I Began My Drive at Twelve

Have you ever felt that moment where you are doing something you love, and realized 5 hours doing it felt like 30 minutes? I found that passion at the age of 12. My passion for Automotive Mechanical engineering started the day I found my first car, a 1979 Fiat 124 Spider, that had been sitting in a field since 1997.

It was February of 2012, when I was riding my bike near my house. I had always seen a car sitting in a field parallel to my house, and became curious on to what it was, and whose it was. I ventured to the car, and got the year, model, and an attachment to the sleek, but dirty, looks of the car.

The car where it rest for 15 years:

The interior was filled to the brim with cobwebs, and under an inch thick layer of dirt and dust. I remember sitting in it when I went to look at it a second time, and imagining racing, and shifting furiously while holding in the clutch the whole time. This sparked my love for everything automobile, and started one of the biggest opportunities of my life.

My family had always been apt to working on cars, and my dad in particular raised me on knowing how to change oil on our old 1987 VW Syncro bus, or tearing apart a carburetor on my first dirtbike, so that gave me a jump start on my coordination, and knowledge of Mechanical Engineering. About a week later, I called the man who owned the property and house of which the car was on. I found out that he moved out a couple years before, and that the car had been sitting since 1997 due to a blown rear axle.

Overwhelmed but thrilled with excitement, I asked him what he wanted to do with it, and if he wanted to sell it. My dad talked with him, and said that he wanted 500 dollars. I saved up 500 dollars by selling my go cart, and working for my grandparents until I finally had the money. We hired a tow truck to pull the car out of the spot it had been sitting it for 15 years. They pulled it around the corner, and it was mine to keep, a 1979 Italian sports car, designed by Ferrari’s main designer, Battista Pininfarina himself.

After we brought it home, my dad told me that the man gave the car to us, and that the 500 dollars I saved will be used for parts. I was extremely happy about that, because that meant I wouldn’t have to save up anymore money to get it running. The first step of the soon to be 5 year restoration project had just started, and i was more than eager to get started.

The Day we Towed the car home

“Class today we are going to write a letter to anyone you want in the world, criticizing their business, product, or talent” I was in 4th period English in the 7th grade, and a lightbulb clicked in my head at this very moment.

Fiat Automobiles started bringing cars to the USA since about 2007, and had not been very popular, or at least in Arkansas, until about 2011 or 2012 when i started recognizing them. The only cars they sold were the Fiat 500, which is a small good looking, not necessarily sporty, coupe. I did some research, and found out that the Fiat 124 hasn’t been produced since 1985, and was wondering why they didn’t bring it back, and start producing it again.

I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to contact Fiat, and tell them about my idea. I mailed a letter to their main headquarters in Turin, Italy, telling them about my story, and stating that they need to bring back the 124 to the market. 2 weeks passed, and I got a email back from the COO of Fiat, Alfredo Altavilla. The email reads,

“ Hi Ken,

I am Alfredo Altavilla, Chief Operating Officer of Fiat-Chrysler for Europe, Africa and Middle East.

I just got your letter on the Fiat 124 Spider and was impressed by know-how on that specific vehicle and, more in general, on cars you seem to have.

It would be a pleasure to welcome you here in Italy and let you experience the touch and feel of our history.

You could visit our plant, although it’s been fully renovated since we ceased the production of the 124 Spider. But I would also suggest that you spend some time talking to some of our engineers who, at that time, were managing our rally team which was using the 124 Spider in the World Championship.

Then you might be spending some time in our museum where all the most important Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo cars are displayed.

Turino is home to the most important engineering mechanical schools in Italy but there is one also in Modena, managed by Ferrari, where students apply when they are 14 years old.

So, long story short, we are eager to welcoming you in Italy and at Fiat. And do not forget, should your family decide to buy one of our cars in USA anytime soon to shoot me an e-mail so that we can reserve them a good deal!

All the best and a warm CIAO

Alfredo Altavilla”

After reading this I was shocked that they even read my letter, and that he invited me to Italy! My parents were actually already planning a trip to take all of us to Italy, so we finalized the dates, and 8 months later tried to email Mr. Altavilla back. No luck. So I called their HQ, and somehow made my way up to his secretary through about 4 operators. We discussed our dates of our planned trip, and we made plans to meet up, and scheduled a tour. Our trip to Italy would take place the 10th of April, until the 28th of 2014, and little did I know, this would be the most life changing experience i have ever had.

