The power of patience delivered me a faded Fiat 850. It was well worth the wait
I’ve made it a point to keep the same phone number since 2009. I’m not superstitious, and I’m not at all attached to this particular string of digits. Nor am I averse to change. No, I’ve kept this number because I’ve spent the past decade patiently waiting for a phone call.
I never thought buying anything would require the patience and persistence I needed in the years after I spotted a beautiful, if faded, red 1971 Fiat 850 sedan sinking into the yard of a tidy house in a quiet neighborhood not far from my home in southern France. I was passing by on a cold and gray January day. Winter had thinned the lush hedge just enough to let me catch a glimpse of the car’s nose.
Admittedly, the 850 sedan is an odd car to spend so long pursuing, but I’ve loved them ever since I was a boy growing up in Rome. It’s an honest car, and I admire its simplicity and humility. I’ve owned an 850 Spider and an 850 Bertone Racer, but the sedan had always eluded me. The 850 was a car for the people, cheaply made in enormous quantities—nearly 2.3 million between 1964 and 1973—and largely seen as disposable. The odds of finding an 850 worth a damn outside of Italy are only slightly better than the odds of finding wild figs in Alaska.
Somehow, I beat the odds. This 850 was rough, sure, but it appeared straight and it looked to me like everything was there. I approached the house and rang the doorbell. It was, literally, a bell. I saw a tall, thin man in his 70s with gray hair and a cautious stare emerge from the front door. He walked towards the gate. I introduced myself, and asked about the 850. He was polite, but told me no, he wasn’t interested in selling the car. It belonged to his wife, who had died a few years before. The car’s sentimental value made it priceless, he said. Fair enough. I thanked him, wished him a good day, and turned to leave when he asked about the Citroën GSA parked across the street.
Yes, I told him, it was mine, and yes, I drove it daily. We chatted about cars for a while. He reminisced about the cars he drove in the 1960s—Renault 8s, Renault 4s, and air-cooled Citroëns. I shared a few stories about my fleet of classic cars. He particularly liked hearing about my Mercedes-Benz 300D because it’s a model he lusted after when it was new. After about 10 minutes, I turned to leave. He asked me for my phone number, and promised to call if he ever decided to let the 850 go.
I’d see him around now and again. I learned that he was from the area, which he knew well, and that he had lived in the small town where I met him since he was in his 20s. I always enjoyed hearing about him driving his boss’ W116 Mercedes-Benz 450 SEL at a time when speed limits were suggestions, not edicts, or about racing rear-engine Renaults with co-workers before work. I always found a way of mentioning the 850, and he’d always say, no, it’s not for sale.
I’d all but given up on ever getting the car by last year. I can’t be sure, but it might have sunk a little further into the lawn, but beyond that, it hadn’t moved since I first saw it. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s not like I really needed another project. I’ve already got a dozen, including a barn-find Mini and a moped I’m restoring.
But then I got The Call. It came on a cold, gray day last month. “Hello,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “I’m the owner of the Fiat 850.” He was finally ready to part with it. He didn’t say why, and I didn’t ask. We agreed on a price, set a date, and said goodbye. I immediately rented a truck to haul it home.
I arrived at 9 am sharp and clanged the doorbell, which, again, easily could hang from the neck of a cow and not look out of place. I looked at the 850 in the corner of the yard, and suddenly realized I hadn’t seen the car up close since he showed me some of the rust on it seven years before. I had no idea what I was buying, and wondered if I’d just made a terrible mistake.
I wandered over for a closer look at a vehicle that last moved in 2003. It was faded, sure, and filthy, but it appeared solid. The body was straight but would need some welding and repair, but that’s to be expected with an Italian car approaching its fifth decade.
The seller and I chatted for more than an hour. He told me all about the car and how his father-in-law bought it to replace an 850 that had gotten stolen. He recounted all of the repairs he’d made over the years, and made a point of telling me the spare tire, a Pirelli, was original and had never touched pavement. I swapped it for the dried and cracked left front tire, which refused to hold air, then loaded my 850 onto the flatbed.
I started working on the car a few days later. The front seats need upholstery, but the rest of the interior looks good. Best of all, the car is entirely original, it’s all there, and the engine turns. It has no spark, but the rest of the electrics work. I’ve ordered everything I need to refurbish the brakes, the ignition, and the fuel system. That last one is particularly important, given that the fuel pump sits just inches from the exhaust. The last thing I want is my car turning into a crusty ball of fire.
My 850 is finally in hand, but I’m in no rush to change my number. I’ve got my eye on a Simca 1100 I spotted behind a shed not far away. The owner knows where to reach me. I’m waiting for his call.