Monday, November 10, 2014

What's a little rust between friends?

I posted a while back about the license plate bulbs being burned out.  Didn't get an opportunity to sort that out until just the other day when I noticed this.

So I'm guessing that a gasket didn't get installed between the body and the chrome trunk handle.  It's rusting like this on both sides.

FIAT says the solution to the license plate lamps for the 2012 model year is to replace the entire trunk handle for $150.  The 2013 and later years have lamps with connectors that cost about $20/set.

Lucky me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Back to normal maybe

So after the engine replacement and the transmission mount debacle, things got back to normal.  The car went back to being my daily driver, and when we hit 3,000 miles, we sure as hell got that oil changed.  Don't want any part of that mess again.

And then about a week ago, the status display came up with "CHECK LICENSE PLATE LAMP".  Turns out that those two bulbs are some sort of new-fangled LED contraption, and wouldn't it just figure that these aren't made to be user-replaceable in the early cars?  That's right, you're expected to replace the whole hatchback door release assembly, which has the new bulbs in it.  Later models came with bulbs you can replace, but I've popped mine out and there are no connectors.  If I'm going to replace mine with the new style, I will have to come up with my own connector mechanism.

Oh, almost forgot.  A couple days ago, the driver's side door handle almost came off in my hand.  The leading edge pivot apparently wore out.  I'm guessing that this isn't covered under the body warranty.

Borrowed this pic, mine didn't come out well.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fix it again...

About 2,400 miles after the engine swap, the bolts on the transmission mount on the engine snapped and the car stranded me. I called roadside assistance and had the car towed straight back to the Studio.

It was obvious to me that something had not been tightened correctly when the engine had been replaced. I called the service manager a few days later and he confirmed it was a broken motor mount. He said they ordered the part and he would call when it was done.

THREE WEEKS roll by before he calls me.

"How did it go?"

"We got the engine mount replaced, however, there is also a tear in one axle boot. We need to order another $400 in parts, and I'm calling to get your approval to proceed."

"Why do you need my approval?  Isn't this your fault?"

"Well, I don't think anyone has made that determination..."

I was starting to get a little hot at this point, and I told him that finding that out was his very next step.  Three days later, he told me the car was done and I could have it back, but the axle seal wasn't fixed. They weren't able to just replace that, it requires the whole axle, which had changed slightly since my car was built, so I'd also need a new control arm, bearing and knuckle.

So I picked up my car and I'm still searching for a good solution for the torn boot.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Statistics matter

So in the weeks since this all went down, I have personally been made aware of three more FIAT 500s that had engine failures exactly like mine.  One of them lasted only 42,000 miles.  What are the odds that one FIAT owner would know three other people who had the same problem?

And yesterday I heard about a fifth one.  A friend asked on a message board if anyone else was having low oil pressure warnings while hot at idle.  I advised him to go directly to the dealership immediately.  I'm still waiting to hear what he's learned.

Come again?

So after nine weeks of waiting for my 500 to get back on the road, I called the Studio and got a little snippy with them about it.

"Is my car done?"

"Yes, it's done.  Well, it's running, but it keeps throwing codes for a bad knock sensor."

"How could that be?  It should be brand new!"

And so I'd go another week or so before I'd get the car back, but gloriously, in mid-May, they finally called and told me I could pick it up.

So I rode down to the Studio with a coworker and picked up the car.  I stalled it twice in the parking lot - in my defense, it had been a while since I'd driven a stick, and the 500 now had a brand new clutch so it felt a little different.

In the days since then, my check-engine light has come on and gone off a few times for no apparent reason, but for the the most part, the car seems to be okay.

All tolled, the car was off the road for nine and a half weeks.  I made three car payments during that time and lost a prized 34-year-old classic automobile.

But above all, I lost faith.  Faith in a brand I had admired and evangelized for.

But I learned a valuable lesson ... let someone else beta test new products.


