Sandra and Roy Smith – Bertone adventures

Northern Ireland to Southern Spain – A Journey of Discovery in our X1/9

We decided to get classic another car – this time for my wife Sandra. Well hopefully a classic!

When Sandra and I first met, I had a Fiat 128 3P Berlinetta. It was a good car but went rusty very quickly so I stripped it back to bare metal and had it painted. It did not rust after that. It was fun and pretty fast but needed an extra gear – it was the days of 4 speed gearboxes; it had a 1300 cc engine. At the same time, FIAT were marketing the X1/9, a 2 seater with the same engine (and rust problem actually!!) Later on, they increased the engine size to 1500 and 5 speeds on the X1/9. We decided to buy one of these but it needs to be pretty much rust free.

In the end I managed to find a good one, with 37200 miles on it – but in Northern Ireland so after a few emails we decided to go and have a look. I was pretty sure that we would get it as I bought LHD headlights (as we live in Spain) and a couple of other bits.

We flew from Gibraltar to Gatwick and stayed with my brother nearby in the visitors flat in the complex where he lives. As we arrived on the Easyjet flight, the stewardess said that we could use phones, I tried to put some credit on our UK phone and my bank immediately blocked my card. I had a message on my phone that I had to call a number (that was pretty useless as I had been trying to put credit on my phone) anyway I got it unblock later in the day. At the same time I said to the bank that I was likely to buy a car next day in NI and would appreciate it is they did not block my card! That night I noticed that the radiator in the bathroom was leaking and as we had said good night to him and his wife (in a different flat), we put a glass under the leak and went to bed. It overflowed but the floor in the bathroom was pretty waterproof so no damage done. We caught a flight to NI early that morning and were picked up by the owner and taken to his house and the car. Nat was a hospitable, helpful and genuine guy and the car looked very good although much smaller than we had envisaged. I did some research and knew where to look for rust. It was advertised as “absolutely no rust”. I’m not sure that any 25 year old car would be that good but other than a couple of really minor bits, I couldn’t find (and haven’t found any) rust. I test-drove the car and it was fine. It is tiny and the pedals take some getting used to, and it is manual – both of our other cars are automatic.

Anyway we agreed the deal and I transferred the money on line. It did not arrive in his account so we went to his Building Society and they checked – but nothing. We had planned to get the ferry from Rosslare that evening but time ticked by and in the end I had to phone the bank and found – guess what? Blocked!! Grrr! Got it sorted but had no chance of catching the ferry. We had a look for the engine number (after the problems with the my our car – a Triumph Stag) but couldn’t find it.

We set off and the engine misfired a bit. Unless we were going about 50mph + it seemed to be firing erratically. It was getting dark and with the moon out-shinning the lights we then found out that the heater did not work. It was a cold foggy night in Ireland, we got to our hotel cold and a bit disappointed. 

That night, the radiator in the hotel let go and flooded 1/4 of the bedroom floor and reception.

We found the FIAT dealer and they agreed to look at the heater. They also said that they had some wiper blades, as those on the car weren’t very good. The service receptionist said that he would put them on free of charge if I paid for an hour’s labour. The garage did spend more than a hour to be fair but did not manage to get it working. They charge me the hour plus 27€ for the wipers and 7€ for disposing of the old ones!! – 109€.

I had a look at the engine as it was still misfiring, although not as badly as the night before. I found a wire at the distributor that was badly isolated and we must have disturbed it looking for the engine number. I bought some insulating tape and that was fixed. I noticed that the lights, which are retractable, were shining at the ground just in front of the car. One was raising and going “over the hill” and starting to retract before stopping. Later I found that I could manually bring the lights up or adjust them. Until then, we found that driving on main beam did not get any flashes but enabled us to see a bit better (when the moon was behind clouds!!).

We got to the ferry in good time but the wind was getting up a bit. 

We were selected for a customs examination and when released I followed another vehicle and we tried to get onto the wrong ferry! Directed in the right ship we boarded the correct vessel but I was more than shocked, as the deck we were on was open to the elements.

Although “inside” the ship there were 3x4m “windows” that had no glass in them all along the car deck. Having sourced a rust free example of the car that was renowned for rust, I was less and chuffed as the position of the car in relation to the sea. I did manage to get it moved in one row but still right in front of an opening. 

