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The President’s cars

The love for old cars has no boundaries, from the man in the street to the man at the top, including President George Abela.

He admits to this enthusiasm since he was a child, nurturing an interest in old cars of small size since childhood.

“My parents had given me a toy car as a present. I could ride on it, pedal along, and pretend to drive. I remember it had battery operated headlamps, too.”

One of his cherished photographs shows him as a toddler standing proudly in front of this pedal car.

Another significant influence was his father, also named George, who owned a Ford Prefect with prominent outside headlamps and a running board, Dr Abela recalled.

“I used to help him keep it clean, and in good condition.”

This Ford Prefect E93A model was produced between 1938 and 1949. Powered by a 1,200cc side-valve engine, its original structure was in the perpendicular style. It also had a crank handle should the battery fail to operate the starter motor running from the six-volt charging system.

The President lost no time in getting his driving licence at 18. “At the beginning I used to drive my father’s car, until I bought my first vehicle, which was a Fiat 850 with a rear engine,” he said.

“As an adolescent, some of my friends showed a keen interest in old cars, especially during my University days. They thoroughly enjoyed classic cars, and I shared their enthusiasm for such vehicles.”

Displaying an unflinching penchant for the Italian car icon, and true to his predilection for small cars rooted in childhood days, President Abela eventually replaced the Fiat 850 with a blue Fiat 600. This later made way for a 1969 Fiat 600D, its sea green colour complemented by co-ordinated blue and white upholstery.

“I bought it from a policeman some 15 years ago. It was in impeccable and original condition, and there was no need for me to carry out any restoration or modification on it. I have kept it more or less as it was when I bought it, apart from the normal and regular maintenance.”

Introduced in the summer of 1960, the Fiat 600D succeeded the 600, which had proved to be extremely popular. Overall performance was enhanced by a number of changes, including a more powerful 767cc engine.

Body modifications featured swiveling quarter lights in the doors, and a strip of bright trim which was added along each front wing and door at headlamp centre level. The rear hinged ‘suicide’ doors were eventually replaced by the normal front hinged doors.

The model had a number of changes throughout its nine years of production. These included larger headlamps and vertical tail lights. The openings on the rear engine were increased, while the large hub cubs had a flattened, slightly recessed central disc.

The over-riders were reduced in height and squared off at the top and bottom. It sported a more attractive restyled Fiat badge, which replaced the original circular one.

Eventually the bright side trim along the waist line was removed, while the three embellishment strips each side of the front badge were reduced to one.

President Abela ‘s model incorporated all these changes. He pointed out that the classic car is perfectly roadworthy, and that, despite his workload and office commitments, he still enjoys driving it around occasionally.

A few years ago the vehicle, festooned with balloons, had a special task to perform. “It was used by my daughter Maria and her husband Paolo on their wedding day for their going away,” he said.

Firmly faithful to Fiat and their small successful models, the President cherishes the dream that one day he would own one of the very first models of the Nuova 500, which came out in 1957, and which has been described as perhaps the smallest viable four-seater ever made.

The Office of the President also has two Austin Princess classic cars, one being a 1955 Vanden Plas model convertible, and the other a non-convertible 1960 model. They were imported by the British Governors of the time.

“We now use them for official functions to convey heads of state visiting Malta, and new ambassadors presenting their credentials. They are also used by the President on certain official occasions, such as Malta’s National Day.”

Vanden Plas started off in Belgium in 1870 as a company of coach builders for specialist and upmarket automobile manufacturers. It became a subsidiary of the British Austin Motor Company in 1946.

Built on the Austin new six-cylinder chassis, Vanden Plas produced a series of Princess models which were mainly purchased by royal families, including the British one, as well as other dignitaries, colonial administrators and VIPs from all over the world.

“I think these cars are very appropriate and very stately,” President Abela said. They are also used for purposes of fundraising at the Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina motor show.

A car mechanic is employed to see to the regular maintenance of these classic cars as well as the other official vehicles.

The President admitted that his technical knowledge of cars is limited.

“I’m afraid I was never mechanically minded, and am still so. However, my son Robert is technically oriented somehow. He also used to drive my Fiat 600 when he was a University student.”

Asked about his views on the old motors scene in Malta, Dr Abela said there is a growing interest in old, classic and vintage cars on the island.

“This is evident from the strong participation in Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina.

“I am very much in favour of organisations that promote the upkeep of old vehicles as part of the national heritage, because it is always worthwhile to encourage such healthy pursuits. Moreover the Maltese are good mechanics, and they know how to refurbish these cars.”

The President is also honorary president of the Old Motors Club. He also never misses a chance to spend some quality time talking to participants in old motors events, as well as to thoroughly inspect the vehicles, the latest occasion being a few months ago when a static car show at the Maria Regina Boys College in Mosta coincided with an official visit by the President.

On the disappearance of the old buses from our roads Dr Abela said: “I used to like the rainbow of colours of the various buses according to their destination before they were all painted in one colour. They were characteristic of our country.

“Now I favour the idea of preserving some of the old buses that have recently stopped from service, in a museum for posterity.”

www.oldmotorsclub.com

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