Road tripping in an old Fiat – what could possibly go wrong?

I’m not sure if it was supreme confidence in our mechanical skills, or just plain naivety. Probably the later. But for whatever reason, a few months ago I started to get the idea that it might be fun to take my ’79 Fiat X1/9 on a road trip from Adelaide to Melbourne. I had a few photo shoots booked for our new print magazine, Sports Car Safari, and we’d ended up piggy-backing a bit of a boys weekend on it, too. I needed to drive something across, so why not the Fiat? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a list of what could possibly go wrong would be a lengthy one. For starters, I have completely rebuilt this car myself over an eight year period. Admittedly, I did have the help of my Dad and some friends who knew what they were doing, and the engine was built by Matt at McLaren Motor Engineering out at Beverley. But still, I am far from a competent mechanic, and whilst I’ve checked and re-checked everything a million times, this is still a car screwed together by a guy who takes photos. Secondly, the Fiat had never been more than 80km from home since the nut and bolt rebuild, and had never been driven for longer than about 2 hours at a time. Third, the engine is modified for track work and Sunday morning runs, and I had no idea how it would handle hours of highway monotony. And fourth, it’s a 38 year old Italian car. Enough said.

I decided to forget all that, and on a sunny Thursday morning crossed my fingers and hoped for the best as I embarked from Adelaide on a relaxed six-day tour. My Dad also has a green Fiat X1/9, although his is a year older and is completely stock. We decided it would be some kind of good-luck omen to start the trip with a short convoy, so we took the two cars for a quick coffee at Henley Beach…

  … and then I followed him through the city for a little bit. Eventually he had to peel off and head to work, and I continued up the freeway and toward my first fuel stop at Keith.

The rough plan was to head across via the Great Ocean Road, and return via the Grampians. And despite the obvious risks, if I was ever going to take the Fiat on a road trip, this was the weekend to do it. For starters, Adelaide to Melbourne, whichever way you go, isn’t a particularly remote journey. I had a complete tool box with most of the tools required to rebuild the car strapped down in the rear boot, and an aluminium trolley jack in the front. Assuming the issue couldn’t be fixed roadside, my friend Luke had his car trailer in Adelaide on standby, so if I broke down within 4-5 hours of Adelaide, I was covered. I had a few friends at the other end in Melbourne who could organise a trailer, too. And finally, my friend Bryce would be driving over the following day in his Amarok. I had my camping gear, too. So the absolute worst case scenario would be an overnight roadside camp until I could be rescued – not too bad.

The X1/9 is surprisingly practical, and everything for the trip fitted remarkably well. Jack, spare wheel, demineralised water, oil, rags and drop sheets in the front. Camping gear and personal effects in the passenger seat and footwell. Toolbox and blocks of wood strapped down in the back.

With mostly fine skies overhead and the roof off, I headed down for a lunch stop in Keith and then on through to Padthaway and the Coonawarra wine region. There was a slight moment of suspense in Keith when I pulled up to see a trail of coolant behind the car, but a quick inspection revealed it was simply coming from the overflow. Until this point it was the furthest the car had ever been driven, and the cooling system was just finding its level. Phone call to Dad to confirm; crisis averted.

I was quickly learning that a modified X1/9 is not an ideal touring car. I found that about 2-3 hours was my limit before I would need to stop for a stretch, so there were plenty of photo stops along the way. Mechanically the car was running like a dream, although there was one minor issue that made things a little tricky. The guys at West Torrens Dyno Tune had done a brilliant job tuning the Weber DCNF’s for flat out running, but after 27 dyno runs there was still a slight hesitation on light throttle openings that they couldn’t tune out. Given how the car was built for track and hills work, we decided not to bother tuning it out. And wouldn’t you know it – cruising on the highway, the hesitation sat at exactly 110km/h. At 105 and 115 it cruised like a dream, but sitting right on the speed limit was impossible.

I pushed through with a big day and set up camp that night at Port Fairy. 650km is not a lot in a modern car, but in the Fiat they were 650 loud, bumpy, fumey kilometres and I was completely wrecked. I set up camp, walked to the pub for dinner, and quickly fell asleep in my tent at about 9pm.

They say that you have to walk the talk, and we can’t in all honesty run a magazine called Sports Car Safari and drive a Corolla to photo shoots, right? It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was immensely satisfying to get a full day of travel under the belt without a single issue.

I nearly froze to death overnight, so the next morning I got up early and had a long hot shower. I gave the Fiat a full checkover, and probably didn’t make too many friends by warming it up in the campsite. There are no chokes on the carbies and unfortunately it just doesn’t drive when it’s cold. There were too many speed bumps to push it out onto the road on my own, so I had no choice. Once running I stopped at the local cafe for a big breakfast and to ponder my route. You know it’s going to be a pretty good day when all you need to do is look at a map of driving roads and pick the best ones.

