x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

My Car: Classic Fiat 500 L is a head-turning Dubai misfit

Johnny Breinholt has extensively modified his pride and joy, and loves that seeing it "always makes people happy".

The 1969 500L is an unusual sight in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
The 1969 500L is an unusual sight in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Size is everything, especially if it's quirkily compact, according to 45-year-old Johnny Breinholt, from Copenhagen, Denmark, who has always had a keen interest in mechanics. Be it planes, trains or automobiles, this Airbus technical instructor for Emirates Engineering, who has lived in Dubai since December 2008, loves all powered transport and is particularly smitten with the tiny Fiat 500.

"Considering my career, I've gone completely the other way with my choice of car. Airplanes I work with on a daily basis, like the Airbus A380, are stuffed with electronics these days, but my Fiat 500 is 100 per cent analogue," he says.

"I bought my first 500 in Denmark in 1999, with the intention of restoring it. As the restoration took slightly longer than expected - they always do - I decided to buy my second 500 in Germany in 2001, so I had something to drive during this restoration period," Breinholt explains.

Purchased in May 2001, close to Lake Constance in southern Germany, with 70,000km on the clock, Breinholt drove the car 1,100km home to Copenhagen over a weekend. He then transformed the pint-size 1969 Fiat 500L (with L meaning Lusso or Luxury) into a Giannini 590 GT replica. It's this little beauty that he shipped to Dubai at the end of 2011 and it could hardly be more out of place among the supercars hooning around the city.

Breinholt loves the effect his little classic has on people. "The best thing about driving a Fiat 500 is that you always make people happy. Back in Europe, most people would have a Fiat 500 story to tell when they saw the car, but here I guess few people east of Dubai have ever seen a 500, so they ask what it is and whether it's new or old.

"In fact, on my first drive here in Dubai I got asked if I'd like to sell it - there have been many similar offers since.

"I have a clear picture of how they should look after restoration by spending a lot of time searching old magazines and pictures on the internet, joining Fiat club meetings and spending several holidays in Italy. At one point I even employed a professional Fiat 500 mechanic to work on the cars," he says.

Giannini is a company that specialises in modifying small Fiats, and buyers could go to the showroom to collect their factory-modified 500 derivative, or, alternatively, buyers could order a big box of parts and have their local garage do the work on your standard 500. "I did the former to my 500, but some 37 years after the car left the Lingotto factory in Turin. The various spare parts and tuning accessories began arriving from suppliers in Italy and Germany with the idea being to make the car look exactly like an original Giannini 590 GT, as it would have left the showroom in 1969," he explains proudly.

Having kept the car locked up in a Copenhagen garage for three years, Breinholt missed his pet project and decided to bring it to Dubai and, in December 2011, it arrived in a container at Jebel Ali. He then registered it in Sharjah on classic car plates and, in January, it did its first 500km in Dubai. "I also joined Jebel Ali Cool Car Klub (Jacck) and through the club the car has been showcased to the public on occasion. It enjoys the climate here but I'll be looking for a safe place to store it for the hot summer months," he says.

Unable to entirely give up the modification bug, Breinholt has continued to upgrade his bambino in Dubai, with what he calls "sticker tuning" - placing large Giannini stickers below the rear side windows, on the windscreen and on the bonnet.

"Even though I'm very happy with the look and handling of my 590 GT, there's always something on the shopping list," he says.

"I'm still looking for some good Fiat 500 roads around Dubai, but it's perfect for a drive down to the Marina with the kids for an Italian ice cream.

"I try to join as many Jacck meetings as possible and anything else happening on the Dubai classic car front."

And it appears Breinholt has begun to covet the new Fiat 500 Abarth. "I really feel the new 500 Abarth would complement my Giannini extremely well in the driveway," he laughs.