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500 Road Trip: Brindisi to UK

John Fawcett

I am in the Royal Air Force working on II(AC) Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. From April to August, I was deployed out in Gioia, Puglia, in Southern Italy (the Heel).

From what started out as an 'off the cuff' remark, turned out to be a trip of a lifetime, well it felt LIKE a lifetime!! Part of my support role out there was looking after the squadrons' fleet of transport. I would regularly take vehicles to a local Kwik Fit garage in town. One day I came across a gorgeous 500 Abarth, took lots of piccys, one of which became my phone screen saver. The Abarth badge just happened to replace my girlfriend's picture on the phone. Felicity was none too pleased and said, 'Well, if you love it that much, then why don't you get one!!' The seed was sown and the rest is history, as they say. Simply buying the car in Italy took the best part of two months...well there was still a war on you know! This trip was also dedicated to Help for Heroes charity, raising nearly 1000 euros. I had some squadron markings and banners sent out from the UK to adorn the car during the trip.

Picture: John Fawcett

Test Drive: Sun 21 August The hotel we all stayed at was in Monopoli on the coast, south of Bari. I had to pick up Felicity from Brindisi Airport, a journey of 45 minutes ordinarily, taking me nearly two hours! This did include breaking down twice though...early signs not promising!! Made it with five minutes to spare!! Felicity was impressed, I think...

Day 1: Mon 22 August. Monopoli to Sorrento (Nr Capri)... Start time 0910 - Finish time 1915...350+ km. Maybe too far for our first outing. Had to drive the route to work for the final time. Even called into my 'RAF' garage in Gioia town to say goodbye and while I was there, Mario had a look at the starter motor issue on the ramp. Started first time with the lever, for the last time!! Had to manually push the starter motor contacts whenever we stopped. We had to drive up the most steepest and windy road I've ever been on at Tolve, nr Potenza. Should have turned right up the straight steep hill...very scenic though. Arrived very tired and sweaty and smelly...a running theme in the days to come!! Felicity pushing three times today!

Day 2: Tue 23 August. Sorrento to Pontinia (nr Latina)... 220km. An easier day today. A bit of sight seeing around Pompeii and an argument I nearly lost with a car park barrier, good job Felicity was awake!! Recommend Tiramasu milk shake from McDonalds, much to Felicity's disgust!! Short leg up towards Latina and a hotel with a pool which we used to douse and cleanse our hot and sweaty bodies!! Felicity pushed twice today!!

Day 3: Weds 24 August. Pontinia to Pisa... 400+ km... Depart at 0900, Arrive 2145 !! Shame the hotel air-con packed up last night! The last couple of days 'smooth' motoring bit us on the ass today. Breakdown #1...Conked out at a roundabout 10 mins from the hotel, Felicity and a French bloke tried to bump start me a couple of times, attacked the carburettor with a spanner and hammer for it to start up for 5 mins, conked out again, bloke we met in ESSO garage sent us to a mechanic he new who whipped the starter motor out, new contactor in and refitted in 2 1/2 hrs...60 euros later!! Breakdown #2... Bloody hot today, pulled up to queue at toll booth, setting off up the hill, 500 said NOO...called our quality recovery team in Wisbech...they said NOO can do on a motorway!! Let the car 'cool' off in 40+ degrees and it fired into life again. Breakdown #3...Eventually made the next services to have a half hour cooling off ourselves, only to find the front tyre FLAT...brilliant!! We did meet a lovely family travelling to Nice, the Dad, Franco, helped with the wheel change too!! So all in all, a bit of a challenging day today, fortunately the hotel we found served us a cold beer or two and dinner till 1030. (Becks at 5 euros a shot...robbing buggers!!).

Day 4: Thurs 25 August. Pisa to La Spezia... 100 km. Had to find a new tyre and a garage to check the car out after yesterday's breakdown, hence the short leg today. The route was mainly vertical though!! Fitted a fuel filter I had 'spare', only the car doesn't need one, can't do any harm though. Hoped to be doing a few laps around the Leaning Tower today, but no cars allowed, just coach loads of tourists!! Couldn't even spare the time to get to the top of the Tower either, lots of piccies looking up!! Hotel was in an amazing spot in the hills, the car just made the even steeper climb up the driveway!!

