The little mouse that roared

BY universal consent, the car standing in Tommy Alton's garage is a Fiat 500, known as a "Topolino" or "little mouse".

The undated picture, which is part of the collection at the Darlington Centre for Local Studies, appeared inMemories 74, illustrating the article about Tommy's Duplex garage in Grange Road, Darlington.

The Fiat 500 was first built in 1936 and was one of the smallest cars in production in the world. Its dinky size, and its face-like front, caused it to be nicknamed Topolino - "little mouse" - which is how Mickey Mouse is known in Italy.

With slight modifications, the Topolino remained in production until 1955.

"The car in the picture is a pre-1948 A series, " says Phil Hunt, in Barningham, one of many contributors on this subject. "The B series incorporated the headlights into an enlarged front wing, so it lost the similarity to the mouse."

The original Topolino was a two-seat coupe, although Fiat did reluctantly introduce a four-seat version in 1939. They also created a convertible with a peel-back roof like a sardine tin.

"I owned a Belvedere estate car version in the 1960s, " says Phil. "It had been introduced in 1948 with four seats, and mine was one of only 50 righthand drives built. The only other Belvedere I ever saw was in Austria in 1965.

"It had a four-cylinder watercooled engine in the front, with the radiator mounted behind the engine so it gave some heat to the passengers, summer and winter.

"Mechanically, it was well ahead of, say, Fords of that period. There was a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox, independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes.

"It was an excellent and efficient runabout. Frighteningly, the fuel tank was mounted in the scuttle just above the knees of occupants, and the rearhinged doors were often referred to as 'suicide doors'."

Mike Crawley adds: "The Topolino cost £120 and road tax was £5 and 5s. It was the smallest car available in the UK."

SEVERAL people drew our attention to the Topolino's numberplate: 060 HN. HN are the identification letters that were allocated to Darlington in January 1921, but this is no ordinary numberplate.

It is a tradeplate - and there were two types of tradeplates.

"White background with red digits, like this one, were known as 'limited use', " says CharlieWoollhouse, who started at Duplex as an apprentice mechanic in 1962 and has remained in vehicles all his life.

"You had to have a slip filled in by the management saying where you were going to use one of those.

"But there were also tradeplates with a red background and white digits and you could travel anywhere on them."

IVOR ERRINGTON was one of the many to identify the Topolino. He said: "I bought a 350 Matchless motorcycle from the Duplex in 1963 for £50. It was brilliant, plenty of power, with jampot tellys and megaphone exhaust system."

If you did not understand that last sentence, apparently the telescopic rear suspension was big and fat like a jampot.

"I part-exchanged it three years later for an Isetta bubblecar. That was good as well, until it hit a lamp-post, which burst its bubble."

ONJuly 8, 1967, Duplex was hit by a serious fire. Several people remembered the fire - largely because they inadvertently benefited from it.

"I remember my dad bringing me home a new yellow Sun five-speed racing bike in 1967 that he had just bought from Duplex, fire damaged, " says Mark Cooper. "It was my pride and joy." Many of the fire-damaged bikes didn't have tyres - the rubber had melted in the fire.

NOT everyone was interested in the vehicles.

Peggy Angus was looking at the Grange Road shopfronts opposite Alton's garage. There was Izzard's the grocer's and then Ruddock's dolls hospital - the last time Memoriesmentioned the dolls hospital, run in later times by Mildred Zealand, was in 2005 and that article can now be read on the Memories blog.

Then she remembers Duffy's sweetshop and, directly opposite Alton's garage, Cole's antiques which was run by her uncle and aunt, Oscar and Annie Cole, from the late 1930s to the late 1960s.

BACK to cars. It was mentioned that the Topolino had "suicide doors" which were hinged at the rear. By coincidence, Ken Stoves of Middlesbrough has sent in a picture of his wife, Sheila, and her father, John Clarke, enjoying a trip to Redcar in 1939 style. Mr Clarke was headteacher of Corporation Road School, Darlington, in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Can anyone identify the make of the car, " asks Ken.

"Note the opening windscreen and the suicide doors."

Chris Lloyd will be giving a new talk, entitled Attacking the Devil and Sinking the Unsinkable: WT Stead and the Titanic, in Darlington's Crown Street library on April 10 and April 14. More details next week.

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