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Article posted: 11/12/2012 5:00 AM

Italian micro gets more 'smiles per gallon'


Burt Richmond confesses his 1961 Autobianchi Bianchina Transformable, despite its pint-size dimensions, is tremendously huge on fun.

"My wife and I experience more 'smiles per mile' than most other cars we see," the Chicago resident said. "Perhaps it is the ultimate clown car."

Richmond got hooked on minute autos as a young boy. "I lived on a farm and at age 13 was giving a 1939 Crosley to drive around. I never got sucked into the bigger and faster mentality." His love for the Autobianchi brand took root in 1960.

"During my time at design school, I worked part time at an exhibit and display firm. One of the sign painters used a Bianchina as his daily driver," Richmond said. "Fifty years later and that peculiar little car never left my mind."

Richmond waited until 2009 to make a purchase. He found this blue and ivory Transformable in Salk City, Wis. "It looked all there but I uncovered a whole host of little nightmares!"

He found the bodywork was dizzyingly wavy and patchworked with fiberglass. Numerous Home Depot parts had been substituted for repairs and an incorrect black interior was on the inside. Undeterred, Richmond, an accomplished auto restorer, moved forward with the nonrunning project.

Giving him confidence was knowing what lay beneath the petite auto's bodywork. Autobianchi utilized Fiat 500 underpinnings and many other components in the creation of the Bianchina. That knowledge worked in Richmond's favor, because the microcar enthusiast had already owned and restored three classic Fiats. He has a unique taste for European vehicles and is used to the unusual.

"I've completed more than 30 Morgan vehicles, a slew of MG TC/TDs and several Porsche 356s. I knew this Autobianchi would be tough but that it could be brought back," he said.

As to be expected, several components required a bit of digging to obtain -- significantly more so than your typical Detroit classic cruiser. "The dark blue molded carpet came from Italy and an upgraded transmission was sourced from Poland."

Other parts came from England and most daunting pieces were located in the United Kingdom.

"The rear deck lid hinges had been replaced with brass hinges from a marine boat supplier," Richmond said.

An improved gearbox was necessary to complement a new engine, mounted shortly after the purchase. Richmond got the well-worn original two-cylinder, air-cooled, 497-cubic-centimeter engine running, but knew a choice of rebuild or replace was inevitable. The 21-horsepower output made for "languishing" freeway excursions.

Richmond weighed the cost and found rebuilding the old powerplant more expensive than buying a factory-rebuilt 650 c.c. engine from a Fiat plant in Poland, through an Italian supplier. "It was a no-brainer -- more performance for less money."

After the swap, he found the tiny sedan could attain 65 mph on the highway, keeping up with modern traffic. The conversion also required new axles, transmission and starter.

"The new trans even has synchromesh in first gear, making for easier around town driving," Richmond said.

A folding cloth roof lets the summer sun shine in and adds to the pleasant motoring experience. "The car is about as perfect as a long-neglected, 52-year-old car can get. Now I can enjoy the fruits of my research, labor and time!"

While the cheery micro machine may be dwarfed while parked, that's fine with Richmond. It's enormous on looks and miles per gallon.

"The most fatiguing factor is all the waving you do. People always stop and question you," he says. "Microcars are just plain fun and, even with the bigger engine, still very frugal on fuel."

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