At this point in time, the Fiat was 100% drivable. We replaced all suspension, the rear axle, all brakes and brake lines, fuel system, cleaned the carburetor, made sure all electrical connections were functional, and scraped all the dirt, grime, cobwebs, and dust from the inside of the car. I was super excited to go to Italy, and had no idea what to expect.

Spring of 2014:

Our descent into Turin, Italy was a moment I will never forget. You could see the city, and the fields, and mountains. It was truly a beautiful place. The day following our arrival, Fiat sent a shuttle to pick us up at our condo, and take us to the design center, located close to the center of downtown Turin. We were checked in, and were given a short look around by a tour guide. Mr Altavilla met us about 10 minutes after we showed up, and it was awesome to meet him in person, and receive a tour by him personally.

All of us with Mr Altavilla, and the head designer
Mr. Altavilla and I in the Design Center

He first showed us the computer design room, where they digitally designed the cars. He showed us the software they use which was was truly incredible. He then gave us Fiat’s mission breakdown, and showed us the companies they own, plus what their functions were. We then walked in front of a big circular room with double doors, and I was asked not to tell anyone about what I was about to see.

Before i walked into the room, I had NO idea what to expect. I walk in, and there are 8 or so cars positioned all in a circle, each with car covers over them. 3 designers then walked in that I got to meet, the main designer for Abarth, the performance version Fiats, the head designer for Fiat, and a couple other automobile designers for Fiat. They started pulling the covers off the cars one by one, and giving me specs on them, letting me sit in them, and just showing me around the cars. It started off with their normal cars, the 500. Then a 500x, which was an offroad version of it. An Alfa Romeo 4C Prototype, which was amazing, and the Alfa Romeo 4c convertible version. We then got to the last car. I noticed it had the Fiat emblem on the car cover, but it had a sleek, sports car looking shape.

Mr Altavilla pulls the cover off of this one, and it is a 2016 Fiat 124 Spider, so early in prototype that there weren’t any seams on the car, or a motor, or even wheels. It was just the rough shape of the body, with tape for the lines of the hood, doors, etc. Mr Altavilla then told me that I sparked the idea to bring back the 124 Spider, and that it would be released sometime around 2017. Following my tour there, we had a casual coffee, and Mr. Altavilla invited me to attend the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy. I was stoked to have such an opportunity, and at the moment didn’t quite realize the scale of opportunity this was.

After our stay with Mr. Altavilla, which lasted about an hour and a half, we were taken to the Maserati factory close to where we were located. We were given a tour of the entire plant, and it was extraordinary. It was awesome to see this because it opened my eyes to the industrial part of Automotive Engineering, and gave me some insight on what I will be designing, and how cars are actually produced. We got to meet the owner of the factory, and was given some sweet merchandise as well!

We finished out our Italy vacation with visiting Switzerland, Florence, Canelli, and Genova, Italy. Visiting Italy and getting to meet Alfredo Altavilla and his comrades was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and really strengthened my passion for Automotive Mechanical Engineering as well as giving me a huge opportunity to pursue it.

Interior of my car
First Current Maserati Prototype signed by Designers
My family and I In the Maserati Factory

My Fiat Spider is now painted and is close to a finished restoration. Since the Italy trip we have made leaps and bounds of progress on the car such as, carburetor and Intake upgrades, new front A-Arms, all new coolant hoses, heater fixes, and so many little detail fixes including the most recent project, body and paint. Just recently I have completely stripped the car of all its 8 layers of paint and primer, and done a little body work that prepared it to get painted, which was a HUGE step in our restoration. I plan to start working for a tire shop, or a body shop to help fund my process on the car. The new Fiat Spider was just released a couple months ago to the public at the LA Auto show, and will be for sale to the public the summer of 2016.

(Pics to come in 2 weeks)

Throughout my journey of The experiences I have had with my car, and the people I have been able to meet have secured my passion for Automotive Mechanical Engineering. If someone would’ve told me four years ago that it would take this long to finish my restoration then I may have given up. As when you are 12, four years feels like a century. This realization changed my perspective for my future endeavors. These years sped by like they were on the AutoBahn. Never underestimate the power that desire holds. Taking on a project head on and seeing opportunity happen.

I know it’s what I love to do, because hours on a project feels like a mere 40 minutes. I know it’s what i love to do because i’m happy when I do it. I know it’s what I love to do because I never get tired of it. Automotive Mechanical Engineering is my passion.