The One That Got Away

Racing driver Darren Turner misses pottering about in a classic Fiat 500

by Charlotte Vowden
5 April 2023 5 min read
Racing driver Darren Turner misses pottering about in a classic Fiat 500
Photos courtesy Darren Turner

“My little Fiat 500 was such a cute, quirky thing, it was like a toy car; not to be used and abused but to enjoy. I used to put my daughter Lyla on my lap, she’d have been two or three at the time, and she’d steer it around the paddock we had when we lived in a barn conversion near Banbury. The car had the cutest little horn and I’ve got a video of us pottering up the grassy hill in it tooting away; it was such a lovely time for her because she would have been the centre of attention before her little brother Dylan came along. She’s ten now and in years to come, of all the photos and videos my wife Katie and I have got, it’ll be a favourite of mine and I’m sure she’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing it too.  

The Fiat, which was light grey and left-hand drive, was called Roberta and had been imported to the UK from Italy by the lovely lady I bought it from in 2009. She’d been using it to potter around London and had left loads of little clues in there about its life before it came here, including paperwork and the Italian equivalent of road tax discs. I’d found the car on eBay and bought it without going to check it for about two and a half grand, I’d always liked them and as a fairly original 1965 car I thought yeah, why not? I picked it up and remember driving up the M1 and getting to about 58mph tucked up behind a truck; I loved that car from the moment I got it, I absolutely loved it.

Darren Turner
Darren Turner. Photo: Drew Gibson

My day job is driving, testing and racing cars like the Valkyrie that are cutting-edge in terms of performance but I really enjoy driving old cars, I like having that breadth of experience. If you only drive modern stuff you don’t get to appreciate how far things have come along and there really can’t be as many vehicles as basic as a mid-sixties Fiat 500 with a 500cc engine. 

Roberta was a cheeky little car and sometimes stubborn to get going. The idea was simple, you’d just turn the little key in the middle of the dash to turn the ignition on and then use the two levers on the floor (one was the choke and one was the starter) to start it up, but the distributor was always a nuisance; eventually I got some sort of electric ignition system put in which helped. 

Darren Turner Fiat 500

It wasn’t the easiest thing to drive, it was a car to take to the pub for Sunday lunch, but I would bomb around Banbury. The speedometer, which measured in kilometres and was accompanied by about four buttons on the dash, would only ever see 45mph [72kmh] but on corners, you wouldn’t want to use the brakes because you’d lose momentum and it would take forever to get back up to speed. I get great enjoyment out of driving fast, but only if that’s what a car is designed to do and the Fiat wasn’t. It was made for mini adventures, but not at night because the headlights are so dim. If I was out in the rain the chances were, with the right wind direction, that that water was going to come in through the sunroof so I always had a towel in the car to wipe it up.

Every now and again I enjoyed going in the garage and tinkering with it but when I got carried away on eBay buying bits for it, or if it needed a bit of maintenance, I took it to a Fiat 500 specialist in Middle Barton. Keeping it as original as possible was important – for instance, the indicator stalk was broken when I got it and all the replacements were plastic so I left it. I had more luck replacing the number plate light because I was able to find an original chrome one.

Darren Turner Fiat 500

There were so many bits of Roberta that made her completely non-concours, like the cream Bakelite steering wheel that had cracks in it, but I didn’t want to make it perfect, in my eyes it was perfect because those imperfections showed it had a life with previous owners. The fact that it wasn’t pristine also meant we didn’t mind the rough and tumble of kids playing with it. Some of the most standout moments I had with that car were when friends’ kids came round and they’d be climbing all over it and tooting the horn. We’d all pile off to the pub and I’d take some of the older kids in the back of the Fiat; it was just joyous. Everybody that got close to it, had a ride in it or drove it (we lent it to people too) got so much enjoyment out of it and that gave me such a warm feeling. The bit that always made me smile was how many waves and thumbs up it got. Roberta was very popular.

My lad Dylan (7) never got to go in the Fiat and I blame him completely for the fact that we had to sell the car in 2015; with child number two on the way we needed a bigger house. I can live anywhere so I gave my wife a budget and said find the one that you want, which was a lovely house near Stratford-upon-Avon, but the bit I forgot about was stamp duty and with a hefty bill I wasn’t prepared for I had to realise some cash quickly so the Fiat 500 (as well as a Series 2 Land Rover and motorbike) had to go. 

Darren Turner Fiat 500

I did manage to sell Roberta to a very good friend for about six grand and he said ‘I’ll always give you first refusal’ but after about a year or so I asked him how the Fiat was doing and he’d sold it to another friend! But that friend has kept it so I know where it is and the really nice thing is that I know it’s with a very good family; they’re having as much fun with it as we did. For such a small little thing Roberta really does bring so much joy to lots of people. 

I think cars back then [when the Fiat 500 was built] were part of the family, they were far more integral to family life, whereas nowadays I think most modern cars are seen as a tool or consumable item. My whole world is based on automotive so cars in our family are pretty important and the kids name all of them when they rock up. We’ve had a Discovery called the Gruffalo because it was browny-orange, a new Defender called Dash, and a convertible Evoque called Evia. The Evoque will be one of those cars that we will keep hold of (unless we move and I forget about stamp duty again) because in a similar way to the Fiat it doesn’t cost much to run and the kids love it. We live out in the sticks and when I pick the kids up from school it’s country lanes all the way home.

I’m sad that I had to sell Roberta but at the time we needed every penny we could get. Maybe one day I’ll have the option to buy him back, I really would like to, and I’d use it exactly as I had before; buzzing around on sunny days, doing the shopping run, and sharing it with family and friends. I know people who’ve bought a 500 and driven them back from the south of Italy but I don’t think I’d want to go on a long journey, you only need to do an hour max to feel like you’ve had a good drive, it would be another one of those situations where I wish I’d made a different decision!”

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  • David Fletcher says:

    What a lovely story about the Fiat 500. I never owned one, but when I lived in Italy I knew a woman who lived in central Rome that had one. One evening we drove it round the city and it being small drove down this very narrow road and found ourselves in the middle of a piazza! People having an evening drink in the bars were very amused – not so two policemen who didn’t see the funny side and fined us on the spot.

  • Tammy says:

    What wonderful cars they are. My first car was a 1966 Fiat 500, bought at a car auction in the early 1970s for £60 – he had to be pushed into the ring and back out again as he declined to start. I loved that car from the minute I saw him.

  • Graeme Aldous says:

    My late wife used ‘Fifi The Flying FIATMouse’ for her daily commute to work. One snowy morning a bus had got stuck at the bottom of an icy dip, and a queue of cars had built up behind it. My wife passed them and reached the front of the holdup, where she was told “Forget it, mum… you’ll not get up that bank in that”. “Watch me!”, she said, sailed past the bus and up the hill to work. The combination of narrow tyres, with the weight of the engine immediately above them, and the 2-cylinder chug-chug of the little motor, were a perfect way to get grip.

  • Charlotte Vowden says:

    Hi Graeme, thank you so much for sharing that memory. What a woman and what a car! Do you still have Fifi?

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