Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

| 18 Jun 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but judging the cover is fair game.

The brochure trumpeted the Fiat Samantha as being ‘the most beautiful four-seater car in the world’ when it arrived in the UK.

That was a bit of a stretch given the number of other candidates for the title as the 1960s drew to a close.

It was a Fiat 125, after all, albeit one that had received a slinky new body courtesy of Carrozzeria Vignale.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Fiat 125 componentry underpins the four-seat Samantha

As such, it was imbued with a certain cachet.

It was coachbuilt, it was exotic and it screamed soft-focus jet-set glamour.

Or perhaps whispered is more apposite, given that it had a top speed of 103mph but cost more than a Jaguar E-type.

In many ways it was a case of same book, different cover, because the Samantha was identical mechanically to the square-rigged saloon that bore it.

The cover was all it had, but even now there is something appealing about its appearance.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Carrozzeria Vignale’s Fiat Samantha made its debut alongside the 500-based Gamine

Sure, the proportions are a bit skew-whiff, a by-product of the need to accommodate the unmodified 125 platform and its lofty scuttle, but cues from all sorts of highfalutin luxury GTs were transposed on to a smaller canvas.

Stand back far enough then squint a little and it could almost be a Maserati.

The irony is that it wouldn’t have registered much of a flicker outside its homeland were it not for a London casino owner.

It wasn’t even meant for British consumption at all.

Think back to the mid-1960s and Alfredo Vignale’s eponymous enterprise had grown from a tiny bodyshop into a fully integrated styling house, with production lines to build vehicles in volume.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The Fiat Samantha’s ordinary but comfy cabin boasts a standard Nardi steering wheel

The Torinese outfit was enjoying relative prosperity, in part thanks to a tie-in with NSU-Fiat, which adopted several of the firm’s designs as production Neckar models.

It also made a line of Coupé and Spider Fiat 850s.

However, the loss of other contracts led Vignale to initiate a series of further ‘own-brand’ models, such as the Fiat 124 Eveline of 1966.

The Samantha was first seen at the following year’s Turin Salon alongside its fellow debutante, the 500-based Gamine.

The latter attracted the attention of Greek Cypriot Frixos Demetriou during an unplanned stay in Milan.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The Fiat Samantha’s 1608cc twin-cam engine musters 90bhp

His flight from London to Athens had been diverted, hence a protracted layover.

He spotted one parked at the side of the road and it piqued his interest to the point that, just four days later, he and his legal adviser, Ernst Huppert, were sitting opposite Alfredo Vignale.

Demetriou proceeded to order 200 cars on the spot, on the proviso they were configured in right-hand drive.

That Demetriou was prepared to pay cash must have sweetened the deal, as did his desire to purchase a batch of Vignale Fiat 850 Specials, Evelines and Samanthas.

His spending spree didn’t end there.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

This Fiat’s Cromodora alloys aren’t standard, but they fill the wheelarches nicely

The following year Demetriou struck a similar deal with Francis Lombardi to import the pretty, 850-based Grand Prix.

But what possessed him to start importing boutique Fiats? There is no definitive answer.

For a man who guarded his privacy, Demetriou has long since attracted a raft of origin stories.

What is known for sure is that he established a chain of gambling establishments in Cyprus.

He then set up shop in London via The Olympic casino.

Legend has it that he feared he was about to lose his gaming licence, so decided to diversify.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

A reluctant Frixos Demetriou adorns the cover of CAR magazine in 1968

He acquired substantial premises on London’s Queensway that were soon bulging with unusual Fiats.

He then managed to secure a stand at the 1968 British International Motor Show; a year later his wares were exhibited at Olympia, with CAR running the coverline: ‘meet the Racing Car Show’s least enthusiastic exhibitor.’

The image showed Demetriou wearing a black overcoat and sunglasses, the report inside making it quite clear that he wasn’t a willing interviewee.

Even so, his PR people knew how to spin a yarn. The Vignale products in particular didn’t want for column inches in the dailies, if not the automotive press.

But, while the Gamine became a media magnet, the Samantha was the halo product.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The Fiat Samantha’s cabin is light and airy

There was one slight problem, however: it cost £2211 once import taxes were taken into account.

Fiat’s own 124 Sport Coupé was £773 less.

Demetriou didn’t stop there, though. He ordered yet more cars and announced plans to field a Samantha in the British Saloon Car Championship.

Nothing came of it, the same being true of a proposed British variant of the Francis Lombardi Grand Prix with a Paul Emery-tuned Hillman Imp engine.

Then there was Demetriou’s claim in CAR that he was eager to make something along similar lines to the Samantha in the UK, only with four doors.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

This Fiat has a composed ride and sweet steering

There was no denying his ambition, even if some of it was pure fantasy.

Demetriou had reputedly spent £500,000 thus far (close on £7m in today’s money), but his departure from the car-import business was swift.

Fiat’s UK concessionaire was not delighted when it found itself competing against a fresh start-up selling Fiat products that didn’t feature in its model range.

Then there was the small matter of it being obliged to honour warranty claims for Demetriou’s line-up.

He and Huppert had negotiated a deal with Fiat in Italy, the upshot being that it would provide guarantees and service cars at main dealers – but the Fiat factory neglected to inform Fiat GB.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Neat details help to break up the Fiat Samantha’s rear pillar

Given that Vignale’s workmanship proved to be less than stellar, the Gamine in particularly being riven with welding-related issues, it is little wonder that dealers were not best pleased.

Their displeasure was relayed directly to Turin.

Vignale was in turmoil, too. Like many other coachbuilders that had expanded to make cars in volume, it struggled to fill the void after mainstream manufacturers began building niche vehicles in-house.

Not only that, but the increased reliance on its own products also came at a cost.

