Art ?







In the Sixties there was an unsuccessful attempt to sell Vignale-Fiats in the UK, Cris Rees tells the bizarre tale:

FRIXOS Demetriou was a Greek-Cypriot who had built up a successful casino in Cyprus. He then came to London and set up in business with a gaming club called the Olympic. Concerned that his gaming licence might be affected by forthcoming legislation, he resolved to find an alternative business venture. In 1967 Demetriou happened to be in Milan on a diverted flight to Athens when he saw a strange little car parked near the airport. Enquiries revealed that it was a Vignale-Fiat Gamine, a humorous little belle époque roadster based on a Fiat 500 floorpan. Demetriou's brain was already ticking - in terms of securing the world rights to market the car. On the return journey. he diverted to Turin, where coachbuiIder Vignale was based, to view its products. Four days later, he returned with his German-Swiss legal adviser, Ernest Huppert, with a rather unusual business proposition. Not accustomed to thinking small. the pair asked if Vignale would be prepared to sell them a run of some of their Fiat-based models: Gamine (500), 850 Special, Eveline (124) and Samantha (125). Demetriou knew how to impress in a potential business relationship. He bought 200 cars on the spot. cash up-front, and guaranteed to buy the next six months' production, as long as Vignale would build the cars with right-hand drive. Before long, puffed up with optimism. the pair signed a similar deal with another Turin coachbuiIder, Francis Lombardi, to import his pretty little Fiat 850 based coupé called the Grand Prix, introduced at the 1968 Geneva Motor Show. Demetriou did have some logic behind this profligate spending spree... "No factory will listen, even a 40 car-a-day factory." he said. "unless you talk in quantities of at least 1,000. Besides, l wanted to be able to force them in time to incorporate special equipment for my market." By September 1968. Huppert had secured a Motor Show stand at Earl's Court and was ready to launch the Vignale Fiat range in the UK. The Gamine in particular was given a big splash in the dailies. mainly because of the stress on the car being 'for women only...'Demetriou's Queensway premises were now bulging with cars. Literally hundreds of them sat in a specially-cleared zone beside his casino. He had invested a fortune in the cars with not so much as a single order to offset his expense. Some estimates put the total sum invested at over £500.000. Demetriou appeared on the cover of Car magazine with the line 'Meet the Racing Car Show's least enthusiastic exhibitor'. The magazine was certainly struck by his demeanour: he was a man of few words, wore dark glasses and an overcoat and played his part 'almost to the point of caricature'.
Apparently he did not enjoy having his picture taken. There was much Press comment that these hand-built Italian sports cars would find customers solely by virtue of their exclusivity and stylish appearance, but alt said they were expensive. The cheapest was the Gamine at £700, but the 850 Special was a huge £1,225, the Lombardi Grand Prix £1,457. the Eveline £1,686 and the Samantha £2,211 - in January 1969 an MG Midget cost £769, and a Jaguar E-type was £2,I63. The attractions were there. The Gamine two-seater was a great laugh, known as the 'Noddy Car', and became trendy with the Chelsea set - even night-club owner Peter Stringfellow had one. It was offered in all sorts of gaudy colours, like Portobello Yellow and Hollywood Green (a sort of peppermint hue). Both the Vignale 85O Special and Lombardi 85O Grand Prix were lovely to look at but desperately underpowered. The Eveline could have been a good car and was probably the most reasonably-priced of alt the Vignale-Fiats but lacked performance. The Samantha was the jewel of Demetriou's range with a seductive shape allied to good handling and performance. However, there were detail faults on the cars. The only proper road test of a Vignale-Fiat was conducted by Motor in 1969 and the list of little items on its Samantha which weren't quite right is representative of the range: the wipers didn't clean the top half of the windscreen, the rear window was difficult to demist and very narrow for rear vision and the heater was poor.
There was also the problem of build quality, unforgivable in cars costing so much. Fiat dealer Graham Baker in Devon, remembers: "We tried to sell the Gamine and the Samantha. Both were badly built, even the show cars at Earl's Court. The trim was shoddy and the paintwork very poor. We took alt our cars on a sale-or-return basis and did sell several Gamines, but only one Samantha.-' Demetriou had arranged with Fiat in Turin that Fiat (GB) would service the cars as if they were imported Fiats. Unfortunately, no one had involved Fiat (GB) in the negotiations. Naturally, it wasn’t very happy, was highly suspicious of Vignale’s work - rightly, as it transpired - and feared many warranty claims. Indeed, the Gamine’s body was so poorly welded to the 500 floorpan that many cars did need to be fixed under warranty - and there were quite a few multilingual phone conversations about that.
Demetriou and Huppert were still assured about their venture. They planned to participate in saloon car racing, to which end a transporter was bought and driver Nick Faure was hired for the season. And Demetriou was even talking about building his own Italian-styled four-door coupé in Britain by the end of 1969 for around £1,600.
There was one problem: having brought hundreds of Vignale-Fiats into the country (some estimates go as high as 800), they just didn’t sell as well as F Demetriou & Son had expected. Perhaps 300 Gamines were actually sold in Britain and as many as 27 Samanthas. Few Evelines found buyers (there is only one known example remaining in the UK) and the two 850 variants sold only a handful each.
For most people in the car import business, this would have meant curtains. Luckily, Demetriou was rich enough for this not to bother him. His gaming licence was renewed and he didn’t need the car business any more. In 1970 he decided to return to Cyprus; most of the unsold Gamines followed him. There he met an untimely end in the back seat of a Vignale-Fiat in the most unlikely twist to this bizarre tale: a runaway army tank squashed both the car and Mr Demetriou flat. He had outlived Alfredo Vignale, who had died the previous year in a car crash near his home on the very day he signed an agreement to sell out to De Tomaso.
Thus Demetriou’s brief existence as an exotic car importer was over. His was a gamble which just didn’t pay off.