On a rainy September Wednesday night we met Dr. Paul Sultana in his spotlessly clean garage, where the soft spoken pediatrician graciously showed us his classic car collection. Dr. Sultana's enthusiasm for Fiats was contagious, and we were treated to a delightful glimpse of his appreciation for the aesthetics, performance and history of classic cars.
Dr. Sultana is one of two participants who have raced in every Malta Classic Grand Prix since its inception in 2009. Sultana can usually be seen on the circuit in his red 1969 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe.
“Fiats are Faster, and More Fun, Than You Think”
My 1969 Fiat 850 Sport Coupe was originally purchased in Germany by a gentleman who came over to work in Malta in the early 70’s. He sold it in 1976 to a gentleman who kept it until 2005, which is when I purchased it, so I am the third owner. I had seen the car regularly for a number of years because I knew the owner by sight and he was never willing to part with it was his one and only everyday car. Then at one point, I found out that for reasons of health he was going to have to stop driving. He contacted me because he knew of my interest in the car. It had a very low mileage, only 43,000 kilometers in 40+ years, but it needed full bodywork restoration because forty year old cars rust. I did that between 2005 and 2010, and it has participated in every Malta Classic Grand Prix since.
I am very happy with this car because it has become fairly unique. There used to be lots of them on the roads. I used to have lots of people stopping me and telling me, ‘My uncle had one, my grandpa had one.’ But they’ve vanished. They’ve either deteriorated or been sold overseas.
I like to use this car for a bit of variety, because it has a different feel than modern cars. It’s more direct, more viscerale. You can hear all the noise inside and the gear changes. I drive sitting on the other side, using a different hand for the gear lever, so that I find interesting. There’s no power steering, so the feel of the steering is exactly what you get from the road, but it’s not very heavy because it’s a rear engine car. Even during racing it’s got a very particular technique because you have to forget about what the front is doing and concentrate on what the rear is doing. The front just kinds of floats about aimlessly waiting for the rear to decide what it wants to do. But since they’re joined together it usually works.
I got into cars at a very early age. I think sometimes it’s just in you. It was cars all the way, and not just classics—even modern cars and Formula One racing—I follow everything. I had an elder brother who had a Spitfire and we used to go through rides together in the open top. It was great fun and that’s how I ended up getting my MG. Then you get into classic cars because, as you get older, you have fond memories of the cars that were popular when you were of a certain young age. Everybody has a decade of cars that they long for.
This Fiat is always the smallest engined car at the Grand Prix, and sometimes the smallest physically. Racing improves the bond with the car. The fact that you’ve been through corners at speed, had a few near misses, skidded here, braked there—every time the car makes it around the lap it improves the bond with it. It becomes part of the family.
I’ve always been into small Fiats and small Italian cars because they’re always faster and more fun than people think they are. This particular shape of car I used to like the looks of. It features very frequently in 60’s Italian movies. Italian cars have their own flair. There are lots of mechanically efficient cars that look like a brick—I’m not into that. A bit of flowing lines, the right proportions...they have to be small and cute!
I also admire the idea of somebody having made this car to a budget, so that lots of people can enjoy it, but at the same time the car is sporty, instead of a normal utilitarian car. So when MG used to make MG’s, they used to be Morris mechanicals underneath but instead of being a boring Morris they made an exciting MG. Fiat didn’t have to make a model like this one, because they had the Berlina to get you from A to B. Even though they didn’t have to, they made [the Fiat 850 Sport Coupe] sportier and prettier anyway.
In my mind, ideally I would have one particularly British car, one particularly Italian car, one particularly German one and maybe one particularly French one. I like them to be in their traditional country colours, so all my German cars are silver, all my Italian cars are red, and my British car is Old English white. I try to stick to the historic and traditional body colour, which I think is cool from the time when it used to mean something. It doesn’t mean much nowadays.
An old German car and an old French car would complete this theme. Maybe something like a Citroen DS and an early Porsche. Perhaps an air-cooled 914: the mid-engine one that everybody thinks is ugly, but I actually think it’s nice. It’s the Porsche that everybody forgot but sooner or later everybody will suddenly awaken to it.
But I don’t have to complete the set in this lifetime. If it happens, it happens.
Thank you to Dr. Paul Sultana for welcoming us into his garage. We hope your bond with your Fiat continues to strengthen year by year, lap by lap.