Sunday, March 1, 1998

Turkish Press
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The Gamine, the gambling king and the tank

By Andrew Adamides

WELL-KNOWN British dancer Wayne Sleep has several. Peter Stringfellow had a pink one. Ex-Cyprus Rally star Mickey Christodoulou had one. And the man who imported them into England was a Cypriot who met his end after tangling with a tank and coming off worst...

"They" are Fiat Gamines, small Italian fun cars which bear a suspicious resemblance to an original automotive design by one Enid Blyton. If you've seen one on the road, you'll know it, but while the car itself will make you look twice, the story behind it is even more unusual.

In the mid 'sixties, Cypriot businessman Frixos Demetriou left Cyprus having set up a successful casino here, and opened up the Olympic Gaming Club in Queensway, London. The Olympic was a huge success. But by 1967, changes to the licensing laws were threatening to separate Frixos from his gaming licence, and he was looking for other moneymaking avenues to explore.

Fate had one in store for him too, as a flight he was on from London to Athens was diverted to Italy. And stepping out of the airport, for the very first time Frixos set eyes on a Fiat Gamine parked by the side of the road.

Never one to hang about, Frixos made enquiries about the car, and found that it was produced by the Vignale concern, using Fiat parts. But he was far less concerned with the specifications as with the marketing rights, which he felt could make him an awful lot of money; to this end, his return journey was made via Turin, where he stopped off to size up the rest of the Vignale line.

That line consisted of four highly idiosyncratic vehicles: two large coupes - the boxy Eveline and the svelte, space-age Samantha - the aforementioned cheeky Gamine, and the 850 saloon/coupe/convertible. They were all produced at a factory specially built by company boss Alfredo Vignale when he decided to branch out from designing cars for other manufacturers to making them for himself.

Frixos, who by now had visions of being a motor magnate, went into overdrive. Four days later, he and his legal advisor, Ernest Huppert were back on Italian soil again, ready to offer Vignale a deal he couldn't refuse. A deal by which Frixos would buy up the factory's entire production for the next six months, cash upfront for the first 200 cars, with the one stipulation being that the vehicles had to be right-hand drive.

And as if this profligate little spree wasn't enough, Frixos then signed another deal with the minuscule Francis Lombardi concern to import their Fiat-based confection, the 850 Grand Prix Coupe, to the UK as well. His rationale for all this being that "no factory will listen, even a 40-car-a-day factory, unless you talk in quantities of at least 1,000."

"Besides," he added, "I wanted to be able to force them to incorporate special equipment for my market."

Frixos then went about launching the Vignale-Fiat range onto the unsuspecting British market with a vengeance. Huppert secured a stand at the 1968 Earl's Court Motor Show and the five cars were introduced to the public with gusto. Frixos himself appeared on the cover of Car Magazine, while the Samantha, the Eveline, the Grand Prix, the 850 and the Gamine did the motoring media rounds - the latter grabbing the lion's share of publicity thanks to its off-the-wall neoclassic styling and highly non-PC "for women only" advertising. Oh, and the Portobello Yellow paint colour offered probably helped too.

By this time, the specially-designed storage areas near the Olympic club looked like a Fiat refugee camp, with hundreds of the cars patiently awaiting owners who had yet to place a single order. By some estimate, Frixos had so far spent £500,000 (no small sum in those days) on the project, and he hadn't finished yet.

Undeterred by the storm clouds which were gathering on the horizon, Frixos announced his intentions of moving into saloon car racing (to which end a transporter and driver were acquired for the 1968 season) and of producing his own Fiat-based four-door car in the UK by the end of 1969.

But gathering the storm clouds were, and those who had bought Vignale-Fiats from Frixos were praying there wouldn't be a cloudburst, as the cars had started to display a marked tendency to turn brown round the edges when exposed to moisture.

The trendy Kings Road swingers who had bought fab Gamines suffered especially, as some cars' bodies were so badly welded to the chassis that the vehicles had to be all but rebuilt under warranty.

Which created another problem: Frixos had arranged with Fiat in Italy that Fiat UK would service his cars. Unfortunately, nobody had informed Fiat UK of this little stipend, which resulted in as many heated phone conversations as there had been over-heated radiators.