The plan was to follow the Great Ocean Road past the Twelve Apostles (or what’s left of them), and then make a detour at Lavers Hill to explore some of the roads running through The Ottways.

Given it was midweek, I was hoping the road might be quiet enough to have a bit of fun, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. There were caravans, and lots of them.

And when there weren’t caravans, there were miles and miles of road works.

The detour at Lavers Hill worked well. Instead of turning right and continuing on the Great Ocean Road, I went straight ahead on the C155. Until the Colac turnoff it is largely straight and not particularly scenic, but at Beech Forest the road narrows right down and becomes known as Turtons Track. It twists deliciously up and down through some gorgeous temperate rainforests.

It would be brilliant fun as a closed road stage, but with traffic in both directions it is simply too narrow to build up much of a rhythm. However, the Fiat sounds great at slow speeds and it was perfectly enjoyed with the roof off, as the sound of the heel and toe downshifts echoed off the various rock faces and into the gullies.

Turtons Track eventually intersects with Skenes Creek Road, which follows the hills and then descends the mountain range to meet the Great Ocean Road just out of Apollo Bay. It is here where everything clicked, and on this stretch I had the best drive I’ve ever had in this car. Luke and I made some suspension setup changes before I left, and they had revolutionised the way the car handled and dealt with bumps. The road was wide and largely smooth, and the last third was punctuated with majestic views out across the valley and ocean. The Fiat is a very physical car to drive, and I finished this stretch panting for breath.

I stoped for a photo just out of Apollo Bay, and whilst I wanted to go back and find some more roads in the hills, I made the decision that I was too far from home to be driving the car like that. Better to soak in what I’d just done and get back to cruising mode.

There was one stop to make. 10 years ago, in 2007, I had driven the Great Ocean Road in this car on the way back from competing in the Bathurst Hillclimb at that year’s Fiat Nationals. I found this great photo spot on a road called Wild Dog Road, just outside of Apollo Bay, and thought it would be fun to try and recreate the photo a decade later.

I found the road and followed it right past where it turned to dirt, but on the tarmac section I could not find that same view. In fact, there were no views of water to be had on the entire road, so my guess is that the shrubbery has grown significantly in the last decade.

I did find another cool spot at the junction right at the top of the road, so maybe this will be the photo to recreate in 2027?

The rest of the Great Ocean Road was punctuated by short blats on traffic free sections, and regular stops for road works.

I had a policy that no matter how good the view, I would never waste open road. As soon as I caught a slow car, I’d stop for a photo and wait for the road to clear. I stopped for lots of photos.

It was immensely satisfying, rolling over the Bolte Bridge and into Melbourne proper. I was cruising slowly in the left lane, and multiple passing cars gave a short horn beep and a thumbs up as they passed. One guy even slowed and attempted to have a conversation out the window at 95km/h.

The plan was to visit some mates for Friday afternoon knock-off’s at Porsche Centre Melbourne, except I didn’t really know where that was when I agreed to the plan. It meant crossing the entire Melbourne CBD in 530pm peak hour traffic, and that didn’t go well. The Fiat fuels up in heavy traffic, and after 20-25mins of slow running it simply doesn’t idle below 2500rpm. By the time I’d discovered my error, I was well and truly entrenched in thick traffic. With plenty of revving and making the most of any clear road with a stab of throttle, I eventually made it. But it was no fun.

The 356 Carrera, 924 Carrera GT, 911R, and multiple GT3 RS’ made the hassle worthwhile, and the beer that night tasted sweeter than ever.

The next two days were filled with far more coffee, brunches, beers and burgers than is healthy. We met up with various owners at various locations for shoots, although I’ll have to keep a lot of that on the downlow until Sports Car Safari Issue 1 is launched at the end of the year.

Dutton Garage was a mandatory visit, and we were lucky to meet with an owner and shoot a super cool 911 out the back.

There was other stuff, too.

That night, we left the Fiat at Luke’s sisters’ place and went into town for some dinner and drinks. We just ended up taking more photos of cars, though.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, so we met at Suus in Collingwood the following morning to check out their pre-meet.

We’d planned a little something for a magazine shoot, too, and luckily the rain held off while we shot.

Doggo. Good boy.

The meet point for the DGR, at the Melbourne Museum, was only a few blocks away, so we headed across for a look.

It’s pretty much mandatory to stop and take a graffiti photo when you visit Melbourne. I think it’s written in some sort of council by-law somewhere.

Luke and I had been attempting to use the Fiat as our main transport around Melbourne, but it wasn’t exactly relaxing. The ambient temperature was strangely warm which meant it got a little sweaty inside, and we were forming a habit of getting caught in traffic which didn’t play well with the fuelling up issue. It was a bit of a cop out, but we ended up convincing our mates to drive us to a few shoots in their modern cars.