So while my FIAT 500 was in the shop, I didn't have much else to drive.  There was my 1980 Fiat Spider 2000, but that's a fair weather car.  We were having a typical western Pennsylvania spring, so I felt it best to keep it under wraps.  And so I carpooled to work with a friend.

One typical misty spring day, I needed to run an errand, so I took the Spider.  I was thankful to have one dependable car in the fleet anyway.

I don't know if the old man in the Mazda 6 saw me, but that didn't stop him from trying to cross four lanes of a highway after failing to wait at the stop sign.  But when our cars met in the middle of the road, I can tell you for certain that he saw me then.

The Spider made contact with his left front corner and caromed off across the west bound lanes (thankfully missing any oncoming traffic) and came to rest thirty yards down the road in a ditch.  I had to climb out the passenger side door, and my first thought was to pop the trunk and disconnect the battery.  After that, I surveyed the damage.

The suspension was a mess.  The door was driven back into the rear quarter panel and the body had buckled on top by the corner of the trunk lid.  The whole car was twisted in a way that instantly told me my favorite toy was a total loss.  The dash was cracked the whole way through the middle now and the back of the radio had been bent - I have no idea how.

Three weeks later, the insurance adjuster would confirm my suspicions.  The car would need more than $12,000 in repairs.  I accepted the check and sold the car for parts.

Not a day goes by that I don't think about that car.  It had given its life for me that day.  The top had been up; had it been down, I might have been ejected from the car.  I hit my head on one of the frame bows for sure.

So now I had nothing to drive to FIAT FreakOut in July.  I had zero running FIATs.

Meanwhile, back at the Studio

So three or four weeks go by after I dropped the car off at the Studio.  I hadn't heard a peep since our last phone call, so I reached out.

"How's it going with my car?"

"Well, the new engine is in place, but we think there's an issue with the wiring harness.  The engine computer doesn't seem to be working right."

"Did it change between 2012 and 2014 model years?"

"Well, it might have.  We're checking it right now pin by pin to see what we find."

A week goes by, and hearing nothing, I called again.

"Get anywhere with the thing?"

"Yeah, it seems like the engine computer is fried.  It doesn't work no matter what we do.  We ordered one a few days ago.  I'll let you know when it arrives."

Three weeks later, I called back.  "Still not here", he says.  That's when I lost my shit.

On the advice of a friend, I called 888-CIAO-FIAT and registered a complaint.  The nice lady on the phone acknowledged that an order had been placed but its status read "BACK ORDER" or something like that.  She said she would see about putting an expedite order on it and call me back when she knows more.

A few days later, she calls to say it was in transit to my Studio.   So if you're keeping score at home, that's FIVE WEEKS that it took for a part to be delivered to the Studio by the company's own supply chain.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The light at the end of the tunnel

A week or so after the service manager told me I was going to need a $5,000 engine replacement, my phone rang.

"I'm not sure who you've been speaking with, but I just got a call from [name redacted].  He's pretty far up the food chain.  In fact, I've only ever seen his name on company memos, I've never actually spoken to him until now.  He has instructed me to replace this engine for you for a $1,000 deductible".

Now, I've never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I was still a little miffed that I'd even have to pay that.  But I kept my mouth shut about it and gave him the go ahead.

Some days later, I received an email from my club contact.  It contained a forwarded message from another person in the FIAT corporate chain.  This email basically said that customer negligence was the issue, that I'd let the car run out of oil and ruined the engine myself, and they were only replacing my engine as a "goodwill gesture".

Now it's important to note here that even though I'm not Italian myself, I still have one helluva temper.  This email sent me right over the edge, and I called the service manager to ask him where this piece of information had come from.

"Not from us", he said.  "The car arrived here with a full dipstick and the old oil in the jug looked to be about the same amount".

"Then where did they get this idea that I'd been negligent with the car?"

"I'm not sure.  But like I said before, if you would change your oil every 3,000 miles...".  Every time I talked to that guy, the conversation would end in a lecture on oil change protocol.