Setting off at about 2200 on Thursday, the crossing was lumpy and the ship seemed primarily for lorry drivers, which was borne out by the name of the restaurant “The Trucker”. We arrived at Cherbourg the following afternoon at 1630. Upon disembarking the very first stop was a car wash and I can tell you it got a good going over!!

We made for Niort and booked a 2* hotel there – some 500km from Cherbourg. On the road down, I could tell that we had a wheel bearing going bad. Right-hand bends were pretty noisy but when steering ahead and left it wasn’t so bad. We arrived at 0100 and got our key. Our room had the usual double bed; TV, desk, etc. but the toilet and shower were in a cubbyhole with a flimsy concertina door that could not be closed when “seated”. You had to be a contortionist to reach any paper required to complete the proceedings and you would have to be pretty familiar with your companion.

Next morning I checked the wheel, as best that I could – jacking the car for the first time and figuring out how to get the locking wheel nut and profile caps off of the other wheel nuts. All looked OK but very obviously in need of a new bearing. We stowed the gear and set off looking for some petrol. At the fuel station as was filling the car it must have looked quite strange to bystanders. First I started to stand up very up right, then on tip toe and finally struck a pose like something out of Saturday Night Fever with one arm high in the air as I began shouting loudly. Sandra hand turned on the stereo and the electric aerial went up inside my coat then up my sleeve! 

Our aim for Saturday was Salamanca – 889 km. We set off and all was going well for the first 450 km moving from France into Spain. We stopped for fuel. Whiles there I decided that we had not tried the horn, so I tapped the centre of the steering wheel. It worked but would not turn off! I pulled off the centre plastic cover from the wheel, which was not screwed on thankfully and managed to reseat the horn push. As we drove around the edge of the filling station I though that we had better book a hotel for the night. I stopped the car and got on the Internet; within 5 minutes, the hotel was booked. I checked the instruments before setting off and was shocked to find that the temperature was very high. I thought that while stationary as I booked the hotel the lack of airflow over the radiator had allowed the temperature to rise so decided to get moving. 1 km further on and the flow had no effect and the temperature continued towards the red! Luckily there was an exit so I turned off the engine as we coasted up the exit road and turned on the hazards.

Of course it was raining quite heavily and the dreadful “new” wipers were bouncing their way across the screen. Oh, and it was now dark. It was clear from the steam coming from the expansion tank, we had a serious problem. It was quite cruel really as we were cold, still with no heater yet the engine was so warm, it was steaming

I called the breakdown service and they were great. I gave then the location as best I could and they said they would be there in 45 minutes to 1 hour. We sat and waited. I had a look at my iPhone and got a better idea of where we hand broken down. We were close to Vitoria in northern Spain. About an hour later the phone went and the breakdown service told me that the grua (breakdown truck) was very busy and would be delayed. Another hour passed and then a call to say that they couldn’t find me. Further instructions given and the grua arrived. The car was dragged onto the truck using the suspension wishbone (!) rather than the (admittedly well hidden) tow eye. With the driver and his mate, the 3-seater cab was fairly full when Sandra and I joined them. Thankfully a 15-minute ride got us to the recovery garage and the car was off loaded. I don’t think that the driver actually tied the car on for the journey. Anyway with a little encouragement they put the car on the ramp after putting some water in and lifted it so that we could check for leaks. There were none. However we were advised to get the car examined by the dealer on Monday before driving it.

The insurers said that they would book a hotel for us, so I said that there must be a Parador (luxury hotel) close by! They actually did book a 4 star and included breakfast for 2 nights. They also said that they had ordered a taxi and it was also paid for. How good is that? Considering that although I had a cover note for the insurance of the car, I had not actually paid for it!!

The hotel had a cafe/restaurant that was quite reasonable but one item on the menu explained what Tesco did last year with some unwanted foodstuffs. “Pony meat hamburgers”

Sunday was spent finding a launderette, as our planned 4 – 5 day trip was looking substantially longer so we needed to wash some clothes. We also need to find a chemist as the tablets that you invariably need as you get older were running low. Additionally I wrote a breakdown of the history of what had happened so far – heater, wheel bearing, mainly – checks made by the Dublin FIAT dealer etc., translated it into Spanish and sent it to the dealers email account in preparation of the car’s arrival next day.

