to my search, but I did find several photos the Net. Here's the "car" we purchased in 1960.

Cool huh? Stylish. Even a little sexy looking in that Italian way, don't your think? If raindrops fell, you could just reach back from the driver's seat and pull that nifty little top up on its tracks and lock it in place at the top of the windshield. Our Bitchin Binanchina wasn't blue though. It was an attractive light green with the cream trim color.

The little Fiat had an air cooled two cylinder engine rated at 17.5 horsepower. It averaged over 50 miles per gallon and could cruise at around 65 miles per hour. At least that's what the salesman said. Ours probably got closer to 100 miles per gallon. What's that you say? Impossible? Not if you're pushing or towing the car most everywhere it goes.

Our Fiat ran sporadically. If it ran at all. We kept it about 6 months. By then I was in the second semester of my junior year at Middle Tennessee State and Joyce was putting the bread on the table. She drove the car to work and was constantly running into trouble with the little demon. It just wouldn't start. You could crank it till the cows came home and it just wouldn't start. We took it back for service several times. The Fiat "mechanics" scratched their heads and didn't seem to know what the problem was. Since it was obviously terminally ill, we thought about assisting it with suicide to collect the insurance. Finally, considering our cash strapped condition (we had used the rest of the nest egg for tuition, books, etc.), my Dad stepped in and paid the salesman $150 to take it back.

In 1996 we got another two cylinder, 17 hp vehicle, this one a V Twin with water cooling. Yeah, that's a John Deere K series, LX188 in the pic below. The Deere is smaller than the Fiat and it's 14 years old now but it has a sturdy Kawasaki engine. It may not look all that great because it's a work tractor, but I keep it well maintained and it starts every time. 

We're using the Avalon for our 860 mile trip to Delaware, but I would have begun the journey in the John Deere before I would have started out in that Bianchina. Mainly because I think the Deere would have (A) cranked up on the first turn of the key and (B) actually got us there.


  1. I'll take a Deere over a Fiat any time.

  2. Dan, in the mid-60's, my Grandmother was about 50 years old. She and my Grandfather owned a successful appliance & TV store in Shreveport.

    They had a good customer who was a Major in the AF, stationed here at Barksdale AFB. One day he was in the store and mentioned he was going to get rid of his Fiat (I don't know what model it was...I was about 6 years old).

    She walked out front and looked at it while he was making his purchase. She came back in and said, "John, I'll take it!" Mr. Banks said, "Aileen, I won't sell that car to you...I'm going to trade it in."

    "Yes, you WILL sell it to me," she said. She was just in love with the little thing, and even at 50 fashioned herself as a rather sporty doll (did for the rest of her life, too...but that's another story).

    So, John told her and my Granddaddy that it was just a piece of junk, and he would not sell it to a friend. That night, my Grandmother bugged Granddaddy to death..."It can't be all that bad. You know how John is...picky, picky, and peculiar...I'm sure it'll be fine. Call him, and tell him that I have to have it!"

    So, Granddaddy called Mr. Banks, "John, Aileen will not take NO for an answer, and if you don't sell me that car, my life is gonna' be a living hell for a while."

    So, finally John sold it to him. Ya' know, it's real flat here in Louisiana (which is a good thing if you own a car that has to be pushed from point to point.) But, we do have bridges. That dang thing would break down on the Texas Street Bridge, or the Shreve City Bridge damn near every time Grandmother tried to risk it.

    A couple of months in to Fiat ownership, she finally admitted that she was wrong, and ditched the thing somewhere. They all remained good friends...he tried to tell her! I'll never forget when my Granddaddy died unexpectedly (in 1981). John Banks (by then retired) came by the store that afternoon. When I told him that Granddaddy had passed away, he just cried, and cried.

    Later on when he was at the store buying something is when he and Grandmother (she worked as the bookkeeper until we closed down) told me the Fiat story. John laughed hard...and Grandmother laughed harder!

    Oh man...that was a long comment just to say that obviously '60-era Fiats were junk on rubber.

  3. The Fiat "mechanics"...

    Heh. No more need be said.

    Great story, Andy.

    About that Vee-Dub, Dan. The First Mrs. Pennington had a beautiful, perfectly serviceable, and reliable 283 cu. in. '64 Impala when we married in '66. She also had a car payment that a three-striper didn't think he could afford. So I talked her into trading it in on a used '65 Bug. Stupid, stupid, stoopid. My favorite memory of that tiny underpowered lil thing is of me, my buddy Ivan, and his brother laboring up the Camarillo grade on the way to LAX... in THIRD gear, doin' all of about 35 mph while being passed by trucks and all sorts of laughing, pointing Southern Californians. That REALLY hurt. But the thing WAS reliable... you're right, there. I kept if for about a year and then traded it in on a brand-new '67 SS396 Chevelle. I had no further problems being passed on hills after that.

  4. Barry, I might even take a Deere over 2 Fiats! What do you think about Fiats being distributed by Chrysler dealers? I hope they're a little better mechanically now.

    Andy, Great story and junk on rubber is right! Your comment about how flat it is down there reminded me that when we lived in Hammond JOyce and I always gave little hillbilly yell when we drove over the little RR rise in the road!

    Buck, Those VW's were definitely underpowered. I owned and drove regularly a 67 Ghia from 1972 to 75 that was very weak on hills. It had not been taken care of and the body was pretty rough, but she still started and ran every day.

    Sorry for the short comments, but it's late and we have a long drive tomorrow. I was busy all day today and didn't get to leave any comments anywhere myself, but I did read all ya'lls good stuff. Talk to you guys later.

  5. Bianchinas now fetch as much as $82,500 at auction. Bet you wish you still had that little bugger now.