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The Italian job

It was a Fiat X 1/9 that inspired Simon Saliba to fall in love with Italian cars.

Photos: Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

Photos: Tony Vassallo, Old Motors Club

Cars were always a very important aspect in Simon Saliba’s life, and from an early age, he displayed a natural inclination towards Italian vehicles. Although his father Saviour was a fanatic about Ford cars, and had a Ford Anglia de Luxe which the family used to go out in for drives, he was not at all influenced by what went on around him.

“I started developing a soft spot for Italian cars in my childhood,” he said. “There was something special about their design, style and shape. Italian designers were creative, bold and adventurous, willing to take risks without succumbing to commercial considerations. On the other hand, I always had the feeling that British car design remained bogged down in time, sticking to the safety of classic and conservative design”.

His father had a part time job as a car sprayer, and Saliba soon started to spend much of his free time around him, watching attentively.

“One day, a client came to the garage with his car for a paint job. I was only 10 at the time, but looking back, I can still remember the shivers that this particular car gave me when I set eyes on it. It was a Fiat X 1/9. I stood transfixed in awe and admiration. It was the epitome of everything that was Italian in a vehicle”.

For the next few weeks, Saliba found every possible excuse so that he would go to the garage to ogle at this car. It was with a heavy heart that he saw the X 1/9 leave when his father completed the task. He then told his father that when he grew up, he would buy a similar model.

“Although he laughed at me at the time, he was kind and understanding enough that soon afterwards, he got me a Fiat catalogue, so that I could browse through it to my heart’s delight. And, of course, the two pages that featured the focus of my admiration very quickly became dog eared!”

Much water passed under the bridge, but that childhood dream, submerged under the sweeping currents of adolescence and early adulthood, finally surfaced in middle adulthood – three decades later.

“It was in 2010, when one evening as I was surfing the net, an X 1/9 came into sight, for sale in Glasgow, Scotland. I started to correspond with the owner, who assured me that it was in a very good condition. While its photos and the contact with the owner seemed genuine, I was sill hesitant about buying it.”

The X 1/9 seemed to be a very honest original in superb condition

In order to ensure that he would not be disillusioned should he buy it, Saliba commissioned the UK Automobile Association to carry out a thorough inspection and report on the findings. Such an assessment did not come cheap, but the comb of thoroughness that the AA harnesses in order to arrive at an objective conclusion is more than meticulous – even the UK police records are checked just in case the vehicle has been involved in some shady dealings or criminal proceedings.

On receiving a positive report, Saliba bought the car.

“The X 1/9 seemed to be a very honest original in superb condition. Despite this, I dismantled the engine to make sure, but I discovered nothing wrong. Even the cylinder bores were in excellent condition as were the big-end bearings, which still showed the ‘olio Fiat’ logo stamped on them. The only minor hiccup was some dents on the bodywork, more than likely caused by hail. These soon disappeared when the old motor was resprayed in the original red”.

The Fiat X 1/9 was a two-seater, mid-engine sports car designed by Bertone for Fiat. Its highlights featured excellent handling, a light and removable hard top (targa top), front and rear storage compartments, as well as a design that complied with US safety regulations. Fiat produced this model between 1972 and 1979, when the American market was no longer viable. In 1979 Bertone acquired production rights, and carried on producing the model, with some modifications, until 1989.

In similar fashion, last year, as he was again surfing the net, Saliba came across another Italian iconic car for sale in Berkshire, England. It was a red, 1983 Alfa Alfetta GTV 2L fastback coupe, a vehicle for which he also had a soft spot.

“If one follows the Italian scene, one understands the importance of this model. In its day it was extensively used in both road and track racing, and later in hillclimbs.”

Ever cautious, Saliba again sought the UK AA advice and guidance prior to trying to buy it. And then he hit a snag. When in the negotiating process the English owner realised that Saliba wanted to bring the car to Malta, he refused to sell it to him, as he was adamant that the Alfetta must never be sold overseas. Not easily rebuffed, Saliba got it through the side door, by asking a friend of his in England to buy it for him, and eventually, the Alfetta made its way to Malta.

Saliba says that the car had been restored in the UK, and that its condition was good. The only immediate task that he could think of was a change of colour, from red to black. But a good friend of his, Dione, who also owns a X 1/9, advised against such a move.

“Enjoy it in its present state, while it is still roadworthy, he told me, and then go for a nut and bolt restoration – and I followed his good counsel”.

A regular participant in Old Motors Club events, he is best at home when, accompanied by his wife Ethel, he goes with club members on the annual trip to Sicily, in one of his two Italian icons. He feels that keen enthusiasm in old cars, both in Malta as well as abroad, is burgeoning owing to the fact that now many people do not regard it as just a hobby, but also as an investment.

One would think that with two Italian motoring masterpieces at home, Simon would have quenched his thirst for Italian designed cars. But another dream is still on the wish list – that of acquiring a Lotus Esprit. Although the vehicle was produced in the UK, Simon is quick to point out that it was the brainchild of Italian artist Giorgetto Giugiaro, who he deems as one of Italy’s most famous auto designers.

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