Monday and we walked to the garage where the car was and we were promised that although it was 10 am it would be only 45 minutes to an hour before the car was taken to the dealer. We walked the 600m further to the dealer. They had a chap called Dominic, a Belgian who spoke very good English, so that was good news and supplemented my email. By 1200 the car had not arrived so I walked back and more promises but the car was taken at 1245 and arrived just before the dealers closed for lunch.

So what did we do? Sandra decided that retail therapy was the answer!

A phone call at 1850 from Dominic who said that the water system was terribly clogged but they had flushed it several times (and managed to clear it enough to get the heater working). He had pictures of the heater control valve. The car had bad cholesterol!

He also said that they had located a wheel bearing, as the one on the car was dangerous to carry on with. The car would be ready at 1530 tomorrow.

We went back to the hotel and booked a room. When we got to the room, we found that we had a junior suite. Our luck was changing! It did have a bathroom with 2 windows – and no curtains. They were full length but not very wide. You could sit on the loo and look out at the road below, the pedestrians and the flats opposite. Getting out the shower was the same. I went down stairs and onto the pavement to check that the windows were coated with a “one way” coating. They were not. Hmm.

We stayed in the hotel next morning as long as we could – it was still raining and Sandra now had all the extra clothes she needed and some that she didn’t. We bought a tea and coffee before lunch but as we sat down, the phone went. The car was ready! It was 1240 and if I could get to the garage before 1300 we could have it back and get going. I ran to the hotel and asked them to book me a taxi. I arrived just in time and they showed me the pictures of the blocked heater valve and explicitly told me that I had to flush the water system at least twice when I got home. They hoped that the cylinder head was OK as they had they had run the car but had not driven it. They also said that they had changed the bearing and it was now fine but the other will need changing soon. I had asked that they change the headlights to the LHD ones that I had but they did not have time to do that. 500€ paid and off we went.

We stopped for that “lunch” later – McDonalds on the edge of Burgos and nearby I was able to buy and fit new wipers. What a difference! I thought that the motor might be on the way out as the movement across the screen was both jerky and slow – but no more. Transformed! I also sorted out the lights. I fixed one and worked out how to get the best from the other – manually adjusting it once raised.

We aimed for Plasencia – about 400+ km. Some heat (but not a lot) from the heater and about 60% less noise in the car made it so much nicer. Not having ever driven a car like this, with the engine right behind the driver, we did not know how much noise to expect and the wheel bearing must have been very loud beforehand. It wasn’t exactly Mercedes quiet but was a much nicer place to be.

Plasencia came and went and I was for pushing for home – ETA about 0130 according to the Satnav. We stopped for a meal late that evening and about 45 minutes later Sandra needed the loo – urgently. I think she said “pit” stop but the noise from the engine was quite loud as I raced for the nearest roadside cafe/restaurant. Just made it! The venue turned out to be a hotel too, so given the situation we decided to stay the night.

No leaking radiators and no windows in the loo, plus a door that closed and a morning with sunshine! Travelling thought Seville and skirting Jerez and within 60 km of home, I decided to leave the Auto via and drive the back roads for while. What a car! This is what the car is designed for, twisting turning “B” roads. What a pleasure. Back onto the Auto via as the B road was closed due to subsidence and the rain started again. We arrived home at 1330 on Wednesday after 2500 km.

The car has covered more km’s in one week than it had in 6 years, which explains the problems en route.

Since arriving, I have flushed the system twice. I found in the expansion tank a plastic trim fastener, which explains why the water would not drain at any rate, I have changed the headlight units and fixed the droop and aligned them. We have washed, polished and waxed the car, cleaned the engine, washed the car again and waxed it again. It now has 5 new tyres as those fitted were over 10 years old and there are lots of new bits – plug leads, distributer cap, rotor arm, wheel bearing, cam belt on its way. It has been on display in Gibraltar last Saturday with the Gibraltar Classic Car Association and at Medina Sedonia on Sunday with Coche Classico Campo de Gibraltar and Mercedes Espana.

The X1/9 was never sold in Spain so it is a bit of an attraction to many. At first FIAT marketed and badged it but was built by Bertone. Later Bertone also badged it, so that is what Sandra’s is. It is one of the last ones built and is also badged as a “Gran Finale”. It doesn’t have “X1/9” on it anywhere, which is rather odd. Sandra has joined the X19 Owners Club. It’s getting better all the time!

It is really low and much smaller than we were expecting but quite comfortable and in great condition.

Now to import it into Spain! Wish us luck.

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