We interview John Tsorzoudakis about his Fiat 850 resto-mod that's just oozing with charm.
– Redondo Beach, California
A Fiat 850 coupe sat idling at the Pelican Parts Cars & Coffee in February. Surrounded by other makes and models, all loved by enthusiasts, the simple yet purposeful design of John Tsorzoudakis’ Italian coupe screamed for attention. Little did I know the wealth of stories about this owner and this car, most ear-grabbingly, the fact that Tsorzoudakis managed to buy and sell the Fiat five times before finally doing the restoration himself.
Project cars often change hands. One man’s nightmare is another man’s goldmine. Some folks’ projects are sentiment driven, others are financially driven. But some, like Fiat 850 owner John, are driven by karma. John invited me to his home to tell the whole story of this Outlaw-style Fiat 850 that he meticulously restored and upgraded in his workshop.
Motor1: When did you first get this car?
John Tsorzoudakis: It's come and gone. I bought it first in '87. I sold it four or five times but it kept coming back to me until 2010 or so. Somebody called me up, the last guy I sold it to, and he said, "John, I lost storage, do you want the car back?" I'm like, "Okay I'll take it back." It's like an old buddy. After that my wife said the car has got some sort of karma so I better just keep it and restore it. In 2010 I started the restoration process. I finished in 2013 and I've been driving it ever since.
Why did you keep selling it?
I got too many projects. Too many things to work on. I was into Datsun Z cars, Chevys, Mopars, I had other Fiats. It was in bad shape. It was just a project. It never had an engine in it or tranny. Never had the interior. It was just in really bad shape. Just a regular project car. It just kept sitting under a tarp in my yard. I kept selling it because it was just always in the way and everybody had dreams for it, "Yeah, John, I'm gonna build it, I'm gonna fix it," they would say. The funny thing is after 20 years or so that I kept selling it, it came back looking exactly like it did when I first had it. Nobody did anything, and all the parts were still inside it.
The funny thing is after 20 years or so that I kept selling it, it came back looking exactly like it did when I first had it. Nobody did anything, and all the parts were still inside it.
What made you want to restore it finally?
I've always had an 850. Ever since high school. An 850 sedan was my second car after a Karmann Ghia. Funny thing is the Karmann Ghia and this Fiat have the same body designer, Felice Mario Boano. It's the same guy. You might also see some similarities between the Fiat and the VW Type 3. The Buonos were father and son but they worked at Ghia and probably for Pininfarina, too. But anyway, the reason I started on the car was that I had always kept parts for 850s, always thinking I'd get one. But somehow I kept selling this one and eventually I just decided this is gonna be it. And I did it. It just was fate.
So you had all the pieces you needed, and the car just kept coming back?
And I kept all the pieces thinking, "Someday I'll get a car," not the same one. I never thought I'd get the same one again. But I kept thinking, "Well at least the parts I can keep in boxes," and keep them around. A car takes up a lot of room. And I've got space issues. My family also played a big part, when they all said, "Do it," and, "I'm sick of you selling it," I just had to do it.
What did the restoration entail?
Not a lot. It really isn't a resto. It's a resto-mod. I wanted to clean it all up. I took all the undercoating off. I wanted to get it painted all one color. It's got a lot of Fiat-Abarth look to it, but I kept away from Abarth parts. That's why I kinda call it an Outlaw Fiat. It's got a mix and match of different ideas. Fiat had a color similar to this, which is how I chose it.
It almost looks like Porsche's Riviera Blue color.
Something like that. I just felt a car like this needed a brighter color, so I chose a brighter blue. The original Fiat stock blue was a darker blue, which probably would have been just as nice. The color wasn't that critical. It was more about getting this car, which is so rare and so cool, back out on the street. You never see them and they're really kind of an underdog in a way.
It's a neat-looking car but they were so cheap they weren't ever treated nice. People just ran them into the ground. A lot of them I guess are gone, just rusted out. This car got a lot of strengthening modifications. The gas tank was moved to the front of the car for better weight distribution. The glass in the back has been replaced by Lexan. We lightened up the rear of the car as much as possible. I'm trying to get 50/50 weight distribution. For what reason? I don't know. It's just a goal.
We lightened up the rear of the car as much as possible. I'm trying to get 50/50 weight distribution. For what reason? I don't know. It's just a goal.
It's got a very “vintage racer” look to it. Have you thought about taking it to the track?
No. It's strictly a street car. I take it to the canyons a lot just to drive. I like going to tracks, but I don't like the grunt work involved with trailering and whatever, or the risk if you break down. So not really.
What other cars did own between the five times you bought and sold this car?
Datsuns, Fiats 600s, other Fiat 850s of all types. I buy them, fix them up, restore them, whatever. Or I think I'm going to restore them and they just end up leaving like this one but they never come back. This one, the people I sold it to seemed to always remember how to get ahold of me. Somehow they'd end up calling me. But anyway, Datsuns, some Chevys, some Chryslers. Just all kinds of cars that I would get into as projects for fun, always knowing someday I might get into one of these Fiats. the parts were there, the trannys were there, the engines were there. Suspension parts were there. The wheels have always been around. I always kept the wheels that I bought back in the ’70s for my Fiat 850 sedan. I had deep dish steel wheels I bought from Italy, and I never sold them. Those aren't the wheels on the car now but there's one back there in the garage.
Now that the car is finished, what's next?