Not that there were too many of the cars for Fiat UK to stress over, because they just weren't selling. The motoring press had given wide coverage to all the different models, and complaints had ranged from minor niggles like too-small windscreen-wipers to more major hassles like lacklustre performance, while detail faults on the cars were rife. Paintwork rippled and trim fell off. And while the Gamine had more than its fifteen minutes of Chelsea plaything fame, conservative Britain balked at the cars' kooky styling, not to mention the astronomical prices, and bought nice normal Jaguars and Mini-Coopers instead.

And so it was that things started to catch up with the sole UK importer of Vignale-Fiats. Before any more of Frixos' fancies could become reality, he was forced to take stock of the situation: having brought hundreds of cars into the UK (some say as many as 800), most of them were still in his possession, and had a large customs duty bill looming over them.

With no sign of a pick-up in sales, Frixos had some hard thinking to do: rather than lose a fortune by paying the duty, in 1970 he finally chose to re-export the cars... to Cyprus.

According to Larry Collier, Chairman of the Fiat Motor Club of Great Britain, "well over 100" assorted Vignale-Fiats arrived on the island in 1970. And once here, they were sold off, with the Gamines shifting far quicker than they had in the UK, largely thanks to the dry climate to which their rusting bodywork was far better suited.

But while he may have managed to successfully juggle his Fiats across the Mediterranean and back, Frixos had another date with fate. Just months after he returned to Cyprus, a runaway British tank careened into a parked Vignale-Fiat - which Frixos just happened to be sitting in at the time - and squashed them both flat.

Only of course, that wasn't quite the end of the story, because while many of the cars Frixos sold in England reacted to the weather with such vehemence that after a while owners were able to sweep them into plastic bags and throw them away, those which came to Cyprus have lasted rather better (the car Frixos was flattened in notwithstanding).

Mickey Christodoulou owned her yellow Gamine for four years, after rallying in many for more powerful cars (Gamines can just about manage 50mph), and describes it as "an awful lot of fun". It was bought for her by her husband as a Christmas present (complete with bow) after she saw it in the street and "went absolutely overboard for it".

"It was," she recalls, "so tiny that when you sat in it, you could run your hand along the road." This particular example has now moved on to another owner (and been exported back to the UK - some Gamines do get around) as Mickey worried that it was too dangerous to take her children in. She regrets selling it though, and remembers one occasion when she had taken left it at the Ledra Palace before embarking on a rally stage. When she returned, the minuscule car had vanished: another race crew had lifted it up onto one of the hotel balconies as a practical joke.

Of the surviving Vignale's worldwide, Gamines are by far the most numerous, although two Lombardi Grand Prix are known to exist in Cyprus (one sorry green example from Paralimni having made an appearance in Classic and Sportscar magazine's "discovered" column) and two 850 coupes still exist as well.

One of these is currently under restoration by Nicosian Costakis Aeroporos.

Although he knows little of the car's history before he bought it ten years ago from a customer at his car accessories shop, Aeroporos is taking great pains to return the car to its original glory, having just had it sprayed in its original turquoise, a colour which had to be identified from the chassis commission plate.

So far, Aeroporos says, he has spent £1,000 on bodywork and paint, while a further £1,000 will go on getting the car "looking like new".

The island's classic car club knows of no other examples of Frixos' Fiats still in Cyprus. (Although anybody curious about the Samantha can see a purple one parked in the background as George Segal and Glenda Jackson have a protracted discussion in front of their Soho love-nest in the 1973 film A Touch of Class). But more may turn up yet, and if their history is anything to go by, when they do so it will doubtlessly be in the most idiosyncratic of places.

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The life of Alfredo Vignale, the man responsible for creating Frixos' cars, is just as fascinating, if not quite as bizarre as the Cypriot's tale.

Born in 1913, Vignale founded Carozzeria Vignale in 1948, having worked with auto design studio supreme Pininfarina. The company bodied cars for manufacturers as diverse as Ferrari, Cadillac, Daihatsu, BMW, and, er Neckar-Jagst, then branched out into series production in 1961, having built an extremely modern factory near Fiat's (from where he obtained engines) in Turin. At the time many such concerns were springing up, all trying to cash in on the European demand for small, stylish cars built using standard parts form ordinary manufacturers.

Vignale's complete range consisted of the four cars Frixos imported, and one other, the shorter-lived 1500 coupe. The Samantha, Eveline, 850 series and Gamine were built at the plant until 1969, when Vignale sold the factory to DeTomaso Automobili, who used it to produce the Pantera supercar, which Vignale had also designed.

But three days after completing the deal, Vignale was killed in a road accident while driving his Maserati near his home, dying just one year before Frixos Demetriou.

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