1938 Fiat Emerges for Second Time in 64 Years

A little 1938 Fiat sees the light of day again after being stashed away in 1990.

By Clell G. Ballard

October 2016


High grass had to be cut and stored agricultural equipment moved in order to gain access to a long-shuttered farm building.

Photo by Clell G. Ballard

Content Tools

What interesting object is stored in one of your farm outbuildings? Almost every farm that has been in existence since the mid-20th century has one or more items that the average person would find intriguing. This story is about one of them.

Harry Truman was president in 1951 when a little 1938 Italian Fiat car (commonly called a “topolino,” Italian for “little mouse”) was stashed in an Idaho farm outbuilding. It was permanently stored there by its owner after the tragic death of her husband in a mining accident.

She later married a relative of mine who asked me, back in 1990, to transport the tiny car to a specified location and then bring it back where it was stored. An article in the January 2014 issue of Farm Collector told the story of how that was accomplished, even though the only vehicle I had to haul it with was a small World War II-era Dodge half-ton military truck.

Committing to a new future

After that, the little Fiat was again stored in the outbuilding and basically forgotten. Recently this author took it on himself to inquire about the car. In 24 years, from 1990 to 2014, family situations changed a lot, but the doors of the old farm shed were rarely, if ever, opened. Both the woman who owned the car, and her husband, have passed away. The farm, one of the oldest in our part of western America, is now being operated by their son, a relative of mine. When I contacted him, he agreed that it was kind of sad that the cute little Fiat just the same as didn’t exist, since it was seen only briefly in 1990 and not again since.

He was receptive to the suggestion that I help him get the car out where it could be appreciated. Like before, such an undertaking took quite some doing. Back in 1990, my brother and two college-age sons helped me. At this late date, I had two other sons, now full-grown adults, available to lend a hand.

Since the storage building was located some distance from regular activities of the farm, a major effort was necessary just to get to it. As in most farm operations, equipment of various kinds was placed in unused spaces. Foliage had grown up over a lot of undetermined (and almost impossible to see) stuff that had been piled in front. All of that had to be moved just so the doors could be opened.

Determined to bury the past

When the Fiat was removed from the shed in 1990, all we had to do was open the doors, clear a path and push out the car. Not this time. It was obvious that a serious effort had been made to make the car inaccessible, perhaps forever. But why? As best as can be determined, the woman who owned the car didn’t want anyone to ever have access to it because it belonged to her deceased first husband. Her second husband, my relative, took it on himself to display it for a short time, against her wishes, because of a historical event: our state’s 100th birthday celebration in 1990. She apparently vowed that the car would never again see the light of day.

To guarantee that, she had the Fiat put sideways in the shed, which was only a few feet wider than the length of the car, and pushed as close to the back wall as possible. It was then almost completely covered by old carpeting. Another vehicle, the horse-drawn buckboard, was also put in the shed sideways, “smack-dab” against the car. That made the car impossible to see. In the succeeding years, all kinds of “stuff” was stored in the building closer to the door. Believe it or not, the woman’s two adult children knew the car existed, but when I asked about it, said they couldn’t remember ever having seen it.

Entombed in an overflowing shed

One felt somewhat like a famous archaeologist delving into an Egyptian pharaoh’s long-lost tomb as the building doors were pulled open on screeching hinges. Until then, it had been impossible to enter the shed because it was so full that even the walk-in side door was blocked. What we saw would make the faint-of-heart give up before beginning. It was impossible to believe that a car of any size could be somewhere in all the stuff that confronted us. After all, the shed was small: If we couldn’t see even a smidgen of the car, it must not be there.

We five adults (the owner, his helper and the three of us) spent more than an hour carrying things outside. We struggled with several items that weighed close to 200 pounds. Our efforts finally brought us to a horse-drawn buckboard sitting crossways. Fortunately it was fairly light. With at least two people lifting on each end, we managed to get it turned long-ways so it could be rolled out. At long last we could see the pathetic-looking little Fiat sitting crossways against the back wall, covered with old pieces of carpeting. On top of the rugs were boxes of unused aluminum siding.

Two decades of caked-on dust

The first thing we did was attempt to inflate the long-flat tires with a portable air compressor. Surprisingly, three of the four held enough air to make them round enough to roll. (Even ancient tires that have inner tubes usually will hold up to 20 pounds of air pressure if inflation is attempted before the vehicle is moved.) Brute power had to be exerted to lift the front of the car so it could be pointed toward the door. From that point on, it was easy to roll, even though the right front tire was flat.

Some may find it amazing that the 1941 Dodge military truck that was originally used 24 years earlier as an auto transporter is still in regular use. Again it was called upon to bring out the 1938 Fiat. This time it was used as a tow vehicle for a tilt-bed car trailer. Its short truck bed was needed only to carry the portable air compressor, jacks and a chest with log chains and other tie-down equipment.

The car trailer’s small electric winch pulled the tiny car up so it could be securely fastened for a trip back into civilization. We hoped the wind would blow away the thick layer of dust that covered it, but were disappointed. It stuck on almost like glue. In rural areas, where most roads are dirt or gravel, an unbelievable amount of dust seeps into the cracks of all buildings, but especially into old farm buildings that are considerably less than airtight. Add to that the dust generated by implements cultivating fields surrounding most farms and you can imagine the depth of a 24-year accumulation.

A realistic undertaking

Although the car was thought to be in non-running condition, the family’s understanding was that a head gasket was all that was needed to put it into running condition. Since the engine is partially disassembled, that may be overly optimistic. However, in the past 25 years, access to hard-to-find auto parts has expanded greatly. There is no question that needed parts can be found today, even if they have to be sourced in Europe. The prognosis for the little Fiat is decent: It may someday be “back on the road again” after a decades-long hibernation.

This author has offered the Fiat’s current owner a place to store the car where it is accessible both for viewing and mechanical upgrading, and that offer has been accepted. Although almost a decade younger than the little car, I won’t be around forever. Fortunately, it appears that even after I’m long gone, this little Fiat that spent most of its existence as an agricultural recluse can still be appreciated by anyone who recognizes how unique it is in addition to being really cute.

Protected for posterity

What would have happened to the car if it had not been resurrected recently? As a lifetime resident of this isolated area, I can tell you that its fate probably would have been one of two things, both unpleasant. When ignored and not used from time to time, old farm buildings (this one is more than a century old) deteriorate to the point that it is not unusual for roofs to fall in. At our altitude of more than 5,000 feet, we have at least 3 feet of snow on the ground for as many as four months at a time. The snow load on buildings is phenomenal in regular circumstances. On the rare occasions when temperatures get warm enough that rain falls on the accumulated snow, even strong new buildings collapse. Vehicles in collapsed buildings are smashed beyond repair.

The other possible scenario in our super-dry area is fire. Just this past summer, lightning-caused fires burned thousands of acres and many rural homes and outbuildings only a few miles from where this car was stored. Tall grass surrounding the building where the Fiat was stored would go up like a torch.

Does any of this matter? No. But those of us who value historical objects, in this case, a cute little car, try to do our best to preserve them for later generations to see and enjoy. We “car guys” are happy that this unique motorized 4-wheel vehicle’s future should be a pleasant one. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.