I'm just gonna keep refining it. I'm not done with it. I had to get it on the road as soon as it was roadworthy so I could start testing some of the things I did. I changed the suspension around, I modified the brakes. The gas tank is mounted somewhere else and I didn't know whether it was going to hold in the right position. I wasn't sure how it would feel having to lift the front hood to fill the gas tank. The tranny is all rebuilt. It's got modified syncros in it from a Porsche 911. Porsche had the same synchronizers as Fiat and Alfa Romeo. It was the same design. So I took some 911 syncros and tested them out. I had to modify them a little bit to fit the Fiat because the Fiat is slightly smaller. Porsche went ahead and evolved their syncro so much further than Fiat did, so I used the latest and greatest from a 911 or 914. So now second gear will never grind again because it's such a good syncro.
Who's doing all this work?
No one has ever touched it but me. I painted it where you're sitting. The trick with painting cars in your driveway or garage is just doing it the right way. I do it really early in the morning and I use the best quality paints I can get. It's still not done. Ever since I got it on the road I haven't had time to finish it. I've never waxed it. I just keep it clean. I need to color-sand it properly and polish it, but I just keep driving it more than anything else.
Since I've gotten it running I've never really had any issues with it. Even with all the modifications I've done; trannys, suspension, brakes.
Since I've gotten it running I've never really had any issues with it. Even with all the modifications I've done; trannys, suspension, brakes. Actually the brakes aren't too modified. The radiator is up front, it used to be in the back. It's even got an electric water pump, which it never had before. No Fiat has an electric water pump. I got that idea from British Hillman Imp guys. There's so many modifications on the car, that's what's exciting about owning it today. Just being able to run it. No one would dare do the things that I do. No one would put in an electric water pump.
Why is that?
Nobody would drive a car without a spare, but I've never had a spare in my car, for maybe twenty or thirty years. Why do you have to carry a spare? So many other things are going to go wrong with your car, why do you have to carry a spare? So if you get a flat call AAA or whatever. It's so hard to accommodate all the modifications to the car as it is, to accommodate a place for the spare. My other Fiat and this one don't have spares. It's so common, but I like to go against the grain sometimes too. It's so lightweight you could probably drive it on the flat. It's hard to get a flat in these Fiats because they just roll over everything. It's only 1,400 pounds. It's a very lightweight car.
What kind of horsepower does this car make?
I dunno. I would estimate about 60. If I was really a big showoff I'd say 70 or 65 but I think it only makes about 60. It's not a real fast car, and if I wanted a fast car I'd buy another car. A lot of people would want to put a bigger motor in this one.
Will it ever be done?
Probably not [laughing]. I've got other projects, some I'm working on already. Because this Fiat is driveable I work on other projects already. You're right. This car isn't done. And yet I'm working on another project. Maybe I don't know how to handle myself.
Brave man to say that with your wife sitting right here.
Well, she knows [laughing].
It's not a real fast car, and if I wanted a fast car I'd buy another car. A lot of people would want to put a bigger motor in this one.
What are these other projects? We've got another Fiat right here behind me, what's that?
It's a 1959 Fiat 600 Sunroof. But it looks like a Fiat Abarth. With the front radiator it looks like a little Abarth with the hood raised up in the back. It's just got that whole Abarth look. That car has some Abarth parts on it, a ring and pinion. Abarth steering wheel and some other Abarth things on there. I've always wanted one because they look so cool.
And then you've also got something completely different over there on the other side of the yard.
My Plymouth. At the time I bought the Fiat back in the ’80s, I was looking at Roadrunners. There was a big muscle car craze and I ended up with this rust-free, nice, original Plymouth GTX. I repainted it here in the garage. Nobody usually touches my cars. Not because I don't trust people, I just enjoy doing the work. I enjoy painting. It's tough to do.
How long does it take you to paint a whole car?
The paint day itself takes a couple hours. It depends on whether you use base coat or clear coat and what kind of paint method you use. The prep is what takes forever. Even the day before you paint, when you do it outside, you've gotta make sure your driveway is really clean. You have to watch the weather and make sure it won't be windy when you're painting. It takes so much planning. Or you can go somewhere and rent a stall, which is also another hassle. Trailering the car and all, since my cars are normally torn down when I paint them. You just have so much more control when you do things yourself. Plus I probably like fixing cars more than I like to drive them.
Have you run into any work that you weren't able to do in your own shop?
I get my engine balanced somewhere else. I get engine blocks re-worked outside. That kind of work I can't do because I don't have the equipment for it. But I can do any welding that needs to be done, I got mig, tig, and gas. I did all the welding for this car on my own.
So many of these cars are gone, it's gotten to be so rare. After all these years of owning it I'm surprised by how neat it turned out.
What's the furthest you've driven this car?
I've taken it to Pomona and Irwindale. Just the outskirts of Los Angeles. I go somewhere with a purpose. Usually with other Fiat guys. A couple weeks ago I went to a show in Malibu and then we drove all through the canyons, with British cars. There's a group of guys who own Minis and MGs and Cortinas and those are similar horsepower cars to my Fiat. Small and agile. I'm surprised that these British car owners are willing to accept me to join them. They actually like the car. I didn't anticipate that. I thought if I wasn't driving a British car they wouldn't let me join, but they are genuine enthusiasts, which is neat.
How has your relationship changed with this Fiat from the first time you bought it to today?
I think what happens in my life is I get overwhelmed with everything in all my projects. In life in general with jobs and everything else. Just to get in it and think that it's gonna start today, and I can just take it and go to a show is miraculous to me. So I just go. I enjoy the friendships and showing the car. As far as what it was from the beginning to now, I just enjoy all cars and car makes. Whether I built it or somebody else built it, I like it all. I feel sorry for the car, I don't think about it much. From the day I bought it to today could have been twenty or twenty-five years, I'm surprised at how it's been able to survive. So many of these cars are gone, it's gotten to be so rare. After all these years of owning it I'm surprised by how neat it turned out. How I was able to get it to run reliably.
Photos: Jonathan Harper / Motor1.com