So now I'd gone from a valued customer (who had gone out on a limb to beta test their cars) to a typical American driver who doesn't take care of his cars.  This really rubbed me the wrong way.

But I kept my mouth shut because I wasn't paying $5,000 for this engine, was I?

The lowest of lows

After my mechanic gave me the sad news, I called the local Studio and asked what they wanted me to do.  They said to have the car towed down, and to bring the oil and filter so they could examine it.  So my mechanic filled the car back up with oil and put in a new filter so it could be run a little, and then he towed it to the Studio.   That was March 10, 2014.

After a day or so, I received a call from the Studio service manager.  "Sir, your engine's low end is shot."

"How is that possible?", I asked.  "The car has only 60,000 miles on it.  Surely a modern engine wouldn't eat itself that quickly".

"Well, how often have you changed your oil?"

I didn't like where this was headed.  I started to get a little angry, to be honest.  I had adhered to the manufacturer's maintenance plan, and I even exceeded it.  The book calls for an 8,000 mile engine oil change interval, but that seemed like a really bad idea to me, so my oil changes were always handled between 4,000 and 6,000 miles.  I think I only actually went to 8,000 once in those 60,000 miles.

The service manager was a nice guy but he lectured me on how I should ignore those recommended intervals and if I had just changed the oil every 3,000 miles, this engine should last several hundred thousand miles.

Now I was livid.  I asked him how he could sell a product that falls apart even if you follow the manufacturer recommendations.  His answer was always something like "Son, I've worked on cars for forty years, and I always change my oil every 3,000 miles and I've never had to replace an engine".

The nice service manager went on to tell me that he had recently done an engine replacement for a little old lady who hit a rock and ripped off her oil pan, and that had cost around $5,400, and since I was out of warranty, this was about all he could do for me.

At this point, I was starting to feel sick to my stomach.  I had not purchased an extended warranty when I bought the car because, well, it's a FIAT, what could have possible gone wrong?  The brand I had fallen in love with would never let me down.  Would it?

And so I began looking around for options.  I knew some folks on the board of the FIAT club and they had made good contacts in the company's chain of command.  I wondered if any of them could help me out.

One of the board members of the car club sent out some emails and made phone calls on my behalf, and I was encouraged when I read the replies.  Yes, these people agreed that my situation was unusual, and they'd be happy to look into it.

"That's all I can ask", I said.  And I waited.

The good days never seem to last

And so it went for a year or two.  The FIAT 500 ran great, looked great, people stared and asked questions.  It became my daily driver and I was proud to be in on the ground floor of FIAT's triumphant return to the continent.

But then in March of 2014, something very strange happened.

While sitting at idle in a fast food drive thru with my children, the display on the dash beeped and gave a low oil pressure warning.  And then it went away.  And came back again.

It went off and on like this for a minute or two, but adding a few RPMs would make it go away.  As soon as I got out of that drive thru, I parked the car and checked the oil.  It was 3/4 of the way up the full section on the dipstick, so I knew I was in good shape.  But just to be safe, I added a 1/4 quart of oil.  This made the car happy.

But a week and a half later, while sitting at a stop light, the oil pressure warning came back, only this time it was accompanied by sounds in the engine that did not make me feel good at all.  I was very worried that my little FIAT was sick.

So I drove it straight back home to my mechanic who just happens to have a shop across the street from me.  He got underneath and made a noise I can only describe as unhappy.

"There's oil all over the place under here", he said, "and it seems like it's coming from under the timing belt cover".

After taking off the cover, we found that oil was EVERYWHERE.  It had coated the timing belt and gears and seemed to be coming from the crank seal.  My mechanic gave me one of those looks - maybe you know the one I'm talking about - and I looked around for something to sit on.

"I think maybe we better drain the oil and have a look at it", he said.

Ten minutes later, we were both looking at a bowl of oil that had a strange metallic sheen on the surface.  Some of that metal would stick to a magnet and some wouldn't.  He explained that babbitt (the material engine bearings are made of) is an alloy that is not magnetic, but crankshafts are definitely made of steel.  It would seem that my engine had spat out a mixture of both.

