As a modern-day commuter, it’s hard to imagine the challenges drivers faced piloting cars a century ago. This 1911 Fiat, for example, feels a world away from anything else on the road today. Some parts, like the brass ancillaries, foot pedals and four-spoke steering wheel, are wonderfully solid but, as we leave the owner’s driveway, notable twist in the chassis points to its engineering naivety. It’s both a clear illustration of a century of development in automotive technology and a strong reminder of the place in history cars like this have.
Among the Torpedo’s meticulously maintained historical documents is the sales invoice dated 9 August 1911 indicating that the 15 hp No. 13432 was sold for the princely sum of £500. The letter also confirms the Fiat was to be delivered to its new owner in Brighton, after which the driver delivering the car would stay with the new owner for a week. The paintwork is described as “French grey with black mouldings and fine line of green” and the upholstery as “green leather throughout”, while the wheels were fitted with Michelin tyres.
Today, the car still has the original paintwork that’s in remarkable condition given its age, although the mudguards have been repainted. In terms of the drivetrain, the only major work the current owner has done has been to replace the crankshaft, a part fortunately sourced from a backup engine he has.
Among the folio of documents is a fascinating First World War-era photograph of the car parked in the background while some gentlemen visit a local shooting range. Another is a clipping from The Star newspaper from 22 June 1933 showing the Fiat below the heading “Twenty-three years old and still going strong”.
Interestingly, this car was actually manufactured in the UK and bodied by The Brighton Motor Coachworks. The amount of brass (lamps, mirrors, door levers and radiator covers) and wood is a clear indicator of its Edwardian provenance, as is the colourful 10-spoke red steel “artillery” wheels with their brass centre hubs. The windscreen is flat and rectangular, while the top half opens outwards. A close look at the radiator cap reveals the Queen’s crown at the top and a Union Jack in the centre. Open the engine cover and the copper plumbing is another indicator of its age.
This Fiat belonged to the current owner’s father, who acquired it in 1938 after first spotting it in the 1936 Sunday Express Old Crocks Race (he was driving a 1913 Metz).
The front and rear benches are comfortable but, with the roof down, you are totally exposed to the elements, indicative of the visceral driving experience behind the wheel. And piloting this is no easy job. There are a number of chores to go through before you even get to use the clutch and change gears.
The starting procedure entails first priming the engine with the petrol pump before cranking it at the front (turning the handle bar in circular movements to turn the crankshaft), the job a starter motor does in modern cars.
Although obviously louder than a modern engine, the powertrain runs smoother than I had anticipated. Once on the go, fuel is automatically sucked into engine. The top speed is 60 km/h, allowing you to just about keep up with city traffic.
That’s not to imply you can sit back and relax, though. You need to operate both the foot and handbrake, depending on the situation, while manual adjustment of the airflow to the carburettors is also required. Complicating matters further is the fact that two of the pedals are switched round to their modern positions and the gears don’t flow in the normal H-pattern. With no synchro on any of the gears, you need to “feel” the teeth engage before committing the lever into the next gear. Get it right, though, and you're flooded with a sense of accomplishment.
We’re happy to report this grand old dame is no museum piece but continues to enjoy regular outings. She often embarks on longer road trips round Johannesburg and even family excursions to KwaZulu-Natal. And it would be entirely accurate to say this car is indeed a member of the family. It’s the vehicle its current owner learnt to drive in and is earmarked to go to the third generation of the same family. Not many cars can lay claim to that.