My Car Quest

September 23, 2018

The Motel Fiat – An Unrestored Treasure

by Wallace Wyss

I first saw the car at Concorso Italiano, I think in 2011. I admired the shape of the bodywork though it had paint flaking off its body. This was a car heavy in patina, y’might say.

Fiats are largely mass produced cars now but back in the Fifties, there was some special models that had artful bodywork that made them every bit the rival of Ferrari stylistically. One such car was the 8V premiered in Geneva in 1952. It was called the 8V” because Fiat though Ford owned the name “V8” so twisted it around so they could call their V8 “8V.”

The tiny 1,996cc V-8 engine was exclusive to that car, and only 114 were built; most with a factory coachwork designed by Rapi, while a few were bodied by outside panelbeaters like Ghia, Siata and Vignale.

Fiat 8V vignale

What makes this story a charming example of barn finding is that the barn finder was not even looking for a barn find when he first spotted the car. No, he was going fishing up in the mountains in California and not thinking of cars when he first spied the car. The connoisseur was Dan Simpson, who spotted it more than forty years ago as he passed through June Mountain, California. The car was parked in a parking lot of the Vista Motel.

When he passed the car, he didn’t notice exactly what car it was , he just knew it was Italian. Curiosity overcame him and he stopped and looked at the car. When he saw the Vignale coachbuilder’s badge, he began to realize he had discovered gold . The car’s styling was vaguely like a Ferrari done by Vignale, maybe a 375, thought he car was smaller.

Now Simpson already owned a ‘52 MG TD, so he knew sports cars. But this one he knew was in another realm, more hand built, probably cost twice the price of an MG when it was new. He went into the office and met a man named Shelly Pfeiffer, the hotel owner, who told him how he had acquired it.

Pfeiffer had actually acquired it years earlier, while he was an aerospace engineer down in the South Bay. He and his wife were skiers and among the ski instructors was an Italian named Pino Lella.

Pino was no ordinary ski instructor, he had actually been on the Italian Olympic ski team of 1950 and when the other Italian Olympians went home, he stayed.

Though at that time you couldn’t make much money as a ski instructor so he began importing sports cars, one at a time from Italy. He knew the foremost dealer in Milan, Gastone Cripaldi.

Now back to Shelly. He decided he wanted a Ferrari and asked his new friend if he could get one but Pino told him he could get a car that looked like one at a lower price so in ’58, the 8V was bought from Cripaldi and shipped to Los Angeles. Shelly loved the car and was completely unaware that, in a former life, the car had run the 1955 Mille Miglia, driven by Mario Bonacina under the flag of Scuderia Madunina of Milano.

It retired, alas before the end of the race but no matter, this was to be an important part of the car’s resume.

Engineer owners are wont to save parts in case anything breaks and Shelly began salting away parts, sourced from local sources like Ernie McAfee, Hoffman Motors and Bill Rudd. But alas, once he put the parts together and ran the car, the crank broke as a result of improper heat treating, and, faced with a complete rebuild, he did what Yankee engineers sometimes do: he stuffed in an American engine.

In this case a Chevy II four cylinder, with the original engine traded to Alan Johnston, a friend and fellow worker at TRW, who also owned Siatas and 8Vs and had the confidence to rebuild the engine.

Well, when retirement loomed, Shelly moved to the mountains and Alan moved as well when he left TRW and, wherever he went, he had the 8V engine with him.

Now back to Dan Simpson, the barn finder. For ten years after he first stopped and looked at it, he would stop at the motel every time he passed through town and shoot the breeze with Shelly, arguing why he was qualified to own the car. By the fall of 1981,he finally wore down Shelly’s resistance and bought the car. There was no argument about the price.

When he got home he researched the car more and found out that the designer was Michelotti while Vignale had done the coachwork. The car had been on show at the 1955 Turin Auto Salon with a labeled as a “Tipo Mille Miglia ’55 Fiat 8V.”.

The SN is 106000066. The car was made originally with engine 0136, and first sold in late December ‘54. Your writer could not find the price Simpson paid, which I am hoping to find so I can include this in my next Incredible Barn Finds series books. One person on an internet forum guessed the price back then, without an engine, would probably have been $3,000 which sounds fair to me since probably none had been imported new to America so it was basically an unknown commodity.

Simpson tried to think of a more Italian engine he could install, toying with the idea of a Fiat/Dino V6. As he wrote sources for Italian engines, he contacted John de Boer, an expert on odd ball small displacement Italian cars, and Simpson began using de Boer’s listings to search for an 8V engine. But he was discouraged by the costs, far more than he had anticipated. But then he had a bright idea—why not find the man who had traded the engine from Shelly?

This was pre-Google so it took real legwork. But he found Alan Johnston in Dallas, Texas, and contacted him. The good news was that Johnston still had the original engine and he had put it in his own Zagato 8V. But the bad news was that he was not interested in selling it.

But he did hold out the offer he would call Simpson first if he decided to sell it because he knew the significance of having an original engine in an original chassis.

Thirteen long years go by, the call comes from Texas. The engine is for sale.

It was dismantled but intact, so the Simpsons bought it and it was put together and put in the car.

Where the car went from there, I am not too sure of. One report from Concorso in 2011 said Dan didn’t restore it, though he did get it running. Another story said he was intent on selling it, to pay for the college education of four youngsters. But the lesson is there for car finders to learn.

Kudos to Simpson for sticking to his guns and buying the car with the non original engine but still trying to get the original engine. When he re-united the two he probably improved the car’s value ten fold. Then kudos too, for showing the car unrestored. I am tired of cars that are restored with the wrong color (“well, the painter said it was a close match”) or the wrong upholstery, so one might well leave it as a mechanically restored barn find that runs and drives and show it that way, patina and all…

See more photos here.

THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is completing the fourth volume of the Incredible Barn Finds series. The first three are presently available from Enthusiast Books,Hudson, WI.

Let us know what you think in the Comments.

 

 

Summary
The Motel Fiat - An Unrestored Treasure
Article Name
The Motel Fiat - An Unrestored Treasure
Description
It was a long search to reconnect this rare Fiat with its original engine.
Author

Comments

  1. Thom Ollinger says:

    I really like that car. Is that the only picture?

  2. Don Bryan says:

    When I was a kid, there was a man that lived a couple doors down the street owned one of these , kept in his garage all the time, but drove it.. It’s one of those cars that you really don’t see any more except at a car show because they’re hidden away in some guy’s garage and they don’t drive them, they come up for once they pass on. I liked the shape of the car as a child, nothing else like it around.

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