Akbar asks if I’d like to drive. It’s like asking me if I like air, or those tiny delicious sweets that come in different colors. He says he lets people older than him drive. I assume it’s because older people can usually pay for the damages via ATM cards right away.
For a change, it’s good to be older.
I hop into the driver’s seat of the car that’s older than me, but only barely older. I sit IN it, like really, really in it. It feels low and I’m looking up at everything, and I love it already. And then I try to get the gear into drive and it won’t budge, which is embarrassing for me. Akbar says I need to pull hard, but I’m afraid I’m going to break it. But hey, old cars, they have these little issues that makes them more charming. Unless they don’t work. This car works, though. I start, grab a hold of the meaty non-powered steering and gently roll off. Top down. Oh, bliss.
This 1977 Fiat was in Akbar’s family for a very long time. It was last lying in their factory for over eight years until one glorious day in 2011. A car like this needs to be on the road. How special is it? The X1/9 is a Bertone designed Italian sportscar with a mid-engine layout. The wedge shape was inspired by contemporary power-boats and the designers and engineers went to great lengths to ensure good handling. Weight distribution was originally 41/59 front/rear. Except it feels like it’s almost 50/50. The car was built from ’72 to ’89 with engines either being 1300cc or 1500cc, with sub 100bhp levels of oomph. Well, not exactly oomph.
This Yellow Boat is a little different. While the original engine ran, it was anemic. So this being Bangladesh, it was looking for a meaty Toyota heart transplant. Akbar went for a 1300cc 4EFTE engine. Yep, turbocharged and intercooled with the possibilities of up to 130bhp. In such a small and light car, that should be interesting.
So I ease the accelerator in and when I feel the boost is right, I floor it. The car surges forward with urgency. The black vinyl seats squeak, one of the windows rattle, the steering is tight and the ride is stiff thanks to the monocoque chassis. It was probably a little over engineered back then but that’s a good thing. High tech stuff for 1977. The car turns tight despite needing more suspension work according to Akbar. Even though I sit low, the ground clearance is still high enough that I don’t have to inch across speed bumps.
You forgive it for being old and a little rattly, because the fun factor is high, very high. The car turns and stops with pretty good feel through the brakes. Disc brakes all around are reassuring; no power-assist there so I know how they are reacting. You have to work this car to get the full bucket of fun. Turbo takes a little time to spool up but when it does you feel like Captain Kirk about to go into warp drive. Could be cause the windows are down.
I couldn’t help smiling. This is what driving is all about, it has to make you smile like a maniac. And then we push it a little more and I think I have a permanent grin pasted on my face. New cars are sterile compared to this. In fact, I don’t even know if we are going fast because the speedo is broken. But heck, this car gives you a sense of speed even when you’re going slow. Modern cars have it the other way round. You go fast but feel slow and end up with a false sense of security. The Fiat feels scary, fun, quick. Cars should feel faster than they are, it will help curb speed related car-hugging-tree incidents.
So why this car? “It is unique,” says Akbar, “It was relatively easier to restore than the others that I had available to me, and it is a very eye-catching car. Also because I just imagined it would be a really fun car to drive and it turns out I was right.”
He’s right about it being eye catching. Girls love it. I’ve been showing pictures to my wife and female friends and they think it’s cool even though couple of the friends differentiate cars just by colour. Initially, it rusted away for so long because the original owner ran out of parking space. It did not run, exterior was beaten up, paint was in bad shape, interior needed a lot of TLC. We don’t have the best of tools or technical expertise in Bangladesh, but we do know how to wield a hammer. According to Akbar, car restoration is a trip down a long and troublesome road but it’s always worth it in the end. There’s still more to be done, old cars need work. The 4EFTE has the occasional overheating issue due to the original Fiat radiator being hard to replace, but everything is minor – the big stuff is done.
Old cars, when restored right, command respect. They’re not flashy, they’re a style statement. A new Mercedes and Audi pulled up while we were talking, except I couldn’t look away from the Yellow Boat.
Engine: 1300 cc 4E-FTE turbocharged, intercooled engine from a Toyota Starlet GT.
Brakes: Disc brakes all around.
Wheels: Replica 15 inch Enkei RC-G4 rims.
Hit the gallery below for the full restoration process