And that was when I knew I was in trouble.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fair to middlin'

FIAT did right by the car club in the following years.  They'd throw significant sponsorship dollars at the event and bring their PR folks and their car show experience team.  They clearly wanted to get in touch with the folks who had carried the torch during those years they were away.  And the club members were just as eager to see just what FIAT would bring back to the continent.

Would there be a new Spider?  What about an updated mid-engined sports car like the venerable X1/9?

Wait and see, we were told.

In 2011, FIAT FreakOut was held in Nashville, Tennessee.  It was hot as blazes there, so I decided that I'd take the air-conditioned 500 rather than the Spider.  That paid serious dividends ... I had driven home from Asheville the previous year with the top up because the sun was beating me to death.  

FIAT was eager to get a group shot of all the new 500s together, which amounted to a little more than a third of the total gathering.  

Bumps in the road

The first year or two of ownership was a blast.  I think I put 35,000 miles on in that time.  It is that much fun to drive.  Going through the Jay Leno likes to say, some slow cars are still fun to drive fast.

Early on, some little funny things started happening.

On several occasions, when using the cruise control, the temperature gauge would peg out and the display would implore you to pull over immediately.  And then it would go away as soon as it came.  I told the dealer several times and they didn't believe me until I brought in a video of it happening.  Ever tried to take a video of your speedometer cluster at 60mph?

Another early defect on these cars was that very speedometer cluster.  All of the gauges on the car are in one pod, and that includes a clock, which would lose a couple minutes a week.  And if the interior of the car got up around 90ยบ during the summer, the whole display would wash out and be unreadable until it cooled off.

When I took the car in for its third or fourth maintenance interval (between 24k and 32k miles), they agreed to replace the speedometer cluster under warranty.  Unfortunately, that took two and a half weeks to complete because the cluster has to be ordered from the factory with your car's mileage programmed in.

And while the car was there for that service, the service manager at the Studio told me that my car also needed several ball joints replaced and the car wasn't safe to drive until it was fixed.  I couldn't believe that ball joints would go so quickly (it should be noted that they can't really blame my driving style for it when you consider that the factory tires are still on the car now at 65k miles and they still have some life left).

But hey, it's an Italian car, it's supposed to be this way, right?

Bona fides

During and shortly after my FIAT 500 was delivered, I talked about them incessantly to anyone and everyone I could find. People would stop me in parking lots and I would evangelize at length about the car.  They would ask me all sorts of questions.

Yes, it's Italian.  

No, it's not a Mini Cooper.  

Yes, it can seat four people.  

No, there's not a dealership here yet.  

Yes, it will come in lots of colors.

No, it's pretty economical.  I get nearly 40 miles to the gallon.

Yes, I'm aware of what you think FIAT means, but younger folks haven't heard those tales and will probably jump at the chance to buy one.


It took FIAT nearly nine months to deliver my new car.  In that time, they were quickly ramping up their dealer network (they call them "studios").  I would receive occasional emails from them as they described how things were going and they'd tease us with photos of the assembly line or the special badging our cars would receive.

The Prima Edizione cars came in a choice of three colors.  I chose Grigio (gray) over the Rosso (red) and Blanco (white), and mine had a sunroof included.  Beyond that, the cars all came the same, with the Sport packaging and a few other enhancements like the automatic climate control.

I finally got a call in March 2011 that my car was being delivered to the dealership in Austintown, OH, which is about 90 minutes away.  Our two local Studios had not come alive just yet, so that was the only delivery option available.

The unveiling of the car was a lot of fun.  They supplied each dealer with one car cover that looked a lot like a vintage FIAT 500.  When the customer came to get theirs, they literally unveiled it for you.

Months of anticipation finally paid off.  The car was gorgeous!  It had pep, style, and best of all ... NOBODY HAD ANY IDEA WHAT IT WAS!!!