Not all Vignale dealers were quick to pay their bills; some didn’t bother. As such, the firm was soon in freefall.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

‘The Fiat Samantha’s performance is respectable for its vintage and it pulls strongly in third, even if it isn’t particularly choral’

Having manufactured as many as 25 cars a day in 1967, it saw out the decade producing high-roof conversions for Fiat vans.

Riddled with debt, Alfredo Vignale sold a 90% stake in the business to the wily Alejandro de Tomaso in late 1969, the idea being that he’d stay on as president. A few days later, he died in a car accident.

Demetriou outlived him, but not by long.

His flirtation with the car trade was in effect over by the end of 1969.

He had imported as many as 800 cars of all kinds, but, despite expectations, his gaming licence was renewed so he didn’t need the distraction any more.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The owner of this Fiat Samantha owns three other examples

He cut his losses and shipped the unsold cars to Cyprus early the following year, having decided to oversee his casino empire from warmer climes.

This unlikely motor mogul died shortly thereafter. Legend has it, and may have it apocryphally, that a runaway tank crushed the Vignale Fiat in which he was a passenger.

As to how many Samanthas made it to the UK, nobody knows for sure given that some were merely visiting. It would appear that just 27 were sold.

It is also hard to pinpoint exactly how many Samanthas were produced in total.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Porsche 928-esque fold-down headlamps on this classic Fiat Samantha

One publication suggests six cars were made a day at its peak. Even if this were true, estimates are still in the hundreds.

As to survivors, the car pictured here is one of four belonging to Darren Cunningham (the other three are projects).

What’s more, it was originally owned by The Avengers star Linda Thorson.

The Canadian was in her early 20s at the time, and it is unclear whether she acquired the car or it came to her by way of payment (she appeared in publicity photos for the Gamine).

Linda clearly loved the Samantha, because she kept it for 16 months before heading to Hollywood.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The Fiat Samantha’s black sills give the impression of a profile more slender than it is

Originally an opalescent gold, the Fiat was repainted white by a subsequent owner following a prang – it proved impossible to match the original hue, hence the colour change.

This Devonshire builder proceeded to cover more than 100,000 miles before the Fiat was deemed too rusty to be safe.

It was partially restored a few decades ago, and presently appears patinated rather than shabby.

It’s a pretty thing up close.

Virginio Vairo currently languishes in obscurity as a stylist – one source insisting he was a draughtsman rather than a designer as such – but there’s no denying he had talent.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

‘Virginio Vairo currently languishes in obscurity as a stylist, but the Fiat’s outline has myriad intriguing features’

The Samantha’s outline has myriad intriguing features – the black sills, for example, acting as a visual break that helps to disguise the large depth below the beltline.

The Samantha as standard featured pressed-steel wheels with chrome hubcaps.

In this form, the wheelarches appeared to jut out too far.

However, the period-correct Cromodora alloys employed here fill them out nicely.

Oh, and the doors are identical to those of a Jensen Interceptor (Vignale bodied the initial batch for the West Bromwich marque).

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Vignale developed its own products to compensate for dwindling orders from car manufacturers

Then there are the fold-down headlights that foretold the Porsche 928’s arrangement, but in reality this styling treatment was borrowed from the Bertone Testudo concept car of 1963.

According to a report in Motor from 1969 (the only road test in a British publication), the headlights were next to useless.

The magazine also complained about the detail finish.

Inside, the Samantha is relatively ordinary bar the standard-fitment Nardi steering wheel.

The driver’s seat is more comfortable than it looks, with decent lumbar support.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

Two large Veglia dials face the driver

It is also more commodious than you might imagine. Airy, too, thanks to the spindly A- and B-pillars.

The large Veglia speedo reads to an optimistic 120mph, the matching rev counter to 8000rpm (with a redline at 6200rpm).

Once on the move, performance is respectable for its vintage, and for a car packing 90bhp at 5600rpm and 94lb ft at 3400rpm, although later versions had the 100bhp ‘125B’ unit.

According to period stats the Samantha can reach 0-60mph in 12.6 secs, and it pulls strongly from 2500 and 3750rpm in third, even if it isn’t particularly choral.

In fourth gear – top – 5000rpm equates to 83mph.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

‘This Fiat Samantha was partially restored a few decades ago, and presently appears patinated rather than shabby’

The Fiat 125 saloon on which it was based always was a much nicer car to drive than preconceptions might have you believe.

Roughly 60kg lighter than the four-door, the Samantha has the same worm-and-roller steering, which is light but accurate, while the suspension – wishbones and coil springs up front, leaf springs and trailing arms at the rear, with telescopic dampers all-round – soaks up road imperfections far better than many comparable sporting coupés of the day.

It is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Fiat, and Motor’s assessment of the ‘excellent handling’ was spot-on.

It is nicely balanced, while the all-round servo-assisted disc brakes are also more than capable of arresting such a light car, even if feel is lacking at the pedal.

Classic & Sports Car – Fiat Samantha: Vignale’s little beauty

The Fiat Samantha would’ve remained an Italian curiosity had it not been for a London casino owner

Unfortunately, a slipping clutch ensured that our test was a fleeting one.

Nevertheless, the Samantha proved pleasant to drive while it lasted; it’s a car you can imagine bonding with.

It is oddly seductive, and you will never tire of telling the backstory of how the model came to be sold in Blighty.

You have to hand it to Frixos Demetriou. He may have veered towards the caricature. He may have been delusional. He may have perished in a manner that sounds like a punchline.

He may have been all sorts of things, but first and foremost he was a gambler. For that we should be thankful.

Images: Richard Dredge

Thanks to: Darren Cunningham and Steve Glynn at the Isle of Man Motor Museum

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