Day 5: Fri 26 August. La Spezia to Albenga... Took the scenic route towards Albenga today. Beautiful views and lovely towns perched on the cliff sides. Hard going for the car though, lots of climbs, descents and hairpin bends to negotiate. After two hours of slow progress, we decided to hop onto the next Auto route near Genoa. I made a bit of a hash of the barrier, but we were allowed to proceed. Tunnels galore, with the roar of the 500 and horn beeping a flash Porsche we met in the services. When we came off the toll road, we were fined 70 euros for the pleasure!! Arrived in Albenga at 5pm, met by Jan and Jimmy di Carlo. Our first port of call was the 500 Museum, a personal guided tour behind closed doors, even meeting the Boss, Domenico Romano, who presented a cheque from Jan and Jimmy for Help for Heroes. We have been invited to our first 500 Rally, and in Italy could we refuse?!!

Day 6: Sat 27 August. Albenga Pit-Stop!! Most of today was spent in Jimmy's underground lock up. He was most helpful with his time, mechanical expertise and advice, teaching his new apprentice, yours truly, the ways of the 500 !!

Day 7: Sun 28 August. Rally Day in Albenga. Fantastic day with over 60 500's in attendance including a 'Cow' and a 'New York Cab'!! Our car attracted a fair bit of attention, being the only 500 NOT valeted and full of luggage... oh, and the only 500 to breakdown during the parade around Albenga and beyond!! We even received a rosette for our first rally, not much luck with the raffle though!! Albenga to Nice, via Monaco!! Our 1st 500 Rally and in Italy too! Fab day, loads of 500's and we even toured around the town in a huge convoy...until we spoiled the party and conked out...twice!! Made friends and even won a rosette!! Shame to leave, but had to hit the road. Reached Monaco at 7pm, cruised around circuit and parked in front of Casino with the other mega motors, fitted right in (the gap!) One more bit of sightseeing left in Cannes tomorrow, then simply drive home!!

Picture: John Fawcett

Day 8: Mon 29 August. Nice to Lyon, via Cannes!! We are certainly living the 'high life' with our whistle stop tours of the French Riviera!! Cruised around for a while, a few photo calls from us and passers-by, then a beer on a posh beach front lido, then headed north towards Lyon. A long one today, 444kms, a few forced stops too!! The worst one was the speedo cable screaming at us whilst we were at terminal velocity...well, 55mph!! The racket woke Felicity up anyways and we did have an impromptu cheese and wine party while the engine cooled down, again! Lyon was still two hours away and it was 11.30pm!!

Day 9: Tues 30 August. Lyon to Dijon. Lie-in today, leaving at midday, nice picnic by a canal, panic tanning too! Another over heating stop and picnic on hard shoulder!! When we reached Dijon, I've never seen so many road works in one place...diversions everywhere!! Sat-Nav had no chance so it took an hour to find the hotel in the middle of town!!

Day 10: Weds 31 August. Dijon to St Quentin (twinned with Rotherham!!) Gentle driving today, so close now we don't want to ruin all our hard work. The home straight is nearly in sight.

Day 11: Thurs 1 Septempber. St Quentin to Calais and Ferry home!! We finally made it and in one piece...a small miracle!! We met a guy driving a red Aston Martin, he was touring in France and had his own problems with a classic car that he had to leave back in the UK, only his other car was a Bentley!! A most relaxing ferry crossing back to Dover, sailed through customs (must have been too much paperwork!), then survived a 10 mile tail back to Dartford tunnel !! We took the 'scenic' route back to Felicity's, near Newmarket. We visited some of her old stomping grounds and called in at The Tharp Arms pub in Chippenham. Looking back at our adventure, it was quite an achievement and logistical nightmare, especially as there was a war on! Special thanks to my Special Lady, Felicity, who I couldn't have done this trip without...she went through a lot to be here and put up with me (and my excess baggage!), a very strong woman, who's strength I had to call on at least a couple of times a day!!

The car will soon be on the road in the UK and coming to a Classic Car Rally near you!

This was obviously an eventful trip. Congratulations to Felicity and John for a job well done and I hope that their efforts have raised a considerable sum for the charity Help for Heroes. It is still possible to donate via the web donation site TiffsRoadTrip2011 - Jenny Squillaci