As time went on, I'd notice little things about the car that weren't quite up to snuff.  Things like paint imperfections, body panel seam gaps, molding that didn't exactly fit, but I ignored them because, after all, it was a FIAT!  What's not to love about that, right?

As time would go on, I would find out.

2010: A New Hope

Apologies to both Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas for the title of this post.

In July of 2010, the FIAT-Lancia Unlimited car club held its annual Fiat FreakOut convention in Asheville, NC.  It was going to be the usual collection of old Spiders, X1/9s and Alfas, or so I thought.  What I didn't know at the time is that I'd be buying a car that weekend.

FIAT had come back to North America earlier that year to seize an opportunity.  The Chrysler Corporation was in serious financial jeopardy, having taken some huge bailouts from the federal government.  The company was ripe for the picking and FIAT Global CEO Sergio Marchionne decided the time was right to come back to the continent.  They picked up Chrysler's tab and they are now one large company called FIAT Chrysler Automobiles, or FCA for short.

At FIAT FreakOut, the company's new American CEO arrived and brought two European-spec FIAT 500s with her.  We all got to see the new car, if only from a distance, but it was enough to wet our appetites.

During the banquet of that event, FIAT USA CEO Laura Soave announced that they were in fact returning to the market.  The cars would be assembled in Mexico with engines and parts produced in the US and Canada.  We were all very excited, and then she dropped the biggest bombshell of all when she told us we could step outside after the banquet and pre-order the very first 2012 FIAT 500 Sports from their car show experience kiosk.

I followed the mad rush out the door that evening and watched as people stepped up to make a purchase.  The first 500 of those cars were going to be special editions, badged as "Prima Edizione" and they would be numbered 1 through 500.  They were only being offered to the club members at that point.  It seemed like a dream!

As I walked past one of the terminals on their display, a staffer stepped over and asked if I was interested in one.  I said I was thinking about it, and then he hooked me when he said "each purchaser can pick the serial number they want, and right now the lowest number we have left is thirteen".

So five minutes and $500 later, I had pre-ordered Prima Edizione #13.

An Introduction

I started this blog to tell an ongoing story, a tale of joys and sadness, of exhilarating speed and stationary doldrums.  And we'll get to that story, but first, some introduction.

I grew up a car guy.  Had I a dollar for every hour I worked on cars with my Dad as a kid, I wouldn't be writing this blog right now.  It seemed like every weekend was devoted to keeping the family fleet on the road.  I loved every minute of it, spending time with my old man, fetching tools, turning wrenches.  As I got older, I developed an understanding that this is what dudes do.

Some years later, when I had some money in my pocket, I considered buying a half-assembled old jalopy as a Father's Day gift for my Dad.  I thought it would be the ultimate father-son project, and we'd reconnect as men through a common labor of love.  When I told my Mother about the idea, she put down her coffee cup and said "There's no really good way to cushion this so I'll just come out with it - your father hated working on cars and only did it because we were too poor to buy anything decent".

I was crestfallen, but I still held onto the belief that I was a dude, and cars are what us dudes just do.

Fast forward to the middle '90s.  I'm a single guy out on my own with a few bucks in his pocket, and I happened upon a cute little 1973 Fiat 850 Spider for sale.  It was clown green, didn't run very well, and was extremely cheap.  I fell hard for that little car and started to attend some annual gatherings of like-minded Italian car enthusiasts.  Fiat ownership became my life.

Over time, my addiction grew.  I bought another 850 Spider as a project and then an '87 Bertone X1/9 and finally an '80 Fiat Spider 2000.  The Spider 2000 won a couple awards at various club functions, and at that point, the hook was finally set.

The Fiat car club was an "orphan" car club, people bound together by their affection for machines that were made by a company that had abandoned North America in the early 1980s.  While we all really enjoyed tinkering on our cars and reveling in keeping them on the road in spite of the scarcity of parts, most of us secretly wished that Fiat would come back to the New World and energize the next generation of enthusiasts.

And they did finally, in 2010.  That's a story for another time.