We did take the Fiat to a few, though, and with the entire front boot reserved for camera gear it proved oddly practical.

Monday morning dawned and it was time to head home. I still couldn’t quite believe how well the Fiat was running, and by this point my confidence in the car was sky high. My plan was to follow small roads out toward the Grampians, but there was a significant patch of rain in the area so I decided to hit the highway and dodge it as quickly as possible. That, in hindsight, was a mistake. The main Adelaide-Melbourne highway in such a rain storm was diabolical, and I felt quite nervous dodging the trucks and other traffic. The depressions left in the lanes by the trucks were filling with water, and at one point when changing lanes I hit a patch of water and aquaplaned quite badly. At least the Fiat is largely waterproof, so I stayed mostly dry.

Thankfully I’d escaped the rain just as I reached the Grampians, and spent a few enjoyable hours’ hunting out the various twisting roads.

I discovered another peculiarity when leaving a car park after going for a short hike. After coasting around a car park, it would fuel up to a point where it would simply not accelerate back up to speed when rejoining the road. At one point it even stalled, and I was stuck on the side of the road. As I was unpacking the tools and preparing to remove the plugs for a look, I decided to try starting it one more time. My confidence in the car was high, and I didn’t want to accept that I might be stuck there. Eventually it fired and cleared itself, so from then on I simply avoided car parks. It just proved that the Fiat has great spirit – it demands to be driven hard, and nothing less!

My Dad had recommended that I try Silverband Road, so headed across to give it a go.

This track was also deliciously narrow and twisting, and traffic flowed in only one direction! Brilliant! It was very damp and slippery in places, so I took it pretty easy nonetheless.

It provided a few opportunities to stop for those trademark Grampians views…

… and access to the excellent Silverband Falls, just a short walk in. These are the perfect falls to swim in, but despite the clear blue sky the ambient temperature was freezing cold, so I gave it a miss.

The roads out of the Grampians and into the surrounding farmland country are wide and flowing – perfect cruising roads.

That afternoon was spent busting across the lush farming lands through Hamilton and Casterton. These areas and across into the South East of South Australia really are God’s own country.

I crossed the border just outside of Penola. As far as I was concerned, the trip was already a success. It didn’t event matter if I didn’t make it home from here – I had made it back to South Australia, which was further than I was honestly expecting.

I set up camp that night in Penola, and prepared for the 3deg overnight temperature with lots of layers and a good pub meal.

With the Fiat running so unexpectedly well, I was sad for the trip to be coming to a close. I was really getting used to it all, and everything had its time-honed place in the car.

The next morning was expectedly freezing, but the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was proudly out. With the roof off, I set course toward Robe for breakfast at The Adventurous Spoon.

Did you know that in South Australia, it’s actually against the law to visit Robe and not take a photo of the Obelisk?

It’s also a cultural faux pas to continue driving past the Big Lobster in Kingston S.E., too. Especially now that it’s been repainted.

I usually wouldn’t stop for a photo with the Coorong National Park sign, but I needed to stretch the legs.

After driving so many great roads in Victoria I figured it would be a crime to bypass the Adelaide Hills, especially with the Fiat running so well. I deviated off the highway at Kanmantoo and followed the twisting roads through to Mt Lofty.

And here she is, back in Adelaide after six days and 2,500 trouble free kilometres. The only thing that actually required fixing was the replacement of the circlip holding the boot support spring on. Otherwise, the trip had been as close to trouble free as you would ever hope.

I was as surprised as anyone, and my confidence in the car has certainly been boosted. It’s got me thinking about what other trips I could take it on. We might need to plan a weekend shooting cars in Sydney for Sports Car Safari at some point next year… now that would be a proper test.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

Thanks to everyone who was on rescue standby – even if they didn’t know it!

 

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4 Comments

  1. Viano Jaksa October 26, 2017 Reply

    Must share thoughts and photos of the Otways and Great Ocean Road in the 156. We are so lucky with so many beautiful driving roads in Oz

  2. Viano Jaksa October 26, 2017 Reply

    Great read! Great photos! Awesome work, Mr Coles

  3. Steve Schmidt October 27, 2017 Reply

    Terrific story and photos Andrew. Strange that you should ever doubt the Fiat's capability :-)

  4. Tom Gilbert October 27, 2017 Reply

    Great blog Andrew and some seriously good pictures as well. There is a perverse pleasure about taking old European cars on road trips. You know you could face trouble and it ads a great sense of adventure. Modern cars are clinically good and there is a place for that. We did a similar route to yours in the 72 kombi with the group and yep, we had carbies out and tool boxes regularly open next to engine bays but we didn't leave anyone behind!

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