By the time Paul Watkin found it in a shed next to a kart track on Vancouver Island, the engine and gearbox had been stripped out, the fiberglass was busted and at least a couple of the steel tubes showed signs of serious rust.
The track was being demolished to make way for a housing complex and everything was being sold or leveled or hauled away.
“I know that if I didn’t save the car it was going to end up in a landfill,” said Watkin, whose interest is in vintage sprints and midgets. He wasn’t looking to tackle a sports car restoration.
So he listed it on eBay, hoping it would go to an owner that would restore and race it. He set the minimum just high enough that only the serious would be willing to join the bidding.
The car was alluring on a number of planes. It came with proof it was actually raced back in the 1960s. And in spite of its condition, it appeared that, given enough time, the unique body could be salvaged. Lastly, I had a history with rear-engined Fiats, having raced an 850 Spyder the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Once home, the first order of business was to strip the car to the bare chassis and get a look at how bad things were. The fiberglass came off easily, then the aluminum panels. I set them aside to use as templates for replacement pieces. As the car began coming apart, the words to Bentley’s song kept playing over and over in my head. “I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”
It wasn’t until the chassis came back from the sand blaster that we knew the extent of the rust damage. Most of the chassis was pretty solid, with only a few tubes--it apparently had been stored at an angle and water was allowed to accumulate on the passenger side--needing to be replaced. Fortunately, I have a friend in the karting business who rebuilds bent tube frames before breakfast.
The powerplant was another problem.
There was a time when Fiat 850s were common at SCCA races. Most of them were cannon fodder for the much better-supported Bugeye Sprites. That time was long ago. I sold the last of my 850 race parts in 1985. The car eventually was scrapped by the third owner after me, and the good parts dropped from sight.
A message to the internet Fiat forum eventually led to an owner who had a pair of 850 Spyders and a pickup truck full of old race parts. For $500 I could own it all.
After loading the best chassis into the trailer, we began hefting the “race stuff’ into the back of the truck.
The first transmission looked strangely familiar. It had the same modification to the vent I had made to a gearbox I built 25 years earlier.
By the time I got to the second transmission, it was apparent that two decades later, I was buying back all my old race engines and transmissions. The stash included even the alloy oil pan with the windage tray my wife and I had made in our garage, using sheet steel and a ball peen hammer.
It turned out not to be the strangest aspect of the project.