Me & My Car: ’61 Fiat runs errands for and promotes Danville restaurant

A lot of history surrounds Italy’s Fiat automobiles, which have been around since the first Fiat 4 HP was made in 1899.

Giovanni Agnelli was one of the founding members of Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, which became known by the acronym FIAT (later stylized as “Fiat”) and which Agnelli ran the until his death in 1945. Fiat is Italy’s largest automobile manufacturer and, for 20 years until the late 1980s, was also Europe’s largest automaker and the third largest in the world behind General Motors and Ford.

Fiat also builds vehicles in Poland, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. The company has had some ups and downs. They built a new plant in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1910, when owning a Fiat was a real status symbol. A Fiat cost about $4,000 initially but increased to $6,400 by 1918. For comparison, a Ford Model T for that same period cost $825, decreasing to $525 (yes, the Model T’s price actually decreased).

During World War I Fiat made aircraft, engines, machine guns, trucks and ambulances for the Allies. During World War II, until Mussolini was overthrown in 1943, Fiat made similar equipment for the Axis powers. Fiat returned to the U.S. market in the 1950s, offering cars like the original Fiat 500 that were small cars by American standards but also very cute and sporty ones like the Fiat 124 Sport Spider.

A 1961 Fiat 500 F owned by Angelo Dalo. (David Krumboltz for the Bay Area News Group)

A 1961 Fiat 500 F owned by Angelo Dalo. (David Krumboltz for the Bay Area News Group)

The interior of a1961 Fiat 500 F owned by Angelo Dalo. (David Krumboltz for the Bay Area News Group)

A two-cylinder, 395 c.c. engine in a 1961 Fiat 500 F owned by Angelo Dalo. (David Krumboltz for the Bay Area News Group)

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Saleswise, they did well at almost 60% of total production, but Fiat’s quality earned kind of a shaky reputation in this country generally because of rust and reliability. American car enthusiasts humorously quipped that Fiat stood for “Fix It Again, Tony.” So I was surprised to learn Fiat received many international awards for its vehicles, including nine European Car of the Year awards, more than any other manufacturer and it was rated as having the lowest level of CO2 emissions by vehicles sold in Europe.

This issue’s featured vehicle is a 1961 Fiat 500 F owned by Angelo Dalo, a true Italian. You wouldn’t believe it by looking at the car, but Dalo said the model was sold in Italy as a five-passenger vehicle (the back seat would have to be for three pretty small kids). He owns two Italian restaurants, Agrodolce in Berkeley (agrodolceberkeley.com) and the newly opened Isola Osteria (isolaosteria.com) in Danville’s downtown.

Dalo says he paid $10,000 for this little Fiat about a year ago to help promote his businesses but also to use it as an errand car for the Danville restaurants. Born and raised in Sicily, Dalo said this was the kind of car he learned to drive on and the while we don’t see may Fiats like this here they’re everywhere in Italy. After all, Fiat has sold more cars in Italy than anyone else, in more than 80% of the market in some years.

“It’s a two-cylinder, 395 cc (cubic-centimeter) engine with a four-speed manual transmission, and it is completely stock,” Dalo said. “It was repainted about eight years ago, and the red vinyl interior is brand-new.”

His only remaining project is to replace the leaky head gasket — otherwise, the car is perfect. Dalo is a car collector and trader who has owned about 30 classics over his lifetime but says he definitely favors Fiat.

“I have five or six of them. One is always being sold, and one is aways being acquired,” he said. “They’re tiny in size, so they’re easy to store. They aren’t worth much, so if they get messed up, it’s not a major problem.”

Sicily has a big U.S. military base, and some U.S. personnel there buy Fiats and send them home on military ships when their tour of duty is over. An interesting fact is that the lack of success Fiat had historically in this country is what makes them a more valuable collector car today.

The car in front of Dalo’s Berkeley restaurant is one he brought over from Sicily and was his 80-year-old mom’s first car she got when she was 14. Lots of Fiats are still in Italy and Sicily, but Dalo said the better buys for those cars are now in the United States.

Have an interesting vehicle? Email Dave at MOBopoly@yahoo.com. To read more of his columns or see more photos of this and other issues’ vehicles, visit mercurynews.com/author/david-